Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Go with your gut for early-winter crappies

Finding active fish in early winter is key to catching a mess of crappies like this one. (Photo by John Tertuliani)

Late season crappies feed heavily before the ice forms. It is a common belief. I agree, the feeding activity is more robust than it was in the summer and early fall. But when I think of fish putting the feed bag on, I cannot help but think the fishing will be easier. I find they can still be challenging to catch.

Brush piles are favorite places for many anglers to go. I have given up on brush piles and submerged vegetation after mid-May. I rarely, if ever, catch fish in the same places that I did during the spawn.

Chasing crappies in creek arms is another late-season habit I wonder about. Anglers going up creek arms believe the crappies seek shallow water. Some believe they seek brush piles in shallow water. Here again, I fail to make worthwhile catches in the creek arms where I fish.

Lack of success led me to believe electronics would fill in the gaps. Surely then I would have something to write home about. I could see it now, fish waiting patiently for my next cast just off the anchor line, napkins tucked in their gills!

Electronics did not provide the results I expected. What a surprise.

Success boiled down to how well I knew the water through the seasons. I caught more fish with gut instinct than I did paddling around staring at electronics, reminding me that there is no substitute for time on the water. I learn more from the difficult days, the times I cannot buy a bite. Crappie fishing is a wonderful way to exercise your brain. Your arms too, if so inclined.

I am best at finding active fish by focusing on the locations where I found them in the fall. Where did they spend the most time in October and November? Sure, the lake is drawn down to winter pool by December. Some cover is no longer desirable in terms of depth or temperature or light intensity. I never know exactly why a confined area holds slightly higher attraction than the other seemingly similar places. Nothing of note shows up on the graph.

I chalk this up to their pelagic genes. Crappies love the open water. Roamers and drifters they are. I head for the points and gravel bars I used to find them, in spite of the falling winter pool leaving some high and dry. The size of an average flat is immense, still offering viable areas for them to spend some time, not much, but just long enough for me to find them. Perhaps it is familiar ground or a comfortable blend of water quality and access to prey.

Prey will be cruising the same flat, all but guaranteed schools of shad will make the rounds. I do not concern myself as much with being among the schools of prey as much as being on the fringes, away from the diving gulls.

I keep tackle simple because that is all it needs to be, 1⁄16-ounce jigs with 2-inch mouse-tailed swimbaits. I keep two rods rigged, one with 6-pound monofilament, the other with 8, in case I want to slow the fall with thicker line. Jigging rods, 6 ½ to 7 feet, are in order. Longer rods move too much line for my presentation style.

It is essentially a finesse presentation, except for the casting. I whip the rod to cast from a distance, giving the schools some space. Boat noise makes a difference in the quiet winter water. I count one second per foot of depth to get down to about two feet above bottom. I often catch fish just above bottom, depending on cloud cover and wind.

I make the retrieve as slow as possible to maintain depth, twitching the rod back until it is pointing straight up. Then I slowly reel the rod down back horizontal to the water to maintain tension. I do not turn the reel while twitching. Strikes are more of a snag-like stop in the retrieve. I do not feel the thump of a spring fish.

When the action slows, I assume the school or my kayak has drifted beyond my casting range. If I look at my electronics, I can only guess on what really happened. What to do next is not exactly clear.

I often move several feet toward where I caught my last fish. Monitoring the gulls can help when trying to decide which way they went. If moving toward them does not work, I change color. The water is clear this late in the year, so I prefer bright colors over dark. Ice blue, white/ chartreuse, and pink/chartreuse are favorites.

Late season fishing is not the easy time some make it out to be, but the quality of the fish is worth the effort. Rely on your knowledge of the lake. Go with an open mind.

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