Lake Fork guide Seth Vanover buried his face in his side imaging sonar and instructed Billy Kilpatrick, Phil Zimmerman and myself to study the image.
“See those vertical trees setting right on this submerged ledge? Last summer, I placed over 30 of these “crappie condos” in strategic areas. I build them from stalks of bamboo set in concrete. They attract baitfish like crazy and where there is bait, it’s a good bet crappie will be close by.”
Our trip coincided with a period of stable summertime weather and, right on cue, crappie responded to the cooling water temperatures by putting on the feed bag. The rise in water temperature is Mother Nature’s way of ringing the dinner bell and letting all wild creatures know that it’s time to feed heavily and get ready for winter.
Vanover’s guide boat is a very big, very comfortable pontoon barge. The biggest problem I’ve found with the oversized fishing platform is the fact that it’s easy to get a bit too comfortable in the luxurious seats while waiting for bites. Such was the case just after Seth pulled up to one of his hotspots, tied the bow of his craft to a bit of dead timber just upwind of the submerged crappie attractor and gave instructions to “drop ’em down.”
I had just settled into one of the lounge type chairs when my line went slack, indicating that a crappie had picked up my minnow and was swimming straight up with it. I just couldn’t react fast enough to get the slack out of my line and set the hook. My nephew, Billy Kilpatrick, began ribbing me from the back of the boat with a comment something like “OK, uncle, you can’t catch them sitting down!”
Crappie are pretty predictable at Fork during the fall and winter, as they are on most lakes.
“During early fall, in October and sometime into early November depending upon water temperature, crappie make a transition from their deep water summer haunts into water 12-14 feet. They are there because of the baitfish, minnows and shad, and they begin one of their most aggressive bites of the year. This is a period, much like the spawn when crappie are also in shallow water, that savvy anglers such as Vanover favor small spinners and jigs over minnows. Crappie will always bite minnows but when they are actively feeding, they will hit a slow cranked spinner worked around submerged brush just as well.
Because crappie are very depth oriented fish, it’s important to determine the depth they prefer and this part of the crappie catching equation often changes during a four- or five-hour fishing trip.
“At first light during an early morning fishing trip, crappie are often in the upper section of the water column. As sunlight intensifies, it’s pretty common for them to either go deeper or stage in the shady side of the submerge brush or tree limbs. A good rule of thumb when crappie fishing is to begin fishing a couple feet up from bottom and raise the bait in 3 foot intervals until actively fish are located. Once the depth is determined, either count down the line by lowering it in 3 foot sections or mark it somehow so that you can return to exactly the same depth.
When winter’s icy chill drops the water temperature into the 50s, Vanover says it’s time to use the GPS and locate creek channel in the lower lake.
“From late November throughout winter, I concentrate on creeks in the lower section of the lake and key on steep bank ledges with brush or timber at depths of 25 foot and more.”
Good sonar and knowing how to read it is always important when crappie fishing but never more so than the dead of winter when crappie stack up in tight schools. During this period, when the fish are lethargic, baits have to literally be dropped in front of their noses. Rather than fishing with medium or large minnows, Vanover downsizes to the smallest minnows he can find and uses No. 1 Aberdeen crappie hooks.
Winter is an excellent time for fishing with jigs, but Vanover says the deep water bite can be tough to detect. “When fishing water much over 18 feet, it can be tough to ‘feel’ the crappie bite. They often just suck the baits into their mouths during the cold weather months. On windy days, I usually opt for fishing with minnows and use heavier weights so that the deep bites can be detected.”
Several years ago, fishing with multiple jigs became popular at Fork. These days, most angler use only one or two jigs but a decade or so ago, it was common to see winter fishermen rigging with four or more jigs set a couple feet apart. While precise boat positioning and state of the art sonar is very helpful in winter crappie fishing, the old method of drift fishing still produces lots of papermouths for anglers willing to brave the cold in efforts to put together a winter fish fry.
This “old school” method is pretty simple; jigs or minnows are let out upwind of the targeted area and the wind pushes the boat along, presenting baits over a large area. When a fish is hooked, a marker buoy is tossed out and the boat anchored over the spot or kept in place with the trolling motor.
If our early fall crappie outing with Vanover is any indication, Lake Fork anglers should be in for some great cool-weather fishing. Crappie are great fun to catch, but after the fun of catching them becomes a memory, the second reward comes when the fillets are dusted with cornmeal and exposed to hot cooking oil.