Tommy Hemphill has the perfect answer for an age-old question: Does it get too cold to crappie fish?
Said Hemphill, “Somewhere far north of here a man is sitting on a frozen lake, fishing through a little hole in the ice that keeps trying to freeze over. You know what he is catching? Crappie.”
Mississippi lakes seldom freeze over, and never to the point when ice fishing is possible. So, obviously, if that guy up north can catch crappie, then they can be caught here all winter. Like other fish and cold-blooded creatures, crappie turn lethargic in the colder months. They still have to eat, however, and those anglers who understand the weather, the fish, and the proper presentation can still catch them in good numbers.
Mississippi Sportsman asked three expert anglers — Hemphill, Charles Lindsay and our own Paul Johnson — and biologist Tom Holman of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks a series of questions designed to help crappie anglers find and catch fish in the cold.
January can be a fickle month for crappie anglers. Where should a fisherman start looking for crappie?
Johnson: “Crappie are very predictable, but that doesn’t mean they are always catchable. Veteran crappie fishermen have learned the cycle, and have a good idea where and when the fish will be at any time of the year. The cold-weather bite is great at Chotard, Albermarle and Tennessee Chute. One of the best mornings I have ever had was on January 1, and it was frigid. Jim McKay and I caught the limit of 50 each before lunch, and we were fishing on the bottom in 42-feet of water with minnows.”
Lindsay: “On Ross Barnett the Pearl River channel will hold schools of crappie in the colder months. The key here is finding deep shad. Start by looking in water 18 to 25 feet deep and start out fishing 12 to15 feet deep. Keep adjusting until you get a bite. Crappie feed upward; they can’t see down like a bass does. I suggest using live minnows on a bare hook.”
Holman: “Considering the past few years, it’s difficult to say just what a normal year is. But typically, January is a time when crappie are holding in deeper water, near structure and near schools of shad. They will move up and down in the water column as the water temperature changes.”
At Ross Barnett Reservoir the spillway area is always hot in January. Are the fish coming from downstream or getting pulled through the gates from the main lake?
Holman: “Some of both. The water just below the spillway is perhaps a little warmer and is better oxygenated than that in the main lake, so it could attract fish from near downstream. However, the crappie suspended in the open water in the main lake along the dam are lethargic due to the cold, and are drawn through the gates into the spillway. Once in the tailrace, the crappie suspend in the eddy currents where they can find an easy meal of shad and don’t have to work too hard to remain in that location.”
Hemphill: “The spillway is a good place to catch crappie in January. There are two ways to find out if the fish are biting there — get on the water and find out for your self, or just count the boats and watch them for a few minutes. If the boats are wall-to-wall, you can bet the crappie are biting.”
Johnson: “Find the eddy current. Straight jigs work great. With one pole and one jig a man can catch all the crappie he wants when the river is right. My favorite spillway story is about a man who got tired of me circling him trying to figure out his magic. He finally looked out from beneath his broad brimmed hat and simply said ‘yellow-head.’ Believe it or not, when I tied on a yellow-headed jig, I immediately started catching crappie. Color does matter – even in that muddy, muddy water below the spillway. I believe the fish we see below the spillway come out of the main lake. Sure, the Pearl River has plenty of crappie in it already, but a big push of fresh water flushes a lot of crappie down river.”
How does an angler choose the proper bait?
Hemphill: “Bait selection is often trial and error. With experience, anglers will learn what works and what doesn’t. A lot of the guys swear by chartreuse combined with any of several other colors. Some choose tube bodies and others just want curly-tails. Obviously, what you become confidence in is what you will primarily use.”
Johnson: “We tournament fishermen always ask a lot of questions. Sometimes we don’t believe all the answers we get, especially from another tournament competitor. However, most of the time, through questions and observation, we get some idea where to start. I look for baitfish first. Then I consider water clarity and sunlight conditions. It would take a whole article and then some to give all the variables and answers to them. I try lots of things regarding depth, speed, and lure color before I hit on the proper bait. But, shad location is the first rule.”
Lindsay: “The locals on Wolf Lake like to use a black/chartreuse combination. “Pink/white, pink/chartreuse and electric chicken are also good colors to try. But, I think live minnows are hard to beat anytime. Crappie are hanging out near shad, and a minnow is the closest thing an angler can get to a shad.”
Do crankbaits have an advantage over jigs?
Johnson: “The answer is both yes and no. I love to pull crankbaits, and I’m rather stubborn and hardheaded regarding my preference to use crankbaits for the following reasons. One, fishermen can cover so much more water locating crappie. Two, when a crankbait fisherman gets into fish, he can catch more bigger wall-hangers than a jig fisherman. And three, the satisfaction of successfully doing something that most crappie fishermen won’t or can’t do is wonderful. However, jig fishermen can absolutely wear out a cranker when the crappie are closely tied to structure, and light bite days behind weather fronts belong to the jig fishermen.”
What is the advantage of a spider rig over a single pole?
Johnson: “To me, the answer is obvious. It’s in the numbers. A spider–rigger can have 10 or more hooks in the water at any one time. The disadvantage of spider rigging is the same as that of a cranker. When the crappies are bound to structure, it’s hard to beat a good jig fisherman.”
Hemphill: “The more water one can cover the greater the possibilities of getting bitten. It’s just that simple.”
Lindsay: “I don’t really call mine a spider rig, but I guess others do. They are popular among anglers looking for a large quantity of fish. Typically, a spider rig will consist of four to eight poles mounted in a multi-pole holder in the front of the boat, with each pole having two (some people use three) hooks at varying depths. The goal is to put baits at different depths through schools of crappie and hook multiple fish. You will often see one depth that is working best and you can begin to zero-in on that.”
Do the lakes up the I-55 corridor offer the same mid-winter promise as those lakes further south?
Johnson: “Not Grenada Lake, which is so low some winters that a boat cannot be launched. Enid, too. The best winter lakes are the old oxbows north of Vicksburg like Eagle, and the connected Chotard, Albermarle and Tennessee lakes.”
Lake Washington gets a lot of crappie anglers, how should it be fished in winter?
Lindsay: “Lake Washington is void of break lines, so the secret is to find a trash pile or tops. Another good lake is Wolf Lake. Again, there are few breaks in the bottom but there is an abundance of structure. A good thing about Wolf is it sits kind of low, so wind is not as bad as on some other lakes. I like to use a jig in 6 to 10 feet of water near cover. Look for places where fish should be, and work out from there. On bright sunny days, both on Washington and Wolf, I’ve seen crappie caught as shallow as 4 or 5 feet.”
What about barometric pressure?
Lindsay: “Crappie have norms, but they can be very unpredictable as wellUnless there is a dramatic change in the barometric pressure taking place, crappie will bite. The barometer can be low or high, as long as it is steady or making a very slow change.”
So there you have it. Cold weather is no reason to avoid crappie fishing in Mississippi. Just remember to file a trip plan with someone and wear an approved PFD. Hyperthermia can occur quickly in winter should an angler get wet. Learn the warning signs and exercise extreme caution to stay dry.