Easing along the cold, still waters of Albemarle Lake, Brad Taylor kept a close watch on his sonar unit, which was searching under the water in all directions. Most of the time, Taylor would be scanning the sonar for signs of bottom structure, brushpiles, stake beds or any other bottom clutter.

Not today.

While he knew such places were likely to hold numbers of specks, today he was after the black crappie's sometimes elusive cousin - white crappie. Today he was perch fishing. In order to find perch, he had to find the bait, and that was the reason he was so intent on the brightly lit screen.

After ¼ mile of foraging off the shores of Albemarle's western bank, the Humminbird 997's screen began to cloud up. This was no technical malfunction. These clouds were caused by schools of shad beneath the bow of his boat, collectively shivering in the 50-degree water and hoping to find a little warmth. Instead, they were being stalked by roaming packs of Albemarle perch.

Taylor had found what he was looking for.

Taylor is a resident of Greenville, and president of the Magnolia Crappie Club. Oxbow lakes are a mainstay of Taylor's crappie fishing. He's been fishing oxbows his whole life, and looks forward to wintertime when Mississippi's oxbow lakes, particularly Chotard and Albemarle, provide some of the best crappie action in the state.

"Chotard is one of the best secrets in the state," said Taylor. "There are some good fish in here - lots of 2-pound-plus fish. Although I have yet to see a 3-pounder come out of here, it's nothing to end a day with 15-20 crappie over 2 pounds."

While Chotard and Albemarle are technically classified as two separate oxbows, a quarter mile connecting chute provides easy access from one body of water to the other, and most folks treat them as one lake. Located along this connector is Chotard Landing, a private pay ramp that provides ample parking and launch facilities as well as a good supply of minnows - the preferred bait for fishing the lakes during colder weather.

 

Chilly waters

According to Taylor, crappie in both Chotard and Albemarle feed heavily on forage bait such as shad and minnows when local water temperatures get down to the 50-degree mark, and continue feeding the colder it gets.

"Being an oxbow that's directly connected to the Mississippi, there are a number of factors that determine how cold the water will get," he said. "If the weather has been cold, then air temps will have an effect, but there's also a matter of the amount of water that's come in from the river. Usually winter is a pretty stable time, but we've had a lot of water this season, and that makes the water in the lakes even colder."

Taylor doesn't worry about the water getting so cold that it shuts down the bite. In his experience, the colder it gets, the better the fishing is.

"I remember back a couple years ago, we had a tournament over here, and it was 17 degrees outside," he said. "The water was freezing along the edges of the boat ramp, but we ended up weighing seven fish that went over a total of 13 pounds. They just wouldn't quit."

 

Hot action

Taylor said the hands-down best tactic when the water gets cold is tight-lining live minnows. Locating deep brush plays a factor in fishing, but it doesn't end there.

"There are two patterns," he said. "The river specks will be down in the brush - most of which is man-made stuff that's been sunk along the edges of the oxbow channel. Ideally, I wouldn't look any shallower than 12 feet deep, and occasionally they'll hold down around 30 feet in the channel. The specks will be right in the brush or at least around the tops of it.

"The better fish, which are the white crappie, may relate to brush, but they are going to suspend somewhere up in the water column, and to find them you have to find baitfish. There's some decent specks in here - you find an average weight of a pound to a pound and a quarter, but the big fish, the 2-pounders, are almost always the whites."

Taylor suggests looking for structure along the western banks of both lakes. The western banks are comprised of long flats that slope out to deeper water, while the eastern shores are steeper in nature. Brushpiles, cane mats and stake beds litter the bottom, and the upper and lower extremes of the two lakes seem to have the most structure, Taylor said.

"I start out tightlining the north end of Albemarle," he said. "I start across from the old Dent's Landing, and work my way up until I run out of deep water. I also like the north end of Chotard. Straight across from Chotard Landing is a pretty good place to start."

As for catching fish, Taylor said one of the best at tightlining in deep water is Ronnie Capps, a guide at Tennesse's Reelfoot Lake and Crappie Classic Champion. Taylor said most of the tackle or gear on his boat either bears the name of or was designed by Ronnie Capps.

 

Straight down

"The two-hook rig that my partner Steve Coleman and I use for this kind of fishing first appeared at Reelfoot years ago," said Capps. "The key to fishing this rig is to tighten the hooks up if you know the exact depth crappie are holding at or widen them out if you need to search up and down while you're trolling."

While tight-lining is a form of trolling, Capps cautions anglers to slow way down when it gets cold. He said the crappie simply are not going to chase down a bait in 50-degree water. He prefers to move just fast enough that the rig doesn't bunch up in the water. This speed can be determined by GPS, a speedometer or simply watching the angle of the line.

"When they bite, they may knock the heck out of the bait, but they want it sitting almost still, just fast enough for the rig to hang right," said Capps. "The depth your bait is at is also important. Take for example, all our rods are 14-foot trolling rods. We fish eight of them from the front of the boat.

"The boat is set up with rodholders that suspend each rod tip about 6 inches off the water, so if I pull the 3/8-ounce weight down to the end of the rod, then set the pole in the holder, I know without a doubt my baits are just above and below that 14-foot level. Of course I can then adjust up or down depending on where the fish are."

Capps had another tip for anglers using live bait, though he was reluctant about giving up a secret that had won him several tournaments.

"During the winter when the algae dies off, the lakes will change over from green to a clear blue," he said. "Most everybody is using a black bait-shop minnow, 2 to 2 1/2 inches long, to catch those big white crappie. We switch over and use nothing but orange toughies, some places call them rosy reds. Either way, those red/orange minnows stick out like a sore thumb in that clear water, and they don't last long before they get eaten up."

The seven-time Classic Champ also has some good insights about how crappie feed in the winter.

"Look at the birds when they start diving on bait in the winter," said Capps. ""You don't really see birds working by themselves eating bait all over the lake. When birds feed, there'll be 10 or 12 of them diving into the same spot.

"I believe that's what crappie do below the surface - they bunch the fish up and then ease in and feed. That's why it's important to make note where you catch a fish and how deep it was. I'll mark it on the GPS or throw out a marker and circle back and catch more fish. I get dizzy I circle an area so much, but once you're on that school, stay with it until they shut off, then go hunt you some more fish."