Editor’s Note: Whitey Outlaw of Gaston, South Carolina, fishes for crappie year-round. To help you catch papermouths this winter, we’ve asked Outlaw where he finds crappie and how he catches them.
At this time of year, crappie are holding on their winter pattern. In most of the lakes we fish, the crappie hold at 12- to 18-feet deep. They will be on the ledges and/or under stumps and will be very dormant because the water is cold. Although most crappie fishermen believe these crappie are hard to catch, they really aren’t. You just have to fish slower than you do in the spring and the summer. To find the crappie, we use a lake map to pinpoint creek channels, drop-offs, ledges and old river beds. Then we get out in our boat with our depth finder and drive along these drop-offs to look for the fish. We will see them schooled-up or holding around structure.
To catch these dormant crappie, we use light line, small hooks, small minnows and small jigs. When we find a school, we tight line with eight, 14-foot poles on the front of the boat. These poles are long, so they hold the baits well away from the boat, and they are stiff enough and have enough backbone to pull the crappie away from the cover. In clear water, we believe the poles help keep the baits well out in front of the boat, so the crappie don’t see the boat before they take the baits. Once we have our poles out and baited with minnows, we move very slowly along the edges of these drops-offs and ledges.
When we catch a crappie, we throw out a buoy marker because if you catch one crappie, you can be sure there are other crappie close by. Once we have our marker out, we hover around that region, watch our depth finder and try to determine what kind of structure is in the area. Usually we’ll catch a few fish at that site, and when the fish stop biting, we’ll pick up our marker and continue on down the ledge, until we locate another stump, brush pile or school of crappie.
Now if you fish a really-clear lake, don’t be surprised if your crappie are down 25 to 40 feet. Most people won’t fish that deep, and that’s the reason we catch crappie and they don’t. This time of year, I exclusively fish minnows on a Kentucky rig with ½-ounce of lead. On the main line, I tie a three-way swivel. Then I tie about 10 inches of leader to one of the other eyes and tie on my lead. I tie a 12-inch leader below the lead, and then tie on another Aberdeen hook. This rig allows me to fish two minnows, one on each hook.
The size of the minnow you use is critical to the number of crappie you catch. To know what size minnow is best for the day you fish, you have to let the fish tell you what size minnow they want that day. Some days they may want a minnow that is 1-1/2 inches long. Other days they may prefer a 2-inch minnow, and on another day they may like an extremely small minnow that is 1-inch long. I have found that during the cold winter months, really-small minnows seem to pay the best crappie dividends. When I go to the bait store, I usually buy a bucket of small minnows and a bucket of medium-size minnows. If the fish are biting well, we usually need a pound of minnows, which is about 25 dozen. On a good day, we expect to catch 50 or 60 crappie and cull back 40 or 50 fish to take home 10 or 20 slabs. Some days we may catch only 15 or 20.
Crappie fishing is funny. Many factors affect your success, including the barometer, the wind, the chill factor, the water temperature, the water color and the mood of the fish. But I have learned that if you find the crappie, you can make them bite. At some time during the day, those fish are going to eat, and all you have to do is stay on top of them and keep that bait in front of them, until they decide to eat.
I have learned at this time of year, you’re lucky if you find one good school of crappie. So, when I find that school of fish, I remain with it all day long. Sometimes a school of fish will be 50-yards long, and sometimes it may only be 25-yards long. But if you fish all around that section of a river or a lake, sooner or later you will catch them. I have found that my best place to fish is out on the main lake, right along that river-channel ledge. A river-channel ledge will always have stumps, logs, trees and trash on it, and that’s where the baitfish will hold and the crappie. Those fish want to be close to deep water. Most of the time, if you will get out on the water at this time of year, the crappie you catch will be good ones. They will average 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 pounds.
My favorite place to fish is Santee Cooper Lake. Like Uncle Remus said about B’rer Rabbit, I was born and raised there, and I know I can catch enough crappie on that lake to eat any time I fish there. Just remember, crappie don’t die in the wintertime,and they have to eat in the winter just like they do at the other times of the year. So if you’ll get out on the water, look for the fish on your depthfinder and fish for those crappie, you can catch them.
For more tips and information on catching crappie, check out John E. Phillips’ Kindle and print book, “Catch Crappie All Year” (https://www.amazon.com/Catch-Crappie-All-Year-Fishing-ebook/dp/B00VO0DZTI), or go to http://www.amazon.com/John-E.-Phillips/e/B001HP7K6O to see all of John’s books. To receive and download for free “The Crappie Catchers’ Cookbook,” by John and Denise Phillips, go to https://www.dropbox.com/sh/1tvp5nmxp8jycjf/AAAiOTM6vHolzGV44kO2oEnKa?dl=0.