Believe it or not, we’re quickly leaving winter fishing patterns and looking at those annual pre-spawn crappie catching patterns.

Yes, it has been a weird winter. We had the warmest December on record for Mississippi. I swear the pear trees around my house were budding on Christmas Day.

While penning of this column on New Year’s Eve, the temp dropped to “normal” levels — lows around 40 degrees and highs in the mid-50s.

Right now I’m betting that before winter is officially over we’ll have a freeze or two.

Why the focus on the weather — on the high and low temperatures? Well, friend, one of the most-important environmental variables that control what crappie do from season to season is water temperature.

And, of course, the water temp is directly tied to those winter nights.

Another variable that influences crappie’s seasonal movement and change is the length of our days. Longer daylight hours causes deep-running crappie to begin looking toward the bank and the activity going on there as baitfish move shallow to soak up the increasing hours of sunlight.

And, eventually, as longer daylight hours warm the shallows, a reproduction trigger goes off in both male and female crappie.

We aren’t there, yet. 

Ross Barnett veteran crappie fishermen will tell you that warm weather in late February will produce spawning crappie in the shallows in Pelahatchie Bay and Cane Creek. And, yes, I have caught “early spawners” in late February on Barnett.

More typically and more forecastable is the annual first run of those huge, wall-hangers that starts this month.

You know how deer hunters get all excited as the annual rut approaches? Well, we crappie fishermen get the same twitch as the days grow longer and the calendar turns the page to February.

Think about it: When you read this column in late January/early February, you’re only a few days from catching the biggest white perch of your life.

Let me give you a couple of suggestions for catching that once-in-a-lifetime trophy.

1) Location, location, location — Now through late March is the absolute best time to catch the largest trophy-size crappie of your life. Every 3-plus-pounder that I’ve caught has come during the next six weeks.

The first 3-pounder I caught came from Barnett Reservoir on March 1. I was jig-fishing in the lower main lake in an area we call “The Big Fish Hole.”

Now you won’t find “Big Fish Hole” labeled on any fishing map or your fish finder, but I’ll put you close. It’s about a quarter of a mile north of Rose’s Bluff, on the Natchez Trace side of the main Pearl River run. This whole area is prime this time of the year. Go there; you’ll catch some of the biggest fish of your life.

2) Get specific — Today’s fishing electronics makes finding specific honey holes much easier than just a few years ago. Look for humps and drops, and carry a few marker buoys with you.

Trophy fishing requires some work and some pinpoint location fishing. Sure, putting out a spread of poles — spider rigging — might yield a monster or two, but I suggest you pinpoint very specific, very small target locations.

Get specific. Think areas, and fish specific spots.

3) Size matters — What size bait should you use during the pre-spawn season? The smart-ass answer is to “use what works.” And, that’s absolutely true.

The first 3-plus-pounder I caught came on a 1/16-ounce jig tagged with a 1-inch rubber crawdad. They used to make fun of my little-bitty baits until I started producing large numbers of pre-spawners with very small lures. Small baits seem to work better on tough-bite days.

Eventually, I evolved to using larger and larger baits, and I am continuously asking just how large a bait is too large for a crappie. A huge crappie will eat a huge bait — trust me.

Y’all know I love to pull crankbaits for crappie after the water warms up — after the spawn — right? Friend, a 10-inch crappie will absolutely run all over a 4- to 6-inch-long crankbait. It’s still unbelievable to me when I pull in a small crappie that has just tried to eat a lure half his size.

That said, I am currently of the mind-set that if I’m trying to catch a trophy-size wallhanger, I want to use a large bait or lure.

The first lesson I got on catching monster-size crappie in February was on Lake Washington at a Magnolia Crappie Club tournament. I watched Charles Talley of Brandon and his partner net one monster right after the other, right in front of my boat, using No. 12 minnows.

Friend, do you have any idea how big a No. 12 minnow is? Think a nickel King Edward cigar — well, OK, they’re more than a nickel these days. Said another way, if you were going to bait your trotline with huge minnows, the No. 12 would be what you’re looking for.

My partner and I were catching a few normal-sized crappie with our medium — No. 6 — minnows, but Talley was showing out with minnows twice the size we were using.

Makes sense to me: Big fish eat big meals — one bite at the time.

4) Gear up, friend — Look, we’re trophy fishing here. Put that 4-pound mono on the shelf. Yes, yes, yes, I know they’ll give you a prize if you catch a 4-pounder on 4-pound line, but do you want to really catch a monster or just talk about the one that got away?

If you’re going to use monofilament line, stick with 8- to 10-pound stuff right now. Later, when the water clears up, you can put that scrawny 4- and 6-pound line back on your reels.

The monsters will be gone by then.

I do not like those long flimsy 16-foot and longer poles. Sorry, B’n’M Poles. I love you and the rest of your crappie fishing line — the best brand out there, no doubt — but, have you ever had a 3.92-pound crappie on one of those really long, skinny poles? Friend, it gets down to absolute luck if you are able to land that thing.

Sixteen-foot and longer poles are akin to that 4-pound mono — great later when the water clears and you want to fish farther away from the trolling motor, and the monsters are gone.

Gear up, friend, with good B’n’M 12- or 14-footers, along with a reel holding 8- or 10-pound mono. Shoot, all my monster fish have come on 8-foot B’n’M Ultimate Jig Poles.

Point is, these pre-spawn monsters are in deeper water than the spawners will be in a month. Pole length is not that important — right now.

Get ready for a fight, brother. When that 3-pounder hits you’d better be ready.