|Extreme Crappie Fishing On Lake Guntersville
|By Greg McCain
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of AON
Frigid winter nights in north Alabama are normally best spent by the fire, even for the most passionate of fishermen. While there are fish to be caught through the winter, most anglers long for the warming winds of spring and spend their time organizing tackle, cleaning reels and planning the upcoming tournament season.
So when I heard of a hardy group of Lake Guntersville fishermen who venture out on the lake on the coldest of winter nights, I knew the story was one worth telling. While working on another crappie story in the fall, a fishing acquaintance told me of a friend who catches big Guntersville crappie… in the winter… at night… in the cold… the colder the better.
Call it extreme crappie fishing.
Will Yelverton, who lives just north of Huntsville in the Hazel Green community, is one such angler who is not afraid to challenge traditional fishing stereotypes. He’s no fair-weather spring crappie fisherman. I spoke with Will several times before we finally managed to meet for a short trip to Guntersville. A regular on local and regional bass circuits, Will gets a chilly thrill spending winter nights in pursuit of Guntersville crappie. He assured me that nocturnal winter fishing for Guntersville slabs was not only possible; it was actually one of the absolute best times of the year to fish.
“If I know the fish are really biting and holding in a particular location, I might go out there at midnight and fish until daylight,” Will said. “Yes, it can be cold to the extreme, but the colder the weather, the hotter the fishing.”
Will said the fishing had been excellent from shortly after Thanksgiving until well into December. Heavy current through the entire Tennessee Valley Authority chain had pushed the crappie off their normal winter haunts through the latter stages of December, but Will expected the fishing to return to normal as soon as the water returned to typical winter patterns.
I met Will in Huntsville in early January, only days before he headed to Florida for the start of the FLW season on Lake Okeechobee. He appeared to be as excited about a winter night’s crappie fishing on Guntersville as he did about the prospects of heading south for tournament bass fishing.
“A lot of people don’t understand how special the crappie fishing can be at night at this time of year,” Will explained during the 40-minute drive from Huntsville to Guntersville. “Actually, it’s not really a big secret because there are other people who do the same type of fishing. We’re likely to have some company out there tonight.”
The only company we encountered at the Alred Creek boat ramp (just north of the Highway 431 bridge) proved to be the early arrivals of the duck-hunting contingent on Guntersville, which eventually numbered dozens of boats strong.
“Those guys are either crazy or they love to fish,” I overheard one tell a hunting partner as he watched us drop Will’s Mercury-powered Ranger Comanche into the lake. I actually had the same thought myself because we had chosen some extreme weather to sample the extreme fishing. A strong cold front, which eventually pushed sustained 30-mph winds across the area later in the day, was already whipping the lake’s surface some three hours before dawn. With air temps in the high 20s and a wind chill in the teens, it made for a frosty ride to our first stop.
Will actually idled most of the way because one of his favorite locations for targeting Guntersville crappie was only a short distance away from the ramp, on the north bank on the upstream side of the Highway 431 bridge. A visitor to the area can’t miss this bridge; it dominates the riverscape and leads directly into the city of Guntersville.
“These fish hold on these bluff walls, starting when the water drops into the 50s and staying until they begin to move toward spawning areas in March,” Will said. “This area potentially holds as many fish as any other on the lake. They move in here about the same time the fish start biting around the bridges on other parts of the lake. If you hear the bridge crappie are biting, then normally they will be on the bluff walls also.”
The water temperature was about 47 degrees with a stain the color of cream-filled coffee. Both the temperature and the water color were ideal, according to Will.
“I really like the color of the water,” he said. “The water temperature really doesn’t get too cold for these fish. The only problem is that I am concerned the heavy current may have pushed these fish off the walls. The current is still a little strong for my liking. They are not going to stay out here in open water and fight the current for extended periods.”
Once in place at the fishing location about 100 yards above the bridge, Will didn’t begin fishing immediately. Instead, the first order of business was to dig two propane lanterns out of the boat’s storage area. Will mounted the lanterns on heavy wooden bases, square in shape for stability. The lanterns not only lit up the boat and surrounding area but also provided a small measure of heat.
“The lights provide a little comfort for me personally,” Will said. “I don’t think they attract baitfish or anything like that, but they really help on a cold night. You could use some other type of light, but I’ve always used these lanterns. The wooden bases are just a safety precaution; they keep the lanterns from tipping over.”
We began tossing small jigs on light spinning gear, casting near the bank and allowing the Gum-Ball round-head jig to drop through the water column. Because of the current, Will tied on 1/16-oz. models, although he said he normally uses 1/24-oz. jigs in lighter current. He added a Bobby Garland Baby Shad tail in Cajun Cricket color to the jig.
Will demonstrated the technique by casting near the end of a laydown hanging from the bluff and working the jig back to the boat with minimal action, keeping the rod in about a 10 o’clock position and occasionally adding subtle, short jerks of the rod tip.
“I will change jig and plastic colors at times, but the Cajun Cricket color has been awfully good to me,” Will said. “Everything goes through cycles. At one point everyone used the Bass Assassin, but now the Bobby Garland plastics seem to be the hot ticket for crappie on Guntersville.”
The fishing proved tough as we fished for an extended period with no success.
“It’s one of those few times when you don’t want current,” said Will, who checked the TVA website a couple of times to see how much current was pushing through the lake. “It’s just too strong out here. Maybe we will find some fish holding on up the bank where there are some cuts and coves that might provide some protection from the current.”
A few hints of pink had appeared on the eastern horizon when I felt my first bite. I had dropped my jig to the bottom, reeled up about four turns and let the lure fall again. The familiar bump of a crappie turned into a heavy presence on the end of the line as I set the hook.
The fish, in fact, felt so heavy that I thought I had hooked into a bass or a drum rather than a crappie. However, a few moments later, a 15-inch Guntersville slab slid into the net, a perfect picture of the type of fishing possible at this time of the year.
The fish sparked a short flurry of activity. A few minutes later, I caught a smaller crappie, and Will caught another. However, the fish had clearly not returned to their pre-Christmas numbers, and with the wind blowing steadily harder, Will and I decided to cut our trip short before the waves started pushing over the side of the boat.
“When the water settles down, these fish will be back in here until March,” Will said. “Actually, they will hold on most locations where the water drops off pretty quickly to about 30 feet. They are not really holding on structure. Mainly, they suspend in open water and follow the baitfish.”
Will said that he frequently cruises an area, looking for schools of baitfish and crappie on his electronics and then fishing back through the area.
“Tonight, I just don’t see that many fish holding where they normally do,” he said when we started our trip.
Because of the extreme conditions, which can range from chilly to brutally cold, Will comes prepared, paying special attention to every detail from his clothing to his tackle.
“If you are not prepared for the cold, then you are going to freeze,” he said. “First of all, you really have to want to fish in conditions like this. Secondly, you must be prepared with the proper clothing. Otherwise, you won’t be able to stay out on the water.”
Dressed in layers of clothing, I found the conditions tolerable, especially when we fished close to the bluff walls that provided protection from the northwest wind.
While we fished basic spinning gear on the trip, Will suggested premium equipment enhances a trip fished in difficult weather conditions and leads to more fish in the boat.
For his crappie fishing, he uses 6 1/2- or 7-foot Bass Pro Shops Microlite spinning rods paired with ultra-light Abu Garcia reels. Perhaps an even more important factor is the line for a couple of different reasons. Will spools with Stren Gold 4-lb. test mono.
“I want to be able to see the line well in these low-light conditions,” he said. “And if you use anything more than 4-lb. test, you’re not going to catch as many Guntersville crappie. I learned that fact from the bridge fishermen, and you’ll always find them fishing 4-lb. and sometimes even 2-lb. test.”
Will said the main consideration for using the small-diameter line is not to prevent the fish from seeing it but rather because of the rate of drop. Guntersville crappie can be notoriously finicky, and smaller line is one factor that often separates a pile of filets from an empty stringer. The skinny line promotes a quick drop of the lure and reaction strikes by fish.
Will and I fished only the one area around the Highway 431 bridge on our trip, but he also added that area is often the only stop you need to make.
“There’s about a 200- to 300-yard strip there above the bridge that’s often stacked with fish,” he said. “As I said before, and as crazy as it sounds, there’s often two or three others boats working this same area.”
He also mentioned several other areas he fishes on Guntersville, although he conceded the lake is full of many other potential crappie-bearing areas. Will said around the mouth of Honeycomb Creek near Guntersville Dam is a favorite fishing spot. Areas around Seibold and Town Creek are good places in the mid-section of the lake.
“One thing you don’t want to be doing on a cold winter’s night is running around the lake,” he said. “You have to pick your spots, although I will move in order to find fish.”
Will stressed the need for safety. His big Ranger, wrapped for the bass-tournament season, provides the ultimate stable crappie platform. Even in the relative safety of the Ranger, life jackets are mandatory in these conditions.
“Yes, this fishing is a little on the extreme side,” he told me in one of our phone conversations prior to our trip. “It’s probably not for everyone, just the fact that not everyone wants to fish at night and especially not on a cold winter’s night.
“But for the potential of catching big Guntersville crappie — and I mean really big fish at times — there’s not a better time of the year, day or night, to be out here.”