Editor’s Note: Santa Claus has come down the chimney, and we’ve launched a new year. Most crappie fishermen have their poles rolled-up and stored under the porch, but not Whitey Outlaw of Gadsden, South Carolina. He fishes for crappie year-round and fishes on both crappie circuits, Crappie USA (https://www.crappieusa.com/About_Crappie_USA.cfm) and Crappie Masters (http://www.crappiemasters.net/home/). To help you catch papermouths this winter, we’ve asked Outlaw where he finds crappie and how he catches them.
In January, crappie are holding on their winter pattern. In most of the lakes we fish, the crappie will be 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 a 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 B‘n’M (https://www.bnmpoles.com/) poles on the front of the boat. I like the 14-foot Pro Staff B‘n’M rods at this time of year. 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 the past, we used 12-foot B‘n’M poles, but we now like the 14-foot poles, especially when we fish in clear water, which you frequently find at this time of year. In that 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 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 generally 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 25-40 feet in the winter. 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 1/2-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 wintertime 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-sized minnows. If the fish are biting well, we usually need a pound of minnows, which is about 25 dozen. On a good winter’s 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 barometric pressure, the wind, the chill factor, the water’s temperature, the water’s 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 winter crappie. So, when I locate that school of fish, I remain with it all day long. Sometimes a school of fish will be 50-yards long, and sometimes it only may 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 in the winter generally is out on the main lake, right along a river-channel ledge. A river-channel ledge always will have stumps, logs, trees and trash on it, and that’s where the baitfish will hold. So that’s also where the crappie hold. 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 Br’er 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 depth finder, and fish for those crappie, you can catch them.
To learn much more about crappie fishing, get John E. Phillips’ Kindle eBooks, and print and Audible books by going to https://johninthewild.com/books/#crappie or to www.barnesandnoble.com for Nook books. To receive and download for free “The Crappie Catchers’ Cookbook,” by John and Denise Phillips, go to https://johninthewild.com/free-books.