Chill-Out Crappie

My rod tip began to twitch as my minnows swam erratically in the cold water 20 feet below. With temperatures near freezing, the weather was blustery, a strong north wind dropping the wind chill into the 20s

But I was having no problem keeping warm.

My rod tip bobbed again, this time giving the telltale sign of a fish on the end of my line. I grabbed my ultralight rig and cranked in a pair of pan-sized crappie. Nearby, other anglers poked fun at me, envious of my success. Their good-natured joking was short-lived, as their own rods began to react, and soon, several more slabs were added to our wire baskets.

The winter evening was cold, but the atmosphere, reminiscent of friends meeting in a coffee shop, was warm and festive. We talked about politics and Oklahoma football, and shared a unique camaraderie as we beat cabin fever there at Lake Eufaula -- fishing inside a heated dock!

Do the winter doldrums have you wishing you were fishing in warmer temperatures? Well, you can either sit and complain or grab your rod and tackle box and head to your favorite waters for some hot action with wintertime crappie. And before you go, study the information we've provided in this article in order to direct yourself to the state's best spots for cold-weather slabs. (Oh -- and don't forget your jacket!)

COLD-WEATHER CRAPPIE HABITS

In April, crappie moving into shallow water to spawn turn voracious, feeding in the frenzied manner that makes spring so rewarding for anglers. But during our cold weather, crappie become unpredictable. They can be caught, provided you manage to find them -- but finding them can be tough. Significant weather changes will slow down crappie fishing in the same way that they affect other fish.

Generally, crappie retreat to deep water that's warmer and more favorable to them. Winter specks congregate in schools and suspend near structure in some of the deepest water available. These schools can be found by using a fish locator, on the screen of which they resemble schools of shad.

Since crappie prefer deep water, boat anglers will catch more crappie than will bank-fishermen. Though crappie can be caught at all depths during the winter months, they prefer to congregate near ledges and brushy dropoffs. Some winter crappie like to frequent river channels, while others can be caught around brushpiles and artificial crappie attractors.

WINTER CRAPPIE ADVICE

Wally Marshall is considered by many to be the foremost authority on crappie fishing. Although the soft-spoken Marshall will humbly suggest in the face of such praise that some anglers are better at catching slabs than he is, his record tells a different story: He's won several national crappie tournaments, and is billed as America's best-known crappie angler.

I spoke with Marshall at a recent outdoor show and was amazed at his vast knowledge of specks and their habits. In an hour of talking to Wally, I learned numerous tips and techniques that I hope to employ this winter.

Marshall (or "Mr. Crappie," as he's been nicknamed) has spent an extensive amount of time fishing for crappie at several Oklahoma lakes, and one thing he's learned from those hours and hours passed on Sooner waters is that anglers who don't target Okie crappie in the winter months are missing some great action.

Marshall rates Fort Gibson Lake in northeast Oklahoma as one of the most neglected winter crappie lakes around. And Wally should know -- he won a national crappie tournament at Gibson.

"Winter crappie spend a good deal of time moving around while following schools of shad," he said. "When water temperatures drop below 45 degrees, shad will begin to die and become easy prey for huge schools of crappie waiting to gorge themselves."

Wally believes the "magic depth" for winter crappie to be 30 feet. According to him, white crappie move into creeks where winter water temperatures remain stable, while black crappie, which have a preference for cleaner water, head for deep, clear water. He adds that while black crappie are selective feeders that dine virtually exclusively on small minnows and shad, white crappie eat tiny bream, minnows, and other small fish.

Mr. Crappie offered this savvy advice to winter anglers: "A good depthfinder is a must for locating schools of shad. When you find the shad, the crappie are normally underneath them. Good places to look for crappie are near ledges in 30 feet of water, and near large rocks and underwater trees."

Wally advises anglers to make slower lure presentations, as the crappie's metabolic rates are very slow in winter, and to use smaller hooks when fishing in deep water.

Marshall's favorite winter lures are blue-and-white and chartreuse-and-green Road Runner jigs. For minnow fishermen, Marshall recommends using his own Mr. Crappie hooks in No. 2 and No. 4 sizes.

OUR TOP WINTER CRAPPIE WATERS

Tulsa and Oklahoma City are relatively close to some great crappie fishing. Winter anglers usually don't have to travel far to find great fishing. Following is my list of picks for the top crappie waters near Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

Grand Lake

Sited near Grove in northeastern Oklahoma is 46,500-acre Grand Lake; it's an hour away from Tulsa.

Fishing Grand in the summer can be a trying proposition, because the numerous yachts that traverse the lake can kick up some rough water. But the good news is that during the winter months, the huge, deep lake is virtually void of large boats, and actually receives little fishing pressure. Except for a few diehard guides who -- like Ivan Martin -- fish it year 'round, the lake's all but vacant. And it yields some great winter creels.

Martin, an expert on the lake who specializes in crappie, white bass, and largemouth bass, has been guiding for 20 years. Headquartered at Martin's Landing on Monkey Island, Ivan operates a sport shop and motel and books fishing trips year round.

"Most people think the only crappie fishing on Grand in the winter is done on one of the lakes 10 heated fishing docks," he said. "The fishing docks are good, but actually, there is some great crappie fishing on the open water."

Martin notes that the crappie will move and congregate near ledges in 20 to 30 feet of water. Ivan prefers to use artificial baits only, and is partial to using 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs in chartreuse, white, and red-white-and-blue.

Ivan suggests that anglers target Honey Creek, Elk River, Duck Creek, and Drowning Creek. He advised that access to these areas is almost lim

ited to boats only, but added that there's public bank access at the Horse Creek Bridge.

Though white crappie are the main species at Grand, Martin says, black crappie are starting to make their presence known. Grand anglers may take a combined creel of 15 crappie daily with a 10-inch minimum length.

Fort Gibson

Nestled beneath Lake Hudson -- a fine lake in its own right -- and connected to it by a river channel is Fort Gibson. East of Tulsa near Wagoner, this lake spanning 19,100 acres is home to fantastic numbers of crappie, and was the venue at which Wally Marshall took top honors at the National Crappie Classic in 2003.

The best winter spots at Gibson are near the long points found in the midlake area. Look for structure resembling submerged trees and deep dropÂoffs. The most productive depth range is 12-30 feet.

Lake experts recommend using Road Runner jigs in yellow, white, and chartreuse colors and in sizes ranging from 1/8 to 1/64 ounce. Fishing minnows near brushpiles marked by Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation buoys is sure to get a reaction.

Fort Gibson has a 10-inch minimum length on crappie; anglers there can take 15 daily.

Lake Tenkiller

Less than an hour's drive southeast of Tulsa is Lake Tenkiller, a clear-water lake that spans 13,000 acres. Tenkiller is a favorite lake of mine because of the rocky structure that provides great habitat for many species of fish. In the past, the lake was hit hard by largemouth bass virus, but the lake is now rebounding, and its crappie fishing is better than ever.

The best fishing areas are found in the midlake area; there, crappie will school in deep water prior to moving shallow to spawn. Fishing brushpiles and deep dropoffs near the dam can be very productive.

Tenkiller anglers are allowed 15 crappie with a minimum length of 10 inches.

Lake Hefner

This 2,500-acre water-supply lake in the heart of Oklahoma City offers tremendous opportunities for catching a variety of species. According to lake expert Carl Jones, Hefner is an awesome crappie hotspot that is overlooked by too many anglers -- and its crappie fishing, he says, is better than it's ever been.

A fixture on the lake, Jones catches as many slabs in the winter months as he does during the warmer months. He fishes Hefner from the bank and enjoys a limit of crappie almost every outing.

I watched Jones recently on the ODWC television show Outdoor Oklahoma; he was catching winter slabs as snowflakes blanketed the lake. Jones garners his success by fishing jigs cast from 14-foot custom rods that he makes at his nearby tackle store.

The best fishing spots on the lake are the riprap area that covers a third of the lake's shoreline and the area near the west side fishing jetty. The majority of crappie caught in Hefner will be the white variety and will range in size from a half-pound up to a pound.

An enclosed fishing dock is located on the southwest side of the lake. Hefner anglers are allowed a generous limit of 37 crappie daily, with no length restrictions.

Lake Eufaula

Lake Eufaula is the state's largest lake, spanning 102,000 acres. It's in the southeast near the town of the same name.

Summer anglers regularly catch hefty limits of crappie on Eufaula, making it one of the most popular destinations for anglers statewide. It's a fine choice for winter speck fishing.

Though turbid or dirty in some areas, Eufaula contains some prime crappie habitat in which schools of slabs lurk, waiting to ambush schools of small minnows and shad. The entire lake produces good numbers of crappie, but the top areas are the clear parts of the lake like Porum Landing, Duchess Creek, Belle Starr, and the Highway 9 Landing.

Robert Reece is a diehard crappie angler who enjoys success each winter at Eufaula. An ODWC aquatic habitat foreman, he prefers to leave the warm confines of the lake's heated docks to fish the numerous brushpiles, which are home to good numbers of the skillet-sized delicacies

Reece, who estimates that he fishes 30 days each winter, catches some of his largest crappie in the south end of the lake near Crowder. In fact, when it comes to catching big crappie, the self-effacing angler has a knack, having caught several sure-enough slabs weighing over 3 pounds. And while he enjoys catching big crappie, he releases all those over 14 inches so they can grow to be what he calls "real slabs." He also fishes some of the lake's many brushpiles; constructed by the ODWC, most are marked by a buoy.

Reece fishes three sizes of jigs, 1/32, 1/16, and 1/8 ounce, and prefers to use feathers instead of plastic tails. His favorite colors are pink, black/pink, and white/pink. Explaining his winter tactics, he said, "I like to use 4-pound-test line. And I believe that you should fish your jig as slow as possible, due to the fish being sluggish. Generally, I find 90 percent of my fish in 12 to 16 feet of water, and catching 12- to 16-inch crappie is common. I also recommend that anglers who don't have success early try fishing midday."

The daily limit is 37 crappie; there are no length restrictions.

Lake Thunderbird

Lake Thunderbird -- "T-Bird," as the locals call it -- is just 30 minutes south of Oklahoma City near Norman. The 6,000-acre lake is turbid most of the time, but it still produces good stringers of crappie each year.

Though the average-sized crappie will be smaller there, occasionally some real slabs are caught. The stunted fish are the result of minimal aquatic vegetation, owing to the muddy water blocking so much sunlight that what gets through is inadequate for normal plant growth.

The top winter spots are brushpiles near Clear Bay, Snake Pit Cove, Calypso Cove, and Duck Blind Cove.

The daily limit is 37 crappie of any size.

Lake Texoma

Last, but certainly not least, is Lake Texoma, which lies on our southern border with Texas and is home to prodigious numbers of crappie.

The 91,200-acre lake contains several marked ODWC brushpiles. Strategically placed, they harbor good numbers of crappie. These artificial structures are found at varying depths and good places to fish jigs or minnows vertically during winter excursions. I have a good friend who catches some nice slabs from a private dock that he regards as tailor-made for specks, thanks to the addition of submerged Christmas trees.

The best spots are found near the Roosevelt Bridge, Washita Point, Soldier Creek, Alberta Creek, and Buncombe Creek. On bright sunny days, key in on the riprap areas near the bridges, as crappie are drawn to the warmer water produced by the sun heating up the rocks.

Anglers may take 37 crappie with a minimum length of 10 inches daily. Since the lake lies in both Oklahoma and Texas, a Texas fishing license is required for fishing on any of the Texas lake areas.

THE INDOOR OPTION

Heated docks can be found at numerous lakes in Oklahoma and serve as a seasonal meeting place for diehard anglers. The dock provides a social gathering place while offering a great opportunity for all ages to get in some winter fishing.

These enclosed docks can usually be fished for a nominal fee and are heavily baited with cedar trees that serve as an attractant for baitfish. They're a dandy place for dunking a few minnows or bob a colorful jig.

Care must be exercised when fishing near these evergreen reefs, as they act like a magnet for fishing lines. You don't want to spend all your time hanging up and breaking off.

Some docks provide food and beverages, but all provide a warm place to fish, and guarantee hours of fun. For a list of these docks, log on to the ODWC's Web site at www.wildlifedepartment.com.

With over 40 heated fishing docks in Oklahoma, crappie anglers need never venture far to find action. The diehard boat angler, on the other hand, knows that Sooner winters generally are interspersed with some mild days that make being on the lake bearable.

Whichever way you choose to fish, go and catch a basket full of slab crappie. You'll be rewarded with one of the outdoors' tastiest meals a short time later!

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