Fall Crappie Migration Back To The Shallows

Crappie fishing

fall crappie

I can remember my grandfather taking me crappie fishing when I was a boy and always locating crappie. He did this even if the crappie weren’t where he thought they should be. I could see the wheels spinning as he analyzed everything around him and without saying a word he would begin changing tactics to catch some fish.

My grandfather was a man of moderation. I guess that went for crappie fishing too. No matter how long it took the fishing was over as soon as we had 10 or 12 crappies in the boat. I don’t remember a trip when we didn’t catch our 10 or 12 and they were always big ones and as I look back many years later I realize just how good a crappie angler my grandfather was. He wasn’t known as a diehard fisherman, but he could always find the crappie.

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My grandfather, referred to as Two-Daddy by his grandkids and most everyone that knew him, never explained how he went about finding crappie, but after years of chasing slabs I have come to understand. He only fished in the spring and in the fall to avoid the heat and the common thread between the two seasons is the migration that takes place as water temperature and length of day begin to trigger an instinct to move shallow. In the spring the trigger is to spawn and in the fall it’s to feed.

We always started shallow by shutting the 18 HP Evinrude off and drifting into visible brush piles along the shoreline. I was in the front of the small aluminum boat and would grab a branch to stop it in the middle of the brush pile. I know what you’re thinking, didn’t that spook the crappie out of the brush? The answer is no but I wouldn’t do it today, but I can tell you that’s what we did and we caught crappie within a minute or two of easing our marabou jigs carefully through the tangled brush below.

fall crappie migration to the shallows
First published in Fur-Fish-Game magazine

How do I know it was only a minute or two? That’s as long as we stayed in one spot before moving, whether we caught a crappie or not we were off to another brush pile. Two-Daddy always said the big fish bite first and there are usually only a couple in a brush pile, especially in the fall when big crappie become more territorial and chase smaller crappie out of the best ambush points.

As I mentioned earlier, we always started shallow, but if that wasn’t working Two-Daddy had his secret weapon tucked away in an old Styrofoam minnow bucket and he would break it out along with his magic wand. It was a broom handle slid in behind the center bench seat. He would stick the broom handle into the water and slowly move it around as the boat drifted along slowly. I can still hear the engine’s purr as Two-Daddy put it in and out of gear, it always put me to sleep. Finally, I was awakened from my slumber just before being told.

Ok Ken here they are. Drop your jig.”

I always knew the second he found a brush pile because he would spit over the side of the boat and work the wad of Red Man tobacco back where it belonged in his jaw before saying anything. I was usually dropping the marabou jig before he said to. Two-Daddy never spit while waving his magic wand and staring into that minnow bucket. The greatest part, at least the way I remember it, was we always caught a slab or two. I’m sure it wasn’t every time, but it was my grandfather and you tend to remember the good times and the big crappie.

Old Flasher Unit To Locate Migrating Crappie

By now you have probably figured out the wand and bucket. It was a flasher unit in the bucket. The transducer was attached to the end of the broom handle. Two-Daddy was ahead of his time, searching for deep brush with electronics was not hardly as common during the 70’s as it is today, but he was doing it so his grandson could catch some crappie. Great times with a great man and lessons that I wouldn’t put together until many years later when searching for deep brush and the fish in them became much easier with modern electronics.

There were a couple simple lessons learned those many years ago. Never fish in the summer when it’s so hot and find those migration routes leading from deep water to shallow. I fish in the summer now, but not near as often as I do in the fall and winter. Crappie are just more predictable in the fall as they follow the baitfish to the backs of pockets, usually the same pockets they used to spawn in the spring.

I tell the story about my grandfather to give those that feel overwhelmed by the concept the confidence to get on the water and locate your own crappie migration routes and catch more crappie this fall. As I mentioned in the opening sentence, fall crappie fishing can be frustrating, but by learning a few things about how the crappie reacts to cold fronts, water temps and baitfish movements can help you catch more crappie this fall and enjoy the cool autumn air.

The first step to catching autumn slabs is locating them. As the water cools the baitfish begin to move toward the backs of bays and into creek arms. This is where there’s more oxygen and zooplankton for them to eat. The crappie follows the shad. They feed aggressively, at this time, to prepare for winter. There are several factors that come into play when searching for crappie in the fall and it depends largely on the water temperature that season.

The transition that crappie makes to their fall water and then back out to their winter haunts can happen quickly depending on the weather. In 2017, here on Kentucky Lake, we caught crappie in less than ten feet of water up into February. In 2018 winter hit quick and that bite was gone by November.

Baitfish Behavior In The Fall

Probably the most important thing for a crappie angler to learn is baitfish behavior. Crappie move with the baitfish and knowing where the baitfish are is half the battle. Using electronics is vital in locating shad early in the fall as they transition from deep water to shallow bays and tributaries. The shad is seeking oxygen and zooplankton. As cool nights reduce surface temps the warmer water on the bottom begins to rise to the top. This is referred to as the fall turnover. Turnover depletes oxygen down deep. This turnover tends to scatter the crappie throughout the lake. This is when the fish seem to be everywhere and tougher to locate numbers. 

Target Cover For Fall Crappie

Casting to the bank targeting any cover you can find making multiple casts to the better ambush points like a big stump or log. Tributaries and creek arms can be great as long as the crappie has made it that far in the system. You just have to keep moving to figure out the depth and areas that the crappies are in at that time. These can change almost overnight in the fall.

During the fall the weather can be the biggest frustration for crappie anglers. Cold fronts come and go, seemingly every few days and will change a crappie’s behavior. Fortunately, crappies are feeding aggressively and can be caught with proper adjustments. Fish slow and offer smaller presentations in brush or tight to structure where a sudden break in depth is present. These breaks provide cover and like a stump or a big rock the crappie will hug it tight during a cold front.

A vertical presentation is the best way to fish during a cold front because it allows the bait to stay in the strike zone longer. During a cold front a crappie’s strike zone shrinks and it will rarely leave cover to chase a moving bait. This is a good time to use a simple hook and minnow presentation under a fixed bobber or a slip bobber when the crappie are deep. Fishing vertical also helps you get your bait into thick brush without hanging up.autumn slabs

During October and November crappie are moving around. When the bite seems to be slow it could be that the crappie are biting good. Crappie are often spread out in different depths during the fall. Fall crappie will also move to new areas of the lake due to the many different changes during fall.

If you fish shallow with no bites then move to your favorite brush pile out deep and still can’t get a bite the crappie are probably suspended throughout the system. This is when modern day electronics can easily locate schools of fish or baitfish. Trolling small crankbaits or spider-rigging a jig and minnow combo is the most efficient technique for big fall crappie. These techniques are also a productive way to catch scattered and suspended crappie in the fall.

Crappie are usually always in a school even if it’s just a few fish. This helps the angler see them on their electronics. There is more control when spider-rigging. You can control where your baits are by watching the crappie schools on your electronics. By fishing vertically, you can stop when you see a school of crappie on your fish finder.

This allows you to keep your baits in the strike zone longer. Those fish will probably move on and you’ll have to move around to find them. After a few hours you will often see a few spots that always seem to hold a few fish and you can fish even more efficiently by rotating between these more productive spots.

Be sure to make a mental note or jot it down in a journal where and when these crappies were at these spots because they will probably produce every year. If you have a GPS on your fish finder place a waypoint and check it out again sometime. Some spots seem to always have fish on them. Delete those that seldom hold fish and keep the ones that do. Eventually you will have a productive layout for your fall crappie fishing efforts in that area.

When trolling, you move the baits quickly through the area. When they intersect with a school of crappie you catch one and sometimes two. Trolling is a great way to catch crappie in the summer. Summertime crappie suspend above the thermocline. Trolling is also effective in the fall. Fall crappie scatter as they begin the transition to shallow water. The fast-moving crankbait can also cause a reaction strike. When fall crappie are hooked outside the mouth or barely inside then it is a reaction strike. Reel them in slowly when this is happening to avoid pulling the hooks.

Crankbaits For Fall Crappie

I like to use the Rapala DT Series crankbaits when trolling. The Bandit crankbait is a popular one as well. The Rapala DT (dives to) is just a simple way to vary my depths. The depth that a crankbait will dive is dependent on several factors. Depth is determined by line size, how much line you let out and speed you’re trolling. These all contribute to the depth your crappie crankbait will run. The Rapala DT series is an easy way to vary depths. I do this by putting different depth ratings on the poles I’m using.

Varying your speed is also important until you find the speed they like that day. Some days they like it really slow while other days they like it moving fast. I have caught crappie trolling crankbaits at more than 2 miles per hour. I think it has to do with the reaction bite and the speed triggering it. 

Fall crappie fishing isn’t always tough and often can be sensational. There are times when crappie seem to be behind every stump or rock and crush any lure you throw. It’s days like this that I like to target big slab fall crappie. When they are ambushing shad as they migrate along the shoreline. You can target big crappie by throwing a swimbait or a shallow running crankbait much like you would for bass. I have found that crappie like the bait moving a little slower than bass so a slow presentation is key. Also keep it shallow when fishing the shoreline. Like most predator fish, crappie look up to feed. When the fall crappie ambush spot is only 2 feet deep your bait needs to be just under the surface.

Small shallow running crankbaits work great for shallow crappie as well as a swimbait retrieved slowly through cover. Using a light weight on your swimbait will help you keep it up in the water column. Even with a slow retrieve. I like a 3-inch shad colored bait that matches the shad in the area. My favorite crankbait is a Rapala Shallow Shad Rap in silver and black. I also love to throw a 3-inch Reaction Innovations Little Dipper in their Bad Shad Green color.

You won’t get as many bites with these baits. However, it’s the best way to tangle with some trophy size fall crappie. Covering a lot of water is key to catching big crappie, hitting the best cover. When I say cover a lot of water it can be the same area just keep moving. When crappie are feeding aggressively, you can come back around and catch another crappie off the same cover. The same cover you caught one an hour earlier. These are the most fun days for crappie anglers in the fall.


Fall crappie fishing can be the best of the year, but it can also be tough. Learning several techniques and becoming knowledgeable on crappie and baitfish behavior can help you when they start their fall migration. Applying this knowledge will help. Being flexible on the water with several techniques will help you catch more fall crappie this season.

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About Ken McBroom 307 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.