If you live south of the Mason-Dixon line, it’s tempting to surrender your crappie tackle for rifles and shotguns in the late fall, turning to hunting rather than fishing for your outdoor fix. Unlike anglers in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine, you can’t enjoy ice fishing, and the crappie bite on open water is notoriously slow once the leaves drop.
But savvy crappie fanatics know that winter can be a hot season--if you know where to look, what to throw, and how to approach cool-weather crappie.
Want to catch winter crappie?
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“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That’s an accurate synopsis of winter crappie behavior.
Spring finds the crappie clustered and shallow for mating, and summer’s heat spreads them far and wide, looking for relief. Fall, like spring, finds the slabs back in the shallows, looking to fatten themselves for winter.
What about winter?
When water temperatures drop into the 60's, crappie will back-off the shallows a bit and retreat to deeper water.
“Deeper” is relative to your lake or pond, and it could be a difference of a few feet, the “deepest” hole in a shallow lake, or an actual descent to 30 feet or more. It’s critical that you know the topography of the areas you fish. Hard-core crappie anglers study these maps until they know them just as well as the placement of the furniture in their living rooms.
That cold water will also induce torpor--a general slowing the metabolism--of crappie. They won’t swim as quickly, move as much, or feed as voraciously as they do in warm water.
But most elements of slab behavior remain constant throughout the year. They adore vertical cover like pilings and stumps, cluster in and around brush piles, and stick close to anything nasty like a submerged tree.
If you’re good at catching slabs in summer and fall, winter just demands a slight adjustment.
It’s imperative that you study the topography of the areas you fish.
If the crappie biting on a point at a depth of 15 feet suddenly turn off, do you know where to find a similar scenario? Successful winter slab hunters will!
As the water cools, you should be mapping every hollow, channel, depression, point, and drop-off in your lake, identify “deep” cover like downed trees and brush piles, and have a game plan.
And that means putting the electronics you have to use.
Spring, summer, and fall, you should be learning where the weed beds, humps, depressions, and brush piles are, and marking points and other structures of interest on your GPS.
When winter comes, the crappie will be clustered in a few spots, and you need to know the likely areas to fish. Moreover, as I mentioned above, if you’re hitting them hard at 15 feet on a brush pile, for instance, finding another nearly identical spot can keep you in the game when that first location slows down.
A good fish finder, equipped with a GPS, is the winter slab hunter’s best friend, and it can tell you immediately if the area you’ve chosen is going to be productive.
If there’s a single mistake that winter slab seekers make, it’s not adjusting to torpor.
In cold water, crappie will slow way down, and you need to match that with your approach and presentation.
Whether that’s the slow fall or the slow retrieve--slow is the key!
While it’s generally true that crappie will hold deeper in winter than in summer or early fall, it’s critical to remember that as the sun warms the water, crappie may climb the water column.
In fact, on a sunny afternoon, they may have halved their depth, and if you’re still fishing where you were catching at dawn, you’ll miss them entirely!
As John E. Phillips explains, “During the winter months, although crappie historically hold in deep water, late in the afternoon when the water warms up, those fish often will move up out of that deep water on to the top of the ledge, in 8 to 10 feet of water. If you’ve caught crappie in 20- to 30-foot-deep water and you don’t know to look for crappie in that 8- to 10- foot range later in the afternoon, you won’t catch crappie in the afternoon like you have in the morning.”
Even in the dead of winter, the sun will heat rocks, pilings, concrete walls, and other heat-absorbing structure. And as it does, these heat-sinks will radiate that warmth into the surrounding water, raising its temperature slightly.
Even a one- or two-degree difference is enough to attract crappie, and they’ll often hold tight to that warm structure when you can’t find them anywhere else.
Just watch these two gentlemen using this technique on a cold day in Texas:
One thing that should be on your mind in winter is size.
I generally downsize my jig heads, baits, and minnows, throwing nothing bigger than 1/16th of an ounce. Sometimes, that means opening the mouth of the hook a bit to keep it large for paper mouths--but smaller heads, baits, and lures are almost always better!
As cold-water torpor grips crappie, they won’t be in the mood for large prey items. Instead, you need to entice them with the little stuff, making winter an ideal season to throw the smallest options in your tackle box.
Nothing rings the dinner bell like a live minnow, and that hasn’t changed just because the water has cooled down.
If you’re getting hits but no solid hookups, open that hook a bit to give it a bigger gap. That’ll provide enough mouth to lock up a slab.
Of course, I run my minnows beneath a slip float like the 1/16th ounce Thill Crappie Cork. A slip float lets you cast well while still precisely controlling the depth of your minnow, and if you’ve only used a fixed float, you’ll be impressed by the difference!
I recommend this technique around bridge pilings and other vertical cover, particularly if they’re warming the water nearby.
Especially on nice, sunny afternoons as the sun sets, this can be the best way to target cold-water slabs. I also like to look for a creek inlet where there’ll be some water flow from a shallow, warm stream. Minnows will naturally congregate here for the warmth and oxygen, and this is a prime place to ambush crappie, too!
Vertical jigging is a tried-and-true crappie killer, and for winter slab hunters, a great way to begin the morning. After you move to your favorite brush pile, use a long rod like a B'n'M Sam Heaton. Built sensitive, these 11-foot rods can help you stand-off a bit and avoid spooking fish.
One soft plastic I like to throw is the 2-inch Bobby Garland Baby Shad. It’s small, enticing, and its tail action is unbeatable when you’re using just your wrist to get it wriggling. I select my colors based on the water clarity, looking for brighter hues like “Cajun Cricket” in murky, muddy water and “Blue Thunder’ when the water’s clear (which it almost never is in Louisiana!).
Another awesome choice is the Strike King 2-Inch Mr. Crappie Shadpole. With these bad boys, you get incredible tail wriggle and a fat body shape that can drive crappie wild.
I like “Tuxedo Black-Chart” pretty much all the time!
Now the trick is to use a small jig head, and as I mentioned above, find the depth they crappie are holding, and then use delicate motions to draw a strike. Whether it’s just a tiny flick of your wrist, or a very slow retrieve, think slow and small!
Since the crappie are slow, the fall of your jig should match.
Streamlined shapes aren’t helpful here, and instead, you want to look for some “fringe.” One of my favorite choices for a slow fall is the Strike King Mr. Crappie Joker. It’s got the “legs” to slow the descent and create action, and the colors to call-in the slabs.
From “Popsicle,” to “Acid Rain,” to “Cajun Cricket,” you’ll find a color that works.
I pair these soft baits with a 1/32-ounce Strike King Mr. Crappie Jig Head, opening the hook just a touch to ensure better hookups.
And of course, it’s essential to rig all your jigs properly!
Rigging a jig isn’t rocket science, but there are a few tricks that make them more effective.
Minnows don’t present themselves vertically, and if your jig is hanging tail down and head up, it won’t look or move like prey. Instead, you need your jigs to sit as close to horizontal as you can get them, and that’s mostly a matter of knot position.
If you slip your knot to the “front” of the eye, it will encourage a more vertical position that’s distinctly unnatural to would-be predators.
This is not what you want. Note where the knot leaves the eye.
Instead, you want your knot at the top of the eye. This will tilt the jig forward, lifting the tail and making it look and act a lot more like a real minnow.
This is what you want.
Winter is a hot season for slabs--if you know what you’re doing!
We hope these tips help you crush crappie all the way through to the spawn, and as always, we’d love to hear from you!