With hunting seasons winding down, many sportsmen sit out February. However, if they stay away from the water too long, they could miss some of the hottest crappie action all year, figuratively speaking.
“Winter is the best time to catch a trophy crappie,” said Jarad Roper, a professional crappie angler from Arkansas. “Crappie are a little easier to find in the winter than in the summer and they are bigger. The females are fat and full of eggs. Since the fall, they have been gorging themselves to build up energy before they go through the rigors of spawning. In addition, their metabolism is slower during the winter. By late winter, the fish will be the heaviest they will be all year.”
In some ways, winter crappie fishing resembles hunting. In extreme weather, crappie regularly drop into the deepest holes. Anglers just need to hunt for the right ones. Once they find the right spot in the winter, anglers can usually keep catching crappie for weeks.
“In February, I look for crappie in deep river channels or major creek channels coming into the main river channel,” Roper noted. “I focus on the bends in the channels because that’s always where the deeper water is. Often in these deeper holes, a lot of trash and debris piles up on the bottom. All that cover can attract fish.”
In the winter, finding crappie holes could take considerable searching. Without good electronics, anglers would waste too much time fishing unproductive waters.
“The best advice I can give anyone who wants to catch crappie is to get good side-scan electronics,” advised Ronnie Capps, a professional crappie angler from Tennessee. “With a side-scan depth finder, we can find so much more structure. Put the bait right down into the structure. Crappie are going to be deep in the structure and won’t leave.”
Locating fish doesn’t necessarily mean catching them. Cold water greatly slows down a fish’s metabolism. They don’t eat much or move far, but they must feed sometimes. In cold water, crappie might only eat for a few minutes a day. Anglers who do not have baits in the water during those magic minutes will miss the action.
“Anglers need to be patient when fishing in the winter,” Roper cautioned. “A spot could hold hundreds of fish, but they are not interested in feeding at that time. Go to a place with fish and stick to it. Rely on the electronics and wait for the fish to bite. Eventually, they will bite. I’ve had times when I’ve fished 30 brushpiles without getting a bite. Then, all of a sudden, the crappie all turn on and we start catching one after another.”
After finding fish, anglers need to determine what the fish want to eat. When spider rigging, anglers can fish multiple baits on different poles simultaneously. With several 14- to 18-foot-long poles hanging off holders in a pattern reminiscent of a spider web, anglers can cover considerable water quickly. Use the trolling motor to “push” baits through a likely area. Pay attention to the electronics and follow bottom contours.
“With a spider rig, I follow the channel edges,” Roper commented. “Some channels might have some old, natural stumps on the side, but in the winter I concentrate on the dropoffs. I like to go as deep as possible and as slow as I can, usually about 0.1 to 0.2 miles per hour.”
Depending on the situation, Roper fishes two rigs, a double-minnow rig or a bottom-bouncing rig. For the double-minnow rig, tie on a three-way swivel. From one eye, tie a short leader, about 4 to 5 inches long. From the center eye, drop a sinker line down about 24 to 30 inches. Rig a longer leader from the remaining eye so that the hook drops about 2 feet below the sinker.
A double-minnow rig works well when crappie suspend. Crappie habitually follow baitfish schools and lurk just below them, waiting to pick off stragglers. Watch the electronics for baitfish schools and dangle baits just above the crappie.
When fish hover just off the bottom, try a bottom-bouncing rig. Tie a 3/4- to 1-ounce bell sinker to the main line. About 12 to 18 inches above the sinker, tie a light wire Aberdeen hook. Add a second hook about 12 to 24 inches above that one.
“I only use the bottom-bouncing rig when I’m going through heavy cover in really deep water and the fish are hanging right on the bottom,” Roper explained. “If I’m fishing an area with a lot of cover, I might only use one hook. I want the sinker to drag the bottom. I just ease the boat along while maintaining contact with the bottom.”
In a real hot honey hole, thoroughly probe every piece of structure with a single rod and bait. Use a trolling motor to slowly move the boat around dropoff edges, sunken brush, treetops, rock piles, humps, manmade cover or other places where crappie might congregate. Vertically probe all sides. On any given day, fish might position themselves on one side or the other for various reasons. Watch the rod or line closely for any indications of a subtle bite from lethargic fish.
“I like to fish with a single rod and one bait,” said Jo Haley, a professional crappie angler from Illinois. “In cold water, crappie are finicky. With one pole in hand, we can detect subtle bites when the fish hit really soft. Sometimes, we can’t even feel the bite. We just watch the line for a slight change. If it goes slack or something else, we set the hook.”
live bait vs. articificials
Although many anglers exclusively use live bait for winter fishing, some prefer the challenge of tempting fish with artificials. Many anglers use soft-plastic grubs, tubes, hair jigs or similar baits. Some people sweeten jigs with live minnows. Anything that imitates a minnow or shad could entice a hungry crappie.
Hair jigs create very subtle action, a good choice for fishing cold water. With hair jigs, anglers don’t need to add extra action, especially when cold, sluggish fish don’t feed aggressively. Hold the pole as still as possible. Any movement or slight water current could make the hairs quiver and twitch, which might trigger a strike.
“A hair jig can take on a little more lifelike action than plastic, but it’s very subtle action,” Roper remarked. “I also use smaller baits in the winter, about 1.5 to 2 inches long, maybe up to 3 inches long. For colors, a general rule is the more stained the water, the darker the bait. In clear water, I recommend pearl, black and white, silver, blue and white or similar colors. If I’m not using minnows with jigs, I would definitely put on a crappie nibble for extra enticement.”
In February, anglers also need to consider the capricious weather. The month could bring severe cold, snow and ice — or a warming trend that puts fish in the spawning mood. In Deep South states, crappie often begin spawning in February. Many anglers like to fish right before a front passes through an area.
“Before a cold front, crappie usually become very aggressive,” Roper advised. “They know they need to feed a lot in a short window before the storm hits. As soon as the front goes by, the fish still need to feed at some point. Don’t be afraid to try another area or two, but then come back to a spot known to hold fish and hit it again.”
Chasing crappie on cold days takes considerable patience, but anglers who bundle up could enjoy incredible action with little competition. On the coldest days, anglers may find the hottest action and perhaps even catch the biggest crappie of their lives.