Part 2 of a series on cold-weather fishing.
All right, let's set the stage ...
The wind is a little stronger than you'd like and the temperatures could be a bit better than the 40-degree reading when you left the house. Your fingers are starting to get just a little bit numb from the stinging blast that blows in every now and then. There's a decent "bow" in your line as you try to make contact with the tiny jig that you hope will entice a big crappie.
Your eyes water as you think about warm coffee or maybe you should have slept in. Then, that bow in the line makes a little jump and you some how manage to set the hook to a weighty fish that puts a big arc in your ultralight rod. Easing the fish in, you see that you have what you want … it's a slab crappie well over a foot in length! As you ease the fish boatward you see that it is just barely hooked and in danger of escape. Reaching down, you try to grab the slippery critter as it cartwheels for freedom. Thinking it is hooked well enough, you try to lift the plump crappie over the side of the boat by grabbing the line and giving it the heave-ho.
Just as it seems that the fish will clear the gunwale, it falls off and remains motionless in the water for a few seconds, as if to show you just how big and broad it is and that your last, desperate swipe at it with your free hand will surely be in vain. Just out of reach, the slab flips its tail and quickly disappears to the depths where it came from.
Welcome, my friend, to the world of cold-weather crappie fishing.
That is actually just one scenario of the cold weather crappie gig. Hopefully, you won't lose too many fish like that, but it does happen. More often, you can expect some better weather conditions, warmer temperatures and cooperative fish. In truth, some of the best crappie fishing of the season occurs during a mild winter. Here's a game plan for cashing in on some slabs long before next spring.
Although ultra-light rods from 5 to 6 feet have been the panfishing standard for many years, an increasing number of panfishers are opting for the longer rods that tape 8 to 11 feet for longer casts and better leverage when hoisting slabs out of brush or away from man-made wooden structures. Crappies can hunker down tight to them during the cold. We use B&M crappie poles from 9 to 11 feet and Bass Pro Shops Wally Marshall Crappie Rods that go 8 to 9 feet and are able to make longer cast into the wind and gain more sensitivity from the soft tips of these rods. We use medium size spinning reels with a good drag system and spool with either Stren or Trilene limp, castable monos in 4 or 6 pound strengths. I tend to favor the fluorescent blue line as it aids in strike indication for these old eyes of mine. If you are doing close quarter work or vertical jigging, then you can do just fine with the shorter ultra lights. But for distance casting from the bank or pulling slabs from the wood, we like the longer rods.
Lure selection can be pretty simple this time of year with a heavy nod going to 1/16 th down to 1/64th ounce leadheads jigs of the round or shad dart style head and in various colors. You can go heavier with jigs in the 1/32nd and 1/16th ounce range if the fish are slightly deeper than six feet. On warmer, sunny days you may find fish higher in the water column.
Colors can be critical, so it pays to have some variety in your arsenal. We do well with chartreuse, lime green, white, pink or shad patterned plastics like Panfish Assassins, Bass Pro Stubby Butts, or any variety of tubes and twisters that run from 1.5 to 2.5 inches long. There are days when one particular color seems to get all the attention, so it pays to experiment. To hook more soft biting slabs, open up the gap of the hook on your jig so that it is wider than the standard 'j' shape as it was purchased from the store. Cold weather crappies often hit lightly and don't hold on very long and the open gap enables better hooksets. Sometimes, you'll need to cast farther or go deeper with the small jigs. That's when we pinch on removable split-shot to adapt to the situation.
We have found that during warmer winter periods crappie often school and suspend higher in the water column than during brutal, sub-freezing conditions. When this happens, we employ the simple 'float and fly' tactic of allowing a bobber and jig to wind-drift through shallower areas in search of active fish. Additionally, it pays to sweeten your jig with a wax worm or meal worm to coax a lethargic winter crappie into striking.
For sure, crappies tend to maintain their love for wood structures throughout the season. Even in early to late winter, big fish will favor brush, fallen trees, bridge supports and docks. Slow, patient and methodical fishing in these areas will usually yield fish in the cold, as jigs placed close to these structures will get their attention. You must be willing to lose some lures to get to the slabs, or 'boys', as I like to call them. An overlooked option for cold crappie would be concrete or riprap areas that are exposed to the sunlight during much of the day. These structures heat up enough to draw crappies and other game. And, shadows from these forms can often provide ambush points for fish. Check 'em out!
Timing can be the key for a hot bite. If a few days of balmy weather occurs, then I'd say it's time to try for some slabs. These fish are somewhat sensitive to barometric changes and oncoming warm fronts in the winter can put the odds in your favor to cash in on some of the 'boys'. A couple of hours before an oncoming cold front can also turn them on. Be ready to make a move, if you can, according to the weather.
In the Mason-Dixon/Mid Atlantic region, waters that can be productive in the cold would include Liberty Reservoir bridges and fallen trees, Marburg Lake (near Hanover, PA.) bridges and up-lake flats, Pinchot Lake (near Rossville, PA.) brushpiles and isolated fallen wood, and many Delmarva millponds and spillways that often go overlooked during the cold. Bigger and more famous lakes suchas 9,000 acre Lake Anna and 50,000 acre Kerr Lake in Virginia are year round crappie factories that annually cough up two to three pound trophies.
This year, in between the snowstorms and warm spells, make an effort to cash in on some cold-water crappies. Who knows? Maybe you'll hook up with a few of the "boys."
Jim Gronaw is a Times outdoors columnist. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or firstname.lastname@example.org.