January 13, 2017
Just about every crappie angler loves to fish in the spring when big females move into predictable shallow patterns, but crappie fishing in late winter can produce incredible action in the right spot at the right time.
Before catching crappie, though, anglers need to find them. In many ways, looking for big crappie in late winter more resembles hunting than fishing. Anglers sometimes need to make a considerable effort, combined with patience and perhaps some luck, but persistent anglers who bundle up can often catch some of the biggest fish all year.
"The key to catching pre-spawn crappie is finding them," said Rollin McFarland, an avid crappie angler. "It's almost like hunting. We have to find them before we can bag them. In early February, I start looking for crappie along the creek channels. We have to intercept crappie along their migration routes."
In a large lake or river, anglers may need to cover substantial territory to find fish, but they can quickly eliminate significant acreage by looking not for crappie, but baitfish. Find the shad and anglers will usually find crappie suspended under them.
"Use the electronics to find large quantities of bait," advised Jonathan Phillips, professional crappie angler and guide (334-391-9735). "Throughout the deep channels, I'll look for shad. Crappie will be keying on that bait. In early February, I look for crappie at the mouths of deep creek channels. The boat might be floating in 40 feet of water, but the fish might be suspended 20 to 25 feet deep."
After finding bait, many anglers troll to cover more water. Also called longlining, trolling involves putting out multiple rods off the back of the boat. Many people stick rods in holders, but anglers without such equipment can just hold poles or put them down in a secure place.
"Longline trolling is a really deadly tactic for pre-spawn crappie actively chasing shad in open water," Phillips explained. "People need to cover a lot of water to find fish. Speed is the key to trolling jigs. I usually start at about 1 mph and speed up as spawning time gets closer."
When trolling, many anglers pull multiple baits running at different depths to zero in on what the fish want that day. Some people troll jigs, or jigs tipped with minnows. Others prefer small crankbaits that resemble shad or spinners that give off good flash. In late winter, use smaller baits to match the size of prey.
"I like to pull double rigs with two jigheads," said Mike Baker, with Crappie Fisherman Guide Service (thecrappiefisherman.com). "One weighs 1/48 ounce and the other weighs 1/32 ounce. I try to pick colors that mimic natural baitfish in the area. I may go through 50 different color combinations before I catch a fish, but once I find out what they want, I can usually catch a bunch of fish."
After finding fish concentrations, anglers might try spider rigging, which involves slow-trolling with rods arrayed off the bow in a fan-shaped pattern reminiscent of a spider web. Always dangle baits slightly above crappie, ideally between them and baitfish. Crappie usually look up to spot prey silhouetted against surface glare and may rise several feet to snatch a bait, but not even see a jig dangling just below.
"When spider rigging in late winter or early spring, people need to fish really slow because the fish are lethargic and they won't chase anything very far," said Steve Brasfield, a Southern crappie pro. "Anglers need to almost wiggle something in the fish's face."
Using the trolling motor, spider riggers can "push" through considerable territory to find fish. In cold water, use just enough power to give the lures a little action, typically less than one mile per hour. During windy days, anglers may simply drift across a good area.
Some people like more active participation than just dangling rods off holders, preferring to vertically jig with just one pole at a time, or possibly one in each hand in a really good spot. Drop a jig or minnow just above a brushpile, stump, stake bed or similar cover.
"When fish are waiting for the water temperatures to rise, they hang down in structure," Brasfield commented. "In cold water, crappie are usually going to be deep in the cover. They are not really searching for food, but if something comes close to them, they might grab it. I like vertically jigging over the top of a bed or wooden structure like sunken trees or branches. In winter or early spring, I usually start at the top of the cover and go down from there."
For really getting down into thick cover, try fishing a drop-shot rig. Depending upon the water depth, attach a 1- to 2-ounce weight to the end of the line. About 18 to 24 inches above that weight, tie a small dropline with a jig.
"Use the big weight to keep in touch with the brush or the bottom," McFarland explained. "The jig hangs right above that cover. Crappie look up and see the bait. When we find the fish, that's a very productive way to catch a bunch quickly."
Some people sweeten their jigs with minnows or crappie pellets for added enticement. When using jigs without live bait, create very little additional action. In cold water, crappie typically respond better to subtle movements rather than aggressive bouncing or vigorous jigging. Sometimes, a crappie might even taste a bait without the angler ever detecting the strike.
As the water slowly warms, crappie start moving up creek channels and ditches toward the spawning grounds. Solid objects absorb solar heat and radiate warmth into the adjacent water column. In a cold lake, a spot just one or two degrees warmer than the rest could attract fish.
"In late February, when crappie start moving out of deep water and heading up creek channels, I fish rock walls," McFarland said. "I like rock walls with some additional cover on them, like brush or a fallen tree. When fish are still deep around that cover, we throw jigs up close to that wall and count down. On a spinning reel, we leave the bail open and let the bait sink to the depth we want and then we start a slow retrieve."
When water temperatures hit about 55 degrees, crappie start moving toward the shallows and may stage just outside the spawning grounds. They generally spawn when water temperatures reach 60 to 65 degrees.
Whether searching for fish in deep water or chasing migrating crappie heading for the shallows, the pre-spawn season can often produce outstanding crappie catches. Anglers just need to keep searching for fish, but once they find them, they might land a boatload of some of the biggest crappie they'll see all year.
When crappie go really deep, few lures work better than jigging spoons. A metal jigging spoon sinks quickly and resembles a dying baitfish as it flutters down. After the spoon hits bottom, raise it 2 or 3 feet and let it fall again. Most of the time, fish hit on the fall. Crappie usually hover near brushpiles, humps or other cover. Use a depth finder to determine where fish are located and drop a spoon slightly above.
"To reach the right depth, measure from the reel to the first eye on the rod," explained Jonathan Phillips. "With that known measurement, people can accurately pull off line to get to the depth they want to fish. Anglers need to be precise when fishing cold water. Put the bait right in front of the fish." Most people use 1/8- to 3/4-ounce chrome spoons. When fish become extremely finicky in cold water, crappie might want a smaller bait that sinks slowly. Use a spoon about the size of a small minnow or shad. To get a small bait down faster, add a weight above the spoon.