By Nick Simonson
If a tree falls in the water, and no one is around to hear it, it really doesn’t matter if it makes a sound, because it’s likely you’ll find crappies near it. Fallen trees, those that wash downstream, or those that pile up make great summertime crappie haunts and exploring them can produce some of the fastest panfishing action of the year. No matter how they get to their final resting place, fallen trees attract schools of crappies for many reasons, and there are many effective ways to fish these structures to produce a livewell full of slabs for a summertime fish fry.
When a tree topples into a flow, or is covered in water through of a damming of a creek valley, or is moved by high spring waters or strong winds and settles into an area such as a bend or along a bridge piling, it creates a unique habitat for fish and a piece of structure that is always worth a look for anglers surveying the water for secret slab crappie spots. First and foremost, sunken trees provide structure – something that fish of all stripes (and specks, as it were) can relate to. The branches provide protection from predators above, and the nooks and crannies give cover from those lurking below the surface. Shade cast by boughs and branches also helps shield crappies’ large eyes from sunlight on clear days. What’s more, the slowly decaying tree starts off a unique food web that keeps crappies in the vicinity for the things they eat the most of: insects and minnows which come in to pick off the small morsels of food that are also attracted to the underwater wood. With the smorgasbord before them, crappies need not travel far to find the summertime prey items they need.
Many times, shoreline trees that have toppled into the water are easily detectable, as the roots and trunks are still up on the bank, and the canopy and branches are easily seen under the surface of the river or lake being fished. Other times, it may be a bit more challenging to find where trees and other large pieces of wood have accumulated. It’s wise to check the windward side of lakes – which for many in the Midwest is the southeast side due to prevailing northwest winds – as deadheads, washdowns and other pieces of woody debris pile up and sink just off shore, especially on the steeper banks of reservoirs. As they stack up, they can form irregular walls, with jutting stumps and crowns providing similar structure for fish to utilize. Don’t forget to check pilings on the upstream side of bridges, as a great deal of spring debris will collect on these structures and then sink and pile up on the bottom below, forming a fishable wood structure on a river as well. Utilize a depth finder to detect sunken trees, branch piles or other worthwhile wood deposits on any water where crappies can be found.
Once identified, fishing trees for crappies can vary in difficulty, but is usually simple in terms of tackle. The branches, especially those on a more recently deceased tree, can easily snag offerings. As the wood decays, the smaller branches and twigs weaken and fall away first, making the structure less snaggy. To reduce snags on newer fall-ins, swap a weedless jig for a standard hook under a slipfloat and slowly move jigs through timber, using a vertical jigging presentation where possible, while still appealing to the crappies lurking below. During low light conditions, look for fish to be up higher and watch for rising fish as late afternoon turns to evening and the darkness of night. At mid-day, count on crappies to be tucked closer to structure, and they will often be found deeper along any timber deposits.
On nicer days, and in more stable weather, search the area around a sunken tree to find active crappies, utilizing sonar to locate where the fish are staging in relation to the structure. On post-frontal days, it’s likely to find fish tucked closer to the timber and in some cases it may be necessary to brave the snags and nearly bonk specks on the head with a jig-and-baitfish combo or let a small crappie minnow dangle tantalizingly in front of them for a while before they pull a slipfloat down. As with all crappie fishing, having a variety of jigs and tubes and other small soft plastics in a number of colors will help determine what the fish want and what hues are paying off that particular outing.
Sunken timber creates structure that all fish need to survive and feel secure. In addition, the decaying bark and other biological material on a tree starts a food chain that provides crappies a reason to stay close by. With these factors in place with any woody structure, its well worth any angler’s time to identify, mark and fish these haunts hard and, in the process, identify those places for summertime slab success.
Featured Photo: Large crappies, like this 13.5-incher caught by Josh Holm of Valley City on Lake Ashtabula, will relate to sunken timber in the summer. Knowing how to find these structures and fish them effectively will lead to slab success. Simonson Photo.