Coldwater Slabs: Expert Tips for Catching Wintertime Crappie
January 16, 2018
These expert tips will produce enough crappie action to keep you warm on the most frigid days on the water.
It was cold that day. Think Antarctica. In winter. At night.
My fishing companions reflected the state of the winter chill.
Our guide Jerry had on a camo outfit that might be worn by someone hunting musk oxen on the Arctic tundra.
My friends Alex and Lewis, and my son Josh, were dressed like they'd be running sled dogs at the Iditarod. It was hard to see their eyes peering out through layers of toboggans, neck warmers and hoods — and in the case of Lew, a warm-as-toast (so he said) Elmer Fudd earflap hat.
It was early in the year and the ice that earlier had locked up the lake was long gone. Yet, if we held our fishing rods still very long that day, ice formed in the guides. Our minnow baits were trying to jump back in the boat to get warm.
Funny thing was, no one seemed to care that it was barely warmer than the shady side of a glacier. Jerry had invited us to experience the extraordinary crappie fishing on his home lake, and he was putting us on fish. To heck with the cold; we were catching slabs!
This wasn't one of those fish-a-minute days you often experience during spawning season. It was too cold to expect that. But as we moved about, we'd pick up a crappie here and a crappie there. And let me tell you, those were no ordinary crappie. They were true slabs, most of which weighed 1 to 1 1/2 pounds. And before we quit fishing, our group put a bunch in the livewell.
There was a time I wouldn't have fished for crappie on a day like that. It just seemed too hard. Fish were lethargic and bit so gingerly that it was difficult to know when one had taken my bait.
Finding them in the deep water they frequented that season was much more difficult than pinpointing the shore-hugging fish I caught by the dozens later that spring.
When I started fishing with knowledgeable guides like Jerry, however, I learned that the year's pre-spawn period can be one of the best times to catch scads of trophy-class crappie.
The "catching" part tends to be slow, but success can be enjoyed more often than not — if you learn where the fish are likely to be and learn the proper methods for coaxing a bite.
THE FRIGID BASICS
During the pre-spawn period, more than any other season, crappie are deep-water fish. Deep is a relative thing, however, and you need to know characteristics of the lake you're fishing to enjoy success.
When fishing a shallow, heavily timbered lake with average depths, for example, you may find crappie holding no more than 8 to 15 feet deep. In a large, open reservoir on the other hand, especially one in mountainous terrain, the "deep" water may extend to exceptional depths, and crappie may spend their winters at 25 to 40 feet, sometimes more.
Many will be suspended, avoiding much deeper water where less oxygen, forage and cover make living conditions uncomfortable, if not unbearable.
As during other seasons, pre-spawn crappie also hold near structure and/or cover. Cold is cold, but when the water is extremely cold, the features they use are more likely to be offshore, often in mid-lake.
These include creek/river channels, humps, inundated ponds, timbered bars, the deep ends of points and such. It's important to remember, however, crappie won't be evenly dispersed around these features.
Instead, they'll be attracted to smaller, specific components of the larger structures called "superstructure." Finding those spots requires the aid of a good sonar unit.
Let's say, for example, you've found a creek channel meandering across the bottom of the lake.
Crappie won't be along the channel's entire length, however. Instead, they'll gather in compact schools where the channel exhibits a change of some sort.
This may be a bit of cover where a secondary channel intersects the main channel, or around a tall tree standing on a sharp bend in the channel — anything different from the norm.
Finding these types of superstructure with a good fishfinder can mean the difference between catching lots of coldwater crappie or none at all.
LEARN THE SUBTLETIES
During the period before the actual, full-blown spawn, you'll catch more crappie if you focus on subtle seasonal variations that are easily overlooked.
For example, this is the time when crappie start moving and feeding more often. One clue this is about to start is when the water has warmed several degrees from winter's coldest point.
Bluebird days tend to be calm, and crappie move up in the water column to start sunning, so to speak. This temperature change also causes crappie to start feeding heavily.
These pre-spawn fish also relate to superstructure more than brushpiles. That's not to say brushpiles won't produce crappie, but the right superstructure usually produces more.
One way to take advantage of this knowledge is to start fishing where you find bends in creek channels leading back into spawning coves.
If you remember where you caught crappie last spring, work backward from there. Any clay, rock or gravel bank will hold fish where the biggest breakline is — not the main channel dropoff but the breakline closest to the channel.
A warm rain this time of year triggers the crappie to begin feeding seriously, but don't fish right in the runoff, which crappie and crappie forage avoid.
The best areas are where muddy water meets clear water because that is where shad — one of a big crappie's favorite foods — are feeding on zooplankton. Watch your fishfinder and you'll have no trouble finding crappie in these spots.
While early morning fishing often is best during much of the year, early on, there's no need to rise at daybreak. The best bite often is in the middle of the afternoon as the water warms.
Also watch for subtle signs that crappie activity is cresting.
For example, as winter turns to spring, you'll often notice fish such as shad, white bass and others moving on the surface. When that is observed, it's an indication that crappie are starting to feed more actively, and then you should spend as much time on the water as possible.
CRAPPIE EATING CRAWFISH
As water continues warming, the females' eggs start developing. Bigger females go on a feeding binge when that happens, and males start investigating shallows. Keep in mind, however, crappie may move to the shallows only a short time each day.
Around that same time, something incredible happens in many lakes I've fished. Crawfish emerge from deep holes, and hungry crappie instinctively know it. As the panfish gorge on the seasonal feast, you can find them gathered on banks that have no cover whatsoever.
Slow-trolling catches these fish. Some anglers use multiple rods in holders at the front of the boat (spider rigging).
Others like longline fishing with the rods at the rear, and still others prefer holding a rod in one or both hands. As long as they are legal where you fish, any of these methods work great for practiced anglers, but I usually catch more fish when I'm holding my rod. That way I can feel the bites and enjoy them more.
I prefer using two jigs per rod, and rather big jigs at that, which tend to weed out many smaller crappie.
To my line's end, I tie a 1/4-ounce jighead dressed with a 2-inch Yum Wooly Beavertail, and 2 to 3 feet above that, on a dropper line, I add a 1/8-ounce jighead with a different-colored Beavertail.
These lures may seem huge if you fish with the typical 1/32-ounce jigs most anglers prefer. But when slab crappie are feasting on 3- to 4-inch baitfish and crawfish, lures of similar size entice more bites.
KEEP IN THE ZONE
AND USE THE RIGHT SPEED
One big mistake anglers make is not knowing where their lures are.
If you see a breakline on your sonar unit, and it goes from 8 to 10 feet, you need to be fishing the 8- to 10-foot zone. But if your boat is directly above the breakline and you fish the bank side with a 10-foot rod, your lures are 10 feet from the breakline, outside the strike zone.
Be aware of such situations and always position your boat and lines so that lures stay in the crappie zone.
Speed is also important. When crappie are eating crawfish, for example, a slow approach is best.
If they are feeding on shad, however, you'll catch more by speeding up and lengthening your line. When fishing 10 feet of water, for example, you may need 14 feet of line out.
Sometimes you'll fish down a bank and catch a few fish, then reverse your course and catch twice as many on the next pass.
That means current is present, and crappie are facing into the current as they look for food. This points out the need for persistence.
The lesson in all this is simple: Pay attention to subtle variations — variations in water and weather conditions, variations in locale, and variations in your presentations. There's no better way to make your catch-rate soar.
HEAVY METAL HOOKUPS
When fishing clear waters on sunny days, spoons are excellent enticements for slab crappie.
Use your fishfinder to pinpoint crappie suspended deep near bottom channels, and when you find a school, work it with 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigging spoons free-spooled to fish below.
Jig the lure by raising the rod tip with an upward flick of the wrist then quickly lowering the rod so the spoon falls on slack line.
Crappie usually strike as the lure drops.
Watch to see if the line twitches or stops. Strikes usually are seen rather than felt.