Southern Tactics for New Year Crappie
Florida anglers have two things on their mind in January. It is the month that crappies generally begin their spawning ritual and it is when the fish are the biggest and healthiest. Those two reflections translate into some great crappie fishing.
It is difficult to give a generic answer as to what works best in January, because every body of water is different. That observation, however, is what makes Florida crappie anglers Tim Eberly and George Parker treat each new outing like it is the first time they have been to a lake, regardless of how many times they fished it before.
Long lining on Crescent Lake can produce crappie over 2 pounds. January fishing should concentrate on the north end of the lake.
Eberly and Parker are frequent competitors in the Bass Pro Shops Crappie Masters and Cabela’s Crappie USA tournament trails. Parker and his partners have won the Crappie USA tournament on Lake Crescent for the last five years running with Eberly being part of the winning team the last two years. The duo has also won five out of eight Florida Crappie Club tournaments on Crescent Lake, proving that their knowledge of crappie fishing is substantial.
Eberly explains, “In January we will typically jig the Kissimmee grass on Lake Okeechobee where spawning crappie can be caught. Further north in central Florida we will fish on the St Johns River using spider rigging techniques on the ledges to catch spawning fish.”
Still further north on lakes like Crescent and Talquin the fish are in pre-spawn and the Eberly-Parker team can use their favorite technique of long line trolling to chase down slabs.
Long lining (also known as pulling) as Parker and Eberly means using up to ten Wally Marshall Crappie Rods. Parker runs the trolling motor from his bow seat position while fishing three poles out each side of the boat with his back to the trolling motor.
He staggers the length of his poles from front to back to give separation to the trolling baits. There is an 18-foot rod in the most forward position, a 14-foot rod in the middle and an 11-foot rod in the back rod holder. Parker’s rods are deployed furthest from the boat, covering the outside range of the water they are fishing.
Eberly is pulling from the back of the boat where it is not necessary for the poles to be as long. He deploys two 8-foot Mr. Crappie Rods, set at angles on each side of the big motor. These rods fish the middle of the range they are covering. Given that the beam of the boat is about 8 feet wide, the crappie duo is trolling a swath of water roughly 42 feet wide.
The team is always looking for a pattern. Their style of fishing starts by experimenting with different things. They use the information gathered through trial and error to improve their catch rate by adjusting to current conditions. About the only thing constant is the 4-pound test mono.
According to Parker, “Spawning conditions are consistent and predictable, but real-time knowledge is needed to determine where and how to fish.” That’s what practice fishing days are all about to the tournament pros.
Crappies return to the same area year after year to spawn. Experienced anglers will have those good spots from previous years marked on their electronics as a place to start looking in the new year.
“We typically cover water,” says Eberly. As tournament anglers we are looking for the larger female fish that are pre-spawn. Typically the bigger females will be staged outside of the males that are making beds. We will look for some different habitat, something different that will hold those spawning females.” Grass roots off the bottom or areas with small brush are a good example of where the big ones will hold.
Parker and Eberly recommend working back and forth from deeper water towards the bank to eliminate areas where the fish are smaller. “Sooner or later you will find where the big ones are staging,” declares Eberly.
While they cover water they are also testing jig size, color and boat speed. “When we first start out we will be pulling jigheads ranging from 1/8 ounce to 1/48 ounce,” says Parker. “We also pin various colors of plastic tails until we find out what they are hitting that day.”
“You can cover a range from 15 feet deep to surface presentations by changing your speed and jighead sizes,” says Parker. “Speed will widen the depth range that you are fishing. Depending on which rig you catch the fish on, you change accordingly and get every pole rigged with the combination that is catching fish. The more baits you have in the strike zone, the more fish you are going to catch.”
Although they seldom tip with minnows they will try them at times when the bite is slow. When they do use minnows they will isolate their use to either the poles out the back or the poles out the side. This allows them to determine if the minnow rigs are catching more fish than the other baits. In the end they will defer to the method that is catching the most fish. “If we see a definite pattern,” says Eberly, “we go all out with that technique.”
Pulling from the side and back is a favorite technique for catching New Year crappie. Eberly and Parker deploy three Wally Marshall Rods out each side in the front and two out each side in the back, covering a swath about 42 feet wide.
The great January fishing in Florida is subject to some variable weather in the form of cold fronts. The arrival and passing of these fronts can mean changing conditions from sunny bright skies to overcast and dreary skies, all in the same day.
“January fishing can be tough in Florida depending on the number of cold fronts that come through,” says Eberly. “Cold fronts are very possible in January and they usually put the fish down,” chimes in Parker. “In fact, we have caught fish that will have mud on their fins because they have been buried so deep in the mud for warmth.”
In addition to moving them deeper, cold fronts tend to give crappie a case of lockjaw. Even when you get a bite it may be slow. “The fish may not be as aggressive with the presence of a cold front,” says Parker. “They seem to take the bait in and just hold it. Normally when pulling the fish will set the hook on the bite, but on those colder days when the fish are not as aggressive the angler needs to set the hook.”
Arriving cold fronts are normally associated with overcast days, which also affect the fish and successful anglers know to respond with a change in presentation. “A brief cloudy period can change everything,” warns Parker. “The fish will come up in the water column to have better light with which to feed. If you started off catching fish at 12 feet and the bite stops after clouds appear, those fish may have moved up. You definitely do not want to be pulling baits below the fish. Crappie feed looking up and move up to eat dinner, but they seldom go down to eat.”
A change from clouds to a bright sunny day will often send fish deeper. This is especially true on clear deep-water lakes. The adjustment processes to go deeper is either let out more line or replace the jigs with heavier ones. If you do nothing when weather conditions change and the bite stops you many be through for the day. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Crappies don’t change zip codes very often. “They will move, but usually not very far,” says Parker. “If you find them one day it is likely they will be nearby the next day. That is why it is important to use your knowledge and techniques to locate them and then adjust when conditions change the bite. Once you find them stick with it. They won’t move far if they move at all.”
Eberly and Parker are sponsored by Wally Marshall, Evinrude, Skipper Jigs and ARG Marine.