Winter Slabs In Mississippi
September 30, 2010
Though the weather might be cold, crappie still provide the prospect of a tussle that can warm your angling blood in a hurry. And just where will you find these fish this month? (January 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The tip of the 12-foot jigging pole gave a quick twitch and then bowed against the pull of a fish deep down in Lake Chotard. But the excitement of the first fish of the day was tempered by the realization that I had over twice as much line out as I had pole, and that there was no reel. And it was 35 degrees, and the wind was blowing. And my fingers were encased in thick Gore-Tex gloves.
And I had no clue as to what I was going to do!
"Hey, bubba," came my partner's voice from the back of the boat, "you're on your own. Whatever you're going to do, you need to do it before that fish gets away."
I put the pole in my left hand, stuck the fingertips of my index and middle finger of my right hand in my mouth and pulled the glove off with my teeth. Then I started pulling line through the eyes of the rod, letting it curl on the front deck of the boat.
When I had less than 10 feet out, I lifted the fish over the gunwale and dropped it in the middle of the boat. It landed with a thud -- a loud one, the kind of sound that a 2-pound slab-sided crappie makes when it strikes aluminum.
"Good fish," said my partner, who was still holding two poles in his gloved hands. "Now, tell me how cold the water is when you pick him up."
It was cold -- not that I minded. The idea was to get in on what had been reported to be a great crappie bite on the oxbow lake north of Vicksburg last winter. It was cold, but the action was hot -- and the spring and summer supply of crappie filets had long been gone from my freezer.
"Hey!" I fired back at him. "What would be worse?" Getting your hands cold from touching fish, or sitting out here all day freezing and not catching fish? I'll take catching fish any day over the other."
Besides, it wasn't the handling of the fish that chilled the fingers-- what hurt was having to rebait the jig with a minnow. That can't be done with gloves.
But fortunately, it was something we got used to in a hurry on that day last January. Once we found a big school of crappie at Chotard, we started catching the fish steadily, needing only three hours to fill our 48-quart ice chest (which needed no ice) and our no-longer-needed drink box. We headed for the warmth of the truck and the drive back to Jackson with 60 big fat crappie boasting an average weight of about 1 1/2 pounds each. And as the more liberal Louisiana creel limit applies to this old oxbow, which is considered a water "adjoining" the Bayou State, that catch could have been 100. Our limit was based solely on the number of fish that we felt we wanted to clean and on the level of comfort that we figured Chevrolet-produced blowing heat would bring.
Sound too good to be true? Maybe so -- but it definitely is true, and fairly represents the kind of action on offer at many Mississippi waters.
Extreme wintry conditions can show crappie-fishing productivity equaling or exceeding that afforded by the more comfortable climes of spring, summer and fall. The key lies in understanding winter crappie behavior, and then exploiting it to your advantage.
The dead of winter is one of the few times of the year enabling Mississippi crappie to go as deep as they want to. In the spring, the fish relate more to shallow water as they transition into and out of the spawn; in the heat of summer, most lakes here are stratified to the point that deep water lacks sufficient dissolved oxygen, and crappie are forced to suspend near the thermocline, the border between the top layer of warm, oxygen-rich water and the cooler, oxygen-poor layer below; and in the fall, they're kept shallow by their food source, as shad stay near the surface in their migration. But in the dead of winter, conditions are right for the crappie to plumb the depths, and they waste little time going down deep, there forming huge schools that suspend in open water or hold over and around structure.
The use of electronics is important for locating such fish and establishing the depth at which they're holding, said Paul Johnson, president of the Magnolia Crappie Club and my winter fishing guru. It was his reports that had me on Chotard that cold January day.
"You need your fishfinder to locate the big schools of shad," he explained. "You don't have to find the crappie, because if you find the shad, the crappie will find you. In winter, that could mean anywhere between 16 and 35 feet or even deeper on Chotard and other connected oxbows."
At such depths, water can be dark, especially in the tannin-rich environment of Mississippi River oxbows. Johnson, a firm believer in lightening things up, uses glow-in-the-dark hooks.
"Don't laugh," Johnson said. "I have to say that every time I start talking about these glow hooks, because the first thing people do is laugh. They might laugh at first -- but if they ever try them, or see me on the water catching fish when everybody else is struggling, they quit laughing and start asking about how to get them."
By way of example, Johnson recounted a trip taken last winter with fellow club member Jim McKay, of Brandon. "When he got in my boat and picked up one of my drift poles, he complained, and made fun of my little bitty glow hooks," he said. "'Paul, don't you have any real crappie hooks in this boat?' was the first thing he said, followed by, 'I'm just not going to fish with these silly looking things. Somebody might see me. I'll sit back here and take your fish off as you catch them.'
"I immediately started catching fish, swinging them back to Jim to remove from my little bitty glow hooks and drop in the livewell. After only a couple of minutes and five fish, Jim said, 'Move your butt over, man -- I'm coming to the front! Give me one of them poles.'"
Johnson likens the glow hook to a neon sign for a diner. "When you're fishing that deep, in that dark of an environment where a minnow can blend into the background, you start pulling a minnow through the water on a glow hook and it's like a big sign saying 'buffet' to those crappie," he reasoned. "They have to eat it."
A firm believer in trolling or drifting at most times of the year -- and always during the winter -- Johnson uses multiple poles with multiple hooks, as these allow him to cover an unusually large amount
of surface area and to probe various depths. He lets the fish tell him how fast or how slow to move the boat.
Johnson uses glow hooks or blood-red hooks and a minnow rather than a jig-and-minnow combination. His favorite style of hook is a small octopus hook, almost a circle hook in shape, that increases strike-to-catch ratios when fishing with live bait.
Barnett Reservoir near Jackson is another worthy winter lake, abounding in deep cover and so providing fast fishing action. "The oxbows are always a good choice, but having a good spot locally is even better," offered Brandon's Robby Hayes, a winter regular at Barnett. "I can spend three hours travel time, or I can spend 15 minutes, total, round-trip, and still catch fish.
"At Barnett, the fishing style is similar to the oxbows on some days, but totally different most of the time. Instead of drifting or trolling, which most folks do at Chotard, I do a lot more single-pole jigging at Barnett. I like that style more, anyway, because I love to feel the thump of a bite. Given a choice, that's how I'd always fish."
One thing that attracts Hayes to Barnett in the winter is solitude. He almost always has the parts of the lake he likes to fish to himself. "Take Rose's Bluff, for example," he said of the deep area just off the Natchez Trace on the lower main lake. "From spring through the fall, there's always a crowd fishing there; it's either loaded with party and ski boats or it's crowded with crappie and bass boats. In the winter, nobody.
"What makes it good all those other times of the year also makes it a good fishing place in the winter. It's mostly a huge flat with varying depths that also has the advantage of the river channel just off its edge. It is the area where the old Pearl River channel comes closest to the bank. On any given day, you have myriad choices of winter patterns that work on crappie. You have old, deep brushpiles on the flats where crappie can gather. You have the deep water adjacent to the river and some sloughs where crappie can suspend deep."
Hayes' favorite days are those on which the temperature has warmed into the 50s and there's bright sunshine. "That puts the fish on the old brushpiles and allows me to put up the trolling rig and go to single-pole jigging," he explained. "I always start by jigging over the top of the structure. Actively feeding fish are usually not deep in the brushpile -- they are usually roaming over the timber or around its base.
"If I'm fishing a pile that rises 5 feet off the bottom in 20 feet of water, I generally start jigging about 12 or 15 feet deep. If I don't get a bite, or I get a few real quick and then no more, I move off to the side of the brush and go right down to the bottom.
"If I had to give you one tip that I believe in the most about winter crappie fishing it is that you should always try the bottom. I'm serious: Bounce the jig or minnow rig right off the bottom. If it's 15 or 25 or even 30 feet deep, try the bottom. Actively feeding fish usually go to the bottom, and if you bounce a bait through his zone, he'll slam it."
Hayes' winter rigging for single-pole jigging is simple. "I use 10-pound green or gold line," he said. "Colored line is essential, because I see as many bites as I feel, especially when the fish are suspended over brush. They rise up and hit the bait, and keep going up. The only bite recognition is the line going slack or curling up.
"I use a 1/16-ounce jig tipped with a minnow. I always tip with a minnow in the winter. I know there are times when crappie will be active enough to take a straight jig, but there is never a time outside of the spring spawn when it can match a jig-and-minnow combo. I use bright jigs, too, either pink or chartreuse. I also use some of the pearl-colored glow tubes that several companies have on the market. They work."
Another successful winter pattern for Barnett: trolling right in the center of the old river lakes. Found throughout the main reservoir body, these offer deep water adjacent to timber. Multiple poles with multiple hooks can be deadly in extreme cold, when the fish move off the timber that lines the edge of the old lakebeds to suspend in the deeper water of the old lake run.
Two north Mississippi reservoirs -- Grenada and Enid -- are quite serviceable choices thanks to their shallow winter action. These major flood-control lakes' levels at winter pool are 17 to 25 feet lower than they are at summer pool. A lot of the brushpiles holding fish deep in the summer are only 5 to 10 feet deep in the winter, and the fish use them still.
"You can troll deep off the points, but you are a fool if you don't at least sample the fishing around some of the brushpiles," asserted Pete Thomas of Oxford. "When it's really cold, troll the points near the river channel. But if we get a warming trend up to, say, 55 or 60 degrees, you can catch a lot of fish real quick fishing shallow brushpiles. You drop a jig in there, they'll snatch it."
Two northeast Mississippi lakes famous for their winter fishing are Pickwick Lake and the 6,700-acre Bay Springs Pool of the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Both are extremely deep, very clear lakes in which crappie relate more to contour changes than to cover.
"Trolling," said Tupelo's Pete Walley. "Always trolling. If you want to catch crappie at Bay Springs or Pickwick, you need to understand the importance of contour changes on the lake bottoms. Bay Springs is a perfect example of that. It is a small pool that contains a lot of main-lake and secondary points that fish relate to. Some of the points don't play out until they are 40 or even 50 feet deep, which gives crappie a lot of choices. I use my electronics to locate either schools of shad or schools of crappie, and more times than not, they will be adjacent to a significant contour change. 'Significant' can be as little as a 2- or 3-feet change, or as much as 8 or 10."
According to Walley, the next step involves determining the track of the contour change. It's taken time for him to learn those changes, but he's sure that said patient newcomers can pick them out too.
"Before fishing," he suggested, "take the time to follow the change, using buoys to mark bends or turns, and chart at least a 200- or 300-yard trail. Heck, it could run half a mile -- but start with a small area. Then check the wind direction and use it to push you along the change, using your trolling motor only to steer from buoy to buoy. If it is really windy, you will have to use the motor and navigate against the wind to keep control. I try to keep the boat moving sideways to allow more space for rod coverage. It takes practice. But once you learn how to do it, it's easy.
"The idea is to keep your jigs within a foot or two of the bottom. I use a multiple rig -- two jigs to each line, set about a foot apart. I use 1/8-ounce jigs, so I don't need a weight. I may or may not use then, but I always take small minnows.
"I use 8-foot ultralight spinning rods, 8-pound line -- and I watch the
tip of the rods to make sure the baits are not dragging the bottom," the angler continued. "You can tell by the tip's action. You can also tell when a fish hits, because it bends the pole over. You have to react quick -- grab the pole and set the hook. Once you have the fish hooked, you can slow down and play him to the boat."
Walley has observed that more bites come near the buoys, where the contour change has a bend. "I always keep a close eye on the poles when we get near one," he emphasized. "It is then that you are likely to get multiple bites and have to react quickly to get to each pole.
"That brings me to another point: This is not something you want to do alone. When you get into fish, even if it's 20 degrees, they will bite and keep you busy. It takes two or three guys in a boat to keep up.
"That's a good thing. The more the action, the less you think about the cold, and the quicker you can catch your limit -- whether it's the state limit or the limit you want to clean!"
Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com