Crappie fillets caught from cold water are the best. The fact is the crappie will almost always bite if you can find them. Yet veteran winter anglers know that winter crappie are not always where you expect them to be.
Crappie love forage that doesn’t require burning loads of precious energy. The right presentation at the right time means catching limits of crappie. But winter fishing is not like the spring spawn when crappie stack on the bank and bite every cast. Winter fishing requires special techniques.
Mike Kerby, a professional crappie fisherman from Spring Hill, Kansas, showed me a great technique a week before Christmas several years ago on a Kansas lake.
Most boats were anchored over Christmas-tree style crappie beds, vertically dropping jigs, but the crappie were not biting. Eventually anglers gave up anchoring off structure and started trolling around the area, again with few results. Many decided that fishing was slow and returned to the boat ramp. Besides, it was getting colder.
Kerby spent many years guiding on the bigger Kansas reservoirs. Crappie guiding soon led to selling crappie jigs. Throughout field testing and guiding, he discovered when crappie is not biting on one technique, try another approach in a different area.
Kerby does not pick his fishing areas by accident. He charts movements of huge shad schools in each heavily fished area and around rocks. Shad schools may travel at 10- to 15-foot depths, and crappie follow. He uses his depth finder to indicate when larger crappie is schooling below the clouds of shad, but when they are not biting, he tries a controlled drift.
CONTROLLED DRIFT: A controlled drift, with directions controlled by sonar readings, can be effective any time of year. Make sure your depth finder is closely monitored to remain precisely over the shad school. Then let currents drift the boat with occasional corrections by the trolling motor.
Kerby ties two plastic jigs on at different depths. All jigs are cast behind the boat.
One day last winter we started catching an occasional fish until the boat drifted between two giant bridge pillars. Surprisingly crappie were feeding in 5- to 10-foot depths. I expected them to be deeper in winter. They were certainly not at what I considered to be Midwestern winter depths.
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. Kerby started at the back of several creek channels and fished his way out. Warmer weather moved crappie to the back of creek areas while rain created cold water runoffs that pushed crappie back out toward the creek’s mouth.
BE DIFFERENT: Fishermen are always looking for new and better techniques for catching more and bigger crappie. The old standard of dunking minnows or retrieving jigs is still productive, but there are always other ways.
I learned this lesson last winter when fishing on a Kansas lake with Steve Matt, a veteran fisherman. We had spent the morning working steep, brush-laden banks that connected to a submerged creek bank. The crappie was suspended in brush and hungry. Matt is an excellent fisherman, so it was no surprise that he was out-fishing me three crappie to one. My curiosity finally made me look at just what he was doing.
His Road Runners, feathered jigs with spinners, seemed to be attached by a wire harness. Both were set to look like two schooling fish swimming together. Matt quickly set the hook and almost immediately reeled in two slab crappies. Tying on two jigs is nothing new, I have done that more than 50 years, but his rigging looked different and was catching fish.
MODERN DAY FISHING: Charting structure and shad movement has always worked well. Kerby depends on a 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 roadbeds or humps that create a drop-off in the submerged creeks or rivers. Humps hold shad and crappie. Kirby 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 structures 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.
Kirby fishes extremely brushy winter lakes by finding submerged creek channels that swing to a point, a secondary point or close to the bank. Crappie holding areas are often close to deep water. Later toward spawn, the crappie will swing into gravel banks close to plenty of brush.
“Following a creek channel in brushy lakes is a good way to find productive waters fast,” Kirby said. “Following the more productive creek channels is better than sitting over dead water. It only makes sense to fish where the fish are.”
Crappie generally move from the shallow to deeper water when winter chills return. Submerged standing timber found on deep flats becomes a favorite crappie haunt. Bait fish congregate for safety from predators.
Want a treat? Find winter crappie and have a winter dinner of fillets and fried potatoes. Don’t forget to let me know when dinner’s ready.
– 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.