Many anglers avoid fishing in cold weather and concentrate on gear maintenance. Forget that - get out and catch fish now!
Winter is brutal and the cold weather often extends into early spring. This usually proves to be the most difficult time of the year to catch fish. Target species seem inactive and reaction baits, which many anglers prefer using, might as well be thrown into puddles found in parking lots during these coldest months.
If you and your fishing buddies are going stir crazy, charge the boats batteries and get your tackle ready.
Get in the winter mindset
There are still ways to find and catch fish in the winter and early spring. One species in particular is pretty easy to figure out.
Crappie begin to gather into large schools on many lakes in fall and stay grouped up throughout winter. These schools will be found near current breaks, bridges and points on the main bodies of the lakes you may fish. They will often be found in water around 30 feet in depth, and are ready biters on the coldest of days.
Crappie love small minnows. These baits are easily offered by using simple vertical presentations. Use a small panfish hook, and place a small 1/8 oz bullet weight about six to seven inches above it. Some anglers like to use Carolina rigs with weights as heavy as 1/4 oz to reach the bottom more quickly.
I have always preferred hooking the minnow through the back when anchoring, and through the lips when slow-trolling. Be very careful when hooking through the back. Pierce just under the fin so as not to kill the bait.
Location, location, location
After reaching an area which is likely to hold crappie, your sonar should show you proof of your quarry. If the screen isn't alive, hit the next bridge. If you did your homework and checked online fishing forums for your home state, you should know which bridges are best. Check them first.
Bridges funnel bait to feeding fish around the columns and the rip-rap nearby, and also provide structure for bait fish to hide and ambush points for hungry predators. I prefer the columns if I'm anchoring. I have found that certain spots will be the most productive year after year.
Start by approaching a column with bait and fish present on your sonar screen, then identify current. Tie off to the column from the bow and let your boat swing around into the current. Then drop an anchor off the back of the boat after it settles. This should hold you in place on calm to light wind days.
Drop multiple lines straight down to the bottom. Then reel up to bring the baits just off the lake floor and place them in rod holders. Crappie tend to feed most heavily just off the bottom in winter. Make sure to put a few baits within inches of the column as these fish will often be holding tight to the structure. I recommend assigning two rods per person to start off, and be sure to rotate anglers if certain spots keep producing. You will often find you'll only need one rod per person during the prime times of the day when action can be constant.
Adjusting on the fly
On windy days many crappie anglers prefer to 'slowly bump' around with their trolling motor. This requires a slight tackle change. You will want to use the Carolina rig, but with a heavier weight - perhaps an ounce. This will keep the presentations as vertical as possible while slowly trolling along, and should prevent tangling of lines.
The size of your boat and number of anglers will allow you to determine the number of rods to use. Make sure you have just enough line out to position the baits just off the bottom; should you find a hot spot and sit on it.
This method of fishing demands constant monitoring of your sonar. You will need to know your depth at all times so as not to hang up multiple lines. This is an art form, and prior experience on the waters you fish will go a long way in determining whether you catch crappie, or hang the bottom.
Sonar units with lake contours and depth chart capabilities are invaluable tools should you be fishing on a new body of water. This method requires more patience, but will many times out-produce anchoring on different days - in particular close to spring, when crappie begin staging in shallower water in preparation for the spawn. During these times, white bass and stripers can mix in, so always make sure your reels have the drag set loose.
By all means, make sure your gear is properly maintained; thats a given. But when you really need to get the family out of the house during the doldrums of winter remember, crappie are willing biters, they're in schools, easy to find and stay on top of, and happen to make for very tasty fried fish nuggets.
So put on your thermals, get out there and catch fish now.