It’s February. I’m cold and thinking about how much money Valentine’s Day is going to cost me. But there is hope on the horizon; the little red-and-white bobber at the end of my fishing line just bobbled, a sure sign that a hungry crappie has discovered a live minnow suspended about 23 feet below the water’s surface
Photo by Robert Sloan.
My cooler is already holding several fat Lake Conroe crappie, and with a few more will be enough for a family fish fry. Believe it or not, February is one of the best months to catch crappie in Texas — and Lake Conroe, between Houston and Huntsville, has been a top producer of crappie for years. In fact, I’ve been fishing this particular lake since it filled up in 1973.
Conroe covers 20,118 acres and is located on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River in Montgomery and Walker counties. When the lake first filled, a high school buddy and I fished there virtually every weekend. Fortunately for us, his grandparents had a house on the lake.
We fished from a 14-foot johnboat powered with a small Mercury outboard. Our only problem was generating enough money to buy live minnows from a local marina. During the cold-water months of January and February, you could find us soaking minnows under the FM 1097 bridge, at just about the middle of the lake. The many pilings attracted lots of crappie, and still do.
Our classic tactic was to rig up and fish live minnows under a slip-float. It’s still a very good way to catch crappie under the 1097 bridge. If you’re a crappie-fishing junkie like me, you know these fish will hold at very specific depths. Once you determine that depth, it’s important to fish in that exact zone. A few inches one way or the other can make a big difference.
A slip-float can be rigged to fish at specific depths. What I like to do is use a Bobber Stopper. It can be slipped onto your line and reeled up on the spool. When placed 20 feet up the line, you simply feed out line until the Bobber Stopper hits the float. Then you know you’re fishing at the right depth on every drop. Another option is to use a small piece of a rubber band about 1/4-inch long. Use a slip-knot to attach it to the line.
Lake Conroe guide Butch Terpe has been putting anglers on crappie since 1988. During the warm water months, Terpe will be using live minnows over brush to catch plenty of crappie. But during the winter months, he’ll use both minnows and jigs to catch black and white crappie under the 1097 bridge, and over brush in water that’s 20 to 30 feet deep.
‘You never know what depth crappie are going to be feeding,’ says Terpe. ‘But during the winter months, especially February, they will most likely be holding tight to structure in 20 to 30 feet of water. When I’m fishing around the concrete pilings during February, I’ll start with a live minnow at about 20 feet and work my way down. Once I locate them, I can switch to jigs and save the live minnows for another spot.’
Terpe says that during February the water temperature on Conroe will be in the 50s. And that can cause the crappie to be a bit sluggish.
‘It can be a very soft bite, so you have to use ultralight tackle and be on point at all times,’ says Terpe. ‘I’ll usually use 8-pound-test line with both jigs and live minnows.’
Terpe has developed what he calls a drop shot rig for crappie. He ties on a 1/2-ounce teardrop sinker to the end of his line. About 18 inches up the line he’ll tie on a 1/0 gold Aberdeen hook with a loop knot. The weight is used to get the minnow down to where crappie are feeding. He’ll hook a minnow through the bottom lip to the top so it will live longer and wiggle more.
When jigging, he prefers a white marabou jig fished about 12 inches below a split shot. He’ll use just enough weight to get the jig down to the crappie.
‘You want to fish the jigs on a tight line with enough action to fool sluggish crappie,’ advised Terpe. ‘You can’t feel the bite on a loose line.’
Terpe also says that not all pilings are the same. Some seem to always attract crappie. Those are the ones you want to fish. Some anglers sink brush around pilings. That’s why Terpe uses a depthfinder to scope out what’s been sunk around pilings.
‘I’ve got a lot of brushpiles on the lake,’ he said. ‘A few are around pilings at the bridge, but most are along the San Jacinto River channel. The best producers during the cold water months are in 20 to 30 feet of water at bends in the channel.’
You can use all sorts of brush to attract crappie. But Terpe says his best brushpiles are a combination of yaupon, oak and sweet gum.
‘Willows are good, but they can be tough to find at times,’ says Terpe. ‘I see a lot of fishermen sinking Christmas trees, but they are difficult to sink and keep in one spot. Plus they are sappy and lose their needles. Yaupons are easy to sink and provide lots of structure. I’ll freshen up my brushpiles quite often. To keep crappie on the brush you’ve got to maintain them. It takes a lot of work to build up numbers of brushpiles, but once you have them going, the fishing is worth the effort.
It’s important to have multiple areas to fish for crappie. The 1097 bridge pilings are a winter favorite. And there are lots to fish. As Terpe says, you never know where crappie are going to be from one day to the next. That’s why it’s important to move around a lot until you find the hot hole. But if your favorite hole doesn’t give up any crappie, it’s best to hit it at different times of day.
‘Some spots will always hold crappie,’ says Terpe. ‘But they won’t always be feeding. That’s why it’s best to hit your hotspots at different times of the day. You never know when they are going to turn on. And there are days when live minnows rule. I often use them to get crappie to feeding, then switch over to jigs. When they slow up on jigs, I’ll go back to minnows.’