When winter sets in across eastern Texas, Jack Frost sends water temperatures on area lakes into a gradual nose dive. That’s when paper mouth junkies across the region know it’s time to bundle up warm and get ready for some of the best crappie fishing of the year.
It’s not that crappie tend to bite any better when it’s cold outside. What sets winter prospects high is that the fish are prone to bunch up in tight schools. They’ll congregate—often in large numbers— around deep, offshore structure such as rivers, creeks, and underwater points and ridges. They can be so much easier to locate and so easy to exploit that catching a limit in short order might hardly seem like a challenge.
Stephen Johnston is a veteran guide on two the state’s most fabled crappie fisheries, Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn. “What happens during the winter,” he said, “is the cold weather chills the water temperature to the point that the shad are forced to leave the brush piles and off the flats into deeper water. There, they’ll gang up around rivers, creeks and other structure.
“The crappie have to go with the bait to survive, and they’ll really pile up around them,” Johnston said. “Find the bait this time of year and you should be able find the crappie. The main key to it all is cold weather. If we have a mild winter the crappie tend to be scattered out more, and the fishing won’t be near as good.”
As mentioned earlier, the cold/deep scenario is played out on watery stages all around the region. However, this is no blueprint to success you can apply to every lake across the board.
That’s because every water body is different in deep structure, how crappie relate to it and which tactics have a history of producing the best results.
To give Texas Fish and Game readers an idea of what might work best on their home waters, I recently caught up with a few East Texas crappie fishing experts and asked them to share some wintertime fishing tips and key locations on their favorite lakes. Here’s what they had to say:
Lake: Toledo Bend
Fishing Guide: Stephen Johnston
How He Approaches It: Toledo Bend is a huge, riverine impoundment fed by the Sabine River and dozens of major creeks and secondary tributaries. During the winter months, when water temperatures dip into the 50s, Johnston says one of the best patterns is targeting well-defined channel swings along the Sabine.
The “Chicken Coop” just off the Texas shore near Newell’s Fishing World is one area with a rich history of producing a banner winter bite. This winding stretch of river is flanked by fairly shallow flats on both sides, but is as deep as 85 feet in the channel itself.
“It’s the perfect set-up for winter fishing,” Johnston said. “When the water gets cold, it pushes the shad into the river and pins them there with no other place to go. They just move up and down the river, and the crappie follow. The fish tend to suspend a lot depending on how cold or warm it is and how bright the skies are. A good depth range to key on is 20 to 33 feet.”
Johnston says electronics are a big help when going after winter slabs for several reasons. For starters, electronics paired with good mapping will show you channels and other structure. Furthermore, it shows fish and helps take the guesswork out of how deep they are holding. This allows you to keep your bait in the strike zone 100 percent of the time.”
“That’s critical with crappie, especially during the winter months,” Johnston said. “The fish are pretty lethargic, and you need to keep the bait right in among them if you can. They will occasionally rise up a little to get a bait, but they will rarely go down.”
In addition to the Sabine, Johnston says any number of major creeks and bridge crossings could hold fish throughout the winter. Lanan and Hausen are definitely worth a look, as are the support pilings/cross members beneath the Pendleton Bridge.
Tips and Techniques: Many anglers like to tie off to snags or anchor along the river’s edge and wait for the crappie to come to them. However, Johnston prefers to take a more aggressive approach. He uses his trolling motor with his electronics to stay mobile with roving pods of shad. He likes to catch them on a jig whenever he can, but live shiners fished vertically beneath the boat tend to rule when the water is cold.
His preferred minnow rig for fishing the river consists of a 2/0 gold Aberdeen hook with a 1/4 to 3/8 ounce smash weight a foot above it. For shallower creek fishing, he likes a slip cork rig. He likes to use a spinning or push button spincast outfit matched with 10- to 12-pound test line for both tactics.
Here’s another worthwhile tip. If big rains come and muddy the water or create some current, stay home and wait for another day. “Muddy water and current will kill the bite over here. It’s always been that way.”
Fishing Guide: Ricky Vandergriff
How He Approaches It: Palestine also is a river impoundment (it’s fed by the Neches), but is much smaller than T-Bend or Rayburn with roughly 25,500 surface acres. During the winter months, Vandergriff says better fishing always occurs from mid-lake south towards dam where the water is deeper and tends to remain relatively clear.
One spot that always sees a plenty of traffic during December and January is the Texas Highway 155 bridge between Coffee City and Dogwood City. The fish like to congregate around the support pilings and cross members in about 20 to 25 feet of water, and Vandergriff says limits of quality fish generally come in short order when the crappie are on a tear.
“The best winter fishing always takes place when the water temp gets down into the 50s,” Vandergriff said. “If we get a warming trend or the water temp doesn’t drop as the result of mild weathe,r the bite won’t be near as good. Cold weather is what drives it.”
Vandergriff has had some good days around brush piles near the Flat Creek bridge as well as old cedars and brush piles along the Neches River ledges closer to the dam. Like Johnston, Vandergriff says it is important to use your electronics to seek out baitfish to determine the depth where the fish are holding to put some consistency into your program.
Tips and Techniques: Vandergriff says he likes to use ultra-light gear and a small jig whenever the fish will eat it. Otherwise, he’ll make the switch to live shiners.
“I always use double hook rigs whether I’m fishing shiners or jigs, too,” Vandergriff said. “If you get into bunch of crappie it gives you the opportunity to catch more fish. Plus, when you use jigs, it allows you to use two different colors to determine which one the fish like the most.”
Vandergriff always soaks his shiner rigs vertically in the water column, but prefers to cast or “shoot” his jigs on a five-foot Lews spinning combo matched with six pound test line. “I Iike to set up on an outside piling, shoot my jigs across to the piling on the opposite side. I let them fall slowly around the cross members. This gives me more range and helps to cover more water effectively.”
Fishing Guide: Gary Paris
How He Approaches It: Lake Fork near Quitman is a wintertime haven for crappie fishermen. You can always tell when the party gets cranked by the number of boats that gather over open water in the vicinity SRA point and other structure on the lake’s southern reaches. Much of it is within rifle shot of the lake’s dam.
“There’s always a lot traffic around there during the winter months because that’s where some the best crappie fishing is,” says Paris. “There’s a bunch of under water points and other structure around there where the shad really concentrate this time of year. Some of the bridges can be fairly good early in the month, but once the water temperature gets down into the low 50s the fish really start ganging up around the deeper structure.”
Paris says a good average depth range to concentrate on is about 25 to 32 feet. However, he has caught fish in water as deep as 55 feet (suspended at 35 feet) during extended periods of really cold weather.
The most common approach is to idle around with the electronics until you mark more one or two groups of fish, then toss an anchor overboard and say bon voyage to a live shiner. Thousands of crappie have been hauled in that way, but Paris prefers to take a more aggressive approach.
“I like to stay on the move and cover water,” he said. “I’ll watch my electronics and map and slow troll right along long the contour lines of points, ridges and other structure, constantly watching for balls of shad. If we catch several fish out of one spot I’ll mark a waypoint or toss out a buoy. That way I can follow the same trail and come back a little later. Sometimes the fish will be right in among the shad, and other times they are off to the side. A little brush can be a key sometimes.”
Tips and Techniques: When Paris trolls for deep crappie he says it’s important to keep the boat moving at a speed that allows bait to hang vertical in the water. He builds his shiner rigs Carolina style in combination with a one-ounce weight. Jigheads weighing 1/4 or 1/8-ounce or a combination of the two will usually do the best job for deep trolling with double jig rigs. “I like to keep the boat moving about .6 mph by the GPS,” Paris said. “That allows me to cover a lot of water quickly and effectively.”
Paris pointed to another area lake that produces excellent winter crappie action—Lake O’ The Pines. Channel swings with flooded timber along the main Big Cypress Creek channel in the vicinity of Watts Island always harbor large schools of crappie and most of crappie fishermen during the winter months. The fish will hold at suspended depths over deep water and good LCR is essential for pinpointing the fish.
Anglers are reminded of a “no-cull” crappie regulation that is effect on Fork and ‘Pines each winter. From December 1 to February 28, anglers are required to keep the first 25 crappie they catch, regardless of size.
Lake: Cedar Creek
Fishing Guide: Jason Barber
How He Appoaches It: Barber says Cedar Creek is one of those lakes that fishes way different from many other East Texas hotspots. Crappie bite is pretty non-existent once the water temperature dips below 55 degrees. Conversely, the guide says the lake has a reputation for producing outstanding fishing so long as surface temps remain moderate.
“Cedar Creek is full of big crappie, but for some reason it has never been real good during the dead of a real cold winter like Fork or Lake O’ the Pines,” he said. “But if we have a mild winter like the last two years, it’s definitely worth a look. You just have to approach it differently from some lakes.”
Tips and Techniques: Barber will spend a high percentage of his time fishing around deeper boat docks in 6 to 16 feet of water and brush piles in water ranging from 12 to 24 feet when conditions are right. The highway 334 and 198 bridges also are good.
“When the water temps are right and the fish stay on deeper docks and brushpiles, you can expect lots of action,” Barber said. “Some of best docks and brushpiles can be found in Clear and Caney creeks all the way up to mid-lake.”
Barber will do whatever it takes to get bit; he’s a jig guy at heart who loves to utilize the shooting technique when fishing around shady docks. This technique causes the bait to maintain low trajectory and penetrate hard-to-hit areas that can’t be reached with conventional casting. His preferred jig for shooting is a 1/16-ounce hand-tied marabou.
“Color doesn’t seem to make that big a difference,” he said. “Making the proper presentation is way more important. The main key is to get as far back into the shade as you possibly can.”
—story by Matt Williams