Fishing the Garden State: The Wonderful Winter Warm Up
A white crappie.
Photo Credit: dcnr.state.al.us
by WNJ Correspondent Matt McCann
Let me guess…you probably put your freshwater fishing tackle away for storage around Thanksgiving or maybe even earlier. But who could blame you? The fish won’t be biting in the freezing cold. Winter is the time for watching fishing shows on TV, flipping through the Bass Pro Shops catalog to check out the newest tackle, and attending boat shows until spring arrives.
That’s all we can do to satisfy our itch to go fishing. I thought exactly the same way just a few years ago. That is, until I started targeting a fish that bites fairly consistently throughout the winter, even with the presence of ice on the water. The fish I’m talking about is the crappie. Black crappies and white crappies are abundant in New Jersey waters and are very fun to catch on light tackle. They are more active in colder water than their largemouth bass cousins. I’ve caught them in December, January, and February, without another angler in sight.
The key to successful winter crappie fishing depends on several factors. The first is weather, or more specifically, the sun and its influence on water temperature. The past few winters have been brutal with record amounts of snow and freezing cold temperatures. However, not too many years ago, we experienced some pretty mild winters with some days reaching temperatures in the 50’s, 60’s, and even low 70’s.
Hopefully we see these types of temperatures for a change this winter.
These warm fronts usually only last a few days at most, but these are the best times to find active fish in the winter. The sun is a very important thing to keep in mind. I’ve fished on days where the air temperature was in the 60’s but the skies were cloudy and the fish were not very active.
The reason for this is that the penetrating sunlight warms the water faster than the balmy air temperature. Clouds block the sunlight from warming the water. The next factor is finding the best lake to fish, preferably the one with the least amount of ice. If the lake is completely covered with ice, it is pretty much un-fishable, unless you want to go ice fishing. Never walk out on the ice unless you are absolutely positive it is thick enough to support your weight.
A black crappie.
Photo Credit: outdoorguidemagazine.blogspot.com
I like to use an ultra-light or light action spinning outfit with 4 to 6 lb mono line. This makes it easier to cast light lures and it makes even the smaller crappies more fun to fight. Small live minnows, tubes, grubs, or marabou hair jigs under a bobber are very effective crappie catchers. I prefer to use lures because I always have them on hand. A 1 to 2 inch tube or grub on a 1/32 or 1/16 oz jig head presents a great profile to hungry crappies. White, yellow, red, chartreuse, purple, or any combinations of those colors seem to work well.
Also, a marabou hair jig in the same sizes and colors are very effective, and the breathing action of the marabou hair in the water gives the lure an added attraction. Any small bobber or float may be used anywhere from 10 or more inches above the lure. The location of the bobber depends on the depth of the water and where the fish are suspended. You may have to experiment with different depths until you find the feeding fish.
Sometimes the fish want a stop and go retrieve, where you reel in a little, stop, and repeat. Experiment with different lures, depths, and retrieves until you find the fish. Sometimes the bobber will disappear completely under the water when you get a bite, and other times it will just start to move to the side. Either way, set the hook pretty quickly before the fish spits out the lure.
You don’t need a jarring hookset, because crappies have paper thin mouths and you may tear the hook right out. Just reel in quickly or give the rod a small pop and the hook should be set. Be careful not to put too much pressure on the fish while reeling it in to prevent tearing the hook out of their thin mouths.
The great thing about crappies is that they like to school up. Once you catch one, there are usually more around. Don’t be surprised if you catch a mix of bass, bluegill, yellow perch, or pickerel as well. There have been days where I’ve caught loads of fish and I was the only one fishing. I’ve also caught some of my biggest fish in the winter. So get your tackle out of the garage and start crappie fishing this winter. It will clear up even the most severe cases of cabin fever, I promise!
Crappies will strike a variety of small lures.
Photo Credit: foxlakefishing.com
Matt McCann is a New Jersey native and specializes in freshwater and saltwater fishing in the Garden State.
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