Reservoirs all across Alabama offer a multitude of areas for great crappie fishing during the winter months before the spawn.
While some folks are trying to fill the last slot on their buck tags, others are filling their freezers with fish. January weather can be a little unpredictable at times, but it still can be a good time to catch wintertime slabs. During what most consider a cold month, crappie fishing can be hot.
There are several different methods for crappie fishing before the spring thaw. They are cold-water fish, so water temperatures in the 40- to 50-degree range aren’t a problem. In the winter months, white crappie will be concentrated around some type of structure, while the black crappie will hang out somewhat deeper in the creek channels. Both species can be easily caught by knowing a few secrets.
Warm-Up to Electronics
Most boats for crappie fishing have at least one or more liquid crystal display (LCD) fish locators or color graphs. These units also can incorporate a global positioning system (GPS) in the same unit. You can even use a simple sonar or a graph to find creek channels and ledges.
“We use three Lowrance sonar units and two GPS units on the boat,” says David Stancil of Oxford, AL, a crappie-tournament pro since 1995.
The LCD sonar and GPS units assist anglers in identifying specific spots on a lake that hold schools of winter crappie waiting on the spawning weather. When some are caught, the boat position can be stored in the GPS unit, and the angler can return to that same spot the next day, week or month to fish again.
“I have a sonar and a GPS on the front deck, another GPS and sonar on the console and the third sonar at the rear deck,” Stancil explains. “The sonar units assist in locating the ledges and the drop-offs, as well as indicating the water depth, while the GPS displays the boat’s position and speed.”
Most of the newer sonar/LCD units have water-temperature readouts directly on the screen. Water temperature is the driving factor for these fish moving more shallow during the transition and the upcoming spawn.
Locate Winter Crappie
Reservoirs all across Alabama offer a multitude of areas that will hold crappie during the winter months before the spawn. River channels, creeks, and ditches are used by crappie like highways to move from deep water to spawning flats. They generally will hold near deeper water, while waiting for the water to reach its ideal temperature for spawning.
“Topographical lake maps can save a lot of cruising time when searching for crappie.”
Crappie fishing anglers new to a lake should start at the mouth of a creek and fish their way up the creek. These schools of fish will be in about 10 to 12 feet of water near the channel ledges and may move-up in the creek to a depth of around 4 to 6 feet on warmer winter days. Sometimes smaller batches will hold around underwater flats with sparse cover.
Topographical lake maps can save a lot of cruising time when searching for crappie. A quality lake map will have contour lines indicating the water depth. The map also will show flats and channel bends where they will stage during the colder months before moving up more shallow for the spawning process to begin.
Some maps may label likely spots to locate spawning areas. Pinpoint these sites on the map, and move out to a little deeper water to search for schools of crappie. Review the opposite page of the map to see if any crappie fishing tips are offered. Some map makers include tips and lure selections from local guides that will help point the angler in the right direction. On later editions of certain lake maps, GPS coordinates will be listed for specific underwater structures, creek and river intersections and maybe even some community holes are known to hold crappie in years past.
A technique called spider fishing can put fish in your boat during the winter months. This method of crappie fishing gets its name from what the boat looks like with long crappie poles hanging out the front and the back. Each angler uses three or four rods that can be anywhere from around 7 to over 12 feet in length. These rods hang over the boat and give the appearance of spider legs.
Crappie fishing rods or poles used in spider fishing usually are telescopic, can be compacted for transport and then easily extended once on the water. The rods are generally light action with very-limber tips. Almost any small reel can be used for spider fishing, but most anglers use spinning reels.
“I like 6-pound-test line on all my reels,” says Terry Whaley of Cedar Bluff, Ala. “The lightweight line allows the crappie jigs to have more action.”
Whaley and his partner use small crappie jigs trolled around creek channel drop-offs to locate fish holding in deeper water just off the spawning grounds. The jigs used are either 1/32- or 1/16-ounce in weight. Varying the jig weight allows the lures to be at different depths when the boat’s moving. The spider-fishing technique involves using an electric trolling motor to move the boat in search of fish.
“I prefer to fish around ledges from about 6- to 9-feet deep in January,” Whaley advises. “You also can control the jig depth by the boat speed.”
After catching that first fish, the angler will have some idea about how deep the fish are holding and how fast to move the boat. Some days the crappie may be more aggressive, which will allow for faster-trolling speeds. If the fish are biting slow and easy, slow the boat down to a crawl.
With these limber poles, there’s no need to set the hooks on the fish. Crappie has paper-thin mouths, and with the light-tip action of the rods, the fish usually will hook themselves when they strike. When a strike occurs, all the fisherman has to do is lift the rod tip and play the fish to the boat.
Mention crappie jigs, and you have to discuss color. Crappie jigs are made in almost any color and combination imaginable. Every crappie angler has his or her favorite color, and some can’t be swayed.
“We generally fish with pink jigs,” Whaley mentions. “But we also use pink/chartreuse or blue/chartreuse combinations.”
Whaley suggests that soft-plastic bodies offer more action. Also, the different-colored bodies can be swapped out easily, if the crappie get really picky toward one specific color. When casting, Whaley likes the marabou-type crappie jigs instead of the soft-plastic grubs. Sometimes these fish can become color-shy. So, changing to a different jig head or body color can produce a few more strikes in the same section of the water.
The concept of spider fishing is to cover as much water as possible to locate schools. Once you find them, work the area back and forth from opposite directions, noting the depth at which the crappie are caught.
Use Pier Pressure for Success
Anglers searching for wintertime crappie fishing may not give much thought to fishing around piers. However, these fish like to hang around wood, and piers near deep water will hold several crappies hugging the pilings and the cross members. Also, dock owners may plant brush or other structure around the boat docks to attract other species of fish, and crappie will join with them.
“I look for boat docks in water about 13- to 15-feet deep,” explains Josh Bean of Bynum, AL.
Bean fishes regularly on the Coosa River and the Tallapoosa River reservoirs. Many lakes along these two river systems have an abundance of piers, docks, and boathouses. Not every dock will hold crappie, and certain docks are more likely than others to produce some slab action.
“In January, I’ll start fishing docks on or near the main-river channel,” Bean emphasizes. “Generally the older docks will hold some crappie.”
Over the years, Bean and his fishing partners have learned where to target the crappie holding on dock pilings. He prefers to skip a small jig as far up under a pier as he can cast. Larger posts or pilings and where cross braces tie-in are the first choices for presenting the jigs.
“Once you catch a few fish from a certain spot, you can return to that same pier later and catch one or two more,” mentions Bean.
Fish Lures for Docking
Two generations ago, anglers owned at least two minnow buckets, and there was no question as to what the bait of choice would be for crappie fishing. A few anglers might have chunked a jig or two, but diehard anglers baited-up with minnows.
If you want to start a healthy debate to a downright squabble, try to mention which bait or lure is the best for taking crappie. When dock fishing, Bean uses a small jig tied to an ultra-light spinning rig. A 1/16-ounce jighead with a red Gamakatsu hook tipped with a white Bass Assassin curly-tailed grub is the ammo at the end of Bean’s line. He skips the jig as far back as he can under the dock.
“Many times the jig will bounce off a post or a brace, so I’ll super-glue the jig body to the head,” Bean recommends. “This saves a lot of time from having to re-thread the grub back on the hook.”
Wintertime crappies aren’t really aggressive but will strike slow-moving baits. Bean suggests using a slow retrieve when casting a jig under and around docks. After the cast, he lets the jig settle with a six to an eight count before starting the retrieve. The strike will be a subtle bump or tap.
“Sometimes you have to let the jig go down a little deeper before starting the retrieve,” suggests Bean. “Some days we catch them near the top, and on other days, they may be right on the bottom.”
Bean uses an ultra-light spinning reel attached to a 6-foot-long light-action rod, spooled with 4-pound-test monofilament line. This set-up allows Bean to make more-accurate casts under docks to specific points. Heavy line kills the action of the jig, while the lighter line allows the jig/grub combo to appear more lifelike.
Don’t wait until the spring rush to try your luck at crappie fishing anywhere in the state. Start the New Year on the right track by putting some slabs in your freezer this winter.
Important Manufacturers’ Information
Bass Assassin Lures
Bass Pro Shops
Net Bait Lures
Zoom Bait Company