Crappie fishing newbies may not remember the late Curtis Rushing. But I remember him well. Better yet, I remember what he told me as we ate breakfast and sipped hot coffee at the Minnow Bucket Restaurant before a morning of wintertime crappie fishing at Lake Fork.
"Crappie are only where you find them," Rushing said. "During winter months, you can pretty much bet theyll be deep on this lake. They also tend to suspend a lot, but not always. One day they may be glued to the bottom and the next they might be holding 10 cranks off bottom.
Rushing passed away since that chilly winter day in the early 1990s, but his name remains as legendary around the region as Lake Fork itself. When it came to finding and catching crappie, many equated the guide to a staunch bird dog with a nose so keen he could sniff a papermouth out of a bar ditch.
"I remember hearing about him back when I was just a kid," says fishing guide Gary Paris of Quitman. "Not only did he know how to find crappie, but he could catch them, often when nobody else could."
VIDEO: Special Winter Crappie Regulations
(click to watch)
Loading the player ...
As good as Rushing was at locating and catching slab crappie, he may have been even better and reading the fish and waiting them out.
"Curtis would wear you down hanging around one stump if he thought the fish were there," said Lake Fork guide Andrew Hawkins. "He was one of the most patient fishermen I have ever met. Thats one of the most important things I learned from him -- sometimes you have to be real patient to catch crappie."
Toledo Bend fishing guide Stephen Johnston didnt argue that point. Of all the fish swimming in freshwater, Johnston said crappie may be the most finicky of the bunch.
"They can turn on and off just like a light switch," says Johnston. "You can do things to make a bass bite, but you cant make a crappie bite. When they turn off, theyre off. Theyll feed periodically throughout the day, but youve got to do things just right to catch em."
Johnston offered up a number of good fishing tips crappie fishermen can use to boost their chances with wintertime slabs. Here they are in random order:
The Electronic Fisherman
Johnston says a good electronic unit is an essential tool when targeting crappie in deep water. Just think of your electronics like your eyes beneath the water. It will tell you if fish are there, and how deep they are holding in the water column, regardless if they are relating to underwater channels, points or bridge pilings.
While the depth ranges and locations at which the crappie will be positioned can vary from one lake to the next, one thing that never changes is the magnetic attraction crappie have for shad.
"Shad are the main key," Johnston said. "The main thing I look for are clouds of bait where the crappie are suspended just below them. Good electronics will help you zero in on these types of places."
As earlier mentioned, electronics also reveal crucial information about the depth the fish are holding. This will tell you how far below the surface you will need to position the bait to maximize the chances of getting bit.
"If the fish are suspended at 22 feet, thats how deep you need to fish," Johnston said. "If you suspend the bait too high in the water column it will be right in amongst the shad, and thats not good. If you drop it too deep youll be below the fish. Crappie are real lethargic in cold water they usually wont swim down to get a bait."
Johnston says many of the shad will begin dying off at some point after the water temperature dips into the 50s. Its a slow-but-gradual process that provides crappie with easy meals.
"The just lay right below the shad and pick them off one by one as they die and come fluttering down," Johnston said.
Minnows or Jigs
Live shiners and assorted jigs ranging from 1/32-ounce to 1/4-ounce rule in crappie fishing arenas. Johnston says he likes to catch them on jig whenever possible, but he typically has the best luck on minnows during the winter months on T-Bend.
"Ive never had much luck getting them to bite a jig that time of year," Johnston said. "Minnows are the ticket. It is real important that you use the medium and small sizes. They wont hit the big shiners very well."
Two lakes where anglers score some fat winter crappie on heavy jigs are Lake O The Pines and Fork. Most will drop their jigs vertical next to boat and use the trolling motor to move the bait slowly along channel breaks, points and other likely areas. The idea is to cover water until you locate roving schools of fish.
The Right Minnow Rig
Johnston builds his minnow rig using a 2/0 Aberdeen hook with a 3/16 ounce smash weight attached about five inches above the hook to give the shiner some wiggle room. He prefers to use a braided line no heavier than eight-pound test. He said heavier lines will catch in the wind causing the bait to move around too much.
"Its also good idea mark your line at five foot intervals (beginning at the rod tip) using a colored marker," he said. "That way you always know exactly how deep you are fishing."
Anchor or Not?
Since crappie are prone to rove with the bait, Johnston says he prefers not to anchor in open water whenever the wind allows for it. Instead, he uses the trolling motor in combination with his electronics to stay on top of the crappie and shad as they move around.
Fishing around bridge pilings is a different story. "A lot of guys will tie off at the bow and wait for the fish to move in and out," he said. "Its a good idea to anchor the back of the boat using a heavy claw anchor if you tie off at a bridge. Otherwise, the guy in the back of the boat will constantly have his bait moving around."
Dress For the Occasion
Winter crappie is fishing fun. Freezing your butt off isnt.
It is a good idea to dress in several layers of clothing beginning with thermal underwear. Layering provides good insulation and allows you to remove clothing to keep your body comfortable as temperatures gradually warm over the course of the day.
It is also real important to wear a good toboggan and gloves. Johnston protects his hands with a pair of thin-wall batting gloves. He sticks a peel off hand warmer to the top of each hand before putting them on. This keeps his hands toasty so he can feel subtle bites.
"I also wear a wool scarf to protect my neck, mouth and nose," he said. "If you arent comfortable out there its not enjoyable. Plus, you cant concentrate on what you are doing. If you cant concentrate, you arent going to catch very many fish."
Crappie anglers need to be aware of a special "no cull" rule in effect on crappie caught from Lake Fork and Lake O the Pines between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28.
The regulation was implemented several years ago, because of the high incidence of delayed mortality in fish pulled from deep water. Anglers are required to keep every crappie they catch up to a legal limit of 25 fish. --- Matt Williams