Story & photos by Tim Huffman
A trip last year to Lake D’Arbonne, Louisiana, allowed me experience both seasonal structure fishing and strategies for prefishing a tournament. Billy Don Surface let me tag along and fish with him because his partner wasn’t arriving until the night before the tournament. He graciously shared most (but not all) of their technique details, prefishing strategies and in-depth fishing tactics for ledges in late winter and early spring.
Four Days Prior to Tournament
Surface fish by himself on Monday from daylight to dark. The first day was spent moving around and checking places fished last year. His best spot produced one two-plus pounder but nothing else. Other places produced a total of 30 crappie but not the size he wanted.
Monday night at the cabin he studied his map looking for channels in 6-8 feet of water all the way up into cypress trees. It was early for fish to be shallow but a guy had told him crappie had been staging. However, weather changes were causing them to go back and forth. Surface said weather changes in early spring were typical, causing the fish to change patterns often and also become slow biters.
Three Days Prior to Tournament
A strong front moved through on Monday night. Tuesday Surface expected a slow down. Also, a big rain up north meant new water running into the lake, with current increasing.
The bite was much slower than expected. Baits had to be inched along to get a bite. The channel proved to have fish on the graph but we couldn’t catch them to see their sizes. It was 11:30 and we hadn’t caught a fish. “Not catching is hurting us today. We are not learning anything except for marking a few potential spots to try when they start biting. Some days are like this.”
Not a fish was caught until late in the day. One was 2.27-pounds and a few small ones. The scouting was not a total loss with one spot found.
One tip that holds true most of the time, is wood cover and a ledge at the right depth will hold crappie. Crappie may not always bite, but the ledge will hold fish. The number of rigs we went through proved we were keeping our fish in the cover.
Two Days Prior to Tournament
“We can look at the map and get ideas, but the LakeMaster chip is very important. It’s more detailed and up to date. Places we caught fish last year isn’t producing so we are using the electronic map to find the contours and drops.”
Waypoints are a key to learning and studying. By marking successful spots a pattern can be learned. If the majority of the marks are in 14-16 feet on the outside bend of a channel, it’s not difficult to see the pattern.
“We are targeting an area I don’t want you to tell anyone about. It’s a spot with ledges that should be good. Our goal is to find some quality fish. The spot I found yesterday will likely be pressured. It’s too bad that people follow and fish where they see others fishing, so, I won’t go back there again. I hope to find a different spot today and hopefully not be seen by too many boats.”
The structures targeted were good, medium-depth drop-offs with shallower water not too far away and deep water nearby. We caught a big weight of crappie without going over any spot a second time. We also kept moving so we wouldn’t catch more than one big fish from a spot. We were watched by a few other fishermen but not many.
A few hours of prefishing on the final practice day did not change plans for the tournament. Surface and Jones started the tournament by fishing the area we found on Wednesday when we caught the big stringer weight.
Weather can change strategies. “We stuck with the spot for two hours,” says Surface. “The wind was blowing hard. We had eight fish with one good one for about 10 pounds. Waves were pushing over the front of the boat and we didn’t have control of the poles or boat, so we were just wasting our time. It was tough. With the timber and stumps we couldn’t have gone with the wind because we would have hung up too much. Our trolling motor bounced on top of a stump and we thought it was broken but we lucked out. We moved and upgraded a little. I think we ended up in fifth place after day one.”
The team felt good about day two because the wind would allow them to fish their spot with the good ledges. “We were in the right spot but just didn’t get the right fish to bite today. The guys that caught the big fish were within fifty yards of us. They had seen us fishing the spot when practicing and found the fish. We were going to hit another part of the ledge but a boat was there, too. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
They moved up to third place in a large tournament, so the ledge pattern proved to be a good choice. There are usually many ledges so picking the right one is critical for success. That can take hard work, a lot of hours on the water and a little luck.
Putting It All Together
Drop-offs can be an important part of a pattern no matter the month or weather. The March timeframe is a good time to stay on the move until you find the best depth. Creek ledges will likely be good because they are part of the major highways used when crappie are on the move with seasonal changes.
Drops usually include bends, cuts, straight sections, along with natural and manmade cover. Electronics is a necessity so a fisherman should maximize mapping, scanning and sonar when possible. Side scanning, down imaging and advanced scanning options are a big plus but not required. Again, having more is better, but using whatever you have, even if it’s basic, is very important when dealing with a drop-off and cover.
Slow trolling is often the best technique for fishing ledges in cold or cool water. Multiple poles and baits allow different depths to be fished simultaneously, or, all baits can target a specific depth. The extra baits increase the odds of catching fish.
Slow trolling allows a fisherman to move at a moderate speed, slow, super-slow or completely stopped. Baits can be moved along when looking for active fish but stopped when a fish is caught, or electronics shows good cover and fish.
“When water temperatures near 60 degrees the big slabs like big meals without exerting a lot of energy.”
Discussing baits is always fun, because no matter what is mentioned, there will be a number of fishermen who disagree. Surface prefers Muddy Water Baits for their toughness, colors and scent. He says during cold water up until the spawn, minnows are always a good choice for basic fishing and catching numbers of crappie. However, jigs often catch the biggest fish.
When slow trolling try using a double-hook rig with a minnow on top and a jig on bottom, with a sinker in between. Only by trying different combinations of baits will the best choice for the day be determined.
A 3/8- or 1/2-ounce sinker between the baits is good if there is no current or wind. Move to a 3/4- or 1-ounce sinker is there is current, wind or if baits must be placed deep. Use just enough weight to keep baits vertical.
A bait tip for lakes with big fish is to use big baits in early spring. Try a 1/4-ounce jig with a 3- or 3.5-inch plastic body, or, a big hair jig. Tip any jig with a medium to large minnow. When water temperatures near 60 degrees, the big slabs like big meals without exerting a lot of energy.
Ledges are good year-round with mid-depth ledges, creek ledges and other natural drops being top picks, especially when crappie start transitioning from winter homes. Naturally, in most lakes, the crappie will be on the deepest channels in mid-winter slowly working up to the shallow channels as water warms. Timing will be much different in the south compared to the north.
Two important lessons are (1) keep an open mind because crappie can change depths and locations quickly when weather changes, fronts move through and water temperatures change; (2) the important thing is to use your electronics and maps to find potential areas. Search and study. Time spent with electronics provides quicker searches than just fishing.
My big thanks goes to Billy Don Surface for sharing the boat and letting me catch a few fish. He spent hours answering questions and let me shoot photos. The Surface/Jones team is sponsored by Missouri Corn Growers/American Ethanol, Muddy Water Baits and others.