Catching February's Monster Slabs
September 24, 2010
This month is prime for targeting slab-sized papermouths, as the crappie are schooled up in numbers to await the spawn. Read on to find out how to get in on the action!
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Paul Moore
The water temperature is finally starting to creep up, and every serious crappie angler is getting that familiar antsy feeling. They know that papermouths awaiting the spawn are beginning to stack up in staging areas, and that his month is prime for filling the boat with some of the largest crappie of the season.
February crappie can be found in a wide range of locations depending on water temperature, prevailing wind, water clarity, available structure and frontal conditions. They can be caught with everything from minnows to elaborate rigs with multiple jigs. Everyone has a favorite method for catching early-spring slabs; here are the tactics used by a couple of seasoned pros.
JIGGING WITH BILL PIERSON Fishing guide Bill Pierson likes to use vertical jigging until the water temperature reaches 50 degrees. He rigs only one jig per rod, which allows him to achieve a more acute awareness of the depth at which a hit occurs. "Two key things to catching crappie are depth and presentation," he said.
Tube-type jigs are Pierson's preferred bait. He fishes them on spinning tackle with 4-pound-test line. An ultralight graphite rod, which gives him more sensitivity and allows him to feel light or finicky hits, is his preference. "In my opinion, clear line works better than anything else," he said.
Bright days will usually find him using jigs that are white, chartreuse or white and chartreuse together. Dark days call for dark colors such as purple, black and chartreuse or red and white. Most of Pierson's jigs include some metalflake as well.
Pierson starts looking for early crappie in water reaching depths of 20 to 25 feet. He fishes structure, but looks for specific types of structure. He's looking for good-sized fish, not just simply to catch any size crappie.
Brushpiles and other types of isolated structure will be the places for finding bigger fish, according to Pierson. He looks for areas that have structure that's the only cover around and, usually, next to a depth change. The area may be 8 to 10 feet on the shallow side with a steep drop down to 20 feet or more. Said the guide: "The bigger females will relate to deeper channels that run into the shallow spawning areas."
Although he fishes brushpiles, he tries to fish above the brush and not get down into it unless it's absolutely necessary. This helps avoid hangups and disturbance underwater. When frontal conditions are present, an angler sometimes has no choice but to fish in the brush, as the crappie will be holding tighter.
Crappie are very sensitive to noise, Pierson has observed, and the bigger fish are even more fickle - which is why he tries to be quiet and stay away from hangups as much as possible. He also has a tip for dealing with accidental disturbances: "It's very important to know the types of areas you are fishing. Big fish are very sensitive to noise, especially if they are shallower than 18 feet. You might catch six or eight good fish in one location, and then maybe someone drops a tackle box in the boat or you have a couple bad hangups with a lot of disturbance. This may shut down the bigger fish. If you know the area well enough, you can go to another area exactly the same and should be able to get back on the fish."
Depth is a very important consideration for Pierson. "When you catch the first fish, pay careful attention to the depth at which it was caught," he said. "Most of the rest of the fish will also be caught at that depth." Pierson will usually start out fishing at the same depth and in the same places where he caught fish the day before. The fish will usually be in the same place that they were in the day before, he explains, although they may have moved a little more shallow following baitfish if water conditions have warmed slightly. Frontal conditions can also alter fish behavior.
At lakes with little or no cover, or on days when it's difficult to get on good fish, Pierson will often bait six to eight rods with minnows and put them all out at different depths, remembering or marking which rod is at which depth. He drifts without using the trolling motor until one rod gets bit, sets all the rods at that depth and then puts them back. "By the end of the day you'll have a sackful," he asserted.
As the water temperature warms and crappie begin moving up, Pierson will often begin casting either 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs or small baits with spinners. Spring rains often spread baitfish and crappie into flooded brush, which forces the guide to cover a lot of water to locate good fish.
COVERING WATER WITH STEVE POPE Covering lots of water is what Steve Pope does. Having guided professionally since 1987, Pope has a reputation for putting clients on lots of big crappie. He fishes numerous lakes and loves to troll open water for big slabs in early spring.
Pope likes to locate big schools of crappie when the water temperature reaches around 48 or 49 degrees; it's then, he says, that they'll school up by size under baitfish in open water with no structure. The best reason to fish for crappie in February? "They are huddled up in numbers," Pope offered, "and I mean 'numbers'!" The key to finding them? Good electronics.
Pope begins looking for the schools along points that lead back into shallow coves; old creek channels with a good drop are another favorite. He stresses that these areas don't have to have structure.
He may mark fish on the depthfinder at depths of 10 to 14 feet, and can then troll for them with jigs. If he can't find them on the depthfinder, he knows that they'll usually be one of two places: right on the bottom or right on top. "I've seen them schooled in February only 2 feet deep in water that is 50 foot deep," he noted. He loves finding them at that shallow depth. "They're in a feeding frenzy, and you're just gonna knock 'em dead."
Pope takes trolling to the scientific level with good electronics, a troll-speed indicator, and lots of research. He has designed a chart that tells him exactly which jig size to use, how much line to let out, and how fast to troll to achieve to results he wants. If he marks fish at 14 feet, he can tie on a certain jig, let out the correct amount of line, troll at an exact speed, and bump those fish on the nose if he wants. That's dedication.
For Pope, July and August are the months for experiments. He'll put on a certain size of jig with the hook removed and begin trolling. He may put out 40 feet of line and tr
oll in water 20 feet deep. He'll keep slowing down until the jig bumps the bottom; he then can kick the speed up a notch or two and know his lure is running around seventeen to eighteen 17 to 18 feet deep. He then logs that information in his notes. When he has a fishing condition that warrants fishing at that depth, he knows exactly what to do to get there. Through the years, he has compiled data for virtually every situation.
Pope believes that most people are too hung up on structure as crappie fishing's be-all and end-all. In February, he thinks, open water and trolling are definitely the best combo. "If people will just simply take a map and stop thinking about the bank or that treetop over there," he observed. "There's gonna be a few crappie there, but the majority of them are schooled up out there in deep water on a pre-spawn pattern.
"Crappie have to be somewhere. If they don't show up on the electronics, I'm going to check three places. They're either right on top, right on bottom, or in real shallow water."
Indeed, Pope has caught lots of good crappie in only 2 to 3 feet of water when the water temperature was only 46 degrees. He doesn't have an explanation for why they were there- he just knows that he's caught them there.
Water temperature is critical in early spring. Asserted Pope: "I think a temperature gauge in the spring is probably as important as the outboard motor. There is a difference between true surface temperature and the temperature 2 to 3 feet deep. If you can find a surface temperature 2 to 3 to 4 degrees warmer than where you were fishing, then guess where the fish will be?"
February is a tremendous time to be on the water. Not only are the crappie becoming more active, but the lower fishing pressure and reduced pleasure boating also translate to more opportunity for the crappie angler. It may get a little chilly some days, but a boatload of slab-sized crappie can definitely warm the heart.
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