Cold and Dirty: Wintertime Crappie
December 11, 2017
When guiding on Truman Lake for wintertime crappies, Jeff Faulkenberry gives his clients a science lesson to help them catch crappies shallow in cold, dirty water. Fellow guides John Harrison and Kyle Schoenherr have taught about the same lesson to locate crappies on their home lakes in winter.
When water temperatures drop into the 30s and 40s, crappies in clear lakes tend to seek warmth in deeper water. However, if a lake stays murky to muddy throughout winter, they move shallow where the darker water absorbs the warmth of sunshine and a chain reaction occurs.
Faulkenberry tells his clients they can catch crappies during this time because it relates to what they learned about photosynthesis (the process by which plants, some bacteria, and other organisms use energy from sunlight to produce fuel) in fifth-grade science. "As the water warms, more 'active' phytoplankton and algae transform carbon dioxide into oxygen," Faulkenberry says. "So when the concentration of oxygen rises, fish in the area become more active."
The Missouri guide doesn't carry a gauge for measuring oxygen levels, so he relies on his sonar to find the thermocline where the oxygen level is highest. "In winter there isn't a strong thermocline but it's there," he says. He suggests the thermocline's role is reversed in winter as opposed to summer. In summer, crappies seek the cooler, deeper thermocline, but during winter they find comfort in a warmer, shallower thermocline in dirty-water lakes.
Faulkenberry has always found winter crappies shallow in the backs of creeks. "Truman has always been that way ever since I was a kid," he says. "We would go up the creeks in January, February, and March and catch crappies in 6 to 7 feet of water on little brushpiles."
Since the back ends of creeks tend to hold the warmest water, he finds crappies bunched up there throughout winter. "It's been cold all winter long and the crappies move up into that murky shallower water because shad and everything else moves up there," he says. "Even though water temperatures linger in the upper 30s and low 40s, crappies have plenty of cover (stumps and pole timber) and forage to keep them in the shallow, murky water."
Targeting the gut of a creek, he usually starts where the creek channel is only about 8 feet deep and works his way to the back end. "If you get in a creek channel where crappies are staged out in the center, you don't have to fish brush along the shoreline," he says. "They're in the middle of the channel, suspended and feeding before making their spring trek to the banks."
His Garmin echoMap 93SV sonar plays a key role in helping him locate and stay on top of crappies in the creeks. "With advancements in technology, electronics have become more important every day and with everything we do," he says. "When I pull into a creek channel, I want to search with sonar through the channel to locate shad. I look for bait during that time of year because where there's bait there's crappies." He says 90 percent of the time he also sees on sonar crappies suspended above the brush.
Spotting baitfish or crappies on his electronics allows him to determine how deep to set his baits on his spider-rig poles. If he marks crappies 7 or 8 feet deep, he sets his baits at 6 feet so he always is fishing above them.
Faulkenberry's spider-rigging setup consists of eight 14-foot Ozark Rod Company Pro Series trolling poles inserted into a T-bar Hi-Tek rod holder. "A lot of guys like the individual holder because when a fish hits one rod it doesn't shake the other rods," he says. He favors the T-bar rod holder because he sometimes can detect strikes easier by holding the T-bar and feeling whenever a fish hits the bait on any of his rods.
Eight 14-foot poles set off the front deck allow him to cover a wide swath of water in a creek. He estimates his spider-rig setup spans about 32 feet across the bow of his boat.
On his trolling poles he uses 10-pound Berkley Trilene high-vis monofilament with a double-minnow rig consisting of two 1/0 Eagle Claw EL214 Aberdeen hooks spaced about 14 inches apart and weights ranging from 1/4 to 1/2 ounce depending on the wind. "I run the lightest weight I can get away with," Faulkenberry says. " If it's windy I go up to 1/2 ounce because I want my lines vertical."
He baits his hooks with minnows to match the size of shad at that time of year. "A 3-inch minnow is just about right," he says.
A very slow trolling presentation works best for Faulkenberry's creek tactics. He estimates his speed at about .1 to .2 mph, which allows him to keep his lines vertical with a 3/8-ounce weight. Constantly switching his Minn Kota Terrova trolling motor on and off and using drift paddles helps him maintain a slow trolling speed. "If we get into an area where we're getting a lot of bites, we often stop there and keep plucking them out," he says. "Setting minnow rigs still next to stumps often triggers strikes."
Despite fishing multiple poles with double minnow rigs around timber, Faulkenberry avoids hang-ups most of the time. "I push so slowly that when I see one of the lines start walking backward I take that rod out of the holder and drop it a bit, which allows the weight to knock the hook free of the snag," he says. "Then I lift it up and set it ahead of the stump and continue moving."
Sunny days are best for his shallow pattern since the sun warms the water and raises the oxygen level. His favorite times to target the backs of the creeks are late morning and afternoon when the sun is brightest.
Trolling the shallows in creeks produces both numbers and big fish for Faulkenberry and his clients. "I've had some absolutely crazy days," he says. "We've caught 45 fish in less than an hour spider-rigging in guts of creeks." During one winter trip, he caught a 3.29-pound crappie suspended 4 feet deep over a depth of 8 feet when the water temperature was 39°F.
This pattern remains strong through the Prespawn Period. "You also can continue that pattern through the spawn and catch bigger females," he says. Spider-rigging for winter crappies in the shallows also has been productive for him in other murky-water fisheries such as Kentucky, Reelfoot, and Rend lakes.
Shallow trolling over deep water
While fishing a club tournament on Sardis Lake in February, John Harrison was targeting deep crappies in murky 38°F water. He'd been trolling all morning in 20 feet of water without success and pulled up on a spot where he found the fish had moved up higher in the water column.
"I don't know why I stopped out there," says the Mississippi guide. "I put a few poles down deep and then I put one up high and caught a 2-pound crappie. So I reeled all the rest up near the surface and there the crappies were.
"I could hardly mark those fish on my depthfinder because they were so near the surface," he says. "If I fished baits more than 2 feet down I couldn't get a bite." He kept keying on those crappies suspended close to the surface and won the tournament with seven fish weighing 17.35 pounds.
Harrison believes sunshine drew those fish from the depths of the murky water toward the surface. "As the water started to warm up at about 10 o'clock, the fish came up toward the surface," he says.
He set out six 16-foot B'n'M Buck's Graphite Jig Poles for spider-rigging and controlled his drift with a wind sock. On each rod he used a single 1/4-ounce chartreuse jighead with a black-and-pink Midsouth Tackle Super Jig tube tied on 8-pound-test Gamma clear monofilament. The tournament veteran said he trolled at a "super slow" pace, which he estimated was less than .3 mph.
Dipping jigs around shallow cover in the mouths of creeks is another tactic Harrison relies on to catch wintertime crappies in murky to muddy waters. The most productive spots are usually mouths of creeks or ditches where current from the river creates eddies. Crappies in these spots often congregate and suspend about 3 feet deep over cover 6 to 10 feet deep.
He dips an orange-and-chartreuse or red-and-white 2-inch Midsouth Tackle Tube on a 1/16-ounce jighead into shallow stumps or stake beds located in eddies. His dipping tackle includes a 12-foot B'n'M jig pole and B'n'M Buck's Mini-Reel filled with 6-pound hi-vis Gamma monofilament.
Letting his jig sit still in the cover is Harrison's rule for winter jig fishing, especially in cold, dirty water. "When I lower that jig in there, I hold it still, sometimes until I count to 10," he says. "Sometimes I catch them on a 9-count. You have to have a lot of patience to catch them in winter. That's when a lot of people fish too fast and give up too soon.
Winter fishing can be good but you have to have patience." He says both his trolling and dipping tactics for shallow winter crappies are best in sunny weather, with prime time from mid-morning through the afternoon.
Spider-rigging in vegetation
Illinois Guide Kyle Schoenherr discovered a shallow, muddy water pattern for crappies on Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois after heavy rains raised the lake level about 2 feet. "Until that point we were catching fish 30 feet deep on old stumps and ledges and stuff," Schoenherr says. Three days after the rain, he found crappies about 1 foot deep in milfoil growing in 2 to 3 feet of water.
Even though the water was still cold at 43°F, Kinkaid's crappies moved shallower in the muddy water. "At almost any lake in the country at any time, water clarity is going to trump water temperature," he says. "The water was cold but clarity was bad. Almost every time I see that, crappies move shallow in big numbers."
The 2016 Crappiemasters National Champion believes the crappies burrowed into shallow vegetation because the water was slightly clearer and warmer than the rest of the lake.
"It got real muddy and stayed that way for several weeks and there was a lot of bait up in the milfoil, too," says Schoenherr, who noticed crappies gorging themselves on baitfish in the vegetation. "We were on that pattern for about two weeks," he says. It produced a 3-pounder he caught during one of his guide trips.
Whenever his home waters of Rend and Kinkaid lakes get hit by heavy rain in winter, he runs up the creek arms to find the muddiest water. He believes the muddy water is a bit warmer than the main lake. "Crappies move up along the big shallow flats that extend farther out into the lake," Schoenherr says. He usually finds then holding 2 to 4 feet deep in these areas.
He usually catches these crappies by pushing single jigs while spider-rigging with six rods set in Tite-Lok individual rod holders. Since he's spider-rigging in such shallow water, he relies on 16-foot B'n'M Buck's Graphite Jig Poles to keep his jigs away from the boat and prevent spooking fish. He rigs poles with either 1/16-ounce Roadrunners with orange-glow heads or lime-and-chartreuse Muddy Water Baits on a 1/16-ounce jighead tipped with a minnow.
Schoenherr crawls his boat through the milfoil when pushing jigs in the shallows. "When we had lines hanging in the milfoil we'd have to pull them up, pop them loose, and drop them into the next little hole," he says. Using a single jig instead of a double rig led to fewer hang-ups.
He noticed that whenever they moved into a small patch of milfoil, they'd have 3 or 4 rods hook up with fish. So they would hover in that area until the bites quit and they would crawl forward to the next patch of vegetation.
Schoenherr concludes that finding wintertime crappies in shallow, muddy water can be a "real blast" because the pattern can produce some of the biggest crappies of the year.
"Crappies are the fattest and healthiest just before they get into the prespawn," he says.
*John Neporadny Jr., Lake Ozark, Missouri, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.