It's that time of year again. The weather is hit and miss at best, the temps are cold and the boat ramps are icy. Worst of all it seems the coffee never lasts as long as you wish it would either. With that being said though, the Crappies are schooled up in force and every would be Crappie wrangler in the area is out to fill his livewell. Here in Kansas where our lakes are relatively small that equates to being forced to chase after some highly pressured fish. While that can make for some tough fishing, it isn't the end of the world if you know how to adjust your game to the mood they are in. Here are a few simple steps you can take to put the odds in your favor and avoid making situations harder than they have to be.
The only thing that seems to school up tighter than Crappie in the Winter is Crappie fisherman. Between all the sonar noise and banging around in the boats it won't take long for those fish to get wise. It won't take long for them to start ignoring jigs or completely up and push out of an area either.
Try and remember to turn off any sonar units not in use to reduce sonar noise and be as quiet as possible in the boat by not letting rod butts, pliers, or fish checkers hit the floor. If you have multiple boats running multiple sonar transducers, the noise to the fish is similar to the neighbor kid with the drum set. It doesn't take long to start getting old.
Another common mistake I see is guys circling over a pile with outboards before they fish it. Now that we have Livescope, I have seen schools of fish run from the boat as far as 25 ft away and that was while using the trolling motor, so coming in hot on the outboard can, and will send them running. You should've already done your homework, scanning areas prior to the season and knowing what pile you are wanting to fish before you get there.
Once you're there, cut the big motors off and sneak in with the trolling motor. If the wind direction and position of the sun make it at all possible, try to avoid letting your boat cast shadows over the brush pile as well.
If you are one of those boaters that sees guys in an area then heads over and starts scanning around in circles while guys are fishing, not only are you doing it all wrong, you're part of the reason articles have to be written about pressured fish to begin with. Stop being lazy, take a day and just do your homework. That means leaving the rods at home and just going scanning, or even better, putting in your own brush from time to time. The Corps office is usually eager to assist and will provide permits as well as information on the matter along with the local biologists. This one simple step will greatly increase your odds. Fisherman are usually eager to help other guys out, but getting in the way and motoring around on top of guys isn't going to do you any favors in getting that help.
Fisherman aren't always quick in this area either. Some will sit on top of a pile vertical jigging for hours complaining the fish are slow or not active but never seem to stop and consider changing presentations. Just because it worked well last time doesn't mean it will work this time. When targeting pressured or inactive fish, sometimes both, the longer they look at a jig the less likely they are to hit it.
Instead of trying to lure him in, try flipping out and letting the jig fall across the top of the fish or slow rolling it up thru the pile. If they aren't actively feeding there is a good chance that vertical jigging may not be the best way to go, by slow rolling and flipping across the top of the fish you are able to trigger reaction bites with a moving target instead of waiting on him to decide he has been "lured" in.
Upsize those jigs-
We have all heard the saying "match the hatch" before. What's amazing is how few anglers pay attention to it.
By this time of year the shad and baitfish have grown to be pretty good sized. Something I've learned from fishing tournaments is bigger baits result in bigger, and better bites. Also, as a full time Crappie Guide I have cleaned more than my fair share of Crappies and regularly see shad over four inches long in them so don't be afraid to go for a three inch bait or bigger. With livescopes, or even a good 2D Chirp sonar, video game fishing is where it's at, and big jigs with heavier heads is the way to get there.
Tournament anglers refer to them as commitment baits due to the fact Crappies will have to commit to the strike and hit it hard enough to kill it so to speak as opposed to something small that it will just swim up on and nibble at.
I regularly fish with jigs up to 3.5's and push them on 1/4oz heads. When the bites are happening fast or money is on the line I like the ElaZtech baits from Z-Man fishing products. Trick ShotZ, Slim SwimZ and the TRD TicklerZ are among my top picks. Add a drop of super glue on the hook shank and you can easily boat over a hundred crappie on a single plastic bait without having to stop and check or adjust the jig body after every missed hookset or snag. Often, as a fisherman you're put in situations where you are forced to think, and sometimes fish outside the box. Remain flexible and remember a few of the steps in this article and you will have plenty of fun this Winter. Never take more than you need and please, always wear your lifejackets.