Secrets of Slabs

A Huntersville fishing team reveals some surprising techniques to fill a livewell with cold-weather crappies.

John E. Phillips

December 26, 2006 at 1:09 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Small crappie jigs or small lead-head jigs tipped with live minnows are good choices for winter crappies.
Photo by JOHN E. PHILLIPS
Small crappie jigs or small lead-head jigs tipped with live minnows are good choices for winter crappies.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Stokes McClellan of Huntersville and his son, Adam, who love to crappie fish recreationally, also are one of the nation’s top professional crappie-fishing teams. They travel across the country, fishing crappie tournaments with great success throughout the spring, the summer and fall. Although the McClellans fish year-round with different tactics, each catches tournament-winning stringers of big slabs. Stokes prefers to use his Color-C-Lector to learn what color jigs to fish for the most success, while Adam enjoys shooting docks. Carolinas’ crappie anglers can use the McClellans’ fishing tips that work across the country to catch more crappie this winter.

Crappies don’t hibernate in the winter.

Stokes McClellan said anglers still can take large numbers of big crappie during January and February, especially if they know how to find the fish, while most other anglers only will sit next to their fires, dreaming about pulling crappie after crappie in to their boats.

“I really enjoy fishing Clarks Hill Reservoir — known as Thurmond Lake in South Carolina,” Stokes McClellan said. “ In the spring of 2006, we fished a tournament there. Most of the crappie that Adam and I caught were in the lower end of the lake in two creeks — Big Creek and Knoblick Creek.

“At that time of the year, we caught our crappie, which were in a post-spawn pattern, in 6 to 8 feet of water by fast trolling. Although the crappie were actively feeding, they weren’t holding on any type of cover but rather were suspended over a 20-foot bottom.

“If you fishing in January and February, more than likely, you’ll find most of the crappie suspended at Thurmond, like we’ve located them this past spring after the spawn. The difference is the crappie will be suspended at the mouths of the creeks. I’ll be spending plenty of time at Clarks Hill/Thurmond during the winter months and the early spring because this year the Southern Crappie Association Classic will be held there on April 16-17, 2007, and I’ve got to get in my practice time.”

Pinpoint winter crappies

Stokes McClellan said this time of year with its early-morning temperatures in the 40s, anglers can identify crappie staging (preparing for the spawn) at the mouths of major creeks.

“I don’t look for crappies with my depth-finder,” McClellan said. “I patrol the mouths of the major creeks and search for pods of baitfish. If your depth-finder records the baitfish with a long flat line of bait, more than likely the crappie associated with that bait aren’t going to bite. I’ve gone for 200 yards before, seen a solid line of baitfish and never stopped to fish.

“I like to find pods or balls of bait. When shad are in a tight ball of bait, they’re afraid. They get into that type ball because the crappie are hungry and feeding.

“So, I guess the baitfish figure that the more of them that wad up together, the less likely that any one of them will be eaten. The shad will let you know at what depth the crappie are holding because the crappie have to be holding at about the same depth as the shad, if they want to eat.

“Most major creeks will have points on either sides of their mouths. We’ll first start looking for baitfish at the two points of major creeks and then move out into deep water. The shad and the crappie will move up on those points early in the morning, even in cold weather, and this area is where they generally feed.”

Later the McClellans will search for crappie more toward the open lake, as the day warms up. Team McClellan will follow the bait out to the open lake and troll for cold-weather crappie further out in the lake. In most instances, they’ll fish over a 15-foot-or-less bottom.

“We have caught crappie out in the lake over a 30- or a 40-foot bottom,” McClellan said. “Even at a 40-foot bottom, we’ll still catch crappie in the top 15 feet of water.”

Best colors

Stokes and Adam match the jig colors they fish to the amount of light penetration in the water.

“On bright sunny days, we’ll fish lighter colors, and on dark, overcast days, we’ll use darker colors,” Stokes McClellan reports. “The color of jigs is critical to your crappie-fishing success, which is why we don’t guess at the color. We let the Color-C-Lector tell us which color to use. On bright days, we’ll usually fish with lighter or brighter colors. If the area has muddy water or the day’s overcast, we’ll generally use darker colors.

“Since we usually fish with more than one pole, we’ll fish several different combinations of colors and let the crappie tell us the colors they like on that day.

“Some days, the smallest change in colors can make a big difference in whether or not you catch crappie. Often just adding a little chartreuse Spike-It dye to the tail of the jig will cause the crappie to bite.”

During bright days, the McClellans fish a light-green jig, and with dark days, they’ll usually fish Junebug, blue or some combination of blue, and perhaps even black.

“We’re convinced that the color jig you fish determines the amount of crappie you catch,” McClellan said. “Over the years, we’ve learned we can bet on the Color-C-Lector and that certain colors of jigs will produce the most crappie changes throughout the day. Only by using the Color-C-Lector can you learn what jig the crappie see best at each hour of the day, depending on light penetration and water color.

“Remember, the position of the sun constantly changes all day. Therefore, the amount of light that reaches the different depths of the lake is constantly changing.”

McClellan said the biggest color changes obviously happen during bright, sunny days.

With overcast days, he only may alter the color of jig he fishes slightly, if at all, because the light penetration doesn’t change throughout most of the day under those conditions.

Best techniques

“Although we like to fast-troll during the spring and the summer because we believe if we cover more water, we’ll catch more crappie, we’ve learned that during January and February, we need to cut our trolling speed back and troll much slower,” McClellan said.

When the water temperature’s at 50 degrees or less, a crappie’s body metabolism slows down, and fish don’t want to chase baits. The McClellans slow down their trolling speed to keep the jigs visible to the crappie and in the crappie’s strike zone longer. In the winter months when fishing in 30 to 40 feet of water, they expect the crappie to suspend somewhere between 8- and 15-feet deep.

“During this time of the year, we’ll often catch crappie as shallow as 3 to 4 feet over a 40-foot bottom,” McClellan said. “You won’t see these fish on your depth-finder because they’ll be feeding on shad close to the surface.

“We find these fish by putting a 16-foot B&M pole in our pole holder and having it extended straight out from the side of the boat. We’ll fish with 4-pound-test line and troll with a 1/48- or a 1/32-ounce jig.”

McClellan said once he identifies crappie this shallow, he’s trolling blind because there’s so much surface clutter his depth-finder picks up under the boat he never sees these fish. Too, the movement of the boat across the water spooks the crappie right under the boat.

“For many years, we didn’t know crappie swam in shallow water in the dead of winter because we couldn’t see them on our depth-finder,” McClellan said. “We never trolled in 3 to 4 feet of water in January and February.

“However, for some reason, we decided to put light jigs on outside poles one time, and we started catching shallow-water crappie.

“ We’ve learned now that even during the coldest time of the year, we need to run some of our jigs shallow, just to see if crappie are there. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t.

“But if you don’t fish for them in shallow depths, you’ll never know when they’re in that depth of water.”

The McClellans troll for crappie primarily during three conditions — overcast days, when the water’s stained or when rain’s falling.

“There are two types of stained water that I don’t like to fish — new muddy water, which is the first day when a lake’s really muddy after a rain, or cold, muddy water,” he said. “However, on overcast days, during rain or with muddy water, the crappie will come out of their schools and be more spread out, which means trolling will be more effective.

“I personally think crappie can see somewhat better in stained water, and they seem to hold more shallow then. The light source can reach them shallow, even in the stained water, and they can spot the colors of jigs.”

McClellans’ crappie rig

“We start fishing by using four sets of Drift Master rod holders, which allow us to fish up to 16 B&M Pro Staff poles, each from 8- to 16-foot long, at a time,” McClellan said. “These graphite poles have extremely sensitive tips, yet they have plenty of backbone to allow you to pull a 2-pound-plus crappie up to the side of the boat where you can net it.

“I don’t have to sacrifice sensitivity for power and strength with these poles, which are very durable and lightweight. Too, the lengths of the poles act as cushions to slow the charge of the crappie and help keep the line from breaking.”

The McClellans troll with 8-foot poles out the front of the boat, 10-foot poles outside of those, 12-foot poles outside of those poles and 16-foot poles outside of those. The 16-foot poles produce the most fish when the crappie concentrate shallow in the winter.

McClellan said using three lengths of poles allows them to stagger their bait and space their lines when trolling.

“My boat is about 7-feet wide,” he said. “My rod holders enable me to put rods on the front, the sides and the back of my boat. The various size poles let me cover more water and catch more crappie.

“For instance, my 16-foot pole will be 90 degrees to the side of my boat. Next to this rod, I’ll have the 12- and 14-foot poles. On the other side of the boat, I’ll have the same setup. Then I can cover 39 feet of water when I’m trolling, and I’ll have my baits running at every 2 feet.”

Most of the time at Lake Thurmond, you’ll find the crappie at about 12- to 17-foot deep, suspended out in open water.

McClellan primarily fishes with Charlie Brewer Slider Grubs or the new Culprit Tassel Tail Grubs. Often he’ll tip these 3-inch bass jigs with minnows and troll them out the back of his boat on 1/8-ounce heads.

“I like the 1/8-ounce jig heads on the 3-inch bass grubs because they have bigger hooks,” McClellan said. “Now in the spring, I’ll use 3-inch bass grubs on smaller-size jigheads and put those grubs on my 16-foot poles.

“I’ve found that blue, blue-chartreuse and black bass grubs seem to produce the most crappies. Even though I don’t catch as many crappies with the 3-inch grubs, the fish are usually large, weighing 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-pounds when I fish with the 3-inch bass grubs.”

With the rods, the McClellans use Shimano reels with Bass Pro Shop’s 4-pound-test XL line because they believe that the smaller-diameter line gives their jigs better action, and the jigs go deeper quicker. The McClellans have found crappies have a more-difficult time spotting this light line and said they get more bites.

“Remember that crappie are sight-feeders,” McClellan said. “I still can judge the depths my jigs are running because I’m so familiar with what effect the line has on various sizes of jigs. Too, the B&M Poles handle this small-diameter line very well.

“Actually I’ve caught a 27-pound flathead catfish as well as saltwater stripers weighing more than 15-pounds each with this rig.”

If anglers fish for crappie at Thurmond this winter, they may run into the McClellans practicing for April tournaments. If you do, pick their brains for more of their cold-weather expert crappie- catching strategies.


View other articles written John E. Phillips


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