By Don Wirth
Many winter crappie methods used nationwide were spawned on the mid-South's sprawling reservoirs. We checked with Tennessee's top crappie guides to learn where and how they catch monster slabs from frigid water. Their methods should work for you wherever the water remains open this season.
Dig Those Ditches!
Billy Hurt, Spring Creek, Tenn. (731/427-7066)
I dig ditches in winter -- ditches on Kentucky Lake where I guide, that is. Ditches are the narrow grooves or indentations formed by runoff; before the reservoir was formed, they drained water from the surrounding hillsides and banks into the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Ditches serve as natural migration routes for crappie moving from deep to shallow water.
In winter, crappie concentrate in ditches in 10 to 12 feet of water. A good place to locate these subtle structures is on a major flat. Idle around the flat, watch your depth finder and use marker buoys to pinpoint ditches.
I'm convinced crappie feel a great sense of security in ditches. The water is typically very murky in winter, and visibility low. Crappie moving along the ditch will swim very close to its walls, like a miner feeling his way through a dark tunnel.
The best ditches always have brushy cover on them. On Kentucky Lake, fishermen have sunk brushpiles for decades, so this cover is plentiful. On your home lake, you may have to put out your own cover, but check with your fisheries agency first to make sure it's legal to do so.
I use a spider rig with multiple crappie poles, each 10 to 12 feet in length. Depending on how many fishermen are aboard, I'll run up to eight poles at a time, all rigged with tube jigs and held in rod holders. The setup is a bit unorthodox: first tie a tube jig rigged on a 1/16 or 1/8 ounce leadhead to an 18 inch leader of 6 pound mono. Add a swivel. Then slide a 3/8 to 1/2 ounce egg sinker onto 10 pound main line. Attach your main line to the other end of the swivel.
Use a Palomar knot on the jig. When cinched down real tight, this causes the hook to ride up at an angle, which lets the jig c-r-a-w-l over limbs and branches and helps reduce hangups. Of course, hangups are going to happen eventually, and that light leader lets you break off below the swivel so you can save your sinker. Pre-tie jigs on leader lines and keep 'em handy for quick rerigging. It's no fun tying up rigs when your fingers are numb from the cold.
Once you've located a ditch, use your trolling motor to move the multiple jigs along it at a moderate, steady pace. Keep your lines angled back with no slack or bag, otherwise waves will wash lines into your trolling motor prop and you'll have a real mess on your hands.
Garry Mason, Springville, Tenn. (731/593-5429)
Most guides use either a soft plastic tube jig or a live minnow. I use both in combination to tempt sluggish winter slabs.
Kentucky Lake where I guide usually undergoes a five-foot drawdown beginning in late fall. This pulls crappie tight to cover -- tighter than at any other time of year. Their strike zone also shrinks dramatically, and if you ain't in it, you're gonna haul water.
Now is your chance to get into big schools of megaslabs on an isolated clump of brush or a lone stump. For some reason, crappie really gang up in a big way on this scattered stuff in cold water. Catch one fish and you're likely to catch a zillion more from the same spot.
I use a tight-line presentation with a variation of the Kentucky rig, an old standby for crappie in my neck of the woods. This consists of a 1 ounce bell sinker at the bottom and two tube jigs on 1/16 ounce heads tied at 18-inch intervals above the weight. The tube jigs are tied with a simple cinch knot. This is fished on 12 pound mono using an 8 foot fiberglass spinning rod, one with a whippy tip but a sturdy butt section. I add a live tuffy minnow to the tube jig's hook. The minnow kicks, flutters and activates the tube; the tube in turn adds mass and a dash of color to your presentation, helping crappie to locate it quickly in turbid water.
After pinpointing and marking the creek channel with buoys, use your trolling motor to traverse it slowly, working the jigs vertically. Again, you've got to fish very close to cover now -- the strike zone is tiny, and missing it by an inch is as good as a mile. The Kentucky rig lets you know when you're in cover. The heavy sinker telegraphs a solid tap up your line when it contacts wood; by lowering it into the brush and reeling it slowly upwards through the branches, you can determine where the fish are holding without constantly hanging up. If you do get hung, break your line and rerig. Don't use line heavier than 12 pound -- popping off limbs and branches in an effort to get your rig back will spook the crappie school. Once I lower the rig into the brush, I jiggle the rod tip sideways, not up and down. Think about it: if you use the standard up-and-down jigging stroke, your lure will be out of the strike zone 50% of the time.
Probing Deep Drops
Steve McCadams, Paris, Tenn. (731/642-0360)
To find crappie any time of year, you've first got to find their food source. I believe baitfish are reluctant to move too shallow in winter. Winter weather in the Sun Belt can be extremely volatile -- here on Kentucky Lake, it's liable to be 55 degrees and sunny at noon on Monday, rain two inches Monday afternoon, then drop to 20 degrees by Tuesday morning. Rapid chilling of the surface layer causes massive baitfish kills. You'll go out the morning after one of these monster fronts and see dead shad literally carpeting the lake.
This explains why you can always find a great number of baitfish in deep water in winter. By staying deep, they buffer themselves against the chilling (and potentially lethal) effects of severe frontal passages. And where there's ample bait, there's crappie.
Winter is an ideal time to probe deep ledges. The old creek or river channel seldom falls straight off into deep water, but drops gradually in a series of steps or ledges. In winter, big crappie will relate to ledges between 18 and 25 feet deep. I seldom catch quality fish shallower than 15 feet now.
Stumps and brushpiles located along ledges will attract baitfish and hold crappie. I fish this scattered cover vertically with a heavy version of the popular Kentucky rig: a 1 ounce bell sinker on the bottom, two bronze 1/0 snelled hooks 18 inches apart, and a barrel swivel a foot above the top hook. Both hooks are baited with live tuffies.
I use heavy line on my rig -- 20 pound mono for the main line, 17 to 20 for the leader. This is a cover-intensive method, and lighter line simply won't hold up. Besides, we're talking murky water here, so line visibility isn't a factor. I fish the rig on a medium-action spinning or baitcasting outfit.
Move along the drop and tap that sinker around those deep ledges. Fish it slowly and carefully -- this is a touchy-feely technique. When you feel the rig knock on wood, get ready for a bite. Incidentally, those lightweight bronze hooks team up perfectly with that heavy line. They'll straighten under pressure, so you can get your rig back when you hang up.
Some days they want a jig, and when they do, give 'em a hollow tube bait rigged on a 1/8 or 1/4 ounce head. The heavy head/light line combination helps keep the lure straight down under the boat, a blessing on rough, windy days. Fish it vertically on 6 pound mono; this setup is especially good for crappie suspending off the drop in open water.
Creek Arm Savvy
Harold Morgan, Nashville, Tenn. (615/227-9337)
Starting sometime before Christmas, crappie get on a dependable ledge pattern at Old Hickory Lake, a flatland reservoir north of Nashville. Now is a fine time to head up into the tributary arms and bump some ledges. Not only will you find plenty of slabs here, you'll have a decent chance of staying out of the wind, which is vital to an effective presentation.
Like Steve McCadams, I target scattered brush along the deeper ledges, 15 to 25 feet. My favorite method is to cast a curly-tail grub on a 1/16 or 1/8 ounce head, using an ultralight spinning rig with 4 or 6 pound mono. Cast the grub to the top of the drop and retrieve it with the rod held steady at 10 o'clock. The water will be frigid now -- 38 to 45 degrees in my area -- and the fish won't move far to strike. Fan-cast the twister around the breakline. Crappie will often suspend out over the channel, and this is a good way to locate a school.
Most fishermen get impatient and fish a twister too fast. Slow way down and you'll catch more crappie! In frigid water, keep the bait moving as slowly as possible while still activating the tail and maintaining a horizontal attitude.
Vertical-fishing works as well, but don't overdo it. Big jerks won't cut it now. On days with a slight chop on the water, I'll lower a tube jig tied to 6 pound line over the dropoff, watch for the line to go slack as it contacts the ledge, reel up a turn or two and hold the rod dead-still parallel to the surface. The gentle bobbing action of the boat will give the jig all the action it needs. You can also fish vertically with the Kentucky rig. I've got my own version of this favorite: an 11/16 ounce bell sinker on the bottom and 8 pound mono on my main line. Two light wire hooks are attached to 6-inch lengths of 20 or 30 pound "catfish mono," the kind you find in the bargain bin at your friendly neighborhood discount store. These are in turn attached to the main line via loop knots. This cheap line is, as you'd expect, stiff and springy, and holds your baited hooks out at a 90-degree angle from your main line, preventing tangles.