Fishing the right depths

Ellis Bates, tournament partner to the author, knows how to dress warmly on a cold tournament day.

There are exceptions to the winter rules

Last month I told you about the “blue man” I ran into on a cold January day several years ago over in East Texas. He had turned blue because he was so cold and didn’t want to leave the lake because he was catching some of the biggest deep water slabs I’ve ever seen.

You’ll recall that I told you he was fishing 45 to 50 feet deep.

Fishing at the right depths is always a variable we have to figure out when we go crappie fishing — I don’t care what time of the year it is or what lake you’re fishing.

Personal experience tells me crappie prefer deep water in the coldest months. The problem is that “deep” is a relative term and will vary greatly from one lake to another.

Let me make it simple for you.

What is the depth of the deepest water in your favorite lake? Divide that deepest depth by three, and think of this piece of the crappie puzzle in thirds.

That is, if the deepest part of your favorite lake is 15 feet, “deep” on your lake is from 10 to 15 feet and is the place to start this time of the year.

If you’re in East Texas on Lake of the Pines, deep is 45 to 50 feet. If you’re on Barnett Reservoir in Central Mississippi, deep is more than 20 feet. If you’re on Lake Washington in the Mississippi Delta, deep is 10 to 15 feet.

And if you’re over on the Mississippi oxbow of Chotard, depending on the river stage, deep can be more than 40 feet deep.

I love to jig fish deep this time of the year. On my home lake, Barnett Reservoir, I’ll take an 8-foot jig pole in each hand and bounce some baby crawdad jigs scented with Real Craw (yes, I have hoarded that long-since discontinued fish attractant — still have a case and a half of the good stuff) off the bottom at Rose’s Bluff in water 16 to 20 feet deep.

At Chotard this month at an MCC tournament, I’ll try to duplicate the best morning of crappie fishing I ever had when my now-deceased buddy Jim McKay of Brandon and I hit the water at sunup and were back in the truck, up on the levee and headed back to Brandon before lunch with 100 (that’s the legal limit on Chotard) of the biggest crappie you ever saw.

And, yes, they came right off the bottom on minnow rigs in more than 40 feet of water.

Of course there are exceptions to this “cold water, fish deep” rule.

If there are times after a tournament when I see at the weigh-in that my team didn’t fare as well as some other competitors, it is usually because we fished too deep.

Pay attention. Not every winter trip to the lake is the same, especially on those bright, sunny days where the top layer of the water column soaks up the sun and radiates some warmth only a few inches down into the depths.

Amazingly, on a very cold January tournament day over at Eagle Lake, my partner and I got a lesson from Wesson’s A.E. Smith and his partner, who came by us with their trolling motor on high practically skiing their top minnow on the surface.

Elmo Lyons and I had basically given up. It was brutally cold and, thankfully, windless. The sun beat down, but the temp never got above 25 degrees for the day.

We were so cold we were “stupefied” — just sitting there, starring at the water’s surface when Mr. A.E. came by.

We heard the racket first. They were knocking around in the boat trying to get the net under a huge white perch.

And, as they came alongside and by us, they netted a second slab. Then a third big fish came into their boat — all within less than 50 yards from fish No. 1 to fish No. 3.

And, all three were monster, tournament-size fish.

Elmo, who was down in one of my compartments looking for another pair of socks when this took place, looked up at me.

“Paul, they’s catching fish,” he slowly, almost trance-like said.

“Yep, they sure are, and they’re not fishing any deeper than 3 feet deep,” I answered.

Now trust me: Everything I knew up to that point told me that — with the water temp in the 30s, the high air temp for the day to be in the 20s — we needed to be fishing on the bottom.

And, we were.

Hey, somebody had to show it to me, but I learn pretty fast on some things.

In a flash, Elmo and I came to life and reset our minnow rigs to 3 feet and pulled up the anchor. I hit the go button on my trolling motor, and within just a few feet we caught our first fish of the day.

We finished out the day with a flurry.

Learned us a lesson, for sure.

Best I could tell, the bright sunshine was providing some heat and energy to the very top layer of the lake, and the fish were drawn to it.

Keep that in mind this winter.

February fishing on Lake Washington

Lake Washington is a hotspot every year beginning in late February. In fact, the lake has been recognized by more than one national crappie fishing poll as one of the country’s Top 3 crappie fisheries.

The Magnolia Crappie Club record for the heaviest fish was held for a few years by one of our teams, Paula and Mike Nowell of Lauderdale, with a 3.52-pound fish that came out of Lake Washington in February.

And, it seems that every year when MCC hits Lake Washington in February we catch a bunch of 3-pounders.

The lake is back to its normal level after record drought conditions last year, and they tell me the fishing there is great.

I can’t wait until the last Saturday of the month to test those rich Delta waters.

The right depth? Well, I can tell you that at Lake Washington in late February the big mamas will be swimming in water less than 8 feet deep.

And, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I catch ’em as big as they grow in 3 feet of water.

But, don’t tell anyone, now. That’ll be our little secret.

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