Sure it’s cold, but that’s all the more reason to load a stringer with these tasty, hard-fighting fish.
|Photo by CHRIS GINN|
Halbrook begins his early winter search for chinquapin at the deep edge of shoreline cover.
“Eddie, it’s the middle of winter,” I said. “We can’t catch chinquapins right now.”
“BULL,” he replied. “I’m smoking them. And, if you get off your lazy behind and get on down here, I’ll prove it to you.”
I gave in, and told him I’d meet him at the lake the next day. I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t really looking forward to trading my hot chocolate and roaring fire for numb fingers and frozen toes.
“What do I need to bring?” I queried. “Worms, crickets … dynamite?”
“You got any drop-shot tackle?” he asked.
Yeah, this was looking like it was going to really be fun. The fish were up spawning the last time Halbrook and I had tried them, and all I had to worry about was finding my sunshades and getting sunburned. Now, I was worried about how many layers of clothes I needed to wear … and where to find drop-shot tackle.
Halbrook (318-259-4454) guides at Caney Lake in Jackson Parish, and is widely regarded as the foremost chinquapin expert on the lake. His are the stringers that cause lower jaws to drop and eyeballs to bulge. Even though I doubted drop-shotting chinquapins during the middle of winter, I had to admit that I was in capable hands.
Whether you call them shellcrackers, lakerunners or chinquapin, giant redear sunfish swarm on Caney Lake, as evidenced by the state-record 2.88-pound monster caught by Terry Hall in March 2003.
“I know I’ve eaten state-record chinquapin,” said Halbrook. “You just can’t imagine how big these fish are unless you see them first-hand.”
Mike Wood, District 2 fisheries biologist, says there is no better place in Louisiana to catch giant chinquapin no matter what time of year you’re fishing.
“The habitat that exists (at Caney) is excellent for growing big redears,” he said.
Wood says the LDWF has stocked the lake with approximately 81,000 chinquapins.
“Our objective with them and bluegill was to establish something that could take off on its own, and that has been accomplished,” Wood stated. “These redear sunfish are different in that they like open water, and that is what allows them to get so big.”
First, Wood explained that this open-water preference insulates the chinquapins from the majority of anglers.
“Eddie has figured out how to find them in the open,” said Wood. “However, most anglers are intimidated by being out in the middle of the lake, and they never find the fish if they aren’t up spawning.”
Second, Wood said that since largemouth bass are more cover-oriented fish, the chinquapins are relatively safe from predation when they’re in the open.
“About the only time bass and chinquapins get together is when the chinquapins are in shallow water,” he said. “They do get eaten by bass, but not to the extent where they can’t sustain production. It’s a give-and-take situation. There are lots of little fish, so some can be lost to predation and disease while still maintaining an excellent fishery.”
Wood also points to the abundant food supply in Caney as a reason the lake grows giant chinquapins. The lake is full of small mussels (Asian clams), and the chinquapins just love them.
“(Chinquapins) might eat the adults,” he said, “but, for all the adults, there are thousands of smaller mussels, and even more in larval form.”
It’s a perfect fit since chinquapins have specially adapted teeth in the back of their mouths that are used to crush shells before eating the meat inside. This is why chinquapins are often referred to as shellcrackers.
Most people believe, and with good reason, that the best time to catch chinquapins is when they are spawning in shallow water. But, while piles of them are caught during spring, the fish are actually more spread out then they are when they move deep. Yet, since they are easier for most people to catch in the spring, and more people are out after them, spring is a highly regarded panfish season.
Halbrook thinks differently. He actually prefers fishing for chinquapins when nobody else is after them.
“I’m just like everybody else in that I chase them during the spawn,” he said. “But I also chase them the rest of the year. My favorite months for chinquapin are November, December and January.”
When chinquapins aren’t in shallow water, they are typically congregated somewhere in the depths — the key word being congregated. Halbrook explained that while a good chinquapin bed may have 30 to 40 big fish in it, a concentration of deep chinquapin will literally be made up of hundreds of fish.
“You can see, then, why I’d rather fish them when they’re grouped up during the winter,” Halbrook said. “They may be a little harder to find, but, boy, when you find them, you can catch 70 to 80 great big ones during a day.”
Halbrook explains that the chinquapins in Caney typically start moving deep around Thanksgiving week. Depths of 25 to 35 feet are most productive early in the winter.
But as the season progresses, the fish could move as deep as 50 feet.
About the only place you can find 50-foot water depths at Caney Lake is near the spillway on the eastern side of the lake. There are a few holes near the spillway that were created during construction of the levee, and Halbrook says this is where you need to be during the winter if you’re looking for chinquapin.
“They’ll be in that deep water down there all winter,” he said. “They won’t be in exactly the same spot all winter, because they’ll eventually have to move around so they can keep eating.”
Halbrook explained one thing that attracts big chinquapin to the spillway at Caney is the presence of the mussel shell beds of which Wood spoke.
“I’ve seen those beds with my underwater camera,” Halbrook said. “And, I’ve seen plenty of chinquapins down there eating them.”
Anglers should also understand that if the fish aren’t in the deep water near the spillway, they will be somewhere out in the main lake in that 25- to 30-foot water.
“It’s a broad area,” he admitted, “but if it doesn’t get really cold, they will stay out in the middle of the lake anywhere from Boggy Branch to the spillway. I stay right out in the middle of the lake and ease over to the south side a little. There is more gravel on that side, and a lot more humps with mussel beds too.”
Chinquapins are bottom feeders. Therefore, they present a problem when they stack up in deep water. These deep fish require a precise presentation because they are so tightly grouped. Typical tight-lining is an option, as is a slip-cork rig, but neither are precise enough for Halbrook.
“You’ve got to get your bait close to bottom and keep it there,” he said. “If you’re using a cork or tight-lining, you’re going to be bouncing the bait all around with the wave action tossing you around at the surface.
“I’ve found that a still bait gets more bites. That’s why I try to always fish on calm days, and I always throw out an anchor. The more still I can be, the more fish I’m going to catch.”
Halbrook has figured out that the best way to catch these deep chinquapins is to fish a rig that is the latest craze in bass fishing — the drop shot. The drop-shot rig has been used in catfish circles for several years, but only recently started proving its merit in bass tournaments. Bass anglers started using it to precisely present a bait to inactive fish that were stacked in deep water.
“Drop-shotting is a great tactic for almost any kind of fish when the conditions are tough,” Halbrook said. “A drop shot helps you maintain bottom contact while allowing your bait to stay in the same spot.”
To rig his chinquapin drop-shot, Halbrook ties a thin-wire, long-shank hook onto his line leaving enough on the tag-end to form the drop line. He then ties a 3/8-ounce drop-shot weight near the end of the drop line.
This rig is designed to be fished vertically underneath the boat. All you’ve got to do is get over the fish, open your bail and let the rig plummet to the bottom. Once the rig hits bottom, lift up slightly on the tip of your rod until you feel the line get a little taut. The key is to try to feel the weight without lifting it off the bottom.
“Once you pick up the slack,” Halbrook said, “your bait will be suspended just off bottom while the weight rests on the bottom. As long as you can keep your weight on the bottom, your bait will remain in the same position no matter what kind of waves are thrashing you around on the surface.”
Halbrook has been known to put out as many as five drop-shot rigs around his boat, and has determined that this rig works best when matched with some specific gear.
Drop-shot rigs conjure up images of wimpy rods and even wimpier line. Bass pros routinely use light spinning tackle to present their rigs. They also drop down to 4- or 6-pound-test line to try to keep from spooking the bass.
“Well, things are a little different out here on these chinquapins,” said Halbrook. “You don’t have to finesse these fish. There’s enough of them down there that competition for food is fierce, and they aren’t going to let a worm sit down there unmolested very long.”
Halbrook has come to rely on 11- and 12-foot B&M jigpoles with Shakespeare Microspin spinning reels to present his drop-shot down to the fish.
“I don’t use ultralight rods,” he said. “I’ve discovered that these fish are pretty hard to catch if they feel any resistance. The long poles make it easier to hook these deep fish because I can see bites by watching the tip of the pole. If it (rod tip) jumps, all I’ve got to do is pull the pole straight up. I know I’ve got him before he knows I’ve got him.”
An underwater camera is another important part of Halbrook’s winter chinquapin equipment. The water is generally pretty clear at Caney during the winter, and Halbrook says that dropping the camera into the water reveals an underwater dream world for chinquapin connoisseurs.
“It especially comes in handy when I wind up having to look for them after the bite turns off,” Halbrook stated. “I can drop it down, troll around a little, and get right back on them with minimal effort.”
I couldn’t believe that Halbrook had convinced me to go chinquapin fishing during the middle of winter. As I helped him load his boat on his trailer, I reflected back on our day. The drop-shot technique had definitely paid off to the tune of 53 mammoth chinquapin dangling from our stringer.
We fished near the spillway for most of the day. The bitter cold had pushed the fish to the deepest water in the lake, but that didn’t seem to matter. Our drop-shot rigs were baited with nightcrawlers, and the chinquapin just loved them. We had steady action all day long, and never saw another boat.
The bites were easy to detect when the tips of the poles twitched. All we had to do was pull the rod up to hook the fish. The wind remained calm during our trip, and Halbrook noted that this definitely helped.
Fifty-three fillet-sized chinquapin during the middle of winter — who would have thought it? And, you know, I never once noticed my frozen fingers.
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