Shifting Slabs

Use these techniques on Lake Bistineau, and watch your winter crappie haul skyrocket.

For somebody who has spent most of his life chasing bass for a living, Homer Humphreys of Minden sure does get excited about crappie. And no lake gets him as fired up as Lake Bistineau when he’s looking for a place to go catch some slabs.“That lake ranks right up there with the best crappie lakes in North Louisiana,” he said. “It holds its own with D’Arbonne and Claiborne, and it was even hotter than those for most of this past winter.”

Humphreys said one of the things that makes Bistineau such a popular crappie lake is that it continues to churn out slabs no matter how many drawdowns the lake undergoes or how many are caught and kept.

Like that pink bunny on TV, it just keep going and going.

Wanting to see if Humphreys was as full of hot air as he was supper, I met him recently at a little ramp at The Port of Bistineau to test the crappie bite myself. The frost building on my windshield made me dread the hour or so from sunrise to the time it broke over the treetops.

It also made me wonder if waking up at 3 a.m. to drive across North Louisiana would be worth the carnage all those cups of coffee were inflicting on my bladder.

The fisherman’s new Bass Cat Puma had a spider rig rod holder screwed to the front deck when he arrived, and there was an assortment of American Rodsmith Crappie Getter rods laying the length of his boat. It may have been unusual to see a nationally known pro bass angler with so much crappie gear, but it wasn’t unusual to Humphreys. He spends much of his down time during the winter guiding for crappie on Bistineau and the Red River.

Humphreys is the real deal

We began idling, at my insistence, toward an area that Humphreys called Gusto Point. We passed several boats along the way that were already dunking jigs and minnows into the frosty water.

“We could catch more right here,” Humphreys said as we moved past the other boats, “but we’re going to catch bigger ones where we’re going. I fished down here the other day right after a front and only caught 20, but they were all 1 1/2 to 2 pounds.”

Humphreys passed three rods rigged with various-colored tiny Bass Assassin bodies to me. He informed me that I would have to get my hands out of my pockets long enough to get my own shiners out of the minnow bucket then drop each to the bottom and crank them up two-and-a-half turns.

“That will keep our baits high enough off the bottom to keep them out of any trash but low enough to get their attention because they’re pretty much on bottom,” Humphreys said. “Crappie feed up, so we want to try to keep our baits positioned just over their heads.”

He instructed me to lay all three of my rods down on the boat deck because we would get fewer bites if we were holding them in our hands. He theorized that the lethargic crappie didn’t want any artificial motion our shivering hands would impart.

It was soon apparent Humphreys knew what he was talking about. The action wasn’t fast or furious, but it was consistent, and we caught crappie up to 2 pounds.

As good as the action was, Humphreys couldn’t resist boasting about how much better it would be in February when giant slabs shift locations into shallow cypress thickets en masse to make some babies.

“Bistineau is usually the first one to start,” Humphreys said referring to it getting the jump on lakes like Claiborne and D’Arbonne. “The Red River can get started early, but if it muddies up, which it’s prone to do in late January and early February, everybody heads to Bistineau.”

Whereas most of the winter action on Bistineau takes place from Clark’s Bayou to the Port of Bistineau, the late-winter bite moves farther north whether up the lake or up individual creeks. Crappie will start staging at the mouths of sloughs around late December and early January where they will wait on the angle of the sun to get right for them to move up even farther to spawn.

“The crappie that stay around Diamond T will move up Skinner Slough,” Humphreys said. “Those around the Port of Bistineau will move up to an area called Hickory Hollow. And from there they will move into Shelly’s Slough and Roy Rhone Slough. They’ll also move up Brush Creek just to the south of Port of Bistineau.”

When the crappie move

Humphreys believes the timing of the move and the impending spawn has more to do with the angle of the sun than it does water temperature. It’s not uncommon for the water temperature to jump from, say, 47 to 53 degrees during late December or early January, but that doesn’t push all the fish shallow where they would be in trouble once the temperature fell back to 47.

“They’ve got to know the difference,” Humphreys said. “If they ran up there in that shallow water and tried to spawn but the water only stayed warm for two or three days, they would really be messed up. Instincts tell them that warming water with a greater angle on the sun means there is less chance of the bottom falling out of the thermometer.”

He mentioned that anglers should know when the crappie are on the move because the normally consistent deep-water bite in the center of the sloughs will suddenly vanish. When that bite stops, he said to start fishing around the edges of the sloughs in 4 to 8 feet of water.

“They’ll sit there on the edges of the sloughs until everything sets up perfect for them to move into the cypress tree thickets,” Humphreys explained. “They don’t just dart right into the thickets, though. Crappie will move in those places on the points, which form migration routes.”

The interesting thing about many of these cypress-tree points is that they have drains or washouts that lead from shallow to deep. The thickets were formed during periods of high water, and the drains were formed when the water receded. Humphreys said that many of them may be silted in somewhat, but he insisted the crappie would still relate to the washouts no matter how subtle they are.

“You should also keep in mind that if you are faced with two points, the crappie will move up the one that juts farthest out to deep water,” Humphreys said. “So finding the drains on the extended points is the key to finding the crappie as they move up to spawn.”

Humphreys revealed one secret that many Bistineau crappie veterans hold dear during February. They put out the tops of Christmas trees along the tree lines that go into the thickets. For some reason, the fish prefer just the top rather than the entire tree. And Humphreys explained that crappie aren’t like bass in a top where one fish will dominate the entire piece of brush. Crappie go by the “more is merrier” philosophy.

Once the fish set up in the thickets to spawn, Humphreys said it’s important to change up your fishing gear a little bit. Whereas long poles and multiple rigs worked well in open water, anglers fishing the thick cover rely more on one shorter pole rigged with one lure.

“Some people can go in there with a pole in each hand,” Humphreys said, “but I’d rather stick with one because I can manage it better, and I keep from hanging baits in the limbs or poking the trunks with my rod.”

Humphrey’s go-to jigs

Humphreys relies on two jigs in the same color pattern for catching crappie during February. One is a Big Daddy Crappie Jig that has more of a chenille tip, and the other is a Kip Tail Jig that is a slimmer hair jig. Both are pink, purple and chartreuse.

“That color just dominates my inventory this time of year,” said Humphreys, who makes both jigs and sells them through various outlets. “I’ve got over 2,000 pieces ready to go for the February crappie fishing on Bistineau. Of course I’ve done enough testing to know why they’re so popular.”

There are two main ways of fishing spawning crappie around cypress trees. Humphreys’ good buddy Bobby Phillips from West Monroe explained each in detail.

“My favorite way to fish a jig next to a tree is to move in close enough to reach the base of the tree with my jig-pole,” Phillips said. “I’ll hold the line with my hand so I can stick the rod tip just above the surface of the water without the jig hitting, then I’ll lower the jig all the way to the bottom.”

Once the jig hits bottom, Phillips picks it up a couple inches and uses his trolling motor to quietly make a circle around the tree while keeping the jig at the same depth. He usually starts out away from the tree where he expects the roots to be before he moves in to the base of the tree.

“If the fish are aggressive,” Phillips continued, “you can pitch the jig to the base of the tree like you were bass fishing and let it swim back to you. Sometimes you’ll feel a good bite, but most of the time it will feel pressure like you’ve got a wet rag on the end of your line.”

Phillips said the key to catching spawning crappie off cypress trees at lakes like Bistineau is to learn to pick the trees that have good root systems. Obviously, learning the right trees takes time. He recommended finding those that have good cypress knees out away from the tree and looking for good root systems during periods of low water.

“I do really well on isolated cypress trees that are near a thicket,” Phillips added. “Those are some of my better trees. Once you get a good run of trees, you can go out there and hit only those trees and eventually load the boat.”

A few more tips

Humphreys chimed in that another effective technique on Bistineau is fishing a minnow under a cork. The key to this presentation is to continually shake the cork to move the minnow.

“Don’t pop it like you’re fishing for speckled trout,” he said. “Just keep shaking it until it goes under.”

Crappie can get real picky during the spawn, though, and Humphreys said it pays off to experiment with fall rate and jig sizes. He also is a firm believer that the smallest shiner you can buy will work best when tipping a jig because it results in better hook-ups.

Another consideration when fishing spawning crappie is line size. Humphreys insists that smaller line will produce more bites. He rigs up with 4- to 8-pound-test McCoy Mean Green, and he adamantly shuns braided line.

“I love braid, and I always thought it would be a good crappie line because it’s so manageable,” he said, “but I have proven to myself that crappie just won’t bite it. You may catch some on it if you move through a school in open water, but as far as this spawning stuff goes, I prefer to stay away from it.”

Humphreys relies on a 10-foot American Rodsmith Crappie Getter rod, which is 100-percent graphite. He likes the shorter rod because it’s easier to maneuver around all those low-hanging cypress limbs, and the graphite construction helps him feel more bites and causes less arm fatigue.

“You can hold that pole all day long without it getting heavy on you,” Humphreys said. “A lot of jig poles with fiberglass construction tend to get so heavy you don’t want to hold them anymore, not to mention the deadened sensation that causes you to not feel bites.”

Humphreys concluded with a few tips that would help any crappie angler trying to catch some slabs on Bistineau.

“First, if there is current coming through a thicket or across a flat, you’re going to have to put your jig right in the middle of the eddy,” he said. “Most of the time that would be on the backside of a tree and right in the heart of a brushpile.

“Second, keep an eye out on the yo-yos. Bistineau is renowned for yo-yos on the edges of the sloughs. If you see the majority of the yo-yos move from the edges of the sloughs to the thickets, you can bet the fish have moved.”

Chris Ginn
About Chris Ginn 779 Articles
Chris Ginn has been covering hunting and fishing in Louisiana since 1998. He lives with his wife Jennifer and children Matthew and Rebecca along the Bogue Chitto River in rural Washington Parish. His blog can be found at chrisginn.com.