‘Tis the season for using Christmas trees to catch crappie at freshwater venues across North Carolina, and it’s no different at Falls of Neuse Lake near Raleigh-Durham. Guide Freddie Sinclair of Clayton said he’s been dropping minnows and lures to brush piles comprised of undecorated cedars and fir trees in 20 to 25 feet of water.

But it’s not like an angler can push some weighted trees over the side of a boat and, voila, expect to create an instant crappie magnet.

“I’d say it takes at least a year for a tree to become good structure, a place that’ll attract crappie,” said Sinclair. “Sometimes you can sink a tree, and it’ll have crappie in two weeks, but that’s not usually the case — it mostly takes a year before a tree will hold fish.”

Sinclair said he sinks cedar trees and sometimes small maples. Deciding where to put trees in a lake is more important than just putting them anywhere. The best places are at travel routes, because crappie are creatures of habit, following paths from deeper water to the shallows in spring and vice versa during winter.

“For winter crappie I like to put trees in 20 to 25 feet of water along the edges of channels,” Sinclair said. “I’ll put some in 18 to 20 feet of water for late fall, then deeper for real winter fishing when it’s really cold.”

Cold temperatures force baitfish into deep water, where they seek the safety of cover, and nothing creates better hiding spots than trees.

“Crappie are going to be where there’s baitfish, and baitfish are going to be at places that offer them some hiding places,” he said.

Sinclair targets trees with their tops 14 to 15 feet off the bottom. When it’s full-blown winter, tree tops will be 16 to 20 feet off the bottom.

Sinclair said he’s still careful to not spook deep crappie.

“I’ll ease up on a tree from the downwind side, using my trolling motor,” he said. “I tight-line baits and lures so they’re just at the tops of a tree. You’ll get hung up at times, but you got to get as close as you can. Crappie will come shooting out of a tree to hit a bait or lure.”

Sinclair usually fishes 1/32-ounce jigheads tipped with crappie minnows, although sometimes he’ll go with a curlytail lure or a small tube jig.

“Betts makes a 1½-inch tube jig that’s been workin’ pretty good for us,” he said. “I like one that’s brown with a little chartreuse at Falls Lake.”

His most-recent trip to Falls of Neuse produced 24 crappie, including 16 keepers – the minimum size is eight inches and the daily creel limit is 20 fish.

“Most were from 10- to 11½ inches long, but we caught some 12 and 12½  inches, and one was 13¾ inches, a 1½-pound crappie,” he said.