By Keith Sutton
For those hardy souls who can tolerate the cold, wind, rain and snow that often are part of winter fishing, this season provides excellent opportunities for hooking lots of big crappie.
Unfortunately, many cold-weather crappie outings end in failure. Why? Mainly because anglers insist on using the same fishing methods they use during the spring spawning season, and these methods rarely entice ice-water slabs. Success comes only to those anglers who know specific tactics for catching winter’s finicky fish.
Toward that end, here are tips from some of America’s top crappie anglers that can make your winter catch rate soar. Study them, employ them and enjoy the bounty.
Bernard Williams and Don Terry of Jackson, Miss. use a wild-cat trolling technique to trigger crappie bites when the water gets cold.
“Using a combination of jigs and minnows, I use my trolling pattern to trigger strikes,” says Williams. “I make large ovals with my boat as I troll. This raises and speeds up the outside baits, while lowering and slowing down the inside baits. I’ve seen this work consistently when other fishermen around me weren’t getting any strikes.
“Whether spider-rigging or long-lining, I never follow a straight path,” he continues. “This gives me an idea of what speed the crappie want the baits traveling. If that doesn’t work, sometimes I will turn the trolling motor completely off, wait about 10 seconds and then take back off at the speed I was moving before I turned the motor off.”
Glowing Jigs for Muddy-Water Slabs
Mississippi fishing partners Brad Chappell and Bo Hudson often find their favorite crappie lakes high and muddy in winter.
“During this time, we like to use a large bait that glows: a 1/8-ounce Bobby Garland Mo’Glo jighead with a Mo’Glo Stroll’R jig tied with a basic loop knot,” says Chappell. “We have a 3/16-ounce bullet weight with two round split shot clamped 18 inches above the jig. We slow troll this rig in upper parts of the water column. The lure’s action and glow help crappie locate and attack it even when visibility is limited.”
Winter Dock Shooting
T.J. Stallings, an avid crappie angler and director of marketing for TTI Blakemore Fishing Group in Wetumpka, Ala., also uses glow lures for winter crappie, but in a different way.
“We have many docks that attract crappie on central Alabama’s Lake Jordan,” he says. “These often feature 18 feet of water in front and just 1 foot of water in the back. We shoot our way into the docks from deep to shallow, focusing on docks that have a fishing boat on a lift, as these usually have brush piles at the end.
“We start by fishing the deeper water with a 1/16-ounce Pro Series Road Runner head (willow blade) rigged with a Bang Shad,” he continues. “Then, as we fish shallower water, we switch to a 1/32-ounce original Road Runner (Indiana blade) to slow our presentation. This is rigged with the Crappie Assassin Tiny Shad in a glow color. (There is very little light in the back of most docks.) Be sure to leave your glow body tacklebox on the boat deck so the glow material has time to ‘charge’ in the sun. Ohio crappie pro Russ Bailey also taught us to use a small float 2 feet above our jigs. His trick slows our shallow-water presentation even more. We also add Stubby Steve’s Fish Pellets to add a strong food scent to the jigs.”
Dress for the Weather … and Safety
Tennessee crappie pro Ronnie Capps says it’s important crappie anglers dress appropriately for winter comfort if they want to be successful.
“Always dress with more clothing than you think you will need,” he says. “Chest waders and waterfowl gear are not too extreme. Keep your body warm and dry. I use both extreme chest waders and Army-surplus inflatable flight boots for keeping my feet warm.”
Capps notes that wearing a trustworthy PFD (personal flotation device) also is a must. “An inflatable PFD provides the most comfort while fishing,” he says. “Just be double sure the cartridge and mechanism are in perfect working order. I know it sounds extreme, but to test your ability to survive a fall overboard on a winter crappie trip, hop into a pool wearing the exact clothing and PFD you would be wearing while fishing. A practice session in your cool pool could save your life and even the life of your fishing partner.”
Adapt for Conditions
Capps’ fishing partner, Steve Coleman of Tiptonville, Tenn., agrees that dressing warmly is a key to enjoying winter crappie-fishing success.
“Dress warm, and take a cooler full of hot water in which to warm your hands,” he says. “Then get ready for some fun. Winter crappie are some of the easiest to catch, especially as the water freezes or thaws. Bright, sunny winter days with no wind can be better than good days during the spring spawn. Just be sure to downsize your bait and line, and slow your presentation to a crawl.”
Coleman says a willingness to adapt to differing conditions may make the difference between catching lots of fish or none at all.
“All lakes are a little different,” he says. “On Tennessee’s Reelfoot Lake, for example, we often do better in winter when fishing on the bottom in deep water. In Mississippi’s Grenada Lake, on the other hand, we often catch big winter crappie suspended four feet deep over 20 to 30 feet of water. Determining where the crappie are and fishing the proper depth and cover are important for success.”
Crappie-fishing fanatic Hugh Krutz of Brandon, Miss., spends most of his winter fishing time on Magnolia State oxbow lakes.
“I like to spider rig out in the middle of these lakes, targeting white crappie,” he says. “On each pole, I use a standard double-minnow rig with 1/2-ounce weights and hooks rigged at least 2 feet apart. I stagger the poles at different depths until I find the exact depth the fish are holding.”
To pinpoint crappie schools, Krutz uses electronics to locate balls of baitfish.
“At times, crappie will be on the bottom in 20-plus feet of water,” he says. “But often as not, they’ll be up feeding on the balls of baitfish. To catch them this season, you have to slow down because the crappie aren’t going to chase the bait like they do in warmer months. It’s also important to match your bait size with the lake’s natural forage. The general rule in winter is slower and smaller.”
(Note: Keith Sutton is the author of “The Crappie Fishing Handbook.” To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $19.45 to C & C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card and PayPal orders, visit www.catfishsutton.com.)