When the mercury falls, try these tips and techniques for Virginia slabs at Lake Anna and Buggs Island. (January 2006)
Channel banks with structure like this one produce big winter crappie for guide Steve Tollerson.
Photo by Marc N. McGlade
Crappie are very much a schooling-type fish. This bodes well for anglers who pursue them; because if you find one, there is a good chance you found the mother lode -- and, as more anglers are discovering each year, this is true even in the dead of winter.
Lake Anna and Buggs Island Lake are two Virginia hotspots for crappie, even when many anglers are hunkered down watching football playoffs. Depending on the weather, angling for crappie in January can be a sure cure for cabin fever.
ANNA'S 'OTHER' FISH
Lake Anna's reputation is based for the most part on largemouth bass and striped bass. What some locals already know is the crappie fishing is very solid, too.
Professional guide Wayne Olsen has been fishing Lake Anna since it opened in the spring of 1973. Olsen, 66, keys on the uplake region and focuses on rockpiles or stumpfields during January at this central Piedmont lake. Olsen has boated crappie as big as 3 pounds from Lake Anna -- a slab by anyone's standards.
"Above the Splits (the confluence of the North Anna River and Pamunkey Creek) in either river are the best areas for wintertime crappie," Olsen said. "The best conditions are four or five consecutive days of warm weather; however, even without warm water, crappie can be caught here. Have your topo map in hand and look for river channels, particularly channel banks."
It's key, he said, to target the deepest brushpiles -- brush that many locals have sunk -- in the upper rivers that are adjacent to the channel in 15 to 18 feet of water (above the Route 522 bridge). However, the area near the Splits has 40 feet of water. Here, Olsen starts in the 25-foot range, targeting rockpiles and brushpiles, paying close attention to the old river channel.
"There is a fish structure marker at the Splits that has approximately 25 feet on the point and is loaded with cinder blocks (placed there by Virginia Power) and wood -- ideal structure for crappie," Olsen said.
Fish Structure 1 is on the upside of Stubbs Bridge and has 20 to 25 feet of water on the edge of the Pamunkey channel, near the riprap on the bridge. Fish Structure 2 sits in 25 to 30 feet of water and is located on the tip of Rose Valley Island. Both are good spots in winter, Olsen said.
He doesn't venture into creeks themselves, but will instead fish the mouths of Anna's larger creeks.
"The mouth of Plentiful Creek has a natural rock formation on the right-hand side, which always is worth a stop," he said. "I'll also try the mouth of Terrys Run and the points near by. The mouth of Ware Creek is a good spot, too."
The guide also relies on the bridge pilings of the Route 522 (North Anna Bridge) and Route 719 (Holladay Bridge) crossings in the North Anna. The Pamunkey, Stubbs, Dillards and Days bridges should be fished, too.
Olsen uses a slip-bobber with a small minnow impaled on a snelled No. 4 or No. 6 gold Eagle Claw hook. As for artificial lures, he opts for 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Blakemore Road Runners in a white or chartreuse pattern. Lastly, the guide uses 2- to 3-inch curly-tailed grubs on a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce leadhead.
He'll contrast leadhead colors with grub colors to add some excitement to his offering. Olsen counts down his lures to just above the structure, and then begins a slow retrieve.
The only problem with the upper river section at Anna is the potential air temperature. During a severe cold snap, the rivers above the Splits can freeze over.
"Knowing that, I recommend visitors always call a local marina first to check lake conditions," Olsen said.
He said if anglers find crappie in January, they could catch their limit. The key, as usual, is finding the speckles first -- catching them is second.
"Crappie can definitely be caught, especially if you fish slowly," he said. "If you catch one, there are more down there."
WHEN THERE'S A NIP IN THE AIR AT BUGGS
"On sunshiny wintertime days, I like to mix up colors by fishing tubes in a green-white, blue-white, red-chartreuse or pink-black combination when fishing for speckles," said Steve Tollerson, 46, co-owner of W&W Outdoor Adventures, a full-featured fishing and hunting guide service in Clarksville. "Most people think crappie are very deep in the winter, but I don't think that's always true. I believe many wintertime crappie can be found in 10 feet of water or less.
"At the same time, I don't think crappie will be shallow, either. I like to fish in 8 to 20 feet of water during the winter at Buggs Island, but there are times they can be slightly deeper."
Tollerson, along with co-owner Chris Coleman, 45, have caught their share of 2-pounders in the cold weather; so don't believe any rubbish about crappie not biting when the water is cold.
Coleman will focus in 12 to 16 feet of water during a warm spell. If baitfish move shallower, the crappie will follow, he said.
"Depending on what color combinations are working, we'll use colored jigheads with contrasting colors of 1 1/2-inch tubes or 1 1/2-inch curly-tailed grubs, tipped with minnows," Coleman said.
Coleman will also fish with live bait by itself and impale a small- or medium-sized minnow on a No. 2 gold Aberdeen hook and mash a No. 8 or No. 9 split shot about 10 inches above the hook to keep the bait in the strike zone. He is an advocate of hooking minnows through the lips versus the back because they act more natural this way, he believes.
"When Steve and I begin fishing in the wintertime, we'll start in the river channels," Coleman said. "The most important thing during wintertime crappie fishing is to keep in mind how lethargic these fish can be. You really have to slow down your presentation."
The guides use Uncle Buck's 12-foot Crappie Poles, paired with ultralight spinning reels and 4-pound-test Stren line.
"I can't tell you why, but the 12-footer works best for us," Tollerson opined. "I let out a rod length of line and put the rod in the holder so the jig is in the 10- to 12-foot range and it just works great.
"During the winter, the fish aren't as active, aggressive or fast, so we barely move the boat. The bite is entirely different from December through the first part of February when compared to the aggressive bites of spring when they'll pull the rod tip down to the surface. In the winter, you definitely miss some fish because they appear to be gumming the lure, being passive."
"We troll mostly for crappie in spring, summer and fall, but we tight-line (anchor the boat and fish vertically) for them in winter," Coleman explained. "Once we find crappie, we'll go back and forth over the hole. We'll anchor the bow and stern loosely so we have just a slight movement in the boat. By anchoring loose, the boat will swing slightly and that acts like a slow troll."
Whatever depth they are marking fish, they will drop their baits down to the bottom and with two rods they will raise the bait up two turns of the reel's handle off the bottom, another two rods at four turns of the reel, a couple at six turns; a couple at eight turns, etc. By doing this, they can find the feeding zone quickly.
"We use different colored lures, vary our depths and use different weight jigheads," Tollerson said. "Creeks that we like in winter are Buffalo, Bluestone and Grassy, but people should also try along any of the deep bridge pilings throughout the lake."
Because crappie are drawn to brush and woody debris, snagging hooks can get on your nerves. Be prepared to lose some gear when fishing in the jungle.
Even if the mercury isn't climbing high on the thermometer, that doesn't mean slabs aren't biting in Virginia. As Olsen, Tollerson and Coleman indicated, crappie fishing in the colder weather requires anglers to slow down -- adhere to that, maintain patience and concentration and you'll stand a shot at loading the boat.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To book a trip with Wayne Olsen, call (540) 894-8333. Boat ramps close to the Splits include Hunters Landing, Lake Anna State Park, Anna Point Marina, Sturgeon Creek Marina and High Point Marina.
To contact W&W Outdoor Adventures, call Steve Tollerson at (434) 374-2245 or Chris Coleman at (434) 374-4011. They can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. W&W Outdoor Adventures' Web site is
www.kerrlake.com/whiskers. Public boat ramps are open year 'round, barring high or low water. Ramps in close proximity to spots mentioned in this article are Occoneechee State Park, Longwood Ramp (Grassy Creek), Bluestone and Buffalo.