Winter is here, and, from where I sit, cold-weather crappie fishing keeps growing in popularity. There are ever-growing numbers of serious, hardcore crappie anglers who know that winter in the Deep South, especially here in Mississippi, can produce the largest lunkers of the year.

It's that time of the year when you hear the term "hubcap" used as an adjective to describe white perch. Yep, just heard it a while ago when Magnolia Crappie Club Tournament Director Hugh Krutz called to tell me about his team's tournament catch on Eagle Lake.

"We missed two hubcap-size black crappie under our favorite pier in Saturday's tournament," he said. "I mean they were huge."

As it turned out, Krutz and partner Steve Stevenson didn't need those "hubcaps." They won the recent Eagle Lake tournament anyway weighing in seven fish that totaled just over 11 pounds. Not "hubcap" size, but big enough to win Eagle anyway.

And, speaking of Eagle, let me report that it ain't back, yet. We quit holding tournaments on Eagle a few years ago because 48 boats weighed in just 92 crappie. That's less than two fish per boat. That's awful!

Last month, we thought it was back, and held another event. Thirty-six boats this time weighed in a meager 76 fish with only five of the 36 boats catching the tournament limit of seven crappie. That's barely over two fish per boat! It'll be a few years more before, if ever, we fish an Eagle Lake event again.

Ironically, just 5 miles up the road on Chotard, the early winter fishing is as good as ever, and it looks like this will be a banner winter for this old river-connected series of oxbows.

I love going to Chotard. The trick is to dress appropriately, in layers, paying particular attention to neck and head coverings. I tell you, the warmest thing for me is a neck gaiter. Don't leave home without one, friend, if you're planning on chasing wintertime fish.

Typically, winter mornings on Chotard, or any other Mississippi lake, start out cold and quickly warm. By mid-morning, my biggest problem becomes where to store all these layered garments. But when the bite is on, my biggest problem is making sure I don't go over the legal limit, and on Chotard that's 50 crappie per person per day.

MCC's January tournament is on Chotard on Jan. 8. I promise you now, we'll catch more and bigger fish than we do at most of our events. Last year in January it took well over 16 pounds (seven crappie) to win. And every team caught lots and lots of crappie on T-Day. It was one of the best tournaments of last year, and I fully expect it will be again this season.

I'd like to give you a short simple list of things to do to be successful wintertime fishermen, but that's tough. I'm constantly surprised by new things that I learn with almost every tournament. So, I can tell you some of the things that have worked in the past.

Go slow, but be prepared to move quickly. That is, slow the presentation of your lures and baits, whatever they may be, but move quickly from unproductive water to different depths and locations until you find the size fish you want to catch. Sometimes they seem to be everywhere and every one catches them with ease.

But I've seen more times when specific patterns and specific lures and colors make all the difference in the world. So to that first principle of go slow, move quickly, I suggest you change colors and types of lures until you find what they're looking for today.

And the slightest change can make all the difference in the world. I tell you from experience that just having the right color jig or hook can make the difference between a slow day and an unbelievable day.

Y'all know I love colored hooks, and I first learned to love them on Chotard. Indeed for years, I have shown myself and others that nothing more than changing from a standard gold Aberdeen hook to a colored octopus hook, say orange or pink or white glow or chartreuse, made all the difference in the world to my numbers versus others who didn't have these "secret weapons."

Sure, regular ol' gold hooks work - sometimes better than my secret weapons. But that's the point, nothing works all the time, every time - especially in the winter. Winter crappie seem to be even more selective than at any other time of year.

Minnow size may make a difference. Depth change can produce more bites. Bare jigs may catch fish today, and jigs tipped with minnows may rule tomorrow.

Location, location, location are the first three keys to success. Some people say that rising water in river-connected lakes hurts the fishing. I continue to disagree. Rising water, to me, simply means the fish have moved from where you caught them when the river gauge was at 20 feet and now, on your next trip, the river has gone up 2 feet.

How do you find the right location on big bodies of water in the winter? How do you reduce the hunting phase of your fishing trip and spend more time on the fish? There are two things that I look for.

First, the baitfish - where are they in the lake? What depths are the shad holding in? To find shad, I look for surface action first - feeding birds and feeding predatory fish on the surface are a sure indicator of where the shad are.

If I don't see the surface action, I start in shallow water on one side of the body of water if it's a relatively narrow body of water like old river oxbows, and look at my fish finder as I go directly across the lake to the other bank. Somewhere in that stretch between one bank and the other one, you'll mark shad. When you do, start fishing.

The second thing I look for are other crappie fishermen. I go to where they are and observe if they're catching fish or not. It's pretty easy to tell. Fishermen who are catching fish are "on point," as my tournament partner Jim McKay says. Fishermen who aren't on fish are typically staring at the bottom of the boat, waiting on the next bite if it ever comes.

Now, I ask that you use common sense and courtesy. Don't pile in on top of a boat that you see catching fish. But there is nothing wrong with getting in a similar depth close enough to get an idea of how fast, how deep, what type and color presentation successful fishermen are making.

I've been on both sides of this observation thing. I've fallen in close to guys who continue to catch fish and I can't, and I've had fishermen darn near get in my boat to try to catch the fish I'm on.

Subtleties, friend, make the difference. A foot deeper or shallower, a different color jig, even a different color hook may be making all the difference in the world.

I can prove it to you. Ever had one of those days when you had out multiple poles, but one pole in particular did all the catching? Yes, you have. What was it about that one special pole that the fish liked over your other poles? There's something there that's just a little different on that one good pole compared to the others.

Figure out what that slight difference is, and you can catch 'em as big as they grow on every pole.