When the temperatures drop, many people hang up their fishing rods and mope until spring. This would be a mistake. Winter crappie fishing can be some of the most fun of the year. You simply have to adjust your techniques slightly. It is more than worth it to brave the cold, and come home with your limit of slabs. It’s not that hard to learn, and can be as simple, or complicated as you want it to be. Winter crappie can be caught with a basic cane pole, ultra-light rigs, from shore, in a boat, from a dock, or even through ice.
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Advantages of Fishing for Crappie in the Winter
Less competition – you will have a lot less competition from other anglers, especially down South. A lot of people think crappie hibernate, or are inactive in winter. You will not have to deal with skiers, jet skiers, or most other things that can interfere with fishing (except maybe for the real hard-core water-lovers…).
Water clarity – the water always seems a little clearer and cleaner when it’s cold. And it has been my experience that fish taken from cold water seem to have a better texture and flavor than when taken from warm water. It could be just subjective, but there is no question that winter crappie fishing can be very rewarding.
Cold Water Crappie Habits
Most crappie anglers already know that both Pomoxis species act differently during each season of the year. One of the neat things about winter fishing is that both species act similarly in winter. Both species feed quite a lot in winter, and continue to move around, but their eating habits vary somewhat, as do their movements and destinations.
- Biting habits – In winter, crappie bite small jigs better than minnows. No one really knows why…, but most savvy crappie aficionados agree that in winter, jigs are the way to go. Remember, the crappie will not move very far to bite, so you need to place the bait as close as you can to the fish, with minimal movement. This is where vertical jigging really shines. Just drop the jig straight down and let it sit at the proper depth. Every few minutes, just give it a very gentle raise, for about an inch or two, then let it settle back to the original depth. If you don’t get a bite in 15 minutes or so, move the jig to a new location, a few feet to one side or the other. Repeat this procedure until you start getting hits. When you catch a crappie, stay there. There are a lot more where that one came from.
- Water temperatures below 55°F – crappie will begin to slow down on their voracious eating, and begin moving to deeper water and suitable structure. They will move along channels, rip-raps, submerged creek beds, and will suspend in medium to large schools, usually near the thermocline, which can be anywhere from 15 to 50′ deep, depending on the lakes geography.. Since they will be in schools, it is not that hard to find them with a SONAR unit. Where you catch one, you will catch many.
- Water temperature in the 40s – they will slow down their traveling, and stay in the immediate area unless disturbed by something like large predators, change in temperature, or if their food source moves. They will almost always be found near schools of minnows and shad. When you find schools of minnows and shad, crappie will not be far away (neither will striped and white bass…).
- Throughout the day – during the day the north shore warms up quicker on most lakes, so crappie my migrate to that side as the day goes on. They also like confined waters, so channels, drop-offs, river mouths, and coves are good places to search. As night approaches, they will often move to shallower water in search of prey. In the early morning, they will move back out, along lines of structure, usually following bait-fish. The best times for catching crappie are in the early mornings, but they will bite all day and all night, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Bear in mind that none of this is written in stone. Each body of water is unique and crappie may act differently in each location. A good example is lakes that have steam plants for generating electricity. The waters near these are almost always 10 degrees or more warmer than the surrounding water, so crappie and other warmwater fish will naturally congregate to these locations, and may be more active.
Some lakes are shallow, other very deep. All of these factors will affect crappie behavior. This is why when you look up crappie tips, you get all kinds of contradictory information, because the authors know how crappie act in their water. Local bait shops are a gold mine for information. Don’t be afraid to ask local anglers about the lakes in the area. It will save you a lot of time.
Locating Winter Crappie
In winter crappie fishing, 75% of the job is finding the fish. Use your SONAR to locate the schools, or even better, large schools of bait-fish. If you fish from shore, consider using a slip-bobber for precise depth control. If you are catching crappie at 15 feet deep, chances are, they will be at that depth everywhere in that lake on that day. Don’t ignore brush piles, sunken timber, and docks. Winter crappie like to congregate around these locations.
There are 5 main types of structure you will want to search out when seeking winter crappie:
- River (Bay) Mouths – When the water temperature drops, bait fish move out of rivers into the deeper waters of lakes. Crappie schools will congregate at the river mouths to cut them off and have a feast. Many crappie schools will stay near river mouths all winter.
- Flats with structure – Bait fish are drawn to flats that have hiding places, like submerged timber, stumps, brush, etc… These habitats are rife with plankton, making them a bait fish winter food store. Crappie do not mind snagging an unwary shopper for a winter snack.
- Sinkholes – Crappie love to suspend in holes, especially when they are located on flats. It gives them 360⁰ of cover (crappie can become prey as well…), and a great place to launch attacks on schools of shad and other baitfish. Look for holes with sharp sides. Gradual sloping sides (as on a bowl) are less attractive to crappie.
- Inside curves – on any point, curvy channel, curved shoreline, or river mouth, crappie will usually hang to the inside curve. The water is usually more shallow, and warmer on an inside curve, and there is less current. Anything drifting almost always drifts to the inside on a curve.
- Channels and Drop-Offs – these can be a gold mine in winter. It lets crappie have a safe staging area with easy access to shallow flats. They can attack baitfish with minimal risk, and minimal movement. (‘Attack’ is a relative term here. Crappie are moving much slower, but the intent is the same).
Rigging for Winter Crappie
In winter, crappie do not want a big mouth-full. They prefer to leisurely nibble. And they will nibble very gently. So you will need a very sensitive rod, very small baits, hooks, sinkers, etc… and have to pay close attention to your line. Sometimes, the only indication you will get of a bite is that the line will move ever so gently to one side.
- Size does matter… – for a winter crappie rig, think small and slow. The smaller, the better. Crappie like much smaller bites in winter, and won’t move very far to get them.
- Bites with a butterfly kiss – in winter, crappie bite more gently, so much so that you may not detect them on a light-action rod, or larger. But, there is a fix for that I will go into later. For now, just think ultra-light rods, 4-lb line or less, and jigs no larger than 1/16 oz. Minnows need to be as close to 1″ as possible. Your hooks can be scaled back to #6, or even #8 light wire Aberdeen Long Shanks. The long shank makes it easier to remove the hook from the crappie’s mouth when your hands are cold (and they will be…). The light wire will kill less minnows.
- Spare the rod – If you don’t already own an ultra-light rig, you should get one. They are invaluable for all kinds of situations, and can be inexpensive. You don’t need a high-end set-up for crappie. An ultralight rod is one made to be able handle line less than 6 lbs. test, and cast lure less than 1/8 oz. They are usually on the short side, around 5′.
Go with an ultralight fishing rod but here’s a trick if you have a light action rod and want to save some money:
Light action rods are not really sensitive enough to detect very light bites. You can get around this by making a Strike Indicator for one with an old Low E guitar string.
- Cut off a piece of the string approximately 4″ long.
- Use needle-nose pliers to make a small ring eye in the end of the guitar string for line to go through.
- Bend the last inch (the end without the ring-eye) at a 45-degree angle.
- Using a good thread, wrap the short end of the string to the rod so that the end of the long side is even with the rod tip, and above the last rod eye.
- Now, just whip finish and coat the wraps with some clear nail polish, and you now have a strike indicator that will let you know if a crappie even breathes on your bait.
- Run your monofilament through the guitar string eye before going through the rod tip eye. This is the most sensitive strike indicator you will ever see.
Here is another great trick if you own some fly rods:
Fly rods… Not just for flies anymore… Need a very sensitive, but long rod to vertical jig around cover? You can go out and buy one of those expensive ‘noodle’ rods, or just remove the reel (with the fly line) from your fly rod, and simply attach an ultralight spinning reel to the locking reel seat, spooled with 2, or 4 lb. Trilene or Stren line. You now have an 8-foot ultralight rod that will hurl a 1/32 oz. lure 40 yards or more, and detect a crappie sneeze from 10 feet away. I’ve had the best luck with my old Mitchel 300 reel, but you can use whatever your favorite ultralight reel is.
Ultralight reels are designed to handle line weights less than 6 lbs, and can be either spinning, or spin-casting reels. If you like both, some companies even make an under-spin reel, which is (they say) the best of both worlds. Whichever set-up you choose, you will be using 2-4 lbs test line, and baits of 1/8 oz. and less (I prefer 1/16, and even 1/32 oz., but I tie my own jigs, so it’s not a problem…).
Small jigs can be hard to find sometimes, but specialty stores like Cabelas, Academy Sporting Goods, and even Walmart usually have some smaller jigs.
- A plain old bucktail jig, like a Flefly, or small marabou jig is perfect.
- You can also tip a jig head with small plastic minnow, or shad bodies.
- Bassassins in small sizes, as well as Lil Fishies are exceptionally good for winter crappie.
- Tiny spoons (⅛ oz. and smaller), like the Daredevel and Little Cleo, can work wonders when vertical jigging. Use the smallest sizes you can find.
Vertical Jigging – Just drop the jig straight down and let it sit at the proper depth. Every few minutes, just give it a very gentle raise, for about an inch or two, then let it settle back to the original depth. If you don’t get a bite in 15 minutes or so, move the jig to a new location, a few feet to one side or the other. Repeat this procedure until you start getting hits. When you catch a crappie, stay there. There are a lot more where that one came from.
Make sure you have plenty of suitable warm clothing.
- Keep a lot of towels with you because you are probably going to get a little wet, and will need to dry off to prevent hypothermia.
- It’s a good idea to take extra clothes, in case your Orvis ensemble gets wet or damaged.
- It’s always best to dress in layers, so if you get too warm, you can take some off, and put it back on if it gets colder.
- A thermos of hot coffee or tea is always a treat when engaged in cold weather outdoor activities. Other than that, you can just relax and enjoy the experience.