September 30, 2010
The winter months offer a great time to find these fish schooled up, making them easy targets. Here's where and how to find those slabs. (January 2009)
"Big fish and almost no other fishermen," Roger Gant said with a grin. "That's a hard combination to beat."
Since he's one of the top crappie guides in the country, it was no wonder that the lack of a crowd was just fine with him. Besides, we were fishing for fun rather than for profit -- if anybody could really call the whole thing "fun."
I had to agree that the fish were there, all right, and that the average weight was considerably better than any string of crappie that I could recall -- certainly in recent history. Why big fish like cold weather and seem to congregate with other broad-shouldered specimens like themselves may be forever a mystery, but I had no trouble figuring out why no other anglers were within sight: They didn't like the idea of monofilament freezing to their rod guides!
The temperature was in the low 30s, and the wind had obviously made the trip from the North Pole with nothing more substantial between its origin and our position than a barbed-wire fence or two. Patches of snow that clung to shady spots on the shoreline did nothing to help the mental image, either.
Gant adjusted our drift rate with the side-mounted trolling motor so that the two 1/4-ounce jigs per rod remained as near directly under the rod tips as possible. After a glance at the sonar unit he made a small course correction to keep us positioned right on the edge of a long submerged creek channel that meandered through the Yellow Creek portion of Pickwick Lake. Because of its proximity to his home in Corinth, and because he rates it as one of the very best places for winter crappie, the guide knows where he's going, even if someone on the shoreline might look out and suspect that we were having motor trouble.
First one of the super-sensitive rods dipped downward; as Gant reached for it, the rig in front of me did the same. Multiple hookups are rather common when you hang out with this guy. In fact, we once hooked seven fish on five rods -- and that turned into a circus. But the size of the white crappie hoisted in with the oversized net was anything but common. My specimen went about a pound and a half, while his beat mine out by several ounces. That happens a lot when fishing with this veteran crappie man -- and I can't for the life of me figure out why a fish more than 20 feet below the surface can tell his lures from mine.
Up in walleye country they call Gant's pet technique "pulling." It has also been called "controlled drifting" and "slow-trolling." Whatever the designation, it involves using the wind and a trolling motor to maintain very slow, steady coverage of specific types of structure.
"At this time of year I like the creek edges," Gant said, "although you can sometimes find fish on dropoffs and deep flats with cover. In lakes with flooded timber in deep water the crappie may school up close to the trees or back in them, like you would expect, but they can cross you up and hold out in open water away from the cover. A good depthfinder is almost as important right now as good-quality tackle. Fishing blindly is just about a sure way to go home empty-handed.
"I'd also suggest that when you locate fish in a new spot, write it down for solid future reference -- because if a spot holds crappie this January, then you can probably count on it next winter unless the water conditions are totally different."
It was at that point in the conversation that my duo of jigs made contact with what was probably a stump, doing so in a solid enough manner to remain there when the light monofilament snapped. Gant handed me the jig box, while grunting as he used his left hand to set the hook on a fish that had most likely been holding on the very piece of cover that I stuck. Grumbling something that did not even rhyme with "congratulations," I selected two fresh lures, one bright lime green with a red head and the other glowing chartreuse with a blue head. They're made using nylon "hair" because Gant insists that the colors in the manmade stuff are far more vivid than can be obtained using natural furs or feathers. They're certainly easy for the human eye to pick out -- the things practically glow!
"During cold weather the crappie can be extremely picky," the guide explained. "That's why I carry such a wide variety of colors all the time and plenty of small shiners or tuffie (flathead) minnows to go on the hooks. Because we're fishing deep and the wind isn't very strong I only brought the 1/4-ounce stuff today. During the warmer months I'll have everything from 1/8 to 3/8 on a regular basis.
"When the wind gets too high to keep a pair of the heavier ones straight down below the rod tip, it's a good time to go home anyway. This channel in Yellow Creek is ideal today for 1/4-ounce heads down between 20 and 30 feet."
Since he'd brought up the subject of jig color, I inquired if he'd spent any time working muddy water, a frequent problem on some bodies of water because of winter rains. He nodded.
"Sardis Lake is a good example of what you're talking about," he offered. "It has a lot of exposed banks, and the run-off impacts the clarity in a hurry. What a lot of people don't know is that they can actually catch some of the best -- the biggest -- crappie in muddy water. We're back to the subject of pinpointing where the fish are, then working bright-colored baits close enough for them to have a chance to work. The fish don't have the option of waiting for clear water when they get hungry.
"Look for the deep channel edges and other prominent contour breaks. Also watch for schools of shad. Anytime I see a ball of shad near where I expect to find crappie my optimism level jumps. Most of the time when you find the two in proximity you can catch fish.
"On the flip side, you might find the biggest concentration of slab crappie known to mankind," Gant added, "but if there are no baitfish around, it would be wise to think about calling it a day. Time and again I've found winter crappie concentrations that absolutely refused to cooperate, and the one thing they had in common was a lack of forage fish. I still wonder why, but I no longer waste a lot of my day trying to make them put something in their mouths when they don't want to."
Gant then refocused his attention on locations. "Back to the subject of Sardis." he said. "Toward the lower end is an area called 'the Dredge in the Marina,' according to some of the better winter crappie fishermen that I've spoken with. It's situated close to the spillway with some strong currents and a big eddy. According to the guys who know, the fish concentrate deep as you'd expect and I mean really concentrate.
place is supposed to turn out a lot of 2-pounds-plus fish in January and February. Most of the fishing there is done with spider rigs, although I believe the jig setups like we're using would work at least as well. Two- and three-minnow rigs are common, and just like we're doing here, the pace is ultra-slow."
Sometimes "deep" takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to fishing in winter. According to state fisheries biologists, Sardis' black crappie often go as deep as 55 feet.
On crappie water anywhere during the coldest part of the year, a lack of speed is critical, and deep water is the rule -- although that rule gets bent rather strangely at times. Several years back, a buddy and I were coming back from a southern Mississippi deer hunt that had gotten rained out. Our hunting area was right on the bank of the Big Muddy, and when it began to rise and threatened to flood our only way in or out, it was time to go.
As we traveled back along the lowland road, we noticed a steady flow -- enough to generate a fair current -- going through the highway culverts and under the numerous bridges. We also noticed people fishing at most of them, and that was really unusual. We had made the same trip numerous times before and seldom saw anyone, let alone a person with a fishing rod or cane pole.
On crappie water anywhere during the coldest part of the year, a lack of speed is critical, and deep water is the rule -- although that rule gets bent rather strangely at times.
Being curious types, we decided to pull off the road at a convenient wide spot and watch. It only took a minute or two for a pole-wielding minnow dunker to hoist out a fat, flopping crappie; then, another, and, soon, yet another. We asked one of the locals about it; he explained that when the water in the Mississippi River went on a sudden rise and caused the current flow that we were seeing, the crappie stacked up, and the residents cashed in. How often this happens I cannot say, but we did witness the event once on a mild, rainy January day -- and aren't likely to forget it anytime soon.
While this type of special crappie action may come along rarely, the opposite is true for other waters related to the Big River. A good example is Eagle Lake, a sizeable oxbow that has one of the best crappie growth rates in the state; currently, it might in fact sit at the top of that list. Typically in January, the most fish are found suspended over deep water, which can make finding them tricky, owing to the lack of visible indications as to what might lie below.
Roger Gant's comments concerning accurate sonar gear ring true here, because blind trolling is about as effective as trying to play poker with your eyes closed because you trust the others in the game. Not only are the schooled fish easy to miss to either side of your boat, but they're also incredibly easy to miss vertically. Unlike other species, crappie tend to school horizontally. Pass your lure more that a foot or two above them and you may not get a hit; go below them and your lure is certain to be ignored.
Another good bet for winter crappie action is Ross Barnett Reservoir, although its 33,000 acres might seem like a mighty big haystack with small, finny needles. Rather than try to cover the whole thing, most of the serious crappie chasers who swear by this reservoir do most of their work in the upper portion of the lake, notably around the State Route 43 bridge. Most of the attention is given to the slack-water areas preferred by shad schools. Once again we're back to the predator-prey relationship, which is extra-important during the cold months.
Use your sonar gear to locate ledges in the 10- to 20-foot depth range. The fish may move up or down depending on conditions such as water clarity and light penetration, so don't set out with a preconceived notion of the depth at which you plan to fish. A warm, overcast day will be completely different from a period on the tail end of a "blue norther."
Drifting or pulling along the shoulders of the ledges is the preferred method here, although some tight-line fanciers do well, especially when the fish are closely concentrated in a very small area. On days that see the fish up on the shallow ledges, a small crankbait that dives deep enough barely to touch bottom can occasionally work, and generally produces a higher proportion of slab-sized crappie.
We having stated that winter is the time for taking big crappie, it isn't possible for us to ignore Arkabutla Lake, which produced the state-record black crappie, or Enid Lake, which gave up the top white crappie, and each reservoir's claim to the title of best fishing hole has its avid supporters.
On the other end of the size spectrum is Stone County's Flint Creek Water Park, a considerably smaller body of water. In this case, smaller size can work to the angler's advantage, since Flint Creek responds quickly and well to a few days of unseasonably warm weather. And those occur more regularly in South Mississippi near the Gulf Coast.
The prevailing sentiment among successful wintertime crappie anglers statewide is the need for patience. Fish won't be whizzing around after a lure like they might in May. A jig, live minnow or whatever you prefer to put into the water will need to move along at a pace befitting an arthritic snail.
Sensitive tackle is also important, especially if you're going to use artificial bait. Strikes are often so faint that you're most unlikely to feel them if you're using a cheap rod.
The pros also agree that contour areas, natural or artificial, are the best places for beginning your search for January's schooled-up crappie. Edges of dropoffs, ledges, points, old creek channels that run toward a larger channel and anyplace at which a depth change is sharp enough to be noticeable has potential. Searching for any of these will allow you to set out with a game plan and stick with it until you find the right place, the right lure color, and the right presentation to get the crappie to cooperate.
And in case I failed to mention it: By going after a supply of crappie fillets this month, you can save a lot of money -- because you probably won't need to buy ice, especially if you're like those of us who do most of our fishing in the northern part of the state: You can chill your fish for free!