Story and Photos by Don Gasaway
It is a conversation all too familiar to Nick. The discussion goes something like this. “I want to book a crappie fishing trip with you in the spring when the fish are biting,” says the person on the other end of the line. Nick responds by saying, “Crappies bite all year and the winter is especially good for big fish.” To drive home his theory he points out that ice fishing produces crappies all winter in the more northern parts of the Land of Lincoln.
Once the spawn is over and crappies move away from the shore, many anglers quit fishing for them until fall. At that point the fish return to more shallow water, vegetation and buck brush of Rend Lake.
In winter Nick Shafer of Crappie Predator (www.crappiepredator.com) puts his clients on fish using a different set of patterns. He fishes both Kinkaid Lake and Rend Lake in southern Illinois. Mild southern Illinois winters allow anglers to fish open water unlike the ice fishing in northern Illinois. It also makes for active feeding fish that grow larger thanks to the shad forage.
According to Shafer, he finds good crappie fishing all year around. The months of April through June and October through November are peak months. But, the fish are there in the other months you just need to know where to look. Unlike the spring and fall, the crappies in winter are not found everywhere on the lake. You need to find where they are congregating.
Nick has made a living knowing where to find fish for the past 8 years. He has fished the lake for 25 years. In addition he has won numerous contests including the 2006 Illinois State Crappie Masters Championship.
Leaving the boat ramp, Nick explains that we are going where the water is deep. He explains the fish are still relating to structure it is just deeper water structure, perhaps 12 to 18 feet. They will roam in schools. Nick finds his best luck in good depth where there is brush along the change in depth. Water adjoining the old creek channels holds crappies waiting in ambush for schools of shad in the deeper water. The shad travel in schools along these old channels in an attempt to find water warm enough to keep them alive.
Shad are the main forage for crappie in Rend Lake. Gizzard shad are native to the lake and some stocking of threadfin shad takes place if available from nearby power plant lakes. Shad are temperature sensitive, especially the threadfin. Nick points out big swings in temperatures create die offs. Deeper water provides more stable water temperatures. The gizzard shad will survive temperature changes so long as it is not a sudden change. Threadfin always die off each fall as the water cools.
The crappies have their own survival problems as the flathead catfish, which are numerous in this lake, like to eat the crappies. To survive, the crappies will flee to the brush piles. Later they use those brush piles as a point from which to ambush shad.
Unlike Kinkaid where water reaches a depth of 50 feet, Rend only reaches about 20 feet. In Kinkaid the rig of preference is a single weight at the terminal end of the line. About 18-inches up a drop line of about 8-inches with a jig at the end holds a live minnow. You lower the rig straight down until it hits bottom. The line is raised about 8-inches and jigged near structure such as boulders and submerged wood.
Here on Rend, Nick uses a 3/16th ounce pink jig with a pink 2-inch Lake Fork Tackle live baby shad. Unlike others on the lake, Nick believes in good size bait to match the larger size shad this late in the year. He is fishing for big fish and therefore believes he needs big lures. The jig is always either in pink/white or pink/green. “The dying shad in this lake have a pink color around the belly and gills. He always uses ball head jigs.
Nick never uses live bait. He finds no need and likes to avoid all the problems with keeping live bait alive. It is also easier to keep his boat clean. He finds live bait tends to die on a jig which necessitates constantly changing baits. The additional discomfort of wet hands while changing bait fish is another reason to stick with jigs.
He fishes with a 10-foot jigging rod in each hand while moving the boat with a foot control on his trolling motor. Each line is a different length until he finds the level where the fish are located. His line is clear 6-pound monofilament with good knot strength lowered to different depths until he finds the feeding fish. He relies on past experience to choose the beginning depths and then adjusts accordingly.
First stop is over a brush pile located by use of his electronics. It is in deep water on the edge of an old creek channel. During lake construction brush, rather than being burned-off or hauled away, was bulldozed into a pile. The rising water as the lake filled covered it. Nick explains that the preferred structure sought by crappie in winter is usually wood.
They do like some rock piles and the rip rap located near a deep channel. There, the crappie back into the openings in the rip rap and ambush passing schools of shad. The water clarity is stained to dirty this time of year and the crappies want locations close to where the shad are moving. They do not want to exert a lot of effort in catching shad.
In winter, Nick always fishes 7 or 8 locations. He figures that two will probably be good. Once he finds a productive location he stays with it.
Winter crappie fishing involves a lot of trial and error. Nick believes in the old adage, “90% of the fish are in 10% of the water.” He makes extensive use of his electronics to locate the bait fish and the crappies close to them. Nick tends to begin looking for winter crappies in the same place that he finds them in summer. Structure is the key to winter crappie fishing. In Rend Lake that structure consists of brush piles, stumps, and stake beds. The best structure has to be in close proximity to main river channels. “Fish are never not biting,” explains Shafer, “you just need to be in the right spot.”
From a safety point, Nick reminds his clients to dress in layers. In winter, the air over the lake can be considerably colder than over land. It is better to have too much insulating clothing than to have too little and need it. You can always take off layers but you cannot add clothing you do not have with you.
Don Gasaway is a freelance outdoor writer from Marion, IL. He is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/#1/DonGasawayWriter and www.facebook.com/DonsJournal. His blog is http://dongasaway.wordpress.com.