December is an excellent time to catch crappie. Schools of slabs follow clouds of shad for easy meals – an important factor for surviving winter. Fish love forage that doesn't require burning loads of precious energy.
I joined Mike Kirby, a professional crappie fisherman from Spring Hill, Kan., a week before Christmas several years ago. I relished the thought of a fresh mess of crappie fillets, thick-sliced bacon and fried potatoes for Christmas morning breakfast.
We launched his bass boat in Lake Perry against a chilly breeze. Kirby fired up his huge outboard motor and we started down the lake. Suddenly my waterfowl hunting parka felt darn good.
Kirby soon drifted his boat to a stop before anchoring against the wind. Boats were stacked up throughout the lake. This particular strip of the lake was full of submerged brush.
The standard question that day had been, “Having any luck?” The stock answer was, “No, but you should have been here last week.” Tales of large crappie caught in big numbers were exchanged from boat to boat. Unfortunately that day the crappie had stopped biting.
Most boats were anchored over Christmas-tree style crappie beds, vertically dropping jigs. Eventually anglers gave up anchoring off structure and started trolling around the area with little results. Many decided that fishing was slow and returned to the boat ramp. Besides, it was getting colder.
Kirby spent many years guiding on most of the bigger Kansas reservoirs. Crappie guiding soon led to selling crappie jigs. Throughout his field testing and guiding, he discovered when crappie are not biting on one technique, try another approach in a different area.
Kirby did not pick his fishing areas by accident that day. Throughout the morning he charted movements of huge shad schools in each heavily fished area and around rocks. The shad schools traveled at 10- to 15-foot depths, and their presence meant crappie would soon follow.
His depth finder indicated that larger crappie suspended below the clouds of shad, but they were not biting. Kirby decided that it was time to take a stroll.
Strolling is a controlled drift with directions controlled by sonar readings. The depth finder is closely watched to remain precisely over the shad school. Currents drift the boat with occasional corrections by the trolling motor.
Kirby tied two of his unusual-looking Crappie Critter jigs on at different depths. The baits had short arms and twin tails to create lots of action when drifted. All jigs were cast behind the boat and we began strolling.
We started by catching an occasional fish until the boat drifted between two giant bridge pillars. Then the game really started. Surprisingly the crappie were feeding between 5- to 10-foot depths. I expected them to be deeper at the end of winter. They were certainly not at Midwestern depths for December.
We started catching 1- to 2-pound crappie while the other boats were anchored in the distance and still not catching fish. We landed a crappie every two to three minutes. We eventually returned to the boat ramp with a healthy string of crappie.
That day's fishing proved why Kirby is a professional crappie fisherman. He was not afraid to break away from standard technique that had worked the week before. Many were sitting and waiting for the crappie to start biting – a bite that would never come.
“Anytime I fish a lake for the first time, I use a topographical map,” Kirby said. “I especially like to work river and creek channels. I start by looking for channel bends that swing into the bank.”
When crappie are not biting on the main lake, locate fish around submerged creek channels and rivers. Kirby starts at the back of creek channels and fishes his way out when there has been plenty of nice weather with little rain. Warmer weather moves crappie to the back of creek areas. Rain creating cold water runoffs push crappie back out toward the creek's mouth.
“On shallow lakes shad and crappie tend to be deeper towards the dam when it is cold,” Kirby said. “During this colder period I anchor off and slowly vertical jig throughout the submerged creek channels. You can never fish too slowly in the winter, especially when it is extremely cold.”
The bridge we trolled under ran over a submerged creek that the shad and crappie used as a highway.
We had found crappie moving under clouds of shad past the bridge pillars. The crappie moved away from their easy meal later that day as the water continued to warm. Kirby’s charting created the game plan that allowed us to continue to catch fish.
Charting structure and shad movement is not difficult. Kirby depends on the topographical map to start and a graph or depth finder while fishing. He depends on several factors during either warm or cold weather.
A topographical map shows what to look for. Kirby likes to find roadbeds or humps that create a drop off in the submerged creeks or rivers. Humps hold shad and crappie. He uses a red pen to mark important locations that might hold fish. Crappie movements eventually become predictable with the use of a topographical map and sonar. The key is finding their travel patterns by what structure is available.
Once this structure is located, he watches both a flasher and graph. The flasher is better for finding higher crappie concentrations when the boat is traveling at higher speeds. Graphing an area requires slower boat speeds. A flasher allows you to cover more area at a faster pace.
When shad schools and submerged structure are discovered, marker buoys mark reference points. Kirby warns never to drop a marker's weighted end down on structure. A 6-ounce weight can quickly spook a whole school of crappie. Instead, gently drop the weight a couple of feet to the right or left. You would be surprised how many experienced fishermen will drop their weight or anchor on top of fish.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org