Weather dominates early crappie tournaments
By Greg McCain
The weather continues to be the common thread dominating early-season crappie tournaments.
That scenario definitely applied in multiple ways to the inaugural Crappie Masters Elite Series tournament (Feb. 3-4) originally scheduled for Cross Lake (LA). Local officials closed Cross because of high water just before pre-fishing, forcing Crappie Masters to move the much-anticipated event to the nearby Red River.
Various ACC Crappie Stix pro-staffers were among the 46-boat Elite field with the Louisiana team of Tim Hebert and Andre Smith experiencing the greatest success with a 7th-place finish. In other tournament news featuring ACC pro staff members, Jonathan Phillips won the Alabama Crappie Masters tournament on Weiss Lake, and Brad Gibson edged regular tournament partner Calvin King by .01 of an ounce for first in a local event on Lake Okechoobee (FL).
Hebert and Smith were en route to Cross Lake when they received the news that their destination was closed but the tournament was not cancelled.
“Initially, I was kind of shocked,” Andre said. “Then we got the news that they were moving it to the Red River. The only good thing about it was we had fished it before.”
The Red River was nearing flood stage also, and the pre-fishing difficulties were compounded by current, cold temps, and wind. Tim and Andre used their experience on the river – they had fished the 2021 Crappie Expo there – and managed to eliminate water and find good fish in the three days of practice.
“It was hard to get to the big ones to bite,” Tim said.
“To catch the fish there – and I’m not exaggerating – you would have to hold it on them for like five minutes before they would come look at it. Even then, only about half of them would bite, just look at it.”
Getting the crappie to commit required a little ingenuity on the part of Tim and Andre. Both said they needed something to make the fish react. Tim said he went as far as jumping up and down in the boat and hitting trees just to try to get fish to move.
“The fish were very lethargic and not reacting much,” Andre said. “We thought maybe sound or something would get the fish to just look at the bait.”
Added Tim, “We thought of an idea. Because the fish were tight on the cover, we had to get the bait between the wood and their nose. The water was really murky. Half of them wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was there like they were asleep or something.”
Their answer – while it didn’t fool every fish they weighed in – involved more than just a simple crappie jig.
“We slid a bobber stop up the line, then a tungsten weight, a blade, and a bead, and finally another bobber stop to hold everything in place,” Tim said.
Fixing the unusual collection about eight inches above the jig, Tim said they would “lift up our line and shake it really, really hard. That tungsten weight and the blade were making noise. The fish would move, and then we would drop down on them. That made some of them bite.”
Andre, in fact, said two fish he caught on Day 1 of competition came on the rig.
“We didn’t catch a lot on it,” Tim said, “but it was probably the difference between 7th place and 20th.”
Even then, the team needed a little last-minute magic on Day 2 to secure their position. With only minutes of competition remaining, they had only five fish in the boat. When they started the final round, the water temps had dropped as much as five degrees. Add in stronger wind, and Tim and Andre had gotten very few bites.
“I don’t know exactly what turned them on, maybe the sun beating down all day and getting the water temperature back up toward 48,” Tim said, “but we finally started to get bit in that last hour. We caught a two, a 1.6, and culled a one-pounder.
“We caught nine fish all day, but finally managed to put together a pretty good weight.”
Tim and Andre, who used the 13’ ACC jigging pole in the tournament, found their fish in a little cove, which served a current break just off the main river. Their two-day total reached 25.09.
“I really like the format,” Tim said. “For me, it was good not having to wait in line or having to wait to get picked up. The weigh-in line was not two or three hours long like in a regular Crappie Masters with 180 or 200 boats.
The fish in pre-fishing are not going to get hammered like in a regular Crappie Masters. I also liked the no live bait rule.”
Other ACC pro staff members who fished the tournament included Nick Whitten, Wesley Miller, and Craig Nichols.
The Elite Series continues next month on Lake Eufaula (OK). Other stops include Millwood, Truman, and Grenada.
In Alabama, the weather proved equally miserable for Jonathan Phillips and partner Brandon Threadgill in the Alabama Crappie Masters event (Feb.11) on Weiss. The team found high-quality fish up to two lbs. in practice but an overnight change brought rain and an increase in wind intensity. The weather conditions, plus no dash electronics, resulted in a slow start to their tournament day.
“We had a Navionics app on our cell phone and finally managed to navigate with our cell phones,” Jonathan said.
Jonathan said the team finally found a spot out of the wind that allowed them to concentrate on fish. Sharing the spot with two or three other boats, they experienced good fishing for about a two-hour window at mid-morning.
“From a mental standpoint, we realized we probably weren’t going to have the weight that we found in practice, but I didn’t know of a better option,” Jonathan said.
In practice, Jonathan had dropped on the fish with a 16’ ACC trolling rod, but the crappie proved more finicky during tournament hours. He started casting to them with the new 6’6” ACC one-piece rod.
“They weren’t easy to catch by any means, but we managed to get our tournament weight in that 1 ½- to two-hour window,” Jonathan said.
While plenty of tournament time remained potentially to cull, Jonathan said extensive schools of bait fish emerged in their area, making fishing even more difficult.
“Everything you read says fish where the bait is,” he said. “I’m going to be the first one to say that I don’t want to fish where there is wall-to-wall bait. I like pockets of bait, isolated bait. But if there is wall-to-wall bait, it presents a problem in catching fish.”
Despite the difficult conditions, the team weighed 13.02, a great total on Weiss.
“It felt really bad there for a while,” Jonathan said, referencing the electronics issues and the inability to reach the fish they found in practice. “We did a good job of saying, ‘This is not going to work’ and moving on to find a spot to fish.”
(For guided trips on the upper Alabama and lower Coosa rivers with Team Phillips Guide Service, contact Jonathan through Facebook Messenger for information.)
In Florida, Brad Gibson had to make a similar choice as Jonathan. Typically, a single-pole jigger in the Okechobee grass, windy conditions muddied up his best spots and forced him off the main lake.
Fishing the Hookin Specks benefit tournament (March 11), Brad abandoned his plan to fish the grass on the lake and reverted to long-line trolling after several hours of fighting dirty water and the wind. He managed to jig up a few weigh-in fish with the 10’ rear-seat ACC jigging pole but soon found himself on the Kissimmee River.
“Typically, not that many tournaments are won trolling,” Brad said, “although I will fish that way some with clients. I knew that I needed three or four more good fish to go along with the ones I caught early.”
The bite didn’t ignite immediately, however. Trolling a spread of different length ACC rods, Brad managed to find the right bite later in the day. His limit weighed 9.28 lbs. The week before, Brad and Calvin finished third in a tournament with over 10 lbs.
“Someone asked me when I got to the weigh-in what I had and I said maybe nine lbs.,” Brad said. “They said that that much might win.”
Brad only managed to secure the win when Calvin’s limit pushed the scale to 9.27.
“Sometimes you have to be a little lucky,” Brad said. “Calvin said he had a couple of better fish get off, and I had a 1 ¾ that died on me early that would have really helped.”
(For information about guided trips with Brad on Okeechobee, follow G3 Outfitters Guide Brad Gibson on Facebook. Calvin can be contacted through Brad or on Facebook for an Okeechobee trip.)