Watching what seems to be a strange video game in the middle of a lake has become the norm for serious anglers. Lit up blips on the Echomap Garmin Graph screen were actually tree stumps with a few limbs about 26-feet below the surface, covered with unusual lights.
Kirby Ham, top crappie guide, fishing electronics expert and radio personality, studied those lights that were actually crappie suspended around and below the submerged wood.
We were fishing Hillsdale Lake, located in northeastern Kansas. This sometimes-overlooked lake is 4,358 acres of great fishing possibilities, often noted for walleye and catfish. Yet, crappie anglers love this fishery with a 10-inch-size limit that is seldom hard to fill—when you can locate the large sometimes roving schools.
A good stock of gizzard shad and thread fin minnows provide plenty of forage for nourishment and good crappie growth rates. Many consider Kansas fishing to be one of America’s best kept secrets with ten to fifteen-inch crappie adorning its reservoirs.
“Watch the screen,” Ham said.
A strange shape on the graph started dropping down the screen, his 1/32-ounce Crappie Magnet jig with silver glitter, a chartreuse tail and hot pink jig head. I was amazed to watch the show of crappie surveying his jig. One of the lights rose and took the jig, small fish on and quickly returned about ten yards from the boat.
“I never just lay a crappie back in the water,” Ham said. “I gently toss the smaller crappie a few feet away. We have watched crappie released by the boat that dove down and scattered the school. That fish was stressed and chances are other crappie sensed it and scattered. A fish released away from the boat seems less likely to upset the school.”
The graph showed exactly that. The released fish dropped away to nurse its sore mouth and the school’s bite continued, but not to Ham’s satisfaction.
“We’re moving, too many small crappies here,” he said. “I often find a smaller school of larger fish hanging together, what we’re looking for.”
The next spot laid about 300 yards towards a wooded bluff, showing plenty of fish on the graph but no big ones. The boat maneuvered several yards and immediately stopped as Ham threw on the water brakes. The graph plainly showed big images around a submerged log.
An arrow shape on the trolling motor pointed to the exact spot where to drop the jig. Ham dropped his weighted jig off the end of a 14-foot B&M crappie rod straight down to the bigger fish, about 24 feet below the surface. These crappies were more aggressive feeders and soon a 13-incher was hooked and doubling over his rod. Within minutes another big crappie hit and then another before they wised up and moved away.
“Very important to drop your jig in front of the crappie’s face in the winter,” Ham said. “Their metabolism is slower and they are less likely to chase after a minnow and use up life-sustaining energy. I prefer to slowly raise the jig. A crappie’s eyes are toward the top of its head, so it will watch the jig and then slowly come up and take it. Then let it drop and slowly raise it again. I believe that 80 percent of the time crappie are looking up.”
Watching Ham’s graph was an education in crappie behavior. The graph showed crappie moving up, but never down on the jigs. Most suspended in the deep, cold water, but a few moved around and did not seem interested in the jigs. Most of the bites came from suspended crappie and almost all were light, sometimes only a tap felt though the rod, but that is not unusual for winter fish.
“During winter the crappie school together in large numbers,” Ham said. “They are easy to find and securing a limit is generally not difficult. Kansas has some of the nation’s best winter fishing.”
Ham suggests that winter anglers slow down retrieves and use smaller baits. Crappie love an easy meal this time of year and larger minnows tend to run away. Smaller minnows are more likely not to move as often, providing crappie with a seemingly easy meal. Dual jigs or two jigs tied on a line work well in the winter.
This is a great time to try exceptionally small jigs generally used for trout. Marabou jigs in the 1/80 to 1/100-ounce sizes are good winter baits. Many are tipped with euro larva or Crappie Magnet slab bites with great success.
“I love guiding parents with children,” Ham said. “They seem fascinated watching submerged fish on my electronics and how they react to jigs or minnows, a true outdoor video game. The adults, too, enjoy this and ask a lot of questions.”
Ham’s boat is stable and large enough to accommodate wheelchairs. He had a stand installed to provide them electronics, a welcome addition to their fishing trip. Wheelchair bound anglers are helped into the boat at the Marina.
“Winter fishing can be dangerous, so wear your life jacket,” Ham said. “Put on your life jacket before your boat is launched. Many have fallen in the lake at boat launches and could not get out. Make sure someone is notified where you plan to fish. More importantly, don’t fish alone, especially this time of year. Remember to dress heavily in layers. I have a couple of heaters in my boat to keep my hands warm. I seldom wear gloves when fishing to feel the bites.”
Reservoirs like Hillsdale, Pomona, Perry, Clinton, Pomona, El Dorado, Tuttle Creek, Melvern and most others are fishing winter hotspots. Give it a try this winter and you might enjoy a mess of fresh crappie fillets.
For more information about fishing with Crappie Kirby, call: (913)-461-3752 or check his website at Crappiekirby.com.
Kansas has a reputation for its excellent crappie fishing and limited fishing pressure. Check the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks website for more information on crappie fishing these numerous reservoirs.