5 tips for winter slabs

Get the jump on the spring crowd by catching Mississippi crappie right now using one of these tactics.

As the calendar flips over to 2020, the vast majority of crappie fishermen are content to wait a couple of months before heading for their favorite spots to load up on slabs. Those who don’t mind braving a little cold weather will find there are plenty of fish to be caught today.

While these locations and tactics might not be the same as hitting every stickup in 3 feet of water with a minnow or crappie jig, a little advance planning, a little preparation and an eye to the weather can yield the same or even better results.

Check out one of these five tactics if you’re not in the mood to wait until spring.

Suspended Over Deep Water

Veteran fisherman Morris King said one of the most-obvious places to catch crappie in any lake — especially his home lake, Ross Barnett — is suspended over deep water in the main lake.

Finding slabs in deep, open water is best accomplished by using a multiple-rod, tight-line presentation while slowly trolling around breaklines and channel edges. The most-productive areas are channel edges and any submerged depressions not far from the main channel. Look for crappie to suspend up in the water column around these areas. Finding concentrations of baitfish in and around one of these holes is a big plus. Fish at the level that you mark bait on the graph.

Some days crappie may hang out around the edges of boat docks, but when the sun comes out most will retreat back under the docks, and anglers may need to reach in after them.

“One thing I can say is that these fish will hang out over deeper water the colder the water gets,” King said. “In late November and early December, they may be at 13 to 14 feet (deep) over 20 feet of water, but by the end of December, you’ll find them around 15 to 18 feet over 30 feet of water; it seems like the bigger fish will suspend deeper than the others.”

According to King, the biggest challenge is often the wind. Winter mean frequent cold fronts, often followed by fair-weather days. If fishing must occur — such as in one of the frequent crappie tournaments he fishes — he looks for a wind break to provide calm water; otherwise, he watches the weather and plans his trips accordingly.

“For me, it’s never stopping,” said King. “I troll with a Minn Kota variable-speed trolling motor. I run it down pretty slow, about .4 mph, but I never stop. If I’m catching fish, I may circle around and hit that area again but I think they want to see those baits in motion.”

Piers And Docks

Shelton Culpepper of Bay Springs suggests concentrating on docks and piers to catch winter crappie, especially on the state’s oxbow lakes. Look for fish to hold in the 10- to 16-foot depths around the ends of the piers, docks and boat houses.

“Crappie spawn very early after the first of the year on some of our oxbow lakes,” said Culpepper, who owns a camp at Eagle Lake. “Because of that, these crappie will actually start gathering up as early as November. They’ll overwinter under and around piers in water that ranges from 10 to 16 feet, and you can catch them there all through the winter.”

Culpepper prefers a long jig pole to either pitch or vertically jig a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jig along pier structures. Fish will move back under the structures on sunny days, so a pitch-and-pendulum retrieve often works. Fish may concentrate around piers that have been sweetened with brush tops or Christmas trees, and a relatively small spot can hold a number of fish.

The excellent crappie fishing in winter spillways is far from secret. Often the better, and less pressure fishing occurs further downstream.

“You’re looking for the sweet spot,” he said. “That’s a little 3- or 4-foot diameter area that will hold a bunch of fish right in that same spot. You can put your jig all over that dock and not get a bite, then stick it down in that sweet spot and catch a mess of fish without having to move the boat.”

He said if fishing is tough, switching over to a small live minnow on a No. 6 bream hook or adding bait attractant to your jig will often produce. Also, don’t overlook using a cork to suspend your jig and slow down the retrieve.

Stump Flats

For winter fishing on Lake Pickwick, guide Brad Whitehead looks to find crappie holding on stump flats in medium depths.

Whitehead will side-pull double-jig rigs along stump flats to target crappie. Side-pulling is a specialized practice that employs a specially designed boat, allowing a controlled, sideways drift that puts baits near the bottom for an entire trolling or drifting run.

“They use depth as a type of structure,” Whitehead said. “This means the fish travel in and out a lot more than they do up and down. That’s why side-pulling works so well; it covers a lot of water while allowing you to fish right off the bottom in a controlled drift.”

Often, Whitehead will side-pull cork rigs, spacing the rods out across the side of the boat and easing across the flat sideways with the corks 50 to 60 feet behind the boat. Once the boat passes, the jigs may not get to that spot for several minutes, and that’s plenty of time to get a fish to bite.

“I’ll put a Thill slip cork and tie a bobber stop about 8 feet up the line,” he said. “The average depth of the good stump flats at winter pool is about 12 feet. That puts my jig right at the top of the stump, and the top jig a foot or so above that. I like two 1/16- or two 1/8-ounce jigs, so I have to have the right size cork to float them.

Spillways

Many factors that influence where crappie hold in the spillway below some of Mississippi’s major reservoir dams will be dictated by water flow. Rising waters will send the fish to the river bank behind blowdowns and possibly even into the backs of feeder tributaries and sloughs. Falling water levels will pull fish back to the river ledge and cover located in the river itself.

Bernard Williams is a veteran crappie angler who fishes all over the state with the Magnolia Crappie Club and across the country in national tournament trails.  His perfect place, when it comes to winter fishing for crappie, is in a spillway.

Side-pulling corks allows guide Brad Whitehead to suspend baits over shallow stumps without spooking fish in the clear water.

“When they open those gates at the spillway, crappie get sucked out of the lake and washed into the spillway,” he said. “It’s just like fishing in a pond right after it’s been stocked. For the first mile or two of the river behind the spillway, crappie are behind every tree, every stickup, and every piece of cover on the bottom of the river.”

Boating anglers will find fewer crowds and bigger fish away from the riprapped banks of the spillway. Look for blowdowns, stumps, or any other cover that will provide a current break for crappie to hold behind to ambush passing baitfish.

“I much prefer to go a mile or a mile-and-a-half downstream to do my fishing,” said Williams. “That gets you away from the crowds, and I find that I catch much better fish than I could if I was within sight of the spillway.”

A vertical presentation of jigs, appropriately weighted to match the current, or jigs tipped with live bait works best to work underwater structure.

Shorebound anglers can simulate a vertical presentation by using a slip cork to present two jigs at different water depths. The slip cork is cast upstream and allowed to flow with the current. Occasionally “popping” the cork will attract attention to the bait. Live bait can be presented in a similar fashion.

Crankbait Oxbows

According to Brad Taylor, pro crappie angler and past president of the Magnolia Crappie Club, crankbaiting oxbows during the winter is a systematic approach. Use three to five rods of staggered lengths on each side of the boat. Depth-counter reels keep track of how far and how deep the crankbaits are running. Stagger the lines so that crankbaits don’t tangle during a turn. The ideal speed is 1.4 to 1.5 mph using an electric trolling motor for propulsion.

Crappie pro Brad Taylor takes a systematic approach to trolling crank baits during the cooler months of the year.

“The back-and-forth action of river water eats away the outside edges of an oxbow lake,” Taylor said. “Most of them are crescent-shaped, so that makes the outside, steep side deeper and leaves sharp ridges. From late fall through winter, crappie will sit on those steep ridges and ambush baitfish. It can be a lot of open water to fish, which makes it a perfect scenario to pull crankbaits.”

Since crappie tend to hold deeper, 8 to 17 feet as a general rule, during the cooler months, a deep-diving Bandit 300 crankbait is a favorite choice. If fish are founder shallower, running a 100 or 200 series bait on a long pole from the bow of the boat may provide better depth control.

“Bandit is the only bait I use,” said Taylor. “Without a doubt, they run the truest out of the box and never have to be adjusted. The 300 series is my favorite because it’s the perfect size bait, they dive deeper than most other baits and they have the right noise and wobble to elicit that reaction bite from a school of crappie.

Crappie will almost always relate to the deeper, outside bend in the oxbow channel. Troll the ledges on this side to locate feeding crappie. If fish remain aggressive, stay with the crank baits.

Phillip Gentry
About Phillip Gentry 368 Articles
Phillip Gentry is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer who says that if it swims, walks, hops, flies or crawls he’s usually not too far behind.

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