Try these tips from the pros to stay on fish as chilly conditions set in
Cooler water means more active fish — and with the crappie gathering up for prespawn feeding, you can bet that schooling competition will motivate the fish to eat whatever they can catch.
That’s good news for folks who favor artificials and jigs as their top options.
“In December, it’s hard to beat live bait, but if I’m using artificials, I would be using a small-profile hair jig — a tube style lead head with craft hair,” said crappie pro Matt Morgan. “A small minnow head jig with a small Midsouth tube is very effective, as is a Bobby Garland Baby Shad.”
Toledo Bend crappie guide Dennis Tietje holds a similar mindset, with his preference leaning toward a Mr. Crappie Shad Pole or Lightning Shad. The idea, Tietje notes, is to mimic the crappie’s number one food source — small threadfin shad.
“Those little, subtle baits just seem to work best,” Tietje said. “Something that looks like a shad is most effective.”
While we’re talking about Mr. Crappie baits, we figured it would make sense to ask the man himself — Wally “Mr. Crappie” Marshall.
Having chased his quarry all over the south, Marshall knows the fish will be following migrating shad schools into the backs of pockets and tributaries where they find amenable conditions during harsh winter months.
“A lot of crappie stack up in creek channels in the winter; a lot of baitfish move in there and the crappie are following them,” Marshall said. “What I do is go up those creeks and start using my Humminbird 360 to look for baitfish and submerged logs and timber that you can’t find with the naked eye.
“I keep going until I don’t see anymore baitfish or crappie. Usually, the crappie are with the baitfish, so if you don’ see any baitfish, there’s not going to be any crappie farther up the creek, so I turn around and start fishing my way out.”
Wherever you find your crappie, consistent action depends on keeping your bait on the fish’s radar. Favoring 1/32- to 1/8-ounce Mr. Crappie ball head jigs, Tietje said a 90-degree eye is essential for maintaining that vertical posture he needs for effective presentations.
“You want to present that bait as naturally as you can,” he said. “We don’t get really cold until late December or early January, so our fish are still really active; they’re still close to the surface around the cypress trees and other cover.”
On Toledo Bend, D’Arbonne and other noted crappie locales, Marshall’s a fan of one-pole, vertical jigging over the brush and wood he encounters. For this technique, he’ll use his signature 10-foot jigging rod with his Mr. Crappie Solo reel — a large arbor reel that allows him to quickly pull out line, as needed.
Once he locates a suspected crappie attractor, Marshall tosses out a marker and works all around the structure; all the while monitoring his Humminbird 360 for signs of bait and fish. Snags happen, but Marshall knows a calm measured response usually salvages the moment.
“Don’t panic if you feel your jig hit something,” he said. “Don’t jam the hook into the brush or wood; just wiggle your rod tip until it pops loose. Why break a $50 rod over a 10-cent lure?”
A couple more productive techniques:
On the move
Noting that not all crappie utilize a lake’s pockets and creeks, Marshall points to the tactic of tight-lining, aka “pushing,” to cover water on the main lake. Here, he’d rig a ½-ounce weight about 12 inches below a 1/16-ounce jig and hang a second jig about a foot below that weight.
Marshall likes his Mr. Crappie Shad Pole for this deal, but he might also use a Mr. Crappie Joker for a little more motion to entice the fish.
He’ll start by varying the colors and body shapes until he determines what the fish want. Once a preference becomes clear, he’ll fish the popular choice on both of his double-rig segments.
Go with the flow
Now, moving to shallow rivers like the Ouachita calls for a little different strategy.
Here, Tietje drops to a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jighead, compared to the 1/16- to 1/8-ounce range he likes in deeper lake habitat. He also prefers suspending crappie jigs below small corks.
“Basically, you’re not able to put your boat over top of the fish like you can in a lake because of the water depth,” he said. “So you either have to extend with a cane pole away from the boat, or you’re casting away from the boat. A cork just offers you that ability to hold that bait in the strike zone.”
Tietje employs a floating presentation in various river habitat, and he adjusts his cork rig to fit the scenario he’s fishing. For example, a shallow brush pile affording minimal overhead clearance may require only a 1 ½-foot leader; whereas targeting the bases of cypress trees might require 2 to 2 ½ feet of drop.
The float strategy also works around the wellhead structures scattered throughout southern marshes. Casting to these spots can work, but crappie will hold close to anything harboring baitfish, so floating your jig is the more efficient tactic.
“With a lot of these wellheads, people have put brush around them,” Tietje said. “These areas and any treetop in those oilfield canals are good, as opposed to the open areas. You’re just not going to randomly catch many out in the marsh. By this time of year, they’re going to be moving to the deep water canals.”
Tietje finds 4- to 6-pound line fits his crappie work; with size decreasing as clarity expands. High-vis yellow or green line can be helpful in detecting those light bites that impart only a subtle twitch.
Keep in mind that December is likely to deliver cold fronts, so don’t be surprised to see the fish push back into deeper water during tough post-frontal days. Marshall advises looking around deeper laydowns and docks with a lot of depth for sulking crappie. Switching to the super-subtle baits and employing minimal movement is the way to go.
“I would rather have not a lot of action on the lure,” Marshall said. “A lot of times, you can just hold it there and they’ll just knock the fire out of it.”
Another option: Tietje adds a Berkley Powerbait Crappie Nibble to his jig hook to sweeten the smell/taste. Think of it like driving past a bakery and smelling that fresh bread; you may not have been in the munching mood, but a stimulus can make folks — and fish — do things they weren’t initially planning to do.
Tietje’s summary: “Most of the time, you don’t need that extra incentive, but it never hurts.”
Probing the water column
Stay on the fish. Keep it in the strike zone.
Yeah, we hear those phrases a lot, but saying and doing are not always congruent. Well, crappie guide Dennis Tietje has a technique for pinpointing December crappie — and it’s just a matter of being patient and thorough.
“If the spot you’re fishing is deep enough for you to be able to put your boat over the fish, drop down to the bottom and then slowly lift your rod; and I mean to the point where your rod is extended over your head,” he said. “Crappie will always have a strike zone and they never feed down; they only feed up. So, if you’re fishing below those crappie, you’re not going to catch them.
“By lifting that jig very slowly with your arm, you actually come up through that strike zone. As it’s leaving, those crappie think that minnow is swimming away. This technique will double your catch rate, versus just putting your bait down there and jigging it.”
While your jig is down there on the bottom, consider the value of drawing attention to your bait with visual and audible disturbance.
Specifically, let your jig hit bottom, raise it a few inches and then let it fall again. Doing this a few times creates a commotion that’ll, at least, alert fish that something’s on the way toward their strike zone.