February 25, 2021
By David A. Brown
Ever walk down a dark alley and get the uncomfortable feeling someone’s following you? Worse yet, you peak over your shoulder and see a few suspicious looking types slowly closing the distance.
That’s how southern baitfish feel as winter often finds them moseying along reservoir creek channel edges. These natural travel lanes place shallow, sun-exposed flats adjacent to the safety of deep water and that’s pretty much the formula for baitfish comfort.
Turning to Louisiana, where crappie—locally, sac-a-lait—routinely leverage this scenario, Toledo Bend guide Jerry Thompson views channel edges as the continuous food court where the savvy predators can fill their bellies without a lot of effort.
“The baitfish go to the deepest water available to them and the crappie follow them,” Thompson said. “If you’ll concentrate on the creek channels — not the river channel — that’s where the majority of fish are going to be.”
Pay attention to stumps, blow-ins and laydowns that slide off the bank in high water—crappie often hover around these isolated pieces of cover. Day-to-day, however, it’s those hefty bait balls.
Also keen on Toledo Bend’s winter crappie scene, Dennis Tietje takes his cues from water temperatures. When a mild season finds the water in the upper 40’s or higher, he’ll look to the shallow brush flanking the channel edges. But when winter’s chill plunges that temperature, he knows the bait and the crappie will be following a deeper route.
What To Feed ‘Em
Noting that winter is the best time to find crappie close to the bottom, Thompson said he’ll often drop a Berkley Powerbait Smelt on a 1/16-ounce jighead with a split shot above for extra drop speed. The rig rarely reaches bottom before a hungry fish intercepts it.
Most of the time, Thompson deploys live minnows on a simple rig comprising a size 0 or 00 pinch-on weight positioned 12 inches above a No. 2 Aberdeen hook. A No. 1 hook gets the call for hefty minnows, but he’s been known to scale down to a No. 4 when minnows are tiny.
Explaining the weight logic, Thompson said: “You want to give that minnow room to swim around down there. I use the weight because I want to get the bait down to deep fish and I don’t want to wait all day.”
Winter crappie bites rarely come anywhere close to the spring aggression, so stay alert. Thompson’s big on rod attention, so watch that tip for the slightest dip, twitch or wiggle.
“Don’t feel for the nibbles just wait for the weight,” he said. “Those crappie are there to feed up for their spawn and when they’re like that, they’re eating so they’ll get the hook.”
Vertical presentations make up the majority of winter work; but if you’re having trouble finding crappie, try spider rigging (aka “pushing” or “tight lining”) a mix of jig styles (include bladed offerings like Roadrunners) across the likely areas. Tietje does this a lot, as it allows him to maintain that up-and-down presentation while creeping along a contour line.
Looking For ‘Em
That super slow tight-line strategy definitely helps in locating crappie concentrations, but modern electronics prove invaluable to this game. Forward-facing sonar provides advance recon, but Thompson said that given the crappies’ seasonal disposition, standard down views work just fine.
“This time of year, they’re bunched up, so going over them won’t affect them,” Thompson said. “When you find them, not much will affect them, except for big winds or heavy rains. They’re so deep, not much affects them.”
Bassmaster Elite Jason Christie passes a lot of his offseason looking for winter crappie along the cuts and channels winding through standing timber. He depends heavily on his Garmin Panoptix LiveScope because the fish tend to move around, as they follow bait schools.
“These fish don’t just move laterally, the ones on timber also move vertically,” he said. “Some days they’re going to put their belly on the bottom and some days they’re going to get up there and get some of that sunlight and feed aggressively.”
Christie said this forward-looking sonar strategy allows him to locate his targets more quickly. Moreover, assessing the spot’s potential helps him manage his expectations. Specifically, he knows how many fish are on a spot.
“You’ll find a wad of 15-20 fish and after 15 minutes it gets tougher to catch any,” Christie said. “You may look at that spot and see that there’s only one or two left. You know what’s there when you arrive and what’s there when you leave.”
Another key advantage—monitoring your bait’s position in the water column. Crappie typically feed up, so Christie wants his jig about two feet above the fish and watching its descent on Panoptix removes the guesswork.