Steve McCadams' eyes were riveted to the tip of the long graphite composite crappie "pole” (technically a rod, since it had a reel on it, but the other term is almost universal among the professionals). Because of its relatively light action and fast tip, the 1-ounce sinker down below put a pronounced bow in the pole.
Apparently the degree of bend changed ever so slightly because Steve lifted his arm sharply and the result was the throbbing, shaking fight of a fat crappie. Working ever so gently in case the fish was lightly hooked, he finally brought it boatside and into the waiting net.
"Well, there's the start to your fillet supply," he said, grinning.
When a former Crappiethon champ and full-time guide makes a comment like that it’s easier to forget about cold weather and get on with the program. Your chances of getting skunked when fishing with him are even lower than mine are of winning the lottery.
Many folks think the spawn yields the hottest action of the year, but the winter bite may be even better, especially for slabs.
Macadams’ favorite technique is tightlining, a descriptive term that simply means that he is fishing vertically. Raise, lower, drop into pockets of cover, feel the bottom and walk the sinker at the end of the line along. It looks easy and, indeed, most people can use it successfully once they understand the basics.
The Live-Bait Route
To present his tightline rigs to brush-loving crappies, Macadams employs rods from 9 to 12 feet long but light enough to handle for long periods. This is not a technique that lends itself to the use of rod holders. At the end of the line is a “bass” (or “casting”) sinker that can be anything from half an ounce to an ounce. If the wind kicks up you may need to go even heavier to remain vertical; too much bow in the line means that you're going to miss light hits so common in winter. A foot or so up the line, he adds a dropper line between 12 and 16 inches in length with a 2/0 light wire hook tied to the end.
“People often think that these hooks are too big for crappie fishing,” Macadams said, “but crappie have a big mouth, plus with the bigger hook bend your odds of shaking off of a snag are improved.”
About 18 inches up the line, no more than 2 feet, he adds another dropper and hook. When working heavy cover, the main line can be as heavy as 20-pound test and droppers as much as 12-pound test although lighter monofilament is the rule. At other times of year, Macadams may opt for a tube or small hair jig, but he sticks with minnows in the winter months.
"Let your rig down until it hits the bottom, take out all of the slack and move it along as the boat moves. Use a lift-and-drop method that barely touches the bottom and do it very slowly because these fish aren't likely to chase anything."
Although Steve fishes a lot of natural cover, notably stump fields along channel drop-offs, the bulk of his work centers on structure that he and his competition partner, Jim Perry create. During winter drawdown, when the lake is at its lowest, they place brushpiles and stake beds at varying depths. Since these structures do not usually produce fish for at least a year, they are planning ahead.
Winter crappie fishing almost always involves a vertical presentation, whether using jigs, minnows or both.
"You want to put your cover in a logical place and not just toss it out. If it's not close to an area the crappie commonly use, you're wasting your time. Long, tapering points are great, especially if they are close to a channel or known spawning location. Flats along channel drop-offs are good, and if you're lucky enough to know where some deep spawning places are, the ones that most anglers overlook, they are made to order for a brushpile or stake bed."
McCadams recommends that when making your own brushy cover, visualize how a sinker could be lowered into openings between the limbs. "Seeing a chunk of brush and getting it into your mind how you would tempt a fish out of the middle of it is a good place to start. That's exactly what you want to do when tightlining no matter what kind of cover you're fishing.”
The Jig Is Up
Roger Gant's method differs McCadams’ by the proverbial 180 degrees. He lines up multiple rods in holders and suggests that his clients do the same. Onto the line he ties a pair of jigs of his own manufacture about a foot and a half apart. His rods are very light action affairs carrying small casting reels, normally spooled with 8-pound test line. The light tips are essential in visually transmitting the news of a strike.
"Water clarity will dictate jig color," he explained, "and wind or the lack of it will dictate the weight of the leadhead. On relatively calm days a head weight of 1/8-ounce may be plenty. I'll go up to a 1/4-ounce version when it blows, and if you need anything heavier than that you probably need to get off the lake or find a calmer spot.”
'Side-pulling' with multiple rods and two-jig rigs allows the angler to cover a wide swath of water in search of cooperative fish.
Gant’s jigs are all tied with fluorescent synthetic “hair” for maximum visibility. In winter, he doesn’t fool with tube jigs at all. “It's a hair jig tipped with a small shiner on the top and bottom both,” he said.
For those who have never tried side-pulling (a poplar walleye technique) it looks a bit strange. Gant’s trolling motor is mounted amidships because the idea is to get the boat to travel sideways. At times, when the wind is right, he may never have to touch it. Most days the wind is not perfect and when fish are found holding in a narrow area it can keep the operator hopping.
"When fish are holding close to the bottom it's pretty easy," he said. "You let down until the lower jig hits, pick up a foot or so and drift along with the rods in holders. When you see a rod tip drop, pick it up and sweep upwards. Don't jerk hard or you may pull the hook loose."
Like any other angler, Gant prefers to work areas where the fish are schooled fairly close together and easy to pinpoint, although his method is equally good on dispersed fish like those he often encounters in areas such as scattered stumps on submerged flats. However, where his tactics truly excel are on schools of crappie that are suspended away from cover.
"A good depth finder and either a lot of experience or plenty of luck are essential," he commented. "I've found winter crappie suspended anywhere from 10 feet down to 30-plus. Sometimes you have something to go by. For instance, they may be holding in a channel at the same level as the nearest drop-off even if it's 100 yards away. Other schools may be holding well away from timber where they spent most of their time during the warm months. At times you'll even find them relating to schools of baitfish, so locating them can be something of a crapshoot. There's one area where I catch a lot of winter fish that defies belief. There's a lot of deep flooded timber there, but nine times out of 10 the fish will be suspended over submerged timber well away from the obvious cover even though the water depth is the same in both places.
The two-jig rig can penetrate more than one depth zone, and winter crappie usually strike only one or the other throughout the day.
"Luckily crappie are easy to recognize on a depth finder screen. Shad schools show up like a ragged blob, suspended white bass will spread both vertically and horizontally, but crappie will usually be horizontal only. That means that if you miss the depth by more than a foot or two when you let baits down, you're not going to have much luck. The two-hook rig helps. It gives you something of a spread, and you might be surprised how many times that either the top or bottom jig will catch almost all of the fish even when you're using the same color. Crappie are as picky about their depth as any species you can think of."
Just as with the tightlining method, Gant wants his baits to remain as close to vertical as possible as the boat moves slowly along through a likely area, feeling that if too much "belly" develops light strikes are going to be overlooked. This is one reason for the light, small-diameter line, which has very little water resistance.
"Going sideways has the added advantage of covering a wider span, which increases the odds of hitting active fish. My boat is an 18-footer, so with 6 feet or more of rod sticking out the bow and stern and three or four down the upwind gunwale, I can cover a 30-foot swath of water. As long as I have the depth right, odds are good that at least one rod is 'going down' on each pass."
If there is a drawback to Gant's system, it’s that the little minnow-tipped jigs sometimes catch fish other than crappie. On one occasion he and I were pulling along a deep hump that sported numerous stumps. Roger was watching his depth sounder and had obviously been there numerous times.
"We might want to crank up here. If we go any farther we'll probably run into white bass and maybe a catfish."
Seeing my look of disbelief, he let the boat continue on its path. Did you ever see what five whites and a channel catfish can do with five fishing lines? At least wintertime crappie have better manners than that no matter how you catch them.