Keeping it simple for early fall crappies on Wisconsin River reservoirs
by Joel Ballweg
Late August through early October is a great time to target crappies and other panfish on Wisconsin River reservoirs such as Petenwell, Castle Rock and Lake Wisconsin. The truth is it doesn’t matter whether you are targeting only crappie with the techniques I am about to describe, because you are going to catch other fish as well. That’s the way it is and always has been for me.
This time of the year, I like the main body of the reservoir over the bays, although I will quite often venture into and around points at the mouth of a bay. Shorelines that drop quickly into deep water of 15 to 20 feet or more are what I look for. All the better if the lakes have a feeding shelf in the 4- to 8-foot depth range extending for a short distance off the shoreline before dropping into deep water. Especially in late August and early September.
The presence of structure in the form of cribs, rock piles, under water humps, stumps, logs, weeds and overhanging trees are beneficial. Especially if they are located at the deep edge of the food shelf or in deeper water along the edge of a drop off.
Live bait rigs and jigs
What’s tied on to the business end of my line is about as simple as it gets.
Live bait or dead-stick rods are rigged with 6-pound monofilament line. Dead stick rods have a gold No. 4 Aberdeen hook with a 4-millimeter bead above it. Red, orange, chartreuse, pink and white are some of my favorite colors. For weight, I like a ¼-ounce sliding barrel sinker above a swivel tied approximately 15 inches above the hook. Split shots work, but the barrel swivel will tangle much less than a split shot will.
I also have a couple ultra-lite spinning rods tied up with a 1/16-ounce round head jig for casting to the shoreline. The jig can be tipped with an endless assortment of plastics.
Personally, I like a plastic that contrast with the jig head color and prefer to tip it with a wax worm. To put it another way, a pink jig head goes with a white body or chartreuse jig head goes with a pink body. It’s not so much that white on white or pink or pink doesn’t work, I just prefer to mix it up a bit more.
Timing and tactics
In late August and early September, I like to work at least two rods, and if it’s not too snaggy, three rods are even better. I use my bow-mount trolling motor to keep the boat in approximately 12 to 15 feet of water while moving the boat along the shoreline or drop off.
A lip-hooked fathead minnow is lowered to the bottom on a live bait rod. It is then reeled up from one to three turns off the bottom and placed in a rod holder. Another dead stick setup can be placed in a rod holder on the other side of the boat.
If I am by myself, I will run the foot pedal from the bow and cast an ultra-lite rod with a 1/16-ounce jig toward the shoreline. I can now easily cover a great deal of water as I move the boat along the shoreline break while keeping the boat in 12 to 15 feet of water.
Crappies and other fish usually hook themselves on the live bait rods, but you do want to get to them as quickly as possible or else they will swallow the hook. I release most of the fish I catch, so when the bite is good, a single live bait rod is all that is necessary. When searching for new schools of fish, the second live bait rod will go back out.
In late August and early September before chilly overnight temperatures start to cool down the water near shore, I find many fish of all species in shallow water. Bluegill are the most common, but it isn’t unusual to catch eight or nine species a day. Walleye, sauger, sheepshead, perch, white bass, smallies, largemouth and catfish are all part of a typical day on the water here.
I like to cast the ultra-lite with the 1/16-ounce jig right up to the shoreline and then start reeling as soon as the jig hits the water. When the water is warm, we catch good numbers of bluegill up shallow. As the jig gets closer to the boat on the retrieve, I slow down the pace so that the jig sinks more, and when I think the jig has reach the drop off, I stop reeling completely and let it pendulum down below the boat.
Quite often, that is when the biggest crappies hit. It can be a bit difficult to tell where the jig is when you first start, but the idea is to keep the jig around a foot or two off the bottom during the entire retrieve. Up near shore you may be closer to the bottom than one foot, but out in the deeper water, one to three feet off the bottom is more often than not the magic depth.
If you prefer bluegill, then it can be beneficial to add a small bobber about a foot or two up the line from the jig. Most of the bluegill come in the shallow water and there are definitely days where the bobber rig will catch more fish. The bobber does allow you to stop the retrieve for longer periods and that can be deadly on bluegill.
The bobber, though, prevents the jig from sinking down the drop off and that is where most of the crappie reside, so you will sacrifice one for the other no matter which way you go.
Fishing deep wood in fall
As the days get shorter and the water begins to cool, the fish will move out of the shallow water and into somewhat deeper water where the temperature is more stable.
Shallow water will easily cool down several degrees or more on a cold late September night. The baitfish will not put up with the cold water temperatures and move deeper where the cold nights do not have as much of an effect – especially young shad, which is the primary bait fish of large crappie.
When the shallow water cools, you will catch fewer and fewer fish in shallow depths. Now is the time to start moving deeper. Look for wood in 10 to 18 feet of water. Fallen trees extending into deep water are great places to target those big crappies. The more branches a tree has the better it will be. The type of tree can make a big difference as well. If you find a willow tree leaning over and extending into deep water, you probably just found the Marriott of crappie hotels. They absolutely love willow trees.
On the other hand, if it’s a fir or cedar tree hanging over deep water, good luck! You might catch some sheepshead or possibly a bluegill, but probably not much of anything else. Oak, elm, cottonwood and many others are all fine if they extend out to deep water.
The trick to fishing deep wood is to keep your line as vertical as possible. I never use more than one rod at a time and I prefer the jig and wax worm over the minnow rod, although both will catch fish. Fishing deep wood is definitely a case of when less is actually more. More rods just means you will be dealing with more snags.
I pull the boat right up to the tree and drop my line straight down to the bottom, then reel up about one turn. Wait no more the two minutes. If nothing bites, reel up another turn and repeat until you only have about 3 feet of line out.
If you did not catch anything, drop down a few feet again to one side or the other and repeat the process. Keep doing this and eventually you will find crappie, although do not count on landing every fish you hook. In that kind of cover, it’s a lot like hand-to-hand combat and you’re not going to win every time.
Trees and tree stumps do not have to extend from shore to be productive. You can fish stumps scattered out in deeper water anywhere in the lake the same way. Many times, it’s just a matter of finding the right tree or group of trees.
Cribs in deep water can be very good and are best fished vertically. Use your electronics to find sunken trees that have lodged themselves in a good location. Some of my best spots have no visible signs above water, but as soon as you see that pile of brush and branches on the sonar or down scan, you can pretty much bet you have also found the fish.
September and early October are some of my favorite months to target panfish. Try these tactics and I bet it will be one of your favorite times of the year as well.
Joel “Boog” Ballweg has provided guiding for walleyes, sauger and crappie on the Wisconsin River and Lake Wisconsin since 2004. He resides in the Sauk Prairie area with his wife, Nancy, and their yellow lab, Cooper. He can be reached through Facebook or on his website at www.lakewisconsinfishing.com.