Whenever I think of fishing in January, people in huge, winter coats walking on sketchy ice always come to mind. Personally, I’ve never seen ice thick enough to even think about stepping on. Until this year, the idea of fishing a lake during the winter seemed like some kind of cruel joke. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to fish lakes in the winter before and I have caught a few fish doing it. But I have always been very dependent on live minnows and I tend to catch far fewer fish than the 12 minnows I purchase. In the past, the best reasoning I could come up with for the fishing spots I chose had been, “I caught fish here in the summer, so they are probably here in the winter, too.”
But this year, I decided this lazy mentality had to stop. This year, I was going to learn how to catch fish during the winter. I figured when most people start learning how to fish they start out targeting Bluegill, so why shouldn’t I start there as well? Bluegill seemed like the obvious choice since they are a fairly predictable fish: they will try to eat almost anything and they are (thankfully) still fairly aggressive when the water temperature drops.
I started by fishing all of the lakes that hadn’t iced over yet. The first lesson I learned was that it wasn’t really necessary to go to the outrageously small size jigs that I had thought I would need. It turns out that that isn’t entirely what dictates if you will catch fish. I started my Bluegill quest fishing with 1/200 oz jigs and I caught a lot of fish on this set up. The problem with fishing jigs this small is that I had to set up a special ultralight rod just to be able to cast these. This ended up being an 8 foot 5 weight fly rod with a small spinning reel spooled up with 2 lb test line. I love fishing with 2 lb test line (which is about the only line I’ve found that can cast these tiny jigs), but when ice starts forming on line that small, it becomes a nightmare to cast.
The smart solution to this problem would be to step up the weight of the jigs so you can cast it on heavier line that can handle the build-up of ice. The solution I found was to use an ultralight rod with larger guides and spool it up with 4 lb test line. The larger eyes make it easier to cast line with ice on it and makes it harder to totally freeze over the front guide. I’ve found that 1/64 oz jigs have worked the best for me so far: they fall slow enough to entice bites from some of the smarter fish, but still weigh enough to be able to cast it a decent distance. The problem with jigs this size is that smaller Bluegill can have trouble hitting the right spot to get hooked, especially if they are a little lethargic and not sure they want to hit at all. Luckily, this problem can be solved by tipping a jig with some crappie nibbles, or better yet bee moths (if you can find any tackle shops that carries them in middle of January).
Bluegill haven’t been to hard to find; the easiest feature to target them has been to find a source of water flowing into a lake and fish the deeper water around it. This can mean there is slightly warmer water for the fish to live in or that the fish are used to this flow of water bringing them food. The second feature I’ve had luck with is to fish the first major drop-off from the bank. Most of the lakes I fish have shallow edges that are only about a foot deep, but about 10 feet from the bank they quickly drop off to a depth of about 6 feet. A lot of Bluegill will follow this drop-off in search of food, even though the water temperature isn’t as warm as some of the deeper spots in the lake.
Once I felt like I was starting to gain some headway on catching Bluegill, I decided to shift my emphasis over to catching winter crappie. My favorite time of the year has always been spring, and this is largely due to the fact that crappie spawn in the spring and they become easily accessible from the bank. I knew in bigger lakes that I would need a boat to have much luck finding them this time of year, so I decided to focus my attention on large ponds that I knew had a few crappie. The problem with this particular lake was that I have only caught 10 crappie in the last 4 years from it, and the largest one I caught was only about 9 inches. I have always just assumed that there wasn’t a very large population of fish, and that the few fish that did survive were usually harvested by the other anglers in the spring. But the one advantage you get with heavily pressured lakes is that the fish that are left tend to be smart, and as a byproduct of that, they tend to be much larger than the fish that are harvested. I knew that the bass population in this lake was that way, so I was crossing my fingers that the crappie would be, too. And by some miracle, I was actually right.
I try my best not to over-complicate crappie fishing. My usual tactic is simply finding a ledge and hopping a jig tipped with a bee moth across it. If I don’t find fish on the ledge, then I usually tie on a searching bait, like a curl tail grub, and work a lot of different depths and locations until I can find where they are schooled up at. So far this winter I have found them consistently sitting on ledges. If you can find any underwater structure, that has been an added bonus (but not at all necessary to hold crappie). I’m a firm believer that a slow rate of fall triggers more fish to hit than a fast rate of fall, so I tend to fish with a 1/64 oz jig and occasionally 1/32 oz when it is particularly windy.
I didn’t expect the crappie fishing to be better in the winter, but so far this pond has fished better in the cold than it ever has before! I’ve caught more than 3 times the crappie these last 2 months than I had caught in all of the last 4 years at this pond. I also managed to catch the biggest crappie I have ever seen in this pond (as shown in the picture above). I have always loved the challenge of catching “smart” fish, so I decided to keep the tradition of this lake alive and practice catch and release on all of the crappie I have caught. Now the question is, can I fool these fish twice?