Yet there's a lot more for a fisherman to do than look longingly back to the glorious days of springtime triumphs or dream of the coming return of warm weather.
Those with grit and gumption do what any self-respecting sportsman should do - they go fishing. As long as it isn't so cold that your rod's guides freeze up (and that doesn't happen much in the Palmetto State), there's action aplenty to be enjoyed. Let's take a peek at some places, productive baits and lures, and proven tactics.
Maybe I'm a slow learner, but it took an experience roughly 25 years ago to open my eyes. My father and one of his buddies had done a fair amount of crappie fishing in the Great Smokies of North Carolina where I grew up, mostly late in the winter after rabbit hunting season had closed and before trout season opened.
But I had flat-out forgotten about those glorious days of frozen fingers and bulging stringers when Rock Hill's Bennett Kirkpatrick, as serious a crappie fisherman as you are likely to encounter, invited me to accompany him on a winter outing on Lake Wylie.
It was a pleasant afternoon, relatively calm, with weak sunshine just enough to counter the chill of being out on the open water. After some careful triangulation using visible shoreline landmarks, we anchored over a big tree Kirkpatrick had sunk the previous summer. Two of us in the boat received explicit instructions about dropping our lines into the water and slowly counting, "One thousand and one, one thousand and two . . ." until we reached the desired number, then retrieving at a pace that redefined the word slow.
"If you don't feel brush or hang up within three casts," he instructed, "add a number."
The addition wasn't necessary. The crappie were present in their legions; several times we boated doubles, and at one glad moment, we had a triple. Three hours passed quickly, and when our cooler was bulging with three limits of mostly eating-size crappie - with a few really nice ones, along with two channel catfish thrown in for good measure - we headed homeward in the darkening shadows of late afternoon.
It was, quite simply, an epiphany. Renewed realization dawned that not only was it possible to catch crappie in the winter, but that it was a mighty fine time to be fishing for slabs.
Kirkpatrick's approach to catching winter crappie is one he uses with considerable success throughout the year.
"I have found," he said, "that the key thing is to find the preferred depth for the fish at any given time."
In the cold-weather months, that tends to be quite deep, but it is a good idea to check out structure at various depths (using a depthfinder if you are not intimately familiar with the area you are fishing). Once you locate fish at, say, 20 feet, that's likely where you will find them in one place after another.
The Kirkpatrick cast-wait-then retrieve system is a proactive technique, one which is, so to speak, "hands on" and allows the use of only a single rod.
Another popular tactic, by way of sharp contrast, is much more laid back and involves a whole bunch of rods. Sometimes described as "spider rigging," this finds the angler (or anglers) watching a bunch of bobbers on set poles extending all around an anchored boat. One of the great advantages of spider rigging is that it enables you to probe various depths simultaneously. When it becomes clear that crappie are concentrated at a particular depth, it's time to adjust all the poles in the rig accordingly.
Just how many poles you have in a spider rig depends on your ability to handle them. Eight set rods are probably about as many as two men should attempt to handle, while three fishermen can possibly manage as many as a dozen. Of course, when things get hot and heavy, with four or five bites simultaneously, matters can descend to the chaos of a Chinese fire drill in pretty short order. Still, most folks don't mind untangled lines and straightening out messes when they involve putting multiple fish in the boat.
A third approach, widely used, involves trolling with a group of set rods. Through careful arrangement and having varying lengths of line out, a boat can patrol a large stretch of water, probing different depths. It's a highly effective way to fish, although to my personal way of thinking it focuses somewhat more on putting fish in the boat than the simple fun of catching them.
My reason for saying that is simple: crappie almost always hook themselves in trolling situations, and since it is imperative to keep the boat moving to avoid a massive mess of tangled lines, the boat in effect "plays" the fish. All you really do is reel in the line, getting comparatively little of the struggle unless you like wet, dishrag retrieves.
By way of welcome contrast, the fight of a hooked slab can be an honest one when you are fishing with ultralight rigs, fly rods, or lengthy poles such as those from B&M made with crappie fishing specifically in mind. Still, long-line trolling is a favorite with many competitive crappie fishermen, and it is difficult to argue with success.
All of those techniques require fishing from a boat, but the landlocked angler can have his day in the pale winter sun as well. Public fishing piers, many of them with handicapped accessibility, are usually surrounded by "crappie hides." Similarly, private piers, especially those which reach far enough out into lakes to give access to fairly deep water, invite a few hours of leisurely activity. Invariably, sunken brush or other structure can be found around such sites, and for that matter, the pilings of the pier in and of themselves provide exactly the kind of "hide in waiting" ambush situation crappie like.
For most crappie fishermen, the name of the game is putting slabs in the cooler. Some species, such as bass and trout, lend themselves to catch-and-release tactics for one reason or another. When it comes to crappie though, to borrow a phrase from my dear departed mother, - who loved to eat fish as much as anyone I've ever known - the operative approach is "release to grease." Accordingly, you want to offer the fish whatever is most productive on a given day.
In the ranks of serious crappie fishermen, you can start a heated argument on the virtues of live bait versus artificials. Both have their supporters, and each tactic has its strengths and weaknesses. They are worth a bit of further examination.
When it comes to jigs, perhaps their greatest virtue lies in the fact that when crappie hit them readily, especially when action gets fast and furious, there's no need to reach in the minnow bucket, seine out a likely candidate, and put him on the hook. You save time, there's no worry about chasing down an elusive minnow that has flipped into the bottom of the boat, and as soon as you unhook a slab and toss it in the cooler, you can be right back in the game.
One significant negative, particularly if you are of a penny-pinching persuasion, is cost. Jigs hit the budget appreciably harder than simple hooks, and given the favored haunts of crappie, you are going to decorate some underwater Christmas trees if you are tickling brush the way you should be.
The most obvious argument for bait is that day-in and day- out, it is more productive. If you find hits are few and far between, takes seem especially delicate, or jigs just aren't working, bait is the way to go.
One good approach when fishing with a buddy is to take bait with you, and one of you start with jigs and the other with minnows. Judge how things are going, and one or the other of you can adjust accordingly. Purchased bait can dig into one's budget, but probably not as much as lost jigs will on any given outing. Of course, you can also do your own seining for bait, and with a bit of practice and study of the habits of bait, you can likely get all you need in relatively short time.
In the final analysis, there is no one correct answer to the bait-versus-jig conundrum. Just do what works or what suits your fancy. You can even catch crappie on in-line spinners and tiny crankbaits, but they are not your most effective option, and when the cost of lures left in the brush is factored in, they are probably not the way to go.
Editor's note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who has been published widely in regional and national magazines, as well as having dozens of books to his credit. To learn more about his work or for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit his website at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.