by Brad Wiegmann
Anyone but a crappie angler would think being up a creek in a negative way. However, as fall turns to winter and water temperatures drop crappie will migrate into creeks to feed on baitfish. Of course, how far and where you go fishing up the creek will determine the number of crappie you will catch.
One professional crappie angler that’s been caught fishing up a creek on numerous occasions during the cold months is Wally Marshall. Marshall will even admit going up a creek can be a good thing. “Once the water temperatures drop below 50 degrees, Crappie will get stacked up in the back end of creeks. It all starts in the fall as the first schools of baitfish migrate into creeks as water temperatures begin cooling off, but gets better once the water temperature gets cold,” said Marshall.
Once the baitfish have moved into the creek it’s up to the angler to find where at in the creek. “Up a creek has a negative connotation to it, but not as long as you know what to look for when crappie fishing. Anglers should approach fishing up a creek by starting in the mouth and fishing towards the back. Somewhere between the mouth and back, an angler is going to find where the crappie are feeding on baitfish,” said Marshall.
By creeks, Marshall is referring to a watershed feeder creek. The creek doesn’t have to have current or flowing water to fish it, however, all of them will have a channel running through it. It’s common for a channel to swing from one stream bank to the other as it flows toward the main body of water.
Channel swings are like crappie magnets during the winter as baitfish will often congregate near or on them. “Key areas to fish in creeks are where the creek channel swings against the bank and there is some kind of cover there. My favorite is lay downs, log jams, stick ups or any cover that runs out from the shoreline into the deeper creek channel,” said Marshall.
Amazingly, even the smallest stick up or log can attract a school of crappie. Any kind of brush in the water near the channel is another area anglers should fish. Deep holes in the creek will also draw crappie especially as the water temperatures drop.
Normally, Marshall will fish in the areas where the water clarity is murky or stained. “In the fall most creeks are clearing up with little to no rainfall throughout the summer months. I prefer not to fish in creeks where the water clarity is crystal clear and will drive to the area of the reservoir where there is more color in the water to fish where the water is ten foot or less deep,” said Marshall.
Bait fish are the other key to where crappie will be located up a creek. Threadfin and gizzard shad are main sources of prey for crappie in most reservoirs. Although closely related, gizzard shad will grow to a much larger size making adult gizzards impossible for crappie to eat.
Threadfin and gizzard shad are planktivores feeding on microscopic, free-floating plants or animals utilizing their closely spaced out gill rakers. Threadfin shad typically feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton feeding near the water surface. Shad tend to school in large groups during the day feeding on free-floating plankton then scatter at night.
It’s important to note threadfin shad are intolerant of cold water temperatures and die off once temperatures begin dropping below 50 degrees. “Once the water starts staying at around 50 degrees fishing up in the creeks starts getting good. I like to start fishing in the back of a creek where there are no more shad showing up on my sonar unit or can visually see and fish my way towards the mouth of the creek.” said Marshall.
Marshall utilizes a one pole technique to catch crappie in the creeks. “Because I’m fishing in heavy cover in the creeks, I like to use the 10 foot Wally Marshall Signature Series Crappie Rod rigged up with the Wally Marshall Signature Series 75 spinning reel. In the thickest cover, I will use a shorter 9 foot rod because it’s easier to maneuver. This rod also has a fast tip, but lots of backbone so you can see the lightest bites and still have the power to pull the crappie out of cover,” said Marshall.
He also relies on Mr. Crappie Monofilament line on his reels when fishing in the heavy cover. “I use the 8 pound HiVis monofilament line with a small diameter, low memory and an abrasion resistant formula to get the crappie out of the cover before it can get off,” said Marshall.
His technique is to simply dip or pitch a single lure in to the heavy cover. If it’s a small lay down or stickup, Marshall will cast past the target and work the lure past it. On log jams, Marshall starts on the outside branches and works his way deeper into the thick part picking it apart piece by piece.
Lure wise Marshall keeps it simple using a pitch style lure and jig head. “I like to use a 1/8-ounce Sausage Head with a Joker or Crappie Thunder rigged on it. Colors like Hot Chicken.com, Blue/White or Black/Chartreuse are best since I’m normally fishing in off colored or stained water,” said Marshall.
Rigged and ready to go up a creek, anglers often overlook where the crappie are when fishing. “I can’t overly express how important it is to slow down when fishing in a creek during this period. In fact, the number one thing anglers do wrong is moving too fast and overlooking cover on your electronics,” said Marshall.
Not surprisingly, Marshall will graph the creek before fishing it scanning for fish, cover and bait fish. “Anglers without any confidence in their sonar units will often move way too fast, but I’m going to move slow and if I see fish, cover or baitfish, I’m going to throw a marker buoy out and fish it,” said Marshall.
It’s not just anglers in boats that should target creeks when crappie fishing during this period. Usually the lake or river level will be low making it easy to walk the bank and fish from shore. “I would use a float to keep my lure in the strike zone if I was fishing a creek. It would be set in the 5- to 8-foot deep range then move it up or down depending on where I get the strikes,” said Marshall.
Next time out you might try fishing up a creek for crappie. It’s really not as bad as it sounds if you are an angler. In fact, it’s probably going to be the best place to catch a limit of crappie.