“I’ll go fishing, but I’m not sinking brush when it’s eight degrees outside.” Greg, who is almost always down for anything, has finally drawn the line. All the years of dragging him into less than sane scenarios, and this is finally the moment that he will take no more. Offering what I felt was a fantastic rebuttal, I explain to him that nobody would see where we sink our brush and truly these are perfect conditions. “Like I said, I’ll go fishing, but I’m not sinking brush.” Fair enough.
If you’ve never pulled a boat when it’s eight degrees outside, I suggest you give it a shot. It’s great for getting all sorts of attention, and people just assume you must be naturally stupid and quickly get out of the way. Collin and Abe, two of the better hunters and fishers I’ve met in the last couple of years, have volunteered to join us, which only means more fish and a better time on the water. Dressed for a Siberian goose hunt, we head north out of Ft. Worth to what will be the coldest day I’ve ever fished.
Much to nobody’s surprise, we are the only people at the skating rink, I mean boat ramp. Stepping out of the truck, the cold air immediately awakens the senses. The weather is absolutely beautiful. I get that it’s cold out, but the wind is blowing at a 1/16 ounce speed, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. “Boys, I don’t think we could’ve asked for a prettier day than this. If that wind holds and the sun stays out, we’ll be swimming by sundown.”
Abe, who has just performed a beautiful rendition of the Nutcracker on Ice, releases us from the dock and it’s away we go. Pushing up a gaggle of mallards and gadwall, I turn to talk hunting, and wouldn’t you know it, all of my friends are facing towards the back of the boat. “I take it y’all are fine not going any faster?” I get a one finger wave for an answer…
We don’t go far across the lake, thankfully, and immediately start scanning for structure and shad. “Let’s see if we can find any brush or stumps around the main channel. If nothing else, maybe we can find some bait balled up and do some dead sticking.” Feeling much warmer now that we’re idling, the crew turns around and we all watch the graph with eagerly searching eyes.
Veering left with the main channel, we see a large school of fish suspended over 22ft of water down around 12-15ft. The size of the school makes me turn the boat around to get a second look. Sure enough, the graph wasn’t lying on the first go around as there are hundreds of crappie just out to the right of the boat about twenty feet. I throw the marker upwind of where the fish are, immediately shutting down the big engine.
“What color are you going with?” “Shoot, I don’t know Greggo, probably give this blue and chartreuse a try first and go from there. What about you?” Greg and Abe have both opted for a salt and pepper colored jig, while Collin has found his confidence in a dark purple jig with blue flake. Generally speaking, color matters more to the fishermen than it does the fish, but I really like natural colored and blue colored jigs in the depths of winter.
With a lot of hesitation, the gloves come off as I lock the Xi5 into place. I can see the fish on the graph directly underneath us, and I think if we can keep our jigs in that 12-15ft mark, we’ll be seeing those same fish on the deck of this boat. We are all in the water by now, and it doesn’t take long before Collin hits pay dirt. “What do you got there, bud?” Hoisting a nice fryer over the gunnels, he shows us what we’re supposed to be looking for. “Where are we putting these things?” Propping up the Igloo lid like a back board, he shoots from downtown, and just like that, the skunk smell is off.
Rudely, Collin jumps ahead and puts eight keepers in the boat about as fast as a man can do so. “You want to take time to thank your sponsors or sign autographs for your fans while we catch a few there Collin Dance?” Letting his rod do the talking, he promptly drops down and catches another keeper. “Ol Hembey up there doing the Hustle while we just sit back here looking pretty. Go ahead Mr. Dance, we got 91 more to go.”
I bump the boat five feet forward, and now we’re all on top of them. The fish are being very depth specific. Color, not so much. Everyone is catching fish after fish as long as they are within 12-15ft of water. As I mentioned earlier, the wind is blowing at 1/16th ounce speed. Taking advantage of the situation, we are pitching the jigs out, allowing them to cover the entire depth where we are seeing the shad. Some fish are hitting it on the fall, while others prefer a dead-stick presentation. Either way, they’re coming in the boat.
What started out as a hot bite has stopped very abruptly. Watching the bow graph, I can still see the shad, but the bait is in tight ball and all of the large red marks have dispersed. To me, this indicates there are no longer fish feeding underneath us. Fish feeding on a school of shad will have the bait ball scattered, and the fisherman should see large marks either in the middle of the school or directly beneath the school. If neither is present, there’s a good chance active fish aren’t feeding under your boat.
I don’t have the clicker in working order today, but if I had to guess, I’d say we’re sitting at roughly 30-40 keepers. The next spot is a mere twenty yards away, giving us a reason to float a few minutes and enjoy some fresh jalapeno venison summer sausage. “I don’t think we could’ve dialed up a more beautiful day gentlemen. I really don’t. That wind is perfect and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. I know it can’t be more than fifteen degrees, but my goodness it feels great out here right now.”
During our union break, I’ve slowly been pushing us downwind in search of another area with active fish under schools of bait. I haven’t had much luck with finding bait, but I have located what seems to be a very narrow creek channel that runs down from 14ft to 25ft. From roughly 14-22ft is a stack of fish that would be the envy of any crappie fisherman. I throw the marker, showing my crew what I’ve just seen. “That’s a whole lot of crappie amigos. Right there on the lip of that channel, ‘til about 8ft below it. Perfect ambush spot for a fish to sit and wait for bait to pass. Let’s see if they’re hungry.”
Setting up on a channel this narrow is a bit trickier than I expected. The bow of the boat reads 14ft, and the back of the boat reads 12ft. In between the two is the main part of the channel that dips down to around 25ft. I slowly let us drift backwards until the bow graph is just beginning to read the drop off. Knowing for certain the bow of the boat is over the deepest part, I tell the guys to fish out both sides, directly perpendicular to the way the boat is running.
I lower my rod and can tell that my jig is still on top of the flats. I slowly lift and drop my rod tip until the jig is sliding off into the abyss where all of the crappie are waiting. Just like they do in the magazines, the crappie react as soon as my jig comes off the shelf. It’s a good fish, fourteen inches to be exact. Quickly after my hookup, three more fish are caught by my partners in slime, giving us the first quadruple of the day. “I think you all need to take your rods back to the store; they seem to be warped at the tips.”
For the first time today, we are catching fish so fast that the eyes don’t have time to freeze. Up until this point, we have all missed fish or have had trouble casting due to the line being frozen in place. Now though, it’s as fast as we can get it down there, as long as the bait makes it into the creek channel. The technique that I’ve started using seems to making the others mad, as I’ve been putting on quite the show. I’m pitching my jig on top of the shelf, and then very slowly, I’m dragging it off until I feel the jig start to fall again. As soon as the jig drops a foot or two, it’s game over.
We have pulled a lot of fish off this spot, and I don’t know the exact count, but I’m betting we have somewhere around a three man limit. We haven’t kept anything under eleven inches today. If there’s even a doubt if a fish is too short or too skinny, it’s been thrown back without hesitation. We aren’t catching giants, but we are putting the absolute hammer down on some good eating fish. The guys keep fishing while I go to counting. “There’s a one man.” Dodging the occasional fish while I continue to count, I’m at fifty with plenty more to go. “There’s a two man.” Hearing this, Greg, Abe and Collin turn around to see how many we have left. “There’s a three man.” Everybody stops fishing now. Mumbling to myself, we have 81. This is the first time I’ve counted, and after two spots, we have 81 keepers. “We need 19 more”
Wanting the day to last, we take another union break. “You know, I bet if those pockets of water weren’t frozen, they would be covered with ducks.” We’ve seen several teal and gadwall buzzing the shoreline, but with all the shallow water frozen around the lake, they don’t have many options right now. A bald eagle cruises by, not really seeming to go anywhere, but looking majestic at the same time. Inhaling a deep breath through the nose and a man can still feel the frigid air entering his body. I know it’s still below freezing because our rod tips have already frozen up again, but I just can’t get over how beautiful of a day it’s been.
“What do y’all think about finding something new? We know there are tons of fish here, but if we find something new we may have something to fall back on next time. It’s only 3 o’clock and I’m in absolutely no hurry to go home.” Whether it’s the summer sausage or being contempt with 81 keepers, I’m not sure, but nobody puts up much of an argument and we begin idling around again.
Sure enough, after a quarter hour search, we begin marking large amounts of bait over deeper water. This time though, the shad are pushed up into the 5-7ft range. “Boys, we have fish all over the place in 7-9ft, right under the shad. They are going nuts down there; you need to get a jig in the water, now!” I hold my pole up like an 8ft measuring stick, pull off one more foot of line, and then drop down a natural colored silver and chartreuse sparkled jig. I hold it dead still, and within seconds I get struck. This happens multiple times. The fish are so shallow we don’t even need to reel in. “We’re slaying fish in less than ten feet of water and the surface temps are 41 degrees. This blows my mind.”
It’s funny how when crappie are actively feeding on shad, they bite completely different. The fish don’t thump the jig, but more so they run off with it like a bass. I’m not picky when it comes to catching them, and to be frank, the little nuances that are discovered while crappie fishing is what keeps me coming back. Getting lost in my thoughts, I can only think of one way to make this day even more fun: “Any of you guys got a slip bobber?”
We’ve had a four man limit in the box for a while now, but there’s one more addiction we have to address before we leave. Knowing the fish are still holding shallow, we start casting slip bobbers rigged above 1/16 ounce jigs. What was already a great day transforms into perfect when we go back to when we were kids, enjoying the nostalgia only a sinking bobber can bring.
The human body can endure anything when the fish are biting. On a day too cold for duck hunting, myself and three others enjoyed nature at its absolute finest. Smoking a cigarette and watching the others catch fish, I can’t help but smile. This was my first fishing expedition of the year and definitely one for the books. One day I’ll tell my grandkids all about the time my friends and I went fishing when it was eight degrees outside, but to us it felt like 100 below.