National Crappie Champions - who ever heard of such? You can do that?

Well, why not? We have national champs in every sport from football to foot racing. Why not in fishing? Specifically, why not national champs in the sport of crappie fishing?

Boys and girls, we are there. We have at least two professional crappie-fishing circuits, and both claim to crown the country's best crappie fishermen as national champs.

I just competed in the Crappie Masters National Championship on Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, and I want to report that the Mississippi fishermen who participated there fared very well. Let me tell you about it.

Reelfoot, located 95 miles northwest of Memphis, is a 200-year-old lake that was created by a massive break in the New Madrid Fault. The earthquakes that made the Mississippi River flow backwards, and the effects from them, lasted for more than two days. It was reported that the earth literally opened up and spewed fire, burning sporadically for days. The ground sunk and rose and sunk again. Cracks and fissures in the ground opened and closed time and again, spewing gas and steam and debris.

The few Spaniards and Indians who lived in the area just knew their world was coming to an end. What was left behind was a 100-mile-long, shallow body of water that eventually was named after Chief Reelfoot, the one who ticked off the earthquake gods to begin with by stealing another man's bride. The lake was eventually farmed and managed down to the size it is today - approximately 20 miles long and 4 or 5 miles wide.

What does that have to do with the National Crappie Fishing Championship recently held there? Brother, let me tell you, 200 years later, Reelfoot is left with thousands, no make that millions, of stumps that are hundreds of years old. I have never fished such a stumpy body of water. And the water level was just low enough to make moving around almost impossible.

The Crappie Masters folks announced that 488 crappie fishermen from 25 states were there to try to lay claim to the National Championship title. We had 12 teams from the Magnolia Crappie Club who competed, and I think we did the Magnolia State proud.

Four of our club's 12 teams finished in the money, and Jim McKay and Tommy Moss, both from Brandon, finished fourth overall - just a slab or two out of first place. In fact, on day two of the two-day event, McKay told me they stuck a 2½-pound crappie (that would have been the heaviest fish of the tournament), but it came unbuttoned on the way to the dip net, and got stuck on top of one of those giant cypress stumps. It flounced around on top of that flat stump, teasing them, before it eventually jumped its way back into the dark-green water.

All in all, the Magnolia boys did well, catching lots of Tennessee crappie on a lake that none of us had ever fished before. Way to go, guys.

Winter fishing

As we move toward winter, I advise a few changes in your fishing strategy. Crappie bite in December, and, in fact, on some lakes they bite better this time of the year than at any other.

I've found the best time of the year to crappie fish on the state's oxbows is right now through the end of February - the absolute coldest months of our season.

How do you catch wintertime crappie?

First, dress for the conditions. "All I want for Christmas" is some of that new-fangled, space-age underwear. Actually, I already have some, and it is a lifesaver. Plus, I am especially partial to my fleece outerwear with the wind-shear membrane sewn in. Forget cotton. A duck guide told me years ago, "Cotton kills."

Stay warm by dressing in layers, wearing good thermal socks and warm neck and head gear. The warmest piece of clothing I have - the best thing I've come up with for keeping warm on the lake - is an inexpensive fleece neck gaiter. Get you one.

Second, fish deeper this time of year. I have had some of my best winter days on Chotard fishing more than 40 feet deep. You warm up real quick once you start landing 2-pound slabs that are coming from the deepest parts of the lake.

Third, if you fish soft plastics, use some odor attractant. One of the neatest new gizmos I've seen is the "Bait Pump" injector. This dynamite invention is like a giant shot nettle. Into it you pour a few Crappie Nibbles, and screw it down until the Nibbles are mashed and forced through the injection point and into the hollow core of your jig skirt. Great idea.

There are other injector systems out there, but I like the "Bait Pump" because it can handle the texture and density of Crappie Nibbles. These things work, and on a cold day, you don't have to keep handling your bait every time you catch a fish. The injected Nibbles last for several fish before you have to "re-load."

That's enough of a commercial, I suppose. My point is that colder water produces slower fish metabolisms, and often a little extra enticement is required to make a crappie bite. Most spray-on attractants, dips, or any of the large variety of nibble-like "candies" work. My advice is to stay with the ones that are as natural as possible.

My fourth and final wintertime tip is to try down-sizing your bait, whether that is soft plastics or live bait. Now as soon as I've said that, I know there are exceptions to the down-size rule. In the crappie club, we know that when we go to Lake Washington in cold weather, the largest minnows we can find often yield the best results. But, for the most part, in most places, a smaller offering seems to work a little better in cold water.

Finally, let me give you a list of my favorite wintertime honey holes in order of my personal preference (forgive me if I leave your personal favorite off my list): Chotard, Chotard, Chotard, followed by Lake Washington, and then the Barnett Reservoir, I suppose. Give any of these a shot this winter, and I promise you'll catch crappie as big as they grow.