By Don Wirth
Winter can mean super-deep crappie. Vertical-jigging a tube jig is a great way to catch these fish.
Even though I was encased in a snowmobile suit, I felt the chilly blast of the north wind across the water. I was about to suggest to my fishing companion, Nashville crappie guide Harold Morgan, that we head for a nearby marina and a hot cup of coffee, when something solid thumped my line. I set the hook and reeled a chunky crappie up through 30 feet of water. As I was admiring the fish, Morgan's rod bowed, and seconds later he swung not one, but two slab crappie into his boat. From the looks of the massive school of fish revealed by Harold's graph, things were about to warm up considerably.
Morgan, an experienced guide who usually favors live bait, had insisted we try tube jigs on that frigid January morning. It turned out to be a wise move, for we enjoyed tremendous crappie action -- and we didn't have to stick our hands in a minnow bucket once.
Better Than Bait?
"In cold water, tube jigs can have some definite advantages over live minnows," Morgan said. He listed them as follows:
- More visible -- "At extreme depths, on overcast days with minimal light penetration, and when the lake has turned muddy after a hard rain, a brightly colored tube jig is much more visible to crappie than a live minnow -- important to keep in mind, because crappie are primarily sight feeders."
- Less rigging -- "When you're in an active school of crappie, you'll be constantly rebaiting your hooks with minnows, but you can fish the same tube jig all day long unless you break it off in a treetop. On cold days, you can keep your hands warm and dry when using tube jigs, and you don't have to rerig with a fresh bait every time you hop from one fishing spot to the next."
- Temperature tolerant -- "I've seen minnows go into shock in winter when you take them from a bait shop environment to a frigid lake."
- No mess -- "No bait buckets sloshing around, no minnows flopping under your boat's console, no dropped hooks and sinkers -- tube jigs are neat and tidy."
- Versatile -- "You can fish tube jigs at any depth, either vertically or horizontally. This comes in handy in winter since crappie can exhibit wider fluctuations in depth than at any other time of year."
- Easy to fish -- "Jigs are usually thought of as requiring quite a bit of skill to fish properly, but they're actually the simplest lures you can use -- as easy as live bait."
Tubes, Heads & Tackle
Morgan uses standard mini tube jigs. He buys them in bulk bags in a wide assortment of colors. "Tubes are the cheapest lures you can buy -- cheaper than live bait, too," he noted. "I keep plenty on hand in different colors and experiment with color throughout the day to find what's turning on the fish." Before each trip, Morgan loads a compartmented Plano utility box with tubes (throwing in a few mini-twister grubs as well), taking care to restock colors that may have been depleted in previous outings. "You need to keep each color separated in storage so they don't bleed," Harold warned.
Tube jigs rule when it comes to enticing big crappie this time of year.
While not a strong believer in scented fish attractants, Morgan will often squeeze a few drops of liquid scent over his tube jigs once he's organized them in a utility box: "This keeps them soft and pliable, and prevents them from sticking together. WD-40 will work, too."
Leadheads used with tube jigs are also purchased in bulk. "I use 1/16-, 1/8- and 1/4-ounce heads," Morgan indicated. "Many crappie anglers use 1/32-, even 1/64-ounce heads with tubes, but I want to feel the weight of the lure on my line when I'm working it. If you're fishing the jigs by themselves, without a sinker, the deeper the water, the heavier your leadhead should be." Harold stores leadheads in a separate utility box, away from his tubes. "Some tubes have salt or other additives which, over time, can rust your hooks," he warned.
Leadheads can be purchased either unpainted or in a variety of colors. "This adds even more versatility to your presentation," Morgan said. "I use a lot of unpainted heads, but I've seen days when they wouldn't hit anything but a white tube on a pink head. Heads are cheap, so stock up on a good menu of colors."
The tackle Morgan uses for tube jigs depends on how he intends to fish them. For vertical fishing, he favors a 7-foot medium-action spinning rod and 8-pound mono. For casting and retrieving tubes horizontally, he uses the same rod with 6-pound line. "Many crappie fishermen use ultralight tackle with tubes, but these short, light-action rods work best with 4-pound line. This is too light for the brushy places I usually fish," he explained.
Morgan is a storehouse of crappie fishing information, and the information he shares on tube jig rigging methods should greatly expand the possibilities of catching slab crappie on these lures, especially during the tough winter months. Here are a few riggings he recommends:
- Kentucky rig -- "This is my bread-and-butter crappie rig. Use 8-pound main line and tie a 1/2- to 1-ounce bell sinker on the end -- I use 7/8 ounce. About 18 inches above the sinker, tie two 6-inch leader lines 6 inches apart. These leaders should be made with cheap, stiff 20- to 30-pound mono, the kind found in the discount bin at most bait and tackle shops. When light tube jigs are tied to the ends of the stiff leaders, they will stand out away from the main line for a better presentation and less tangling. You can add a tiny piece of Styrofoam float to the leader lines to help keep the jigs elevated." In winter, Morgan lowers this rig into submerged tree limbs and brushpiles, then s-l-o-w-l-y reels upward -- a deadly tactic for suspended crappie. He also taps the sinker along creek channel drop-offs, keeping the weight in contact with the bottom while the tubes dart and settle in a most enticing manner. "You can mix or match tube jig colors, or fish one tube and one live minnow," Morgan pointed out. He keeps leaders pre-tied with tube jigs for fast rerigging when necessary.
- Multiple rigging -- "Crappie often bunch up tight in winter, and when they do, tying more than one tube jig on your line is a good way to load the boat quickly," Harold promised. "I just attach them to the line 6 or 8 inches apart and have used as many as five tubes at a time." This multi-rig can be either fished vertically over brushpiles, or cast and retrieved straight back to the boat when crappie are shallow.
- Straight rigging -- "This is the simplest method of all -- just tie the leadhead of your choice to the end of your line and hook a tube jig to it so the head of the tube snugs up tight against the leadhead."
- Concealed rigging -- "The bass boys use this weedless method when rigging their larger tubes, and it works fine for crappie, too. Insert the jig head into the hollow cavity of the tube -- a drop of fish attractant makes it slide in easier. Then work the head up to the closed end of the tube and press on the hook eye until it breaks through the soft plastic. I like this rigging method when vertical-fishing thick brushpiles."
- Float & tube -- "Arguably the most exciting method of fishing a tube jig. Simply attach a float to your line above the jig, then adjust the length of the drop line running from the float to the jig so the tube is presented just off bottom, or slightly above the level of suspended fish. Just hold the rod steady -- even the slightest wave action will activate the jig. Great for kids -- they love to watch that bobber go under!"
No matter what rigging method is employed, Morgan cautions the tube jigger not to overdo his presentation. "Tube jigs work because they're very subtle, natural-looking lures," he explained. "The single biggest mistake most anglers make when fishing them is to use too much rod action. You don't need to jerk hard -- just shake the rod tip gently, or hold the rod steady and let the rocking of the boat move the jig for you."
Morgan says winter crappie can vary widely in depth from one lake or fishing day to the next. "The 15- to 25-foot zone is usually the most productive in winter on the lakes I fish (Priest and Old Hickory reservoirs near Nashville)," Morgan said. "However, I have caught crappie as deep as 57 feet, and as shallow as 5 feet in winter. If you can't find fish, by all means take time to explore both deeper and shallower water."
Keep a good supply of tubes on hand, in a variety of colors.
Morgan sinks his own brushpiles and targets these extensively in winter. "I'll also fish channel bends, drop-offs, submerged humps, flats with scattered stumps and rock bluffs." The latter structures are often overlooked by crappie anglers, Morgan noted. "Sheer rock bluffs hold heat -- the water against them is often several degrees warmer than elsewhere in the lake. This attracts baitfish and crappie in droves."
Bluffs are perfect for tube jiggin' -- just put your boat tight to the face of the rock wall and lower your tube jig to the bottom, Morgan recommended. "Usually a bluff bank has one, two or more narrow rock ledges that jut out from the vertical rock mass like stairsteps," he said. "On the lakes I fish, the
first ledge is usually about 12 feet deep, and the second 5 to 10 feet below it. In winter, crappie often bunch up big-time on the second ledge. Use tube jigs on a Kentucky rig -- lower the sinker to the ledge and move along slowly with your trolling motor, tapping the weight against the rocks. I've also caught big smallmouth bass in winter on crappie tubes while probing bluff ledges."
The biggest surprise about winter tubin' is how shallow crappie can be, even on the most frigid days. "Crappie are very much oriented to sunlight, and on calm, sunny winter days, may move into 5 to 10 ft. of water in shallow coves. Here they hold around submerged stumps and brushpiles. Just casting a tube jig past the cover and swimming it slowly and steadily will often produce a strike."
What to do When Tubes Aren't Working
No lure or live bait works every time. We asked Nashville crappie guide Harold Morgan for some recommendations on what to do when your tube jigs aren't producing strikes in winter.
Change colors -- "This can often produce immediate positive results. Over the past several winters, my best tube colors have been chartreuse/red, white, solid chartreuse and black."
Slow down -- "Try a less active jigging presentation. Crappie can be sluggish in cold water -- don't jerk the blazes out of your jigs!"
Keep moving -- "I never anchor, but use my trolling motor to move slowly around structure or suspended fish instead. Often the crappie have drifted 20 or 30 yards off the spot; once you relocate 'em, you can catch 'em."
Add a minnow or Power Bait -- "Try hooking a tiny crappie minnow or a chunk of Berkley Power Bait to the tube jig's hook for added attraction."
Switch to bait -- "Some days they just want the real thing. Don't fight it -- give 'em live bait if they insist on it."