Low Water Crappies
October 21, 2016
The annual winter drawdown of water levels on reservoirs can be unsettling for both crappies and crappie anglers. Every year, dam authorities — the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Army Corps of Engineers, or power companies — lower water levels either in the fall or winter in preparation for the flood season. Lower lake levels provide storage to hold runoff produced by winter or spring storms.
Dropping water levels during the drawdown process in fall push fish out of shallow feeding zones to deeper structure. Cover for crappies becomes scarce as the lower lake level makes many fish attractors too shallow and unsuitable as winter sanctuaries.
Crappie movements early in the drawdown process and the scarcity of cover late in the drawdown make it difficult for anglers to locate crappies. Fishing gets more difficult at the end of the drawdown when the impoundment is at its lowest level and the water is at its coldest. As winter drawdown schedules vary from lake to lake throughout the country, local crappie experts have developed tactics they rely on when dam authorities pull the plug on their favorite reservoirs.
Follow the Fish
Kentucky Lake's drawdown begins in the summer, gradually dropping to winter pool in the fall and then fluctuating about a foot throughout the winter. Since the drawdown is gradual, touring crappie pros Mark Williams and Doug Cherry have to follow migrating crappies and use tactics to trick them while lake level drops.
"The bite is slow in July, August, and September (during early drawdown) and then the transition starts about mid-September to mid-October," Williams says. During the transition, the water cools and shad move into bays and crappies soon follow baitfish.
Early in the drawdown when the water's still warm, the Kentucky anglers pull Strike King 3XD Series crankbaits along ledges running 15 to 30 feet deep. "Those fish won't normally bite a jig or livebait but a crankbait gets them to bite," Williams says.
In winter, they resort to spider-rigging over stake beds along deep-water structure. "Crappies are scattered more in winter but they hold to structure," Cherry says. Spider-rigging allows anglers to cover wider swaths of water while trying to locate fish in stake beds scattered on the bottom. They rig eight crappie poles with Strike King Mr. Crappie Thunder soft plastics in various sizes and colors and tip lures with Berkley PowerBait Crappie Nibbles. By late winter, the lake is at its coldest and lowest level so they spider-rig with minnows to entice sluggish and finicky crappies.
Rivers that feed into the top crappie lakes in Mississippi become hotspots when the Corps draws down those reservoirs in winter. Tournament competitor and guide Kent Driscoll knows that the drawdown tends to concentrate crappies on the upper ends of the lakes, so he heads for the rivers.
The Corps starts dropping water levels in reservoirs such as Grenada in September, and fishing remains good through December and January. The fishing becomes toughest in February when the water is at its coldest and lowest level, according to Driscoll. Boat ramps tend to ice up later in winter at Grenada but he suggests crappies can still be caught if you can get your boat in and out of the water.
His first river strategy is to fish eddies behind visible cover (usually stumps) that serves as a current break. "The seam, which is the deadwater spot, is what you're looking for," Driscoll says. Trolling jigs with the current produces fish, but he suggests it's easier to swim a jig along in the current to trigger strikes.
His second strategy is to fish slack-water river bends. "Any time there's a curve or bend in the river, on the down-current side, you find flat water," he says. "Most of the time that flat water is right up against the bank and a sandbar is involved. Shallow water drops off into deep water and in that deep water there's an eddy."
He swims a jig or jig-and-minnow combo along the sandbar, occasionally bouncing it off the bottom and letting it fall into deep holes behind the silted-in areas. "Those fish don't have to be in cover but they're in the current seam or slack water and baitfish gather in those spots, too," he says. His lure choice for fishing eddies is a Southern Pro tube on a 3/32- or 1/8-ounce jighead.
Driscoll reminds river anglers that there's less current against the bank than in the middle. He suggests keeping your boat close to the bank and targeting slack-water spots to fish. "We pitch jigs up on dry ground and pull them off the bank and swim them down the drop into those little slack-water spots up against the bank," he says. "If you can find cover such as a stump along the drop in the riverbend, that's the magic spot. Spots like those can hold multiple fish."
In the late stage of winter drawdown he also keys on the spot where the river dumps into the lake. This area usually features a vast stump flat where the stumps might be in just a foot of water. "Crappies often pull up out of the river and spread out in the shallow water, especially in the afternoon on warm, sunny days," he says. "Sometimes you catch one or two crappies off of every stump. In a lake like Grenada there are hundreds of acres of stumps right where the river spreads out into open water. That can be a great place to fish."
The best spots along stump flats are next to the river channel or any depression running through the flats. Driscoll says crappies congregate in these areas during the winter even though the water might only be 1 to 2 feet deep. He uses single-pole dipping with orange-and-chartreuse or black-and-chartreuse tubes to catch these shallow crappies.
Alabama Guide Lee Pitts says the drawdown on his home waters of Weiss Lake in Alabama begins in October and the lake reaches winter pool by late November. He says the fishing remains the same during the drawdown, but the process positions crappies differently. "We look forward to winter drawdown each year because it exposes cover that we normally don't get to see. When they lower the water level it concentrates fish in certain areas in creeks."
Docks over depths of 4 to 7 feet near creek-channel bends and on the backsides of points are Pitts' prime targets during the drawdown. He favors shooting into tight spots around and under docks with Bobby Garland Baby Shads, Baby Shad Swim'Rs, and Slab Slay'Rs on 1/24- or 1/32-ounce Bobby Garland Mojo jigheads. The compactness of these lures makes them ideal for shooting and skipping under the docks, he says.
After shooting his lure, Pitts keeps a close eye on his line because crappies under the docks are suspended at various depths and strikes occur at any time. "It changes daily and sometimes hourly," he says. "The hardest thing about dock-shooting is finding out how crappies want a bait and where they're holding. Once you figure that out you can usually catch them that way around the lake."
Bluffs provide depth crappies seek when dam authorities drop lake levels to winter pool. "When they draw the water down, shallow crappies get spooked, so steep banks or bluff areas tend to be where they move to," says Lake of the Ozarks Guide Terry Blankenship. "If a bluff is adjacent to a channel with current, it brings baitfish to rock, brush, or other areas holding crappies."
He targets bluffs both on the main lake and in larger coves. "Creeks are good, too, if you have a large creek cove," he says. "Most have a bluff line, which creates steep and deep structure that holds crappies all winter."
Certain spots on bluffs produce better when Lake of the Ozarks is at winter pool. "In real deep water I look for rock slides, cuts, or indentations in the bluff line," he says. He explains that rockslides make the bluff less vertical and provide more shelter for crappies than a sheer wall.
Once he finds crappies along a bluff with his Humminbird 360 imaging system, he either casts jigs or fishes them vertically along the structure. "In winter as the water gets colder, vertical fishing gets better. Fish the jig slowly because crappies aren't going to chase it," he says.
By the end of January, Lake of the Ozarks is at its lowest and coldest point. He says crappie fishing gets tough then because the fish tend to suspend along bluffs. "Sometimes vertical deadsticking is the best technique because crappies aren't active," he says. "They're still adjusting to conditions." His Humminbird 360 unit allows him to stay on top of the suspended fish and keep his lure in the strike zone longer.
Blankenship's favorite lures for bluff crappies are Bobby Garland Baby Shads and 2- or 3-inch Slab Slay'Rs on 1/16-ounce jigheads. He prefers the 3-inch Slab Slay'R in the dead of winter because shad are larger then. His favorite lure colors are blue ice for clear water, bayou booger for clear and dirty water, and tadpole, a minnow hue.
Alabama pro Dan Dannenmueller finds winter drawdown crappies along ledges when he fishes reservoirs in his home state and Tennessee. He says Alabama lakes are drawn down 5 to 10 feet, while levels in impoundments he's fished in eastern Tennessee drop 10 to 15 feet.
He keys on ledges 12 to 20 feet deep both on the main lake and in feeder creeks. "Bigger crappies like deep water nearby," he says. "So if lakes have feeder creeks that have 20 feet of water, crappies move to those ledges. They stay on ledges and feed all winter. If there's cover down there — rockpiles, boulders, brushpiles, or trees — and deep water nearby, that's where they go.
"The fish back off as far as the water drops during drawdown and hold near that deep water," Dannenmueller says. "When the water stabilizes they move up and down those ledges from deep to shallow, sometimes as shallow as 6 feet." He describes the ideal spot for drawdown crappies as a ledge in a feeder creek that's loaded with baitfish. It's also close to a spawning bank and sheltered from northwest or west winds.
The down- and forward-scanning features of his Garmin Panoptix unit allow him to locate and track crappies moving up and down the ledges. Fishing slowly with small baits is important for coaxing winter drawdown crappies. "Crappies want something small and don't want to exert a lot of energy chasing food," he says.
Dannenmueller either deadsticks vertical jigs with one pole or spider-rigs over inactive crappies. He opts for a Bobby Garland 1-inch Itty Bit Slab Slay'R or Itty Bit Swim'R on a 1/24-, 1/32-, 1/48-, or 1/64-ounce jig. When spider-rigging, he ties the small lures on 10-pound line but switches to 6-pound Gamma Torque Spectra Braid when vertical jigging. He refers to the Spike-It Color-C-Lector for choosing lure colors for each day.
The late winter stage of a reservoir's annual drawdown presents a difficult challenge to catch crappies, but the pros have proven there are ways to load a livewell during this time. â–
John Neporadny Jr. is a veteran freelance writer and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.