September 30, 2010
The spring spawn isn't the only time at which papermouths are vulnerable. You can catch them right now at these lakes — if you use the right tactics.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jill J. Easton
It sounded like bubbles bursting or popcorn popping, but was actually fish feeding, which sounded wonderful after a long morning of nothing. The day was sunny and warm for midwinter, and a nice change after three days that started with frost on the roof.
After turning the trolling motor down to the lowest setting, I carefully eased the boat up to the western edge of the pond that was connected to the Jourdan River. The remains of last summer's lily pads were still floating, so there were obstructions underwater that would make jig-fishing difficult, so I tied a Crickhopper on instead.
The green-and-gold lure landed near a spot that hungry mouths had been working moments before. The lure sat for only tenths of a second before it was tapped, and my first fish of the day was hooked. Within an hour we had 10 nice crappie in the boat; dinner was in the cooler.
Contrary to what many people believe, it's possible to catch crappie in winter, and even to find them in shallow water. However, weather can be your friend and your enemy when you're fishing shallow for cold-weather speckled perch. You need a warm day with a temperature that goes up into the 70s to warm up the shallows. Obviously, those occur more often in the southern half of the Magnolia State.
Although catching crappie on the surface is an entertaining way to spend an afternoon, it's a more unusual occurrence than finding them deep. Crappie can be caught in winter by slow-trolling dropoffs, jigging in or close to brushpiles (especially those with schools of minnows nearby) or fishing where streams and rivers cut eddy holes as they run into bigger waterways or lakes.
There are a few important tidbits to remember that can make bringing home a winter limit easier. Fish are cold-blooded, and when temperatures are low, most species look for the warmest water available. That usually means moving deeper.
When crappie get chilled down, they move very slowly, so jigging and other lure movements should be very slow. Since any activity by these winter fish burns up valuable stores of energy, the closer you get your bait to a fish, the more likely it is to take that bait.
TROLLING FOR CRAPPIE
One good way to locate crappie in the winter is to troll for them, keeping in mind how sluggish the fish are. This is slow-trolling.
"During strong low-pressure systems, fish suck back in the brush, making them much harder to catch," Guy Winters, a tackle manufacturer and crappie expert, said. "They get into the brush to lean up against it and wait for the weather to change. They don't care much about eating. During those times, baits have to be very close to do any good."
To get started trolling, you first need the right equipment. Unless you have a thorough knowledge of the underwater structure on the lake, you'll definitely need a good map, preferably a topographic one. This can direct you to the structure around which the bait and the crappie are likely to be hanging out. A quality depthfinder that can show cuts in the waterway bottom, brushpiles and schools of baitfish is also invaluable for this type of fishing.
Though minnows can be trolled, jigs matched with long plastic grubtails are more practical. Once you pinpoint a concentration of fish around cover, you can then stop and drop the live minnows down to them.
Start your search for crappie using bright colored jigtails. Pink, pearl, chartreuse or anything with glitters will usually attract winter crappie. If light colors don't get any action, switch to dark blue, black or motor oil. Line should be no heavier than 10- to 12-pound-test.
|CREEL AND SIZE LIMITS|
Most waters in Mississippi have a 10-inch minimum size limit on crappie and a daily limit of 30 per angler. On the Tenn-Tom Waterway, the minimum size limit is 9 inches.
Guy Winters is intimately acquainted with this technique for fishing; he can suggest a way to create a rig for it. "On the first eye of a three-way swivel, attach 8 inches of monofilament and tie on a 1/2-ounce bell or egg sinker," he said. "These shapes prevent snagging and aid in getting free from the brush and underwater structures you troll over. The second eye holds your hook and bait and should be about a foot long. The third eye is attached to the line going to the reel."
Winters also suggests having a bunch of pre-tied leaders handy, with each rigged to a safety-pin-type snap. In cold weather, these take the least amount of time for rerigging when you break off. That's especially true if you're wearing gloves.
For optimum action, have more than one rod rigged and in a rodholders. Smart anglers also have several buoys pre-tied with line and a weight. These can be tossed out to mark the location when you find a school of fish.
Turn your trolling motor to its lowest setting; then, run very, very slowly over downed trees, brush piles or the edges of underwater creek and river channel edges. Allow the baits to drop right into the structure. Remember that winter crappie won't move far to attack a bait, and the species is notorious for always feeding up, rather than diving deeper after a lure or minnow.
If the situation permits, get upwind of the area you want to fish and simply drift, using the motor only for minor corrections. Even the quietest trolling motor can't match the stealth of coasting with the wind.
When you get a bite, immediately throw out the buoy, so you can return to that location and, hopefully, find the rest of the school. Keep making passes across the spot until you quit catching fish - or you can try stopping to drop a minnow down to the spot.
It is also
worth noting that older brushpiles are frequently better than brand new ones. As brush ages, it begins to break down. This encourages several varieties of algae to grow and bloom on the structure as they take advantage of the nutrients being released. This algae garden draws in plankton looking for food, and shad and other minnows dine on both algae and the plankton, so their schools hang close. This naturally draws in the crappie to dine on the feeding minnows.
FISHING THE RESERVOIR
"January is the best time of year to catch crappie," said Danny Willoughby, owner of Mississippi Crappie Guide Service, who has been guiding for 10 years at Ross Barnett Reservoir, just north of Jackson. "January to mid-February, we get limits almost every day on the flooded spillway below the dam."
Ross Barnett is an impoundment built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the winter the lake is drawn down to almost half its summer pool level, the result being a lot of fish jammed into a smaller body of water.
"There are three things that almost guarantee crappie in the winter: deep water, calm water and structure," Willoughby explained. "Having all three things in one place makes it easy."
Actually, that isn't all there is to the story. Willoughby uses electronic devices such as depthfinders to profile the bottom and locate fish, and then deploys a GPS unit to mark the sites of deep cuts and schools of shad hanging around structure. He also prefers to fish right before a cold front comes through.
"The bite slows down for three or four days after it gets cold, but if the temperature stays down, soon they start biting again like it wasn't cold," the guide explained. "I've seen people fishing with socks on their hands. When they bite like that, cold doesn't matter."
Willoughby targets stumpfields, brushpiles and standing timber near deeper channels when he fishes the main reservoir. He prefers to use 10- or 11-foot jigging poles. The jigs are dropped straight down into brushpiles or other areas in which the fish like to suspend.
He uses a trolling motor to maintain his position within reach of the structure. If you don't have a trolling motor, just anchor your boat at both ends in a location that's far enough away from the brushpile to keep fish from being spooked by the boat, but close enough so you can reach with your rod.
"Fishing with jigs is all I do. When the crappie bite, they hit hard. Using minnows, they seem to play with the bait and not hit as quickly," Willoughby explained.
Using a 1/16-ounce jighead that he molds himself, he attaches the plastic bodies to the hook and doesn't use any additional weight on the line. He likes tube lures that glow in low light.
"Dark colors with touches of lighter colors on them work better for me," said Willoughby. "Black and chartreuse, dark blue with cream - these types of colors seem to draw the bites."
Occasionally he fishes double rigs. He notes that many of the crappie anglers on the lake regularly fish doubles or triples.
FOR THE BANK-ANGLER
"Fishing right below the big lake spillways works for me," reported David Hawkins, a longtime outdoorsman and crappie angler. "Highly oxygenated water is being discharged, there are confused baitfish for food and the water may be a little warmer. End result? The fish bite."
Although Hawkins doesn't claim to limit out in an hour or two, he does usually manage to go home with enough of a mess of crappie to fry up for dinner. He believes that crappie hang out in these turbulent areas at least in part because of riprap. "This holds heat and warms the water which attracts fish," he pointed out.
Many of the fishermen who work the banks around the dam at Sardis Lake on the Little Tallahatchie River or Enid Lake on the Yocona River use double or triple rigs and minnows, but Hawkins prefers to run jigs just off the rocks in 12 to 16 feet of water. Having a strong rod and heavier line is important to counteract the current's drag and the abrasive effect of the concrete and rocks.
FISHING THE OXBOWS
The Mississippi River oxbow lakes offer another excellent winter crappie option, especially when the big river is down and these lakes are cut off from its flow. During most winters, the Mississippi doesn't sustain enough water to keep these old bends of the river connected to the main flow.
When Chotard Lake is cut off, the crappie turn on. Trolling the channel drops is probably the most popular way to get a limit here, but jigging in structure areas also brings a lot of fish to the boat.
Since the bottoms of these lakes can change each year, depending on the amount of water the Mississippi pushes through them, underwater topographic maps aren't as useful as in the more stable lakes. Success in these waterways depends on using your depthfinder to locate the structure.
At least on weekends, you have another way of telling where the fish are biting based on the number of boats in the area. The local anglers generally keep close check on crappie activity and will know where good catches have been taken lately. In other words, just follow the crowd - but do use a little common courtesy in the process.
Probably the hardest part of fishing these lakes is finding the depth at which shad are hanging. Most winter anglers start around 10 feet down and either mark the line or use a bobber to stop the lure's fall at the desired depth. If you feel you're in a good spot, but nothing's biting, drop the lure another 6 inches to a foot and keep working up or down until you find the fish.
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