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Hot Lakes for Winter Panfish

Hot Lakes for Winter Panfish
Lake Champlain panfishermen catch boss perch like this through the ice in winter. (courtesy of Northland Fishing Tackle)

Winter panfishing is not for everyone. For many crappie, perch, bluegill and white bass anglers, the cold months are a time for fireside reflections or viewing photos of spring and summer fishing trips gone by. Hunting when it’s cold is bad enough, they say, but if you go out on the water in the cold, on purpose, to fish, you have reached the outer edge of sanity.

Actually, the winter months offer superb panfishing opportunities, and if you outfit yourself with proper clothing and other outdoor gear, you can be comfortable and safe on a winter fishing trip. And despite popular misconceptions, winter serves up first-rate panfishing opportunities throughout the country. Crappie, bluegills, white bass—all these and more are caught by savvy winter panfishermen. Winter weather sends fair-weather anglers scurrying home, so this is the season when you’re most likely to find your favorite waters pleasantly uncrowded.

Winter panfish can be tough to catch. But anglers armed with knowledge of cold-weather behavior patterns usually find their quarry. The main question is where to go and what to fish for. To help in that respect, we present the following mixed bag of panfishing opportunities that can be considered by anglers this season.

Lake Champlain

If ice-fishing turns your crank, Lake Champlain — “The Sixth Great Lake” — merits a mid-winter visit. Cradled between Vermont’s Green Mountains and New York’s Adirondacks, spectacular scenery surrounds this 110-mile-long outdoor haven. Champlain is unquestionably one of the country’s most beautiful lakes, and panfish are a plentiful, yet underutilized resource.

The best winter fishing opportunities are in the various bays, including South Bay, Bulwagga Bay and near Rouse’s Point at the lake’s northern end. Crappie and yellow perch predominate. Most fishermen use Swedish Pimples or other jigs combined with one or two ice-fly droppers starting about a foot above the jig. All are tipped with grubs, larvae or fresh perch eyes.

Traditionally productive structures include weed lines, shoals and drop-offs, which often are indicated by concentrations of fishermen or old holes. In early winter, the best catches of yellow perch may be in water as deep as 50 feet. But as winter progresses, fish generally move to shallower pre-spawning staging areas just outside of weed lines. The best fishing of the season usually is in mid- to late March just before the ice becomes unsafe for fishing.

New York encompasses other excellent winter panfishing waters, as well. Oneida Lake in central New York is excellent for yellow perch, Chautauqua Lake in western New York for crappie, and Chaumont Bay at the eastern end of Lake Ontario for yellow perch.

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Toledo Bend, Texas and Louisiana

This 186,000-acre reservoir, the fifth largest in surface acres in the U.S., serves up tremendous panfishing, thanks to excellent water quality, a great forage base and ideal habitat. Savvy anglers catch scads of “sac-a-lait” (crappie) with plenty of 2- to 2-1/2-pounders anchoring most stringers. Healthy populations of white bass also occur here.

Hot Lakes
On 186,000-acre Toledo Bend Reservoir in Texas and Louisiana, slab crappie are the targets of many cold-weather anglers. (Keith Sutton photo)

“Crappie start moving to river ledges and drops in mid-October, gathering around planted brush in 15 to 25 feet of water,” says Greg Crafts, owner of Toledo Bend Guide Service in Shelbyville, Texas. “They start at the very north end of the lake, and as the water temperature drops, they start migrating down the river (the Sabine River channel), staying on ledges and moving into progressively deeper water. This continues through January.”

In the upper section of the reservoir, fishermen gang up in bends along the river channel to share the red-hot action. Sooner or later, however, most wind up at the “Chicken Coop,” a mid-lake area about eight miles north of the Pendleton bridge and one-half mile from Best Park on the Texas side of the lake.

“At the Chicken Coop, crappie may be in water as deep as 55 feet,” says Crafts. “This water is on the river channel next to some sheer bluffs. Biologists studying the area have determined that algae growing on the bluffs attract baitfish, which in turn attract crappie. Shiners usually are the best bait near the beginning of the season, but as crappie move deeper, jigs usually produce better.”

White bass start migrating up the lake in January, holding near points and bends on the river channel. In March, many move into the Sabine River above the lake to spawn.

“To catch winter white bass, fish points and bends on the old river channel,” Crafts advises. “Chrome Rat-L-Traps, Road Runners, spoons and tailspinners produce lots of fish, but the best bait is live crawfish. When the whites finish spawning, they move back into the main lake, and again you concentrate on points and bends in river channel.”

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Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees

Crappie fishing in Oklahoma reservoirs is a winter tradition. In the Sooner State, lakes rarely freeze over, but locals treat their sport like open-water ice fishing. Many resorts build heated enclosures over their docks resembling ice-fishing shacks on stilts.

Hot Lakes
Heated docks provide indoor comfort for winter panfish anglers on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. (courtesy of Frabill)

One reservoir where heated docks abound is 59,200-acre Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, Oklahoma’s largest lake and number one tourist attraction. Enclosed docks first appeared here in the early 1940s. They dot the reservoir’s shoreline from Pensacola Dam to Twin Bridges at the upper end. Many are open to the public for a small daily fee. Heaters keep dock customers comfortable at 60 to 70 degrees.

Crappie are attracted to brush weighted and sunk below the docks. Nylon stockings filled with dog food, jugs of oatmeal and alfalfa hay often are suspended below the structures to attract minnows and other baitfish. Marabou jigs (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) are favorites with local anglers. To get past small fish and reach slab crappie, some anglers add weight to their rig by placing a split-shot sinker above the jig. A tandem jig setup also works well; anglers vary sizes and colors when using two jigs on their line. Combining baits is a third way to fill a stringer at a Grand Lake dock. A minnow hooked on a jig gives crappie an irresistible two-course meal. The crappie exhibit no particular feeding patterns in winter, and are caught morning, afternoon and night.

White bass abound in Grand Lake, too, and frequently are caught by jigging small spoons over deep-water flats and underwater islands.

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Lake Okeechobee

They have a saying on Lake Okeechobee: “If you can’t catch specks here in January and February, you’d better rush to a hospital; you’ve surely been snakebit.” Speckled perch is a local moniker for crappie, and Okeechobee’s extensive fishing industry bills the 730-square-mile natural lake as the “Speck Capital of the World.” An army of anglers from throughout the nation descends on the “Big O” in winter to cash in on the lake’s extraordinary panfishing. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ranks Okeechobee among the state’s top 10 black crappie hotspots.

Hot Lakes
February and March are prime times for catching giant bluegills on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. (Keith Sutton photo)

Local anglers say daily catches of 60 to 100 crappie are common in winter. Many of these fish are in the 2- to 3-pound range. The bait of choice for most fishermen is a live minnow, but a small Road Runner worked very slowly is also very productive.

Joint grass covers virtually the entire lake, and where it grows, crappie hold deep in the thickest part of the patches, usually in 4 or 5 feet of water. Eel grass flats, including those near a spot on the northwest side of Okeechobee called Twin Palms, also are favored honeyholes. The best fishing is December through March, mainly around the full moon, and most crappie are in open holes in the grass that go all the way to the bottom in 5- or 6-foot depths.

Bluegills to 2 pounds also thrive here in astounding numbers, but when these panfish are the primary quarry, most folks plan a spring or summer trip. Catching 200 a day isn’t unusual when fishing Okeechobee’s spawning beds.

That’s not to say that bluegills can’t be caught here in winter. Guide Jim Wells of Clewiston often finds winter bluegills in the area out from the Rim Canal, which borders the south end of the lake. “Starting in February and March, bluegills begin moving into shallow water around the edges,” says Wells. “If we have high winds, the water is too dingy to see the beds, but they’re there, and once you find them you can fish crickets and catch plenty of fish averaging 1/4 to 1/2 pound. Later in the spring, when the water gets clear enough, you can take an ultralight rig and a Johnson Beetle-spin and have a ball.”

Okeechobee ranks among the nation’s largest natural lakes, so hiring a guide for a day or two is a good investment.

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Kentucky Lake

Kentucky Lake sits atop the list of America’s most renowned winter panfishing lakes. Running 185 miles through Kentucky and Tennessee, this 160,000-acre impoundment produces outstanding numbers of big winter crappie, white bass and bluegills.

Hot Lakes
Dam tailraces are hotspots for big white bass like this when fishing Kentucky Lake during winter’s cold. (Keith Sutton photo)

According to Steve McCadams, a Kentucky Lake icon and renowned panfishing guide, anglers seeking winter crappie usually stalk creek channels and sandbars in 18 to 25 feet of water. Hefty stringers often come from the deep sides of ledges where submerged stumps and man-made fish attractors are found.

“Key in on main lake areas where submerged creek channels, sloughs and such bring the two extremes of deep and shallow close together,” McCadams says. “Crappie favor deep regions as they follow threadfin shad. Finding structure and baitfish activity together will usually put you in the action.”

Especially popular, says McCadams, is the Paris Landing sector of the lake, located at the confluence of the Big Sandy and Tennessee rivers. Large bays such as Eagle, Cypress, Standing Rock and Lick Creeks serve up excellent winter crappie fishing as well. In these areas, slabs tipping the scales to 1-1/2 and 2 pounds fall for double-hook, bottom-bouncing rigs baited with live minnows, and vertically presented hair and plastic jigs.

White bass congregate in the tailraces of Pickwick Dam on the lake’s southern end and Kentucky Dam on the north. Curly-tail jigs and jigging spoons bring them in. “A warm-water discharge at the New Johnsonville Steam Plant (near the midpoint of the reservoir) also produces excellent white bass action,” says McCadams. “Shad flock to the warmer waters, bringing with them a variety of species such as white bass, crappie, sauger and catfish. Bluegills are taken in the warm-water discharges, too, if anglers are willing to fish light tackle using live bait presentations. Surface temperatures in the main lake may dip into the mid- to upper 30s in severe weather, but surface temps in the discharge usually stay in the mid to upper 50s.”

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