Once the spawning season is over, sunfish tend to segregate by size. Smaller fish generally remain in shallow water where they maintain loose schools of similar sized fish. They often associate with dense aquatic weed beds.
Larger fish tend to form much smaller schools and relocate into deeper water along the outside edges of aquatic weed beds, or suspend in the water column along changes in bottom contours, near underwater tree stumps or off of downed trees lying in the water.
Note that the term “deeper water” is relative to the water body being discussed. In some situations, such as a farm pond, deeper water may refer to eight feet of water; while in a clear mountain reservoir the same term may refer to 20 feet or more.
Fish in deeper water may briefly return to shallow water if an insect hatch or an abundance of baitfish is located there. These forays into shallow water often occur during the low-light period of early morning or late evening. Fish may linger longer if the day is overcast. However, these forays may not last long before the fish return to deeper water.
Crappies generally follow the same pattern as sunfish after they spawn. However, only the smallest fish will remain in shallow water. Most fish will scatter into loose groups into deeper water. These groups are often segregated by size. Like sunfish, they often relocate to areas along the outside edges of aquatic weed beds, or suspend in the water column along changes in bottom contours, near underwater tree stumps or off of downed trees lying in the water.
Both sunfish and crappies will often briefly return to shallow water in the fall to feed heavily before winter. Depending on the weather conditions, these feeding runs may occur regularly throughout the fall. However, once the water begins to cool, most fish will seek deeper water where they will over-winter. In many smaller lakes this will be in the deepest part of the lake; in larger lakes they tend to congregate along steep underwater contours that may exceed 30 feet. Winter concentrations of fish may occupy a space no bigger than an average living room, making them difficult to find.
Fishing strategies during other times of the year
Most anglers do not target sunfish or crappie after the spawning period because they believe that they are difficult to catch. That is only partially true. They are difficult to locate, but once located they often can be persuaded to bite.
A depth finder or fish locator can save a lot of time by identifying likely areas or even show specific fish. A lake map that shows underwater contours can also help identify potential areas.
Because the fish are located in deeper water, a boat, kayak or canoe may be needed to access the right locations. Often the fish are skittish and may spook easily. Cautious approaches may be necessary, such as allowing the wind to drift you over areas that may harbor fish. Quietly anchoring and letting your bobber and bait drift into likely areas can also be effective.
Remember that the fish may be scattered or in loose groups, so you may only be able to catch one or two fish at any given location. However, additional fish may be located nearby.
The same bait used during the spawning period can be used during the post-spawn period. However, it will likely be easier to reach deeper water by using a slip bobber. Small weights may be needed to keep the bait at the right depth. It is a good strategy to use multiple poles, each with bait set at different depths, until fish are located. Once fish are located, all of the baits should be set at that same depth, because the fish tend to hold at similar depths based on the prevailing environmental conditions. Tomorrow will likely be a different day, requiring a different depth or location.
Small minnow-imitating lures that are cast out and reeled in may be used at this time because the fish are in more open water. However, care must be taken to make sure that the lure is operating at the correct depth. It is very easy to reel in your lures too shallow (and above the fish) at this time of year.
Both sunfish and crappie, particularly the larger sizes, can become very selective on what they eat after the spawn. They often switch to very small insect larvae that hatch from the bottom of the lake, pond or river. While an advanced fishing technique, “matching the hatch” may be required. Fortunately, these techniques are not very complicated. They require using very small plastic insect imitations or small flies on light fishing line. Small weights are used to keep the bait at the right depth.
Carefully noting where you caught fish is important because additional fish will likely move into that area in a few days. Good areas are generally good from one year to another.
Winter fishing, either through the ice or in open water, can be productive under the right conditions. Bright sunny days can stimulate insect activity, which in-turn can stimulate feeding. The actual “hatch” may be delayed by several hours after the sun has warmed the water. However, because fish are often concentrated, finding fish or the hatch can be difficult.
One advantage of ice fishing is that no boat is needed; however, drilling holes through the ice at the right location will require more sophisticated equipment and advanced knowledge.