Catch winter crappie when the water is down

Winter drawdowns offer crappie fishermen a unique opportunity to catch fish in somewhat restricted areas of flood-control reservoirs. Here’s how to get in on the action.

Crappie fishermen who spend time chasing their favorite quarry on flood-control impoundments understand that reservoir water levels are never the same on a year-round basis. Whether because of spring rains, periods of drought or manipulation by authorities, the water in a reservoir can be overflowing in the spring and nearly empty in the winter.

John Harrison of Calhoun City, a crappie-fishing guide on Grenada Lake, not only understands these changes, but he looks forward to fishing flood-control reservoirs during either extreme — in the spring when crappie go as far back into the woods as the water will allow them, and during the winter when the plug is pulled and nearly all the water drains out.

According to Harrison, getting to the fish during the winter drawdown is most of the battle. Before he can make a cast, he has to figure out how to get to the water. Dropping water levels, from drawdown and/or drought or both, make many conventional boat launches inaccessible. When he finds a place where he can put a boat in the water, he may not be able to navigate from Point A to Point B.

In order to get to crappie that may become stranded in a creek run, Harrison opts to fish from a smaller john boat over his regular spring and summer rig.

“I wear a good pair of chest waders, and I’m obviously fishing out of a smaller boat than I normally use during the spring, summer and fall,” said Harrison, who runs JH Guide Service. “When that water starts dropping, it pulls the crappie out of the flat areas and draws everything into the lower areas — typically creek channels, ditches and the main-lake basin in front of the dam. But along the way, a lot of fish will get trapped in a deep hole or ditch. Those are the crappie I want to get to.”

Crappie tend to follow one of two extremes during the winter drawdown, but there’s both rhyme and reason to these movements.

“A lot of fish will go straight out in front of the dam,” said Harrison (662-983-5999). “But here’s what you need to understand about crappie this time of year: they’re hungry, and they know they need to stock up before it gets real cold. At the same time, shad are attracted to moving water  ­— water that’s coming down the creeks. During the early part of the winter, crappie will gorge themselves on shad, and they’ll either follow the bait upcurrent or they’ll stick with them in deeper pools and eddies of the river and get caught when the water goes down.”

To get to crappie trapped along a river channel, Harrison will motor as far as he can in his 15-foot john boat. Then, he may have to get out and pull the boat through shallow water that he can’t navigate. In other areas, he may use a small pirogue or kayak and paddle the shallow-draft boat downstream, fishing as he goes. At other times, he may skip the boat altogether and use an ATV to drive across the mud flats to get to deeper holes.

As the water recedes, crappie will be drawn off the flats and into major creeks and tributaries that feed the lake, often getting trapped in shallow runs.

Once he reaches the crappie, the fishing is similar to catching fish in a barrel. While he may troll for crappie with multiple rods when the water is higher, during the drawdown, he takes only one or two poles.

“I’m vertical-jigging, I use an 11-foot B’n’M jig pole,” he said. “I use 6-pound line and a 1/8-ounce jighead with a soft-plastic, paddletail body. The fishing area is reduced, so I want to make sure I put that jig in every place that might hold a crappie.”

Harrison said most structure will be out of the water, but he said that a lot of the old stumps that line the river channel will be imbedded in the river bank. The roots and bases of the stumps will be in the water, where the current has exposed the wood — and that’s where the crappie will be. Any other kind of wooden structure will also hold fish, and it’s possible to catch three or four fish on each piece, then move on to the next one.

“I have been so far up the river that I couldn’t fish a shallow spot from the boat,” he said. “In that case, I also want to make sure I bring along a good casting rod that I can use to cast a jig under a cork and work the other side of the pool that I can’t get to.”

Shoot docks in winter

Harrison’s bait of choice is a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jighead paired with a paddletail body.

In spring and summer, boat docks provide structure, cover and  food in a variety of water depths in order for crappie to find comfortable water temperatures. Pro angler Kent Driscoll said the same in the winter, which is why he shoots docks so often.

While many of Mississippi’s larger reservoirs are neither deep nor dock-fishing friendly, shooting is a great way to target crappie in both big and small lakes that feature boat docks.

The technique is simple. Using a light spinning rod, let out enough line that you can grasp the jig with the thumb and forefinger of one hand and use the index finger of the other hand to snub the line to the rod. Be careful where the point of the hook is near the reel and pull until the rod tip bows over. Aim at the spot and release the jig and line at the same time, “shooting” the jig back under the dock.

In the winter, Driscoll forgoes docks that span shallow water and looks for larger ones covering deeper water.

“Winter docks are definitely deep docks, depending on where you are and what lake you are fishing,” Driscoll said.  “When I say deep, we’re talking 30, 40, 50 feet deep. The deeper docks are, honestly, a little bit easier to fish than the shallow docks. The fish aren’t as spooky. I usually see the fish spend the winter in the deeper water.”

Finding the right dock to fish in the winter doesn’t mean checking every dock with multiple casts until you find crappie. Driscoll fires up his sonar unit and spends the first part of the day scanning boat docks. With today’s side-imaging technology, half the battle is won simply by locating fish.

“The key with today’s electronics is just scanning these docks,” he said.  “We’ve gotten to the point now we can ride by a dock, look under the dock and tell if it holds fish or not. I’ll see exactly where those fish are, where they’re positioned, how deep they are. Are they relating to the poles or the beams? Is there a boat lift? Is there structure underneath the dock? You can see it all.”

The same characteristics that make a boat dock attractive to a crappie in the spring and summer also apply during the winter for docks over deep water.

Once the angler locates fish, getting a bait to them with an appealing presentation is not as easy as it sounds. Most boat docks are considered fair game, free to fish from a boat, but likely trespassing if an angler steps onto or even touches the dock. That’s where shooting docks comes in to play.

“Everybody knows the most-productive docks are usually the hardest ones to get to,” he said. “It’s kind of like bowhunting. Dock-shooting is all about being very precise and placing that jig in the right spot, getting it in the strike zone and keeping it there for the fish.”

Driscoll suggests that anglers lighten up on their line size during the winter, especially when shooting docks.

“Lighter line makes the bait look more natural, and even when the fish takes the bait, using lighter line won’t provide the normal resistance that often causes crappie to spit the bait,” he said.

Driscoll said most crappie anglers use 6- to 10-pound test during the spring and summer; he suggests dropping to no more than 6-pound and even 4-pound test in the winter.

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Phillip Gentry
About Phillip Gentry 375 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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