Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend are hard to beat as crappie hotspots in February. Here's what our pros have to say about where and how to find the slabs there this month.
Even though the air outside might be frosty, that's by no means an indication of a cold crappie bite. Conversely, even though February might be one of the coldest months of the year for East Texas anglers, it's one of the hottest for catching crappie -- big crappie in many locations.
Of the many great crappie lakes abounding in East Texas, two of the best have always been Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend. Within the past couple of decades these huge reservoirs have really proved to be outstanding crappie venues. Even though they're aging impoundments, recent years' catches would suggest that their ability to produce crappie numbers isn't diminishing.
What's interesting is how anglers go about catching crappie during February on these lakes. It all has to do with river-running crappie. Rayburn is a classic example of what I'm talking about. Anglers on the upper end of Rayburn will be concentrating on fishing the Angelina River channel. At the lower end you'll more than likely find anglers fishing the deep creek channels.
At Toledo Bend, there's no doubt as to where you'll find crappie in February: in the "Chicken Coop" area just above the Pendleton Bridge. There you're sure to find boats anchored in the old Sabine River channel, as that's been the No. 1 area for finding and catching crappie for years on Toledo Bend.
The key to tapping into a hot crappie bite during a cold February is to find the shad. Locate them, and you'll more likely than not find crappie. Crappie feed on shad just about year 'round, so as the baitfish migrate, so do the crappie.
Usually during the coldest weeks of February you'll find big schools of shad in the river channels of the big lakes. You can bet the tractor and the barn that crappie aren't going to be too far from the shad.
That's definitely the case on Toledo Bend in the Sabine River channel. And on the upper section of Sam Rayburn, too.
Lonnie Stanley, who's best known for his bass-catching tactics, is a crappie fishing fool, especially during February. "I love to catch crappie," he said. "I like to catch bass, too. But when it comes to having a good time with friends and family, you can't beat a good day of crappie fishing."
Lonnie does almost all of his fishing on Rayburn. His Stanley Jigs lure company is based in nearby Huntington, which almost within rock-throwing distance of Rayburn. And that explains why he likes to fish Rayburn. Another reason, of course, is the fantastic crappie fishing.
"During the first couple of weeks of February we'll be fishing the Angelina River channel on the upper end of the lake," offered Stanley. "On the middle and upper areas of Rayburn the crappie will move into the river channel to feed on shad. Most of the shad will be in the river channel south of the Highway 103 bridge during January. But in February they will begin to move up the river channel, above the 103 bridge. Once you find the shad and crappie you can pretty much plan on a gradual movement up the river channel."
Stanley says that Rayburn's crappie fishing during February is fantastic. Once you get on the fish, you stand a good chance of catching 50 to 100 of the tasty panfish. And the size is great. We're talking about solid crappie: fish in the 12- to 14-inch class. That size of crappie -- one that's been gorging on shad -- will weigh from 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds. In my book, that's a fat crappie.
"During the first good cold fronts -- I mean really good ones -- the crappie and shad will move to the river," Stanley noted. "And as they move up the river with the shad, they will stage on the inside bends. Some will stage on the outside bends. But for the most part you need to concentrate on fishing the inside bends in 35 feet of water.
"You want to fish the edge of the river channel. Once you find a couple of areas with inside bends you can just tie off to a stump and start fishing."
Stanley almost always fishes 12 to 20 feet deep -- right where the river-channel edge drops off into 35 to 40 feet of water. Practically without exception, he's found, the optimal depth is going to be 16 to 18 feet.
"Good crappie fishermen know there is always a magic depth where the crappie seem to feeding exclusively," he said. "I'll take a black waterproof marker along to mark the magic depth on my line. That way I know exactly at what depth I'm fishing. Take the guesswork out of the depth where crappie are feeding and you'll put more fish in the box every time."
As you might imagine, crappie are a tad sluggish in the cold February water. Even though the air temperature might be 65 degrees, the water temperature will likely be in the upper 40s. Stanley will use both jigs and live shiners to catch the big river-run crappie.
Ditto that for Bill Fondren, a veteran crappie fishing guide on the lake, and a regular fishing partner of Stanley's. "Most of the time we'll start out using Wedge Tail Minnows rigged on 1/32-ounce leadhead jigs," Fondren said. "The Wedge Tail minnows are 1 1/2 and 2 inches long. That's the perfect size for a jig or live shiner. The best jig colors will be glow/chartreuse, pink/white or chartreuse."
One thing about coldwater crappie is that they don't usually feed on big shad and shiners. You don't want to use big live minnows for winter crappie. At the bait shop, Stanley will specifically request 1 1/2- to 2-inch-long shiners -- the size of minnow that he's done best with for years.
You can either hook the minnow through the lips or just behind the dorsal fin. When placing the hook behind the dorsal fin, be careful not to run it through the spine of the fish. That's why a thin wire hook, like a gold Aberdeen, is a must. When placed through a minnow, its small diameter won't kill the bait. Plus, when snagged, the thin wire hook can be pulled off the brush without breaking the line. When hung up, what you want to do is tighten up the line with your rod tip pointing down to the hook. Gradually pull up, and the wire hook should straighten out and pop free.
When selecting jig colors, you want to keep in mind that the water on the upper end of Rayburn will likely be stained. Because of that, you'll want to use a jig tail with a little contrast.
Fondren ties on the jig and squeeze on a 1/8-ounce lead split shot about 8 to 10 inches over the jig. The split shot helps sink the jig down to the right depth.
"You don't want a fast-sinking jig," Fondren said. "Crappie ar
e not going to move too far or fast to eat. In the cold water you want to be able to put a slow-sinking jig right in their face."
When using live shiners, Stanley and Fondren will rig them on 1/0 gold Aberdeen hooks with just enough weight to sink the shiner to the desired depth. One of the best ways to rig a live bait weight is with a bullet sinker -- the same type that you use to fix up a Texas-rigged worm.
You can use a wooden toothpick to secure the weight about 12 inches above the live shiner. First, run your fishing line through the weight, and tie the tag end off to a hook. Next, stick the toothpick in the hole of the weight and then break off the excess. It can be slipped up and down the line with a little pressure, but will stay in place wherever you stop it.
According to Stanley, another hot fishing tactic is to get in the river channel and locate a few inside bends that are holding shad. "I like to get on my trolling motor and ease up the channel while looking for shad holding on the bends," he said. "If you can find an area that is holding shad that are kind of spread out, you'll usually find crappie. To do that, you have to watch your depthfinder. A long line of shad is a good indicator that they are being worked by crappie. If they are in a tight wad, they aren't usually too active."
It's in the lower end of Rayburn that guides Mike and Cathy Wheatley will be hunting for -- and catching -- lots of crappie during February. This husband-and-wife team can definitely tell you a thing or two about how to find cold-water crappie on Rayburn.
"During the first of the month, we'll be working brush in creeks with water depths of 28 to 40 feet," offered Mike. "At that time the crappie will usually be holding 15 to 20 feet deep on a thermocline next to naturally occurring brush. The water temperature there will be 45 to 50 degrees, depending on how much cold weather we get."
Mike says that the crappie holding on deep brush in the creeks will be solid keepers, most 1 1/2 to 2 pounds.
At the first of the month, Mike and Cathy will be fishing with jigs or shiners. If the water temperature is in the 40s, they'll more than likely be fishing with live shiners.
"If we're getting one cold front after another, the crappie will be sluggish," said Mike. "That's when you have to use live shiners, and put them right in a crappie's face to get a bite.
"When fishing live shiners I'll rig them on No. 1 gold Aberdeen hooks. For a weight I'll use a small split shot or worm weight. I'll usually go with a 3/8- or 1/4-ounce worm weight rigged about 4 to 6 inches above the hook."
When fishing with jigs, Mike and Cathy like to use Wedge Tail minnows 1 1/2 inches long rigged on a 1/16-ounce jighead. Slow-rolling spinners for crappie is another option, and a tactic that these two professionals like to use. They rig a Wedge Tail Minnow on a small spinner like a Beetle Spin and then slow-troll the spinner in the creeks.
"Slow-rolling spinners deep in creeks is a very good way to locate crappie in cold water," said Mike. "Once you get a bite you can toss out a buoy to mark the area. If you catch one crappie, there are usually more in the area."
The colors of Wedge Tails used by Mike and Cathy depend on the situation. In stained water they'll go with bright pink and a tail that's been dipped in chartreuse paint; a clear-colored Wedge Tail with a dipped chartreuse tail is good, too. Another good standby color is purple/chartreuse. In really clear water they'll go with pearl/white with a chartreuse tail. A smoke-colored jig is good, too.
"As we move toward the end of February, the crappie will begin moving up the creeks to shallower water, preparing to spawn," said Mike. "That's when you'll want to slow-troll spinners to locate migrating fish. Most will probably show up in the bends of the creek near brush."
At Toledo Bend you'll want target crappie at the "Chicken Coop" that we mentioned above. A bend in the Sabine River channel about 8 miles out of Milam, it gets down to around 60 feet or so in depth. Water that deep offers protection from the cold in the shallows and thus attracts lots of shad. The crappie aren't far behind.
Newells' Fishing World, owned and operated by Gary and Sherrill Newell, is about the closest boat ramp to the Chicken Coop. Once you put in at their ramp, you run upriver about a mile to the area, which is usually marked with lots of boats.
Finding the crappie isn't that difficult, but if you're planning on really getting in on the fast action, you'll do best by using a depthfinder. The key is to find the big schools of shad -- find the food source, and you'll find crappie. Gary, probably the best-known guide at the Chicken Coop, has this advice: Locate the shad and then fish.
"The crappie are going to be with the shad, almost all the time at the Chicken Coop," said Gary. "Once I locate the shad, I'll lower a minnow to see what's going on. If I catch at crappie on the first drop, I throw in a buoy, anchor the boat and see if I can catch a few more.
"Most of the time you'll find shad along the ledges and bends near brush. The best depths will be from 30 to 60 feet deep. You won't normally be fishing 50 to 60 feet deep, because the crappie will be suspended. That's where the depthfinder can show you where the crappie are feeding."
Newell doesn't do anything fancy when fishing the Chicken Coop area. He uses a live minnow rigged on a No. 4 hook. It's best to add enough split shot to keep the bait from moving with the current.
One of the most important things to remember about fishing the Chicken Coop area is not to stay in one spot too long without catching fish. Move around till you find them. If the bite fades, move on to another location.
The one thing you don't want to do is go after coldwater crappie with bulked-up tackle. Remember, we're talking about a fish that has one of the softest bites of all freshwater fish. Stanley, Fondren and the Wheatleys all use ultralight spinning tackle rigged with 4- to 6-pound-test line. Their favorite rods and reels are the Pflueger Trion spinning combinations. The rods are 5 1/2 to 6 feet long.
"As a full-time crappie fishing guide I've used the Pflueger spinning outfits for the past few years," said Fondren. "The key is to use a rod and reel that will cast tiny jigs and minnows. Plus, it's got to be sensitive enough to relay a soft bite to the angler. That's why I like the ultralight Trion outfits."
Don't forget that fishing in February puts you at the mercy of Old Man Winter. Prior to fishing, always check the forecast, and make sure you aren't caught out on the water when a cold front blows through.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For details on fishing on Rayburn, call Bill Fondren at (409) 698-3491, or Mike and Cathy Wheatley at (409) 489-1816.
You can find Toledo Bend guide Gary Newell at (