Catching Cold Front Crappie
Fish Slowly, Methodically
February 1, 2024
A lot of old-timers will tell you that the best way for a crappie fisherman to deal with a cold front is to stay home. Unfortunately, most of us don't have the luxury of choosing which days to go fishing. Why does it always seem like the dreaded cold fronts pass through just before the weekend, or right in the middle of the tournament?
Crappie Recover Faster
The effects of a cold front are particularly devastating in the spring. A five degree drop in surface temperature can drive the fish off the beds in a flash, and stop a great bite in its tracks. Crappie may react to a cold front much faster than largemouth bass, but the upside to that is that they also recover faster.
There are a couple of ways you can react to cold front conditions and put some fish in the boat, and you can also prepare for a cold front so you'll spend less time looking for fish and more time catching them. Kelly Matthews guides for crappie on Weiss Lake in Alabama. When he has a trip scheduled, he can't just postpone it because of weather. Over the years, he's found ways to continue to put slabs in the boat and keep his clients happy.
Getting Crappie To Bite
"You can be loading the boat every trip with slab crappie up on the spawning flats," says Kelly, "and then it happens: a cold front brings a nasty north wind and shuts down the spawn just like that." The surface temperature on Weiss Lake can drop from 52 to 47 degrees and shut the trolling bite down in a heartbeat, and the effects can last three to four days. Kelly says that on Weiss Lake, a lot of anglers just call it quits and decide to park in front of the television for a few days. Not having that option, he has learned that by changing his tactics and slowing his presentation, he can get the crappie to bite.
Normally, spring will find Matthews trolling jigs through the shallows, but once a front moves through that bite seems to disappear. "You have to keep in mind that the more severe the cold front is, the further back to the main lake the crappie will retreat," he says. At other times, he finds that although there are fish in the same areas he's been fishing, they simply won't bite.
Same Place, Different Method
One of Kelly's cold front techniques is to fish the same area he found crappie in before the front passed, but using a different presentation. "A lot of times those same fish can be caught by slowing way down using a fly and cork rig," he explains. A fly and cork rig is not only a great way to fish for reluctant biters, it's also easy to use on windy days.
Matthews prefers a pear-shaped "cork" with just the bottom of the bobber secured to the line. This allows the cork to float on its side in the water, then stand straight up when a fish takes the fly. This built-in strike indicator makes it easy for even a beginner to know when to set the hook.
Jigs Are Crucial Part
The jigs are a crucial part of Kelly's cork and fly presentation. He uses two 1/32-ounce Southern Pro jig heads tied about fourteen inches apart on 6-pound-test Sufix line. The two 1/32-ounce jigs are light enough to allow the cork to rest on its side – anything heavier will tend to stand the cork upright. He ties the jigs on with loop knots to allow them as much action as possible.
"I put a Southern Pro two-inch Hot Grub on the bottom hook and a two-inch Stinger on the top hook so I get different styles at different depths," Kelly says. "Another thing that will help you get the fish in the boat is to keep an EGO Reach crappie net close by – those inactive fish are sometimes just barely hooked and they will get off if you try to lift them into the boat."
Tempting The Fish
The best way to work this rig is to make the longest casts you can, then work the rig very slowly by twitching the rod tip to move it back toward the boat. Matthews fishes his cork and fly rig on an 8-foot B'n'M pole so he can really sling it out there. What he's trying to do is give the jigs a good chance to come in contact with the isolated stumps that are scattered over the flats. He's going after the same fish that he was catching aday earlier with a trolling rig.
Often, those fish will remain in the same area after a cold front, but hunker in tighter to cover. Twitching this rig ever so slowly across the flat will let the lures stay in the strike zone long enough to tempt the fish into biting.
Success With Technique
"I've had great success with this technique when dealing with moderate cold fronts that haven't caused a sudden drop in the surface temperature," says Kelly. This presentation requires confidence and a knowledge of the area you are fishing.
Most of the time you'll be fan-casting to open water with no visible structure. If you were just catching fish there a few days before, you know what kind of structure is beneath the surface. Keep the jigs just barely moving, and be patient. The fly and cork can be a real day-saver, especially in early spring.
Finesse For Severe Fronts
Since not all the crappie in the lake move up to spawn at the same time, there are always some located on channel ledges adjacent to the spawning flats this time of year, says Matthews. When a bad front blows through, he moves out to those channel ledges and targets those deeper fish. "The major factor for this kind of fishing is the north winds that usually accompany the front," he explains. "I try to plan ahead by knowing a few spots that are protected from a hard north wind."
Launch In Protected Areas
A good lake map and a little pre-trip studying will help you locate areas that are out of the wind to some degree. If the wind is really bad it can be difficult to navigate from place to place, so you may want to plan your launch site so you're close to protected areas.
Bottom bumping is a finesse technique for crappie that requires a lot of patience as well as excellent boat control skills. This can make it difficult, so it's usually Kelly's second choice – made after the fly and cork technique has failed to produce. "At this point we're dealing with a sudden deep freeze that has sent most of the crappie back out to the comforts of deeper water," says Kelly.
These fish are fairly inactive, so Matthews uses live minnows to get them to bite. It's a vertical presentation on a dropper rig, very similar to fishing a drop-shot rig for bass. He spools up with 12-pound-test Sufix. The heavier line means that most of the time he can pull a snagged jig loose. "There's nothing worse than having to retie your rig every time you hang a stump," he says.
The hook he uses is an Eagle Claw #2 Aberdeen, tied on about eighteen to twenty inches above a half-ounce bell sinker. He fishes this rig on an eight-foot B'n'M pole. This rod gives him plenty of length so he can get the presentation away from the boat, and makes landing the fish easier than with a longer pole.
Important: How You Hook Your Minnows
"I think it's very important how you hook your minnows," emphasizes Kelly. "You want to hook them so they stay alive longer and look natural to the crappie, so I hook mine straight through the eyes."
Weiss Lake is a man-made lake of about 30,000 acres. The deepest channels, says Matthews, are twenty-five to thirty feet deep. These creek and river channels are where the crappie head when a severe cold front hits. When you begin to fish these deeper areas you are looking for one thing – structure. There is no point wasting time fishing barren sections of the ledges, insists Kelly.
Pre-Study Of Lake Map
This is where pre-study of a lake map pays off. First of all, Matthews finds the channels. Then he moves over them slowly, looking for structure. A depthfinder is a vital tool for this search. He keeps the boat moving slowly by heading into the wind.
The heavy weight helps keep the line vertical as you bump it gently up and down, keeping the weight in contact with the bottom. Once he sees structure, Kelly stops and takes the time to work the structure from all sides, letting the rig rest for a few seconds each time he moves it. On Weiss Lake, he can usually manage to pick up six to eight nice slabs off each piece of structure using this technique.
On Roosevelt Lake, a cold front will send crappie to deeper water immediately. "It's the worse thing that can happen in the spring," Curt Ramboused to tell me. "Five degrees difference is all it takes, and they're gone. They can go from being two feet deep to being twelve or fourteen feet deep just like that."
When this happens, Rambo heads out to the secondary dips or ditches. Roosevelt is a typical Arizona reservoir, which means it can be well over a hundred feet deep in places. There is very little structure besides rocks and a few old mesquites. Most of what the fish use in Roosevelt is rock piles. But savvy anglers like Curt will put out brush just like crappie fishermen everywhere.
"Go out to your deeper stuff and slow way down," Curt recommends. His specialty is vertical jigging, and when the bite has been shut down by a cold front he slows down to half as fast as he was fishing before. He often goes to a smaller bait and a lighter jig. The lighter jig falls slowly and gives you more time in the strike zone.
"You'll have to put your jig right in the brush and wiggle it two or three times," says Curt, "and when they bite all you get is a little slack in your line." This kind of fishing requires an extraordinary amount of concentration and finesse, and can be difficult to do in the wind. If wind is a problem you can move to another area or try a heavier jig. The fish are lethargic, so you have to tease them into biting.
A cold front, even a severe one, doesn't have to mean calling off that fishing trip. Pack a jacket, do a little map searching beforehand, and be prepared to fish slowly and methodically. With a little patience, you can put fish in the boat despite the weather.