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Crappie don’t quit eating in the winter

Crappie don’t quit eating in the winter

Posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 8:56 pm
By: Rob Somerville

 Having their patience tried by dog day summer patterns, most crappie fishermen start winterizing their equipment in hopes that next spring will be better than the last in their pursuit of those giant paper-mouths. Some go so far as to say that unless you are after sauger, there is no point in launching your boat in the winter. I beg to differ. Believe it or not, these freshwater jewels are migrating in the mid of winter along what I like to call, the “paper route.” If you get a thrill out of catching slab crappie like I do, an adrenaline rush awaits you in almost any creek-fed cove this time of year. As cold temperatures approach in November and early December, the schooling fish relating to deeper structure will remain there and usually stay tighter to cover. However, as surface temperatures begin to plummet, several fish will move up as shallow as 1-2 feet deep. These fish usually come up on clear, sunny days following shad schools searching for warmer water heated by the mid-day sun. Casting small grubs at shallow rocky shorelines can make for some of the most fun you’ve ever had on crappie waters. The guys out on the deeper channels will stare at you like you’ve lost your mind even as you pass them on the way in with a limit in your cooler. This method proved true one early December day last year. Refusing to waste such a beautiful day indoors, I decided to try my luck at some cold-water crappie. After dusting off all of my light tackle, I headed back to the lake. However, as I idled away from the landing I noticed the top of a shallow stake-bed sticking up a few inches above the surface. I hadn’t noticed the bed before, so I decided to go check it out and get a good line-up on it in hopes of finding it again maybe the next spring. As I approached it, just to humor myself, I cast my jig and float rig into the middle of the stakes. Before I could click the bell on my reel, the float was gone. It turned out to be a slab pushing two pounds. In amazement that the fish was so shallow and in such cold water, I backed away from the bed only to catch 8 to 10 more keepers from it. I went across the bay to a string of shallow beds I usually fished in the spring during the pre-spawn period. There were fish stacked on every one of them. In fact, it seemed the shallower the cover, the bigger the fish. I couldn’t believe it. I had a limit of crappie without ever leaving 3 feet of water. I never even got around to trying my deeper brush piles I had sunk the summer before. I tried this several more times that winter, but it only worked on days that the sun had been bearing down for two or three hours on those shallow beds. When I went out on cloudy days, I found nothing in the shallows. However, I backed off the flat to some brush piles on the edge of the creek channel and found several fish seeming to be staging there, just waiting for the sun to come out, so they could venture shallow on a feeding binge. Crappie pro, Garry Mason of Adventures Outdoors Guide Service in Springville said he went about it a different way. He had found the fish schooling along rock banks and caught them by casting small grubs onto the bank and slowly bringing it into the water only to feel the firm thump of the big paper-mouth within two or three feet from the shallow shoreline. He also found that this worked best around points where creek channels ran in close to the bank. However, the one thing our strategies had in common was the sun factor. His strategy only worked where the bank had been exposed to several hours of sun light. If you have ever been in the shallows during this season you would understand this logic. The next winter day you journey out to the duck blind or just go out to sink some brush for the next spring, take a close look at the shorelines. If you look closely, particularly on sunny days, you will notice large dark colored spots sometimes the length of the shoreline. These are schools of gizzard shad. Even when surface temperatures are peaking in the upper 30s, this cold-blooded forage species will travel shallow shorelines feeding on microscopic animals that make themselves vulnerable by venturing outside of their winter burrows as the sunlight begins to hit them. Gizzard shad are primarily herbivorous, but plummeting water temperatures and fluctuating water levels obviously inhibit algae growth on most water bodies in Tennessee. This phenomenon is only one explanation of the large “shad kills” that fishermen see on reservoirs such as Kentucky and Pickwick Lakes which have constantly fluctuating water levels. Large numbers of these shad become active with the sun raising their body temperatures but fail to find enough forage to sustain the overall school, which in turn causes many of them to starve and die. Crappie, bass, and catfish will all venture shallow to take full advantage of this opportunity to get a quick easy meal. Needless to say, I tackle every opportunity to fill the cooler with a limit of crappie, even if that requires a propane heater in the boat to revive the feeling in my hands from time to time. Some of my hunting buddies tease me for not chasing ducks, but they have no complaints when we have fish to cook for lunch when the ducks are flying. Nowadays, the light tackle never leaves the boat even during duck season. Those warmer bluebird days may destroy any hope I have of killing ducks or geese, but now they just prime me up for a good day of fishing. If you don’t want to wait ’til next spring to fill the freezer with fillets — don’t. The opportunities will arise these next couple of months, but you have to be out there to get in on the action. Trust me, you’ll look at cold weather in a whole new light. Published in The Messenger 12.17.08

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