February may be frigid, but slab crappie at Okatibbee Lake are getting ready for their big move and are there for the taking.
With frigid temperatures and brisk winds, Okatibbee Lake was ripe for the picking last February, so we planned a quick trip after work to test the water. Overcast skies and a chill in the air kept most folks off the water, but Ken Murphy joined me for a little rest and relaxation. That was the plan, of course, but the rest and relaxation was something that we didn’t get to experience after a bone-chilling ride across the water.
We pulled up to a shallow stump field flat along a shallow creek run and started fishing.
Wham! A crappie slammed into Murphy’s jig-and-cork rig, and he quickly boated his first sac-a-lait of the day. I pitched out a marker buoy so we could stay on the spot and cast near the spot he’d caught the fish. Wham! Another scrumptious crappie inhaled my jig, and it was on.
Fish the jig-and-cork rig
Cast after cast went to the spot near a submerged stump, and we caught them as fast as we could get to the spot. We were fishing with lightweight spinning tackle and fishing a jig-and-cork rig very slowly. Jerk, reel, jerk, reel — in a rhythmic fashion. After we found the stump, we’d cast to it and let the jig-and-cork stay there for a bit, and the crappie couldn’t stand it.
“I prefer using a hot pink and chartreuse jig and grub under a special crappie cork,” said Murphy. “You just can’t beat the jig-and-cork rig in cold weather, as the fish are lethargic and won’t chase after anything moving fast.”
Back in the 1970s, J. P. Nolen taught me how to use the jig-and-cork rig to catch lethargic crappie in cold weather. While the slabs won’t chase a fast-moving jig or spinner rig, they will inhale a jig when presented properly.
We located the crappie staging around stumps in 3 to 5 feet of water on the edge of a ditch. They were getting ready to spawn on the old stumps, and they were ready to be plucked. Due to the annual fall drawdown and below-average rain during the winter, the lake was still really low, which makes it great for people who know the offshore ditches, flats and stump fields.
Low water spots
If you’re fishing the flats, you’re looking for stumps, submerged structure, stick-ups or anything that will provide cover for staging fish.
After you locate a stump or stump field, pitch the jig-and-cork rig near a stump and let it sit for a few seconds before twitching it. You can work the cork very slowly and entice strikes after you find their location.
In our case, we found an area that had several stumps on the edge of a ditch, so we anchored the boat and cast to them. Sometimes, we caught two at a time and several around one stump. When the action slowed a bit, we’d work the other stumps and keep going back and working the ones we’d started with.
The crappie were obviously moving in and staging by the stumps, as they kept biting until dark when we couldn’t see to cast.
A jig-and-cork rig is very versatile, and it keeps anglers from losing too many jigs on the stumps as you can adjust the depth so the jig sits right above the stump, out of harm’s way.
The jig-and-cork rig can be enhanced with the addition of a minnow or Crappie Nibble during cold weather. Sometimes it takes a little something extra, like a minnow to make slabs bite. Some people also use Crappie Nibbles, which may entice them to bite, but more important, makes them hold onto the jig long enough for you to feel the strike and set the hook.
Although some fishermen prefer fishing minnows on a cork-and-hook rig, the jig-and-cork rig is even more versatile, as the jig is more compact and will not get hung up as easily, and the minnow adds to the enticement.
After a lot of culling, we wound up with our two-man Okatibbee limit of 60 crappie, which we promptly took home and cleaned for the frying pan.
Okatibbee is one of the most-prolific crappie lakes in Mississippi, but anglers must be versatile and ready to change techniques at a moment’s notice. Due to the nature of the flood-control lake, drastic water-level changes can take place on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, and you must adjust your fishing if you want to catch fish.
If the water is low, you fish the ditches and stump fields. If you have plenty of rainfall, you’re going to have high water, and fish will move to shallow coves and stage in the grass and lily pad fields, which are actually just stems in February but still hold fish.
Think crappie won’t be in less than 3 feet of water in February? Think again. As the water warms, crappie know it and will move to those shallow water areas and get ready to spawn. They may not chase jigs, minnows or baitfish, but they will gobble up your offerings if presented in the proper presentation.
Bruce Roberts is a master of finding crappie, and he’s equally adept at finding them on offshore flats or in the grass and bushes in shallow water.
“I like to catch them any way I can,” Roberts said. “But I really like to feel them thump that crappie jig, too. If they move up shallow into the grass and pad stems, I’ll take a jig pole and a single jig and work the cover really good, hitting every piece of grass or structure, and usually catch a pile of them.”
On one occasion, I fished with Roberts when he looked like he was dressed for Colorado snow, but he was actually dressed to catch Okatibbee Lake crappie, and catch them he did.
Roberts pulled up to a shallow grass field and put down both of his Power Poles and promptly started catching the succulent fish.
“It never gets too windy to fish the shallow grass when you have Power Poles,” Roberts said. “I’ll put down the poles and then work every clump of grass or pad stems around the boat with a black jighead and a red and chartreuse grub. Crappie have always like that color combo on Okatibbee, and I’ve caught thousands on it there.”
Roberts has caught a limit of crappie in one spot without ever having to move the boat, quite an accomplishment but, routine for an angler who has a lifetime of experience and wealth of knowledge on Okatibbee.
Roberts uses a light, 10- to 11-foot crappie pole with a single jig with a red/chartreuse, white, or black/chartreuse tail grub when probing the grass. He simply drops the jig slowly into the grass or next to a bush or stick-up and jigs it up and down a time or two, then waits for the thump of the crappie biting.
If he doesn’t get a bite, he’ll pick the jig up and drop it by the next piece of cover. Watching him dissect a grass patch is akin to watching a skilled surgeon at work. He knows what to do and where to drop the jig. He rarely gets hung up, and if he does, he grabs his line and runs the rod tip down to the jig and pops it off the structure.
Light tackle for prespawn
If you’re targeting crappie during cold weather, you need some light, sensitive equipment. If the water is high and crappie are in the grass or brush, use a 10- or 11-foot B’n’M crappie pole teamed with 6/20 braid, which gives you thin sensitive line with the strength to pull the slabs from the brush.
When crappie are on shallow flats and along submerged ditches, use a 61/2-foot B’n’M TCB spinning combo. The rod is light as a feather and stout enough for catching slab crappie, but sensitive enough to feel that twang when the crappie strikes. Use this combo when fishing a jig-and-spinner combo or a jig-and-cork rig.
If you’re looking for some hot crappie action then head to the lake as soon as possible because if you don’t you’ll miss out on some of the best fishing of the year.