Almost every Arkansas angler loves to catch a big mess of good-eating crappie. Winter provides a great time to do this. Crappie feed actively this season and often gather in large schools when the water temperature is barely above freezing.
For many anglers, however, successful winter fishing is elusive. Our favorite panfish are often “tight lipped” this season. Fishing tactics used other times of year won’t catch them. You can hook cold-water slabs, however, if you think “outside the box” and try advanced crappie-fishing strategies such as these.
Think ‘new places’
Could there be a better place than a deep-water brush pile to find winter crappie? Most anglers think not. But when targeting trophy crappie, you may want to avoid brush piles entirely. Unlike small crappie, which hide in brush piles to avoid predators, crappie exceeding 2 pounds aren’t on the menu of many meat-eaters. Their own appetite is substantial, however, so they follow and feed on schools of shad.
“Lots of brush piles placed in an area may actually keep big crappie away,” Oklahoma crappie guide Todd Huckabee said. “The schools of shad these big crappie feed on prefer open waters with no movement-blocking obstructions. You’ll catch more and bigger crappie if you fish near underwater ledges, riprapped banks or the bottom, where shad are schooling.”
Determine the shads’ depth by watching your fishfinder for the dark horizontal band that indicates a school. The corresponding depth is the depth you should fish.
Use a 10- to 12-foot jigging pole with two crappie jigs on the line 18 inches apart. If shad are 10 feet deep, position the jigs so they’ll be at 10 feet during a slow troll. Maintain a speed that keeps your line perpendicular to the water’s surface. Slightly lift and drop the rig as you move.
Watch your sonar, and keep your rig working near the shad school. When you reach the edge of the school, turn and troll through again. Typically, you’ll catch two or more crappie on each pass. And typically, these will be “barn doors.”
Think outside the box to turn up other hot spots as well. The best places often are those you never considered.
Think ‘new baits’
Sometimes finicky winter crappie refuse to bite jigs and minnows. What now?
“Most crappie anglers use jigs or minnows and nothing else,” Vanndale crappie angler Lewis Peeler said. “I’ve seen times, though, when other baits worked best. On some lakes in Louisiana, I’ve caught more crappie on freshwater shrimp. Crappie in ponds often hit small spinners better than jigs or minnows. On certain lakes, I catch most crappie using small shad-imitation crankbaits.
“The key is versatility,” he continued. “If one bait or lure doesn’t work, be prepared to try something different.”
One unconventional winter crappie-catcher is a 4-1/2-inch Smithwick Rattling Rogue. Rig the lure Carolina style, with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce tungsten weight above a barrel swivel on your line, and a 3- to 4-foot leader from swivel to lure. Crawl the lure across the bottom.
When crappie are deep in cold water, blade baits, such as the Reef Runner Cicada and Heddon Sonar can also be hot, despite the fact that few anglers try them. You can vertically jig a blade bait to create a subtle swimming/fluttering motion that attracts skittish, light-biting crappie, or retrieve it with rips and runs to produce an erratic action that might interest a slab in need of a wake-up call.
Other good lures outside the norm include small versions of bass spinnerbaits, tailspinners like Mann’s Little George, and soft-plastic grubs and minnows. Think outside the box and experiment when usual enticements don’t work.
Think ‘new presentations’
A new presentation sometimes is the best means to arouse the feeding instincts of persnickety winter crappie. Consider jigs, for example. During winter, the baitfish crappie eat are larger than most baitfish other times of year. This being the case, one would suspect that jigs with a larger silhouette would entice more winter crappie. This is true if the jigs are configured to allow a very slow presentation. The crappie’s metabolism plunges when the water temperature falls, and the fish often refuse to chase lures. Thus, jigs used to entice them often must be presented very slowly.
This explains why many anglers downsize jigs in winter, even though most forage fish are quite large. Reducing a lure’s size reduces descent speed. Micro-jigs 1/64 ounce and smaller drop through the water column at the agonizingly slow rate winter crappie prefer. Heavier jigs fall faster, often descending too quickly for lethargic crappie to strike. It would seem to make sense then that smaller lures would work better.
That might be true if downsizing your jig were the only way to slow it down. But it’s not. Another simple method is to use heavier line. Heavier line causes more resistance in the water, forcing jigs to fall more slowly. In clear water, where line-shy fish are a concern, an easy solution is adding a foot or 2 of lighter leader between the main line and the jig. Another effective approach for reducing the fall rate is using a larger jig body (one bigger than what normally would be matched with a given jighead size) to create increased water resistance.
A bobber presents yet another means for fishing a jig slowly. A float rig allows the jig to be suspended, which means it can be worked at almost any pace, including a dead stop. If crappie are holding deeper than 6 feet, casting with a traditional float might be impractical. But a slip cork serves the same function and can be rigged with a bobber stop so it suspends your jig at the correct depth.
Knowing these things, we can better match our jig to the size of most baitfish being eaten by cold-water crappie. If crappie are stuffed with 2-inch shad, we can present a 2-inch, wide-bodied jig beneath a float and work it very slowly at the depth crappie are suspended. When crappie are eating large minnows, we can slow the presentation of properly matched jigs by using 15- or even 20-pound-test line, with an added leader if necessary, or by using a 1/32-ounce jighead on a jig body more often used with a 1/16-ounce jighead. And so on.
Think ‘new waters’
Most crappie anglers fish lakes in winter, but these aren’t the only places to enjoy cold-weather slab action.
Tailwaters below dams on big lowland streams often serve up good winter action. As the water starts warming near winter’s end, river crappie move upstream searching for bedding sites. If they encounter a dam, crappie will mill around the tailwater awhile, holding in areas with moderate current. Try a jig/minnow combo for bait, and focus your efforts on “edge” areas, or “seams,” where faster current meets slack water — around rock wing dikes, shoreline riprap, the outer edges of willow thickets, chutes connecting backwaters to the main river and similar locations.
Farm ponds also provide possibilities for winter anglers. After gaining permission to fish, head to the levee that impounds the water. Big slabs frequently are taken by casting to woody cover here. A great lure in this situation is a large beetle-type safety-pin spinner, but carry a variety of lures, and keep changing until you determine what is most productive.
Remember, the successful winter crappie angler must be flexible and innovative — ready to try something new or different when “regular” fishing tactics won’t produce. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Think outside the box occasionally. Innovation often leads to success.