Crappie fishermen in the South are fortunate. The lakes don't freeze over, and they can get out and give it a try. And just because the surface isn't a sheet of ice doesn't necessarily mean that southern crappie act all that differently from their northern cousins.
That begs the question: Is there something to learn from guys like Babe Winkleman and Al Lindner who fish frozen bodies of water for crappie this time of year in the winter?
"Winter crappie are often tricky to entice and require a finesse approach," said Winkelman, host of "Good Fishing," a nationally-syndicated TV show.
"Like you do with any kind of fishing, be versatile and experiment with different baits, colors and presentations to determine what triggers strikes on a particular day."
While he may not be very well-versed on catching crappie through the ice, Tom Mundy of Laurens understands the concept very well. The owner of Fish Stalker Lures, he came about his understanding of the habits of deep, cold-water crappie through trial and error.
Unlike many fishermen, if Mundy thought that a particular rod, bait or tactic would work better than what was currently on the market, he made it himself.
An additional benefit is that Mundy is terrible at keeping secrets. When he figures something out, he tells other people. If they want to know more, he's even been known to take folks out on the lake and show them.
So here's the situation: it's December, and crappie have left any semblance of shallow water, headed for deep water haunts to sit and shiver until mid-February, when longer days and more sunshine trigger the urge to move and get ready for the spawn. You got a deal on some hushpuppy mix and cornmeal and love the taste of fresh coldwater crappie fillets? Here's what Mundy does:
Find 'em first
Before Mundy ever wets a line on Lake Murray, he wants to know for certain where crappie are holding and why they're there. Like a veteran deer hunter, he's going to scout out locations that crappie prefer. Once he's found them, he's going to look into travel corridors and food supplies. With all these things in place, he'll catch fish.
"The first place I'm going to look for crappie on Lake Murray is out in front of boat docks - but not just any docks," Mundy said. "I want a dock that's on a steep bank, and I want a dock that looks like a fisherman lives there. A steep bank usually means there's a good drop-off in front of a dock - maybe even a creek channel or ditch. A dock that's owned by a fisherman will mean there are brushpiles around it."
If he finds a dock on a steep bank that's got rod holders on the railings, sodium lights hanging over the water, and evenly-spaced chairs, he can be pretty certain that the owner has put out brushpiles to fish around at night during the summer - and that they're still there. If there are rocks nearby, big rocks on the bank and in the water or a good gravel bank with more rocks than dirt, he's found a honey hole.
"I'm looking for a steep bank that has 30 feet of water a cast away from the dock," Mundy said. "Big rocks like boulders, or a lot of small rocks like gravel, mean that the lower depths are going to hold just a little warmer water than other places. Those rocks absorb heat and release it through the day."
The last piece of the "Where's-the-fish?" puzzle is bait. Mundy admits that he might find crappie holding deep around brushpiles, but if there's no bait nearby, those crappie will be near impossible to coax into biting. He's not picky. He doesn't care if the bait is mixed in the brush with the crappie or just circulating around the area. In fact, he'd rather have the bait, specifically schools of threadfin shad, moving in and out of the brush.
Ice fishing w/o ice
Mundy uses two primary tactics to catch crappie. The first is a double-rod presentation. If the one-two punch doesn't work. He goes to a single-rod, vertical approach.
"Lining up on the brushpiles is critical," Mundy said. "In most situations, you'll find one or two separate piles of brush with some clear space in between. That's ideal for the 2-rod presentation, but you either need to mark the brushpiles with a marker or line them up with objects on the far shore, because you have to back off the pile to fish it correctly."
Mundy uses two ultralight outfits spooled with 4-pound test, Mr. Crappie hi-visibility mono, with 1/32nd- and 1/64th ounce jigs and Fish Stalker Slabtails tied on. Mundy alternates casting the jigs to the brush, but using a specific method.
"I'll cast the 1/32nd either to one side or in the gap between piles," he said. "I just let it fall. When the line sinks about halfway to the boat, I cast the lighter jig straight across the brushpile and put that rod between my legs. Meanwhile, I start slowly reeling the 1/32nd through the gap. When I get that jig in, I cast it on the other side of the pile and pick up the lighter jig and ease it across the top of the brush. The jigs are so small that hanging up is rarely a problem - they both tend to just float around the brush. Even if the line lays across the brush, I can lift up on the rod and keep it swimming."
Mundy said that he's looking for the bite rather than feeling it. Once he has a rhythm going, any slight twitch, pause, or stopping of the line means the jig's been inhaled. He reaches down and, with a quick flip of the wrist, sets the hook.
"Some days, they don't want it moving at all, and that's when we go to tactic No. 2," Mundy said.
No. 2 is a purely vertical tactic; he sets his boat dead over the top of the structure and drops a 1/64th-ounce Slabtail jig to the bottom on 4-pound mono. His rod-and-reel combo is either selected or specially manufactured for this tactic. It's ice fishing without ice.
Mundy's rod is specially made from a 6½-foot ice-fishing blank. The reel is a discontinued Zebco 33 that he buys from any source he can find them. "The smoothest retrieve ever made in a low-gear ratio," is how he describes it.
Once the tiny jig hits the bottom well below the boat, Mundy engages the reel and slowly turns the handle.
"If they won't bite it drifting across the pile, they'll usually take it inching up slowly from the bottom," he said. "The rod tip is so sensitive that the reeling of the handle makes it quiver. When it stops quivering, set the hook."
These two tactics give new meaning to the term "finesse." Mundy discovered the tactics while field-testing his tiny Slabtail jigs on Lake Murray. His favorite haunts on the 48,000-acre reservoir are the tributaries on the south side of the lake from Dreher Island to the river forks of Saluda - creeks like Hollow, Rocky, and Spring.
"The southern side is relevant because they catch the most sun in the winter and the banks are generally steeper on that side" explains Mundy. "The combination of deep brush, tiny baits and an in-your- face presentation is more than crappie can stand, even in the dead of winter,"