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Catching crappie in the cold

Some of the hottest action for Arkansas’ favorite panfish is during those frigid days when most anglers stay at home

By Keith Sutton

This article was published December 15, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

Josh Sutton holds up one of the more than 50 crappie caught on a cold morning while fishing with his father, Keith Sutton, and friend Jerry Blake.

The air was icy when we left the boat ramp, but when we arrived at our fishing hole, the calm wind and warm sun made the morning feel pleasant despite the 25-degree temperature. My son Josh and I, bundled up like Eskimos, basked like turtles on a log while waiting for a bite.

We didn’t wait long.

“One on red!” our friend Jerry Blake snapped.

Each of us was watching “color-coded” bobbers floating above our minnow baits. Josh had red and white. I had green and yellow. And Jerry had black and blue. Josh’s red bobber had sunk slowly out of sight, indicating a light-biting winter crappie had inhaled the minnow on that line.

“Dadgummit!” Josh exclaimed as he grabbed the pole and snapped it upward without hooking a fish.

“One on green!” Jerry said.

Red was back under, too, and Jerry had a hit on the black bobber he was fishing at the front of the boat.

Suddenly, all three of us were battling crappie. The scrappy fish raced to and fro in the frigid water, putting sharp bends in our long poles. With a bit of maneuvering, we managed to land all four fish.

“They feel like ice,” I said as I felt the sides of the crappie I had caught. “I don’t know how they can be so lively and be so cold.”

Lively they were, though. Although most of the crappie we caught that day barely wiggled one of the bobbers when it took the bait, each fought hard when hooked. And plenty were hooked, a fact that made this frigid adventure highly enjoyable.

Catching cold-weather crappie can be challenging. If the water temperature falls extremely low, crappie may become lethargic. Those that are feeding may bite so gingerly they are almost undetectable. Nevertheless, crappie are commonly caught targets of ice fishermen, and other anglers who know tips for success probably will discover that winter fishing isn’t as difficult as they thought it would be.

During winter, crappie usually hold on deep cover and structure. But anglers should be able to find them by using a sonar fish-finder to mark fish on man-made fish attractors, brush piles, creek-channel edges and other cover and structure in 15 to 35 feet of water. When the fish are found, there should be plenty. Crappie tend to school in large congregations this time of year, and it’s possible to catch a limit from a single fishing spot.

The depth at which the crappie are holding many vary from one location to the next. Some crappie may be 15 feet deep, while others are 20 feet down. But if you use the fishing rigs we use, adjustments are easy.

Each rig consists of a minnow fished on a No. 6 Eagle Claw light-wire Aberdeen cricket hook beneath a Thill pencil-style slip float. On the line above the float is a small bobber stop. Moving the bobber stop up or down is all it takes to change the depth at which the bait is suspended by the float. A split shot to sink the bait completes each rig.

Many crappie fans also enjoy fishing with small jigs, which may prove even more effective than live minnows at times. Each should be tied so it hangs perpendicular to the line when it was in the water. The lure then is lowered to the depth crappie are holding and is held almost motionless until a fish strikes. Adding a live minnow to the jig hook may make the lure more enticing to crappie if they seem a bit persnickety.

Despite being in freezing-cold water, the crappie we were catching on the day I described were hungry and hitting hard. I usually manage to miss as many as I hook, but on this morning, lots of these sassy panfish were hooking themselves. Before lunchtime, our trio had 53 in the livewell, a mixture of both white crappie and black crappie. We also caught a dozen or so nice bluegills that couldn’t resist our minnows, and one nice spotted bass as well.

Josh and I both were hungry for a mess of crappie, so before we left the lake, we filleted our catch. As I cleaned the fish, it was hard not to notice how healthy they were. Each had extremely thick fillets — more like bass fillets than panfish fillets — and every one had a belly full of baitfish. I can’t remember ever cleaning a mess of crappie in better condition.

Winter fishing isn’t for everybody. For most of us, a warm fireplace is much more attractive than a frigid outing on a cold lake.

If the fishing itch gets too intense to bear, though, give winter crappie a try. Fishing for these sassy panfish is a sure remedy for what ails you.

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