Winter Open-Water Crappie Techniques
By Lawrence Taylor
Wintertime crappie fishing can brighten anyone’s attitude. Here’s how to catch crappie by trolling and casting jigs simply by locating and following schools of baitfish.
Go to work in the dark; head home in the dark. The winter months can get depressing, but when the cell phone lit up with the name “Mitch Looper” calling, a pin-prick of hope appeared.
“Hey good buddy,” he said. “You oughta meet me at the ramp tomorrow. We caught about 50 good crappie today – a couple of them close to two pounds.”
We set the time for noon at the ramp. Looper is known as one of the best big-bass anglers in the world, but like most great anglers he just loves to fish, and to maximize the bite regardless of specie. This mid-December day the technique is open-water trolling and casting to crappie relating to schools of baitfish. Looper says that during winter in Arkansas the only water he can immediately eliminate is very shallow. The main ingredient is a huge concentration of baitfish.
“I may spend hours checking out different areas before making a cast or dropping a jig,” Looper said. “I want to find big schools of baitfish, and if I find three or four schools within a quarter-mile or so, that’s when I drop a jig and slowly troll from school to school.”
He definitely prefers a creek or river arm when fishing lakes like Ouachita or Beaver that have big populations of striped bass and white bass. Crappies don’t get along with these aggressive species, Looper says, and even a full-grown crappie can be dinner for a big striper. Plus, crappie feed differently than white bass or stripers, too.
“Stripers and whites attack their prey,” Looper said. “They’re vicious – slashing and violent. Crappie just kinda sneak up on it. On lakes that feature stripers or a bunch of white bass, I’ll usually start looking for baitfish in creeks, because most of these mean fish are in the main lake.”
When trolling, the exact tools Looper uses to stack up early winter slabs consist of a 1/8-ounce jighead in white, green, yellow or chartreuse, and a 3-inch pearl/white YUM Walleye Grub
. He fishes a single jig on 4-pound Silver Thread
because the light line prompts a quick sink rate. Since he’s focusing on schools of baitfish and not brush or structure, snags normally aren’t an issue.
A curly tail grub is best for trolling because of the swimming action of the tail. This swimming motion creates a bait “bigger than it is,” according to Looper, implying that the constant swirling of the tail makes for a bigger profile than it actually is.
While trolling he watches his electronics and notes the depth most schools of baitfish are located as well as the bottom depth, so when the moving schools of baitfish disappear he can continue to troll and search at the most-productive depth.
“If you’ve found good schools of baitfish they won’t move too far in a day, maybe a quarter-mile each way,” Looper said. “But they will be moving, which makes trolling essential.”
When he does roll up on a big school of bait Looper often reels in his trolling rig and grabs a vertical jigging set-up. He uses the same jighead weight and line size to get to the fish quick, but the jig is one designed for a vertical presentation, such as a YUM Beavertail
, classic Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub
or a Watsit
. The Watsit, a soft-plastic grub with tiny crustacean-like legs and a very thin tail, is quickly becoming one of his favorites because of its versatility.
He drops the Watsit through the baitfish and shakes it just under the ball. When the baitfish scatter or move, Looper casts the same jig in a semi-circle around the boat to see if he can pick up another fish or two. The extreme thinness of the tails allows them to undulate slightly and pull double duty as a vertical jig and casting jig.
“I’ll even troll with it if the crappies are in one of those really neutral feeding modes and don’t want all the action of a curly tail grub,” he said.
However, when the big schools of baitfish disappear from his screen and after a few fishless-casts with the Watsit, he picks up the curly tail trolling rig, tosses the jig behind the boat and hits the trolling motor to relocate the baitfish.
A bonus to working these transient schools of baitfish is that crappie aren’t the only species of fish you’ll catch. Bass are the most-common by-catch of working schools of bait, but Looper says he’s caught channel and flathead catfish, white bass and stripers with his open-water technique.
“I just like to catch fish,” he said. “This is the best way to catch fish during the cold-water months here in Arkansas and other areas where it doesn’t freeze up.”
Looper says that if he’s been on an area with lots of baitfish for a few days but can’t find them on a return trip, he expands his search by searching with his electronics a quarter mile in both directions. Big schools of baitfish won’t move miles overnight, but they’re always milling around. Looper’s trolling and casting technique allows him to maximize his time on the water and catch fish all winter long.
By: Lindy Team