By Brent Frazee
I have a different view of Christmas trees than most people. Sure, I love to see my family gathered around the tree, glowing with strings of lights, ornaments and tinsel, during the holidays. But I also envision crappies gathered around my tree on the bottom of lake once New Year’s Day has passed.
The holidays are all about tradition. And as a fisherman, turning several Christmas trees into brush piles is a tradition of mine.
I’ll start by buying concrete blocks and heavy gauge wire from the hardware store. Then I’ll drag several Christmas trees to the boat dock on my home lake in Missouri. I’ll run the wire through the concrete block and the limbs of each tree and wrap it several times. Then I’ll slide the block off the dock and into a boat stall and watch the tree slowly sink.
Instant cover. Instant fishing spot.
I’m amazed at how quickly those Christmas trees that only a few days earlier had proudly carried Christmas tradition can attract crappies. I have come back the next day with my Aqua Vu to see what the trees look like on the bottom in our clear-water subdivision lake, and I’ve been surprised to see a school of good-sized crappies already suspended around the limbs of the new cover.
The fish seldom are buried deep in the horizontal cover, because the needles are still too thick to allow for them to gain much access. But as the trees start to deteriorate, the skeleton, sans needles, becomes a fish magnet.
It sets up a food chain. Algae grows on the branches, microorganisms are attracted to the algae, baitfish move in to feed on the plankton, and gamefish such as crappies are drawn to the baitfish.
All of this from the centerpiece of many Christmas celebrations.
Easy, Available but Not the Best
Before we go much farther, I have to toss out a caveat: Christmas trees are far from being the ideal wood for making a brush pile. The holiday trees deteriorate much more quickly than hardwoods. They are only at their prime for a couple years. Then they break down and offer little cover for the fish.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has confirmed as much through scuba studies on Table Rock Lake. Even in places where teams of workers sank clusters of Christmas trees, they found only the decaying skeleton of the trees and the concrete blocks used to sink them five to six years after they were put in.
That’s why many fisheries departments now go to hardwoods such as shingle oaks or hedge for the construction of brush piles. They last much longer than Christmas trees, provide more room for fish to concentrate in their limbs and are easier to fish.
But Christmas trees, for all their shortcomings, still have their place. First, they are accessible and easy to lift as opposed to hardwoods that have to be cut down and hauled to a trailer or boat. Second, they can be effective if you “freshen” a spot each year where trees have been sunk before.
That’s what our fishing club does each winter. We set up a Christmas tree dump site at our marina and advertise it to our neighborhood. We also haul trees from other dump sites and end up with more than 100 trees,
We arrange a work day, and groups of fishermen in several boats head out with as many as eight trees per boat to sink trees. We have as many as 10 large brush piles on the 130-acre lake. That’s not counting the marina, where there is brush in practically every other stall.
That, in large part, has brought our fishing back. We once had a clear body of water that was rich in weed growth. You could catch bass and crappies along many weed edges. But the fishing suffered when the vegetation mysteriously disappeared.
We’ve had many fisheries biologists and other experts out to look at our situation, and no one can pinpoint a reason. All they can offer is that “it’s possibly a cycle.” Meanwhile, they have recommended that we put brush in the lake to attract fish and produce good spawning, nursery, ambush and resting cover. So far, it has worked.
Location, Location, Location
For a brush pile to be effective, you have to sink it in the right neighborhood. You can’t just randomly pick a location and expect fish to swim across the lake to find it.
Instead, choose an area that fish already are using – main-lake and secondary points, humps, drop-offs, the mouths of coves, along road beds, along gravel spawning banks, etc. Remember, your purpose is to get fish to concentrate in an area that already is attractive to them.
If you’re serious about it, sink brush in a variety of water depths to meet seasonal fishing patterns. Drop trees along river or creek channels for winter fishing, in the shallows or just off spawning banks in coves for the spring, off main-lake points and mid-lake structure for the summer, and in the middle of creek arms for the fall.
We will drop as many as 25 Christmas trees in some prime locations such as main-lake points, and they have developed into great fishing spots. But again, they have to be freshened up every two years for them to be effective.
One strategy I have used is to create a fish highway out of brush. I and my friends will drop bundles of Christmas trees from the bank to 20 feet deep, covering a variety of the fish’s needs. For example, there is spawning cover in the shallows, but there also is brush to hold them in 10 to 15 feet of water when a cold front interrupts the spawn and they temporarily drop out to deeper climes.
On public water, make sure you check regulations and requirements before sinking trees. Some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs, for example, require fishermen to get permits before sinking brush.
Once you have completed sinking brush, it is public property. In other words, if another fisherman locates it, he or she has every right to fish it. With the advance of modern fish finders, that has become increasingly common.
That’s why some fishermen use stealth when dropping brush. Once they have placed the cover in a likely looking spot, They punch in coordinates in their GPS units to plot a course back.
What if a fisherman does not have all of those modern devices? He or she can still sink brush and find it on return trips. The first tip is to avoid obvious landmarks, such as a laydown, the tallest tree on the bank or an odd-colored boulder on shore. Those are dead giveaways to others that there is brush in the area.
Instead, use obscure landmarks and tri-angulate them to find your way back to brush. One friend of mine uses a clothesline in back of a lakeside cabin, the end of a dock and a point as indications that he is in the right spot. No sonar needed. He can go right to his “honey hole” and catch fish in a place that many wouldn’t think twice of fishing.
Fishermen also can use Christmas trees to provide valuable cover in farm ponds. They often slide tree bundles and concrete blocks onto the ice, and wait for the spring thaw to sink them.
Christmas Tree Fishing
Even in spots where you have sunken multiple Christmas trees, there are “hot spots.” I follow my electronics to find places where the crappies are suspended in or above the brush, then fish according to the season. In the spring, I like to cast and slowly retrieve a twister-tail jig over the top of the shallow brush. In the summer, I often tight-line with a minnow on a light jig head (often as small as 1/32nd ounce).
I try to pick off the crappies on the edge of the brush first so I don’t disturb the fish in the heart of the cover. Then I move in to try to catch the crappies buried in the cover.
If this sounds easy, it isn’t. Sometimes I will mark fish and they refuse to hit. I generally give that brush pile about 15 minutes, then move onto another one.
And then there are the brush piles that seldom produce for some reason. I and my friends have sunk Christmas trees in seemingly ideal spots – the edge of a drop-off, the mouth of a cove where we’ve caught fish before, the deep water off a point –yet seldom have caught crappies.
The point? Not all brush piles are created equal. You have to experiment with locations and hope you get it right. But when you do, it can result in a full live well or stringer.