Cold-hot slabs – January means cold weather, hot crappie fishing on North Carolina’s Jordan Lake

Jordan Lake’s winter fishery for black crappie is unmatched; here’s how to take advantage of great numbers and big fish.

Crappie fishermen who live in North Carolina are too far from Lake Grenada, Miss., or Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee to regularly visit those hot spots.

But they do have Jordan Lake —and it doesn’t make much difference when you visit this 14,000-acre impoundment of the Haw River and New Hope Creek. It is, by most accounts North Carolina’s best fishery for black crappie in terms of size and numbers of fish.

“People come here from out of state for crappies,” said guide Freddie Sinclair of Clayton. “It’s got a well-known reputation for big fish. There are a lot of 2-pound crappies in here and some 3-pounders.

“Go to any boat ramp, and you’ll see tags from North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, West Virginia — lots of states. And that happens every day.”

Normally, the parking lots at those ramps are full from late February through March and April and into early May. But in truth, fishermen who spend the winter watching sports on television or visiting boat shows miss some of the lake’s best crappie fishing. And it’s not difficult; just know how to use a decent depth finder and know how to get live minnows or artificial lures down to the right depth.

The area around and just downstream from the Farrington Road Bridge is a winter hot spot for crappie fishermen on Jordan Lake.

“Actually, I fish the same way — tight-lining and slow-trolling — in January as I do in the spring,” Sinclair said. “I just fish a lot deeper.”

Perhaps no one has had more experience on Jordan than Sinclair. He began testing its waters for crappies in 1988, seven years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the lake to the public.

“A friend of mine and I started coming the first year the lake was open,” he said. “Back then, we only fished for bass. I started going for crappies in 1988.”

Sinclair, who grew up on Topsail Island, discovered that slow-trolling tactics for king mackerel worked just as well for crappie, albeit with different tackle.

“Lots less expensive, too, and more action,” he said.

Once, during the cold months, he had the lake’s top crappie spots to himself. But no longer. During the winter, Jordan is a magnet for retirees who keep daily track of hot spots.

“The word gets out pretty quick when somebody finds a place where the bite’s good,” Sinclair said.

The Farrington Road Bridge, which crosses New Hope Creek a few hundred yards from a nearby N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission boat ramp, has been a favored hot spot for years.

“If they are releasing water, the current pulls baitfish through the bottleneck at the bridge,” Sinclair said. “The crappie line up on the downcurrent side of the supports and ambush baitfish that come through.”

Many older anglers drop anchor beside the supports and fish around them with minnows and floats. Some let the wind drift their boats. However, few try “spider rigs” featuring close to a dozen rods and tight-line slow trolling.

“There’s a hump on the south side 50 or 75 feet from the bridge,” he said. “Crappies like to push baitfish up against the sides of that hump and whack ’em.”

The middle of the creek channel is 25 feet deep, then rises sharply. But that’s a common underwater structure well understood by slab chasers. Dedicated crappie anglers know other areas with similar features, and they’re also plentiful in Jordan’s tributaries.

“You can find crappies nearly everywhere on those ledges and at humps in the other parts of the lake,” Sinclair said. “Lots of creeks also have submerged roadbeds.”

Freddie Sinclair uses the same techniques to catch Jordan Lake crappie in January that he does laster in the spring, just in deeper water.

Nearly every creek at Jordan features a submerged roadbed and often, the pilings of a dismantled bridge. Roadbeds also have ditches that provide breaks in the bottom and shelter for baitfish — and attract crappies.

A favorite spot for Sinclair is an old roadbed that crosses a creek close to the Farrington boat ramp.

“It’s a place where you’d fish in the February and March,” Sinclair said. “Crappies stage in spring in water that’s 12 to 18 feet deep before the temperature rises to 65 degrees and before they go to the banks to spawn in this creek.”

Old bridge supports that once spanned feeder creek channels are good places to find crappies in winter.

“I fish feeder-creek channels and sometimes main-lake channels 30 to 32 feet deep,” he said. “But I have caught ’em in 40 feet of water.”

In that respect, tight-lining for crappies in winter resembles saltwater drifting for sea bass, grunts, porgies and groupers.

Sinclair doesn’t run the big outboard on his bass boat very long when he’s fishing ­ only long enough to reach favorite spots. The rest of the time, he’s on a trolling motor that takes him where he wants to go at 1/2 to 5/8 mph.

Whether he fishes alone or with other anglers, Sinclair’s boat resembles a water spider with eight 14- to 16-foot Southern Crappie rods in holders at the bow and stern.

“They’ve got such good tip sensitivity; that’s why I like them,” said Sinclair, who uses Daiwa 1500 spinning reels spooled with 6-pound Trilene monofilament tied to 3/8-ounce egg sinkers with a split-shot pinched under the sinker, 18 inches above a 1/32-ounce jig he often tips with a minnow. Or he’ll hook a live minnow through the lower jaw or nostrils with a red, No. 8, straight-shank Aberdeen hook.

“I never use 4-pound line, unless the water’s extremely clear, which doesn’t happen at Jordan,” Sinclair said. “You never know when a big bass will eat a crappie minnow or jig, and you’ll lose ’em with 4-pound line. Sometimes I’ll use a double-drop shot rig with two minnows.”

When he’s slow trolling, the 3/8-ounce weight usually is hefty enough to keep jigs and minnows in a vertical position.

“That’s why crappie trollers prefer calm days with no wind; it’s hard to gauge your speed if you’re headed into the wind or just drifting with it,” he said.

Drifting speed also determines barrel-weight sizes.

“I may have to use a 1/2- or even a 5/8-ounce weight in winter when crappies are deep, depending on how fast the wind pushes me,” he said. “It’ll bow your line underwater, and (your) baits will track too far above fish.”

Sinclair said too much wave action also can affect the crappie bite.

Log rods with sensitive tips and spinning reels spooled with 6-pound mono are typical crappie outfits for guide Freddie Sinclair on Jordan Lake.

“More times than not, crappies like a steady lure or bait presentation underwater,” he said. “If waves make a lure or bait bounce up and down, crappies don’t get excited about eating. I guess the bait’s movement doesn’t seem natural.”

Sinclair, who sits at the bow of his boat, watches eight rods spread out from starboard to port side. If he moves one way or the other to pick up a rod, poles on the same side dip into the water. Wind and wave actions cause the same effect.

Specific jig colors don’t matter to crappie, Sinclair said, but he prefers single red hooks and jigheads during certain conditions.

“If I’m fishing where the water is stained, like Jordan, I like orange, brown or black jigs,” he said. “This lake has what everyone calls ‘the Jordan Lake tea stain.’ But if the water is clear, I’ll go with lighter colors.”

He prefers 1/32-ounce jigheads tipped with curlytail soft plastics or flashy mylar strands covering the hook.

Water temperature isn’t crucial because it usually hovers around 40 degrees in the deep water during winter.

“What’s interesting is some crappies stay at main-river channels from 30 to 40 feet deep, and others go to feeder-creek channels from 15 to 20 feet that have some structure and baitfish,” Sinclair said.

When the water temperature rises to 57 degrees as spring approaches, crappies will head shallow to spawn, but just before that move, they collect at the entrances to coves.

“They’ll really be hungry when they’re staging before the spawn,” Sinclair said. “Smaller males go inside first, leaving the bigger females sitting offshore.

“If you catch a big female, you should check your depth finder to see if it’s marking bigger fish. You can work that school for a long time, and most fish will be the same size.”

Leave the remote on the couch and head for North Carolina’s Jordan Lake for great winter crappie fishing.

Warm spells in January and February will stimulate crappies to feed, perhaps tricking them into thinking the spawn is just around the corner. As a result, they go on eating binges to prepare for mating and guarding eggs and fry in shallow water.

“Winter’s my favorite time of year to fish for crappie … especially (at) Jordan,” Sinclair said. “But at any lake in North Carolina with black crappies, you can fish similar places in winter by finding baitfish that crappies have herded to the edges of ledges. If you find a big school, the action can get so hot it might keep you warm.”


HOW TO GET THERE — US 64 is the best east-west route for accessing Jordan Lake; the lake is a few miles west of the intersection of US 64 and US 1. NC 751 provides access from the Durham-Chapel Hill area.

WHEN TO GO — Crappie are in a consistent, predictable pattern from January into March.

BEST TECHNIQUES — Slow-troll leadhead jigs and soft-plastic or mylar trailers, often tipped with live minnows, or fish live minnows on double drop-shot rigs. Use 14- to 16-foot spinning rods with sensitive tips. Spool 6-pound mono on reels. Jigs should be 1/32- to 1/4-ounce. No. 8 wire hooks and 3/8- to 1/2-pound barrel weights and small split shot are drop-shot terminal tackle. Look for creek-channel ledges in New Hope Creek from Farrington Bridge to confluence with Haw River. Jordan is managed with a 20-fish daily creel limit and 10-inch size minimum.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Freddie Sinclair, Sinclair’s Guide Service, 919-219-2804; Wilsonville General Store, 919-362-7101; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 919-542-4501. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Camping is available at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, 919-362-0586,; Econo Lodge, Sanford, 919-774-6411; Days Inn, Sanford, 919-776-3150; Comfort Inn, Apex, 919-387-4600.

MAPS —  GMCO Maps,  88-420-6277,; Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257,; Fishing Hot Spots, 800-500-MAPS.

About Craig Holt 1382 Articles
Craig Holt of Snow Camp has been an outdoor writer for almost 40 years, working for several newspapers, then serving as managing editor for North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman before becoming a full-time free-lancer in 2009.

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