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Florida Winter Crappie
written by Ron Brooks

When winter weather hits Florida, anglers flock to the Harris Chain of lakes in search of crappie. For those heading south for the winter, here are a few tips to net your limit.
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Spider Rig

From January through March, anglers using spider rigs populate the Harris Chains in Florida in search of crappie.

Winter weather drives quite a few changes in the central part of Florida. The population swells as visitors, mainly retirees, flock down from northern climes. They head for every part of Florida, but the fishermen among them seem to concentrate on central Florida. In particular, the crappie anglers take over the myriad lakes in the center of the state, more specifically, the Harris Chain of Lakes.

The Harris Chain of lakes includes Lakes Eustis, Griffin, Harris, Little Harris, Dora, Beauclair and Carlton. They are all interconnected and navigable by a natural river, or a canal, and while other nearby lakes are often mentioned as being a part of the chain, these are the major bodies of water.

The reason for the influx of anglers to these lakes is the crappie, pomoxis annularis. The Harris Chain of lakes has arguably the most prolific population of crappie in the state. Each year, 25 fish limits are caught by anglers on a daily basis. And while crappie fishing can be said to be the same everywhere, you will find a different technique at work on these lakes by knowledgeable anglers.

Spider rigs are evident on the lakes in the winter. Pontoon boats slow troll deep water with multiple rigs out, and anglers will be found drifting with the wind, fishing a live minnow under a small float. They do catch fish, but not as many fish as some others catch.

The method being used by the most successful anglers on Harris is a simple jig. It's not just any jig; it's a "pop-eyed" jig. They're called pop eyed jigs because the round head has a large, black, round eye painted on each side that looks like the eyes are about to pop out of them. The rest of the jig is made of dyed feather material, tied to the jig head with red thread. It's a simple arrangement, and many brands of similar jigs can be found. It's not the brand that matters as much as how these jigs are fished.

Pop Eyed Jigs

The "pop-eyed" jig is one of the most simple and successful jig used by anglers on the Harris Chain when fishing for crappie.

To begin with, I use a 13- or 14-foot long graphite crappie pole. I find a shorter one puts me at a disadvantage when reaching for a spot away from the boat. Longer poles become unwieldy and difficult to manage, not to mention just plain heavy. I have a couple of poles that have a reel seat and eyes and I use a small crappie reel to mind the line. Other poles I own have a simple eye on the tip — just a plain "cane pole." Either of them work, but the reels do come in handy from time to time.

The difference between success in my method and what makes it more successful than trolling or drifting is the area I fish. And the area I fish is the grass. Sometimes the grass I fish is so thick you would not think a fish could be down there in it. And sometimes the water where I'm fishing is a foot or less deep. But the fish are still there, even in that shallow water.

Crappies are free spawners — that is, they do not make a traditional bed like a bass. The females lay their eggs in and around the grass and on top of lily pad roots, while the males fertilize them by freely depositing their sperm in the same area. Fertilized eggs drift "free."

The trolling and drifting anglers will catch pre-spawn fish in the deeper water adjacent to areas of grass and pads. The large female fish, however, will be caught up in the grass when they move in to lay eggs. Full moon nights will drive the fish into the grass. The next day or two after that is when we will catch a limit of fish in literally an hour or two.

I ease the boat to the edge of the lake where the grass edge comes out — sometimes as far as 100 feet. It really does not matter which lake on the chain. The fish will move from place to place. Anglers fishing here on a daily basis can keep track of the fish and follow them, but literally every lake in the chain has a large population of crappie.

With the trolling motor, I move to the edge of the grass and look for small holes where I can drop my jig down. An opening as small as 3 or 4 inches is enough to let my jig fall freely. If I'm in lily pads, I fish every single pad with several drops. In the grass, I try to put my jig down in every hole I can reach.

Florida Winter Crappie

Using a long crappie rod among the grass is can produce crappie.

The long pole allows me to reach a lot of territory, and I may sit in one place for 15 minutes or more without moving while I probe every spot I can reach. After I have exhausted all the holes I can reach, I will grab some cattail reeds if there are any there and pull the boat along in the grass. I'll pull it about a full boat length, and then probe all the new territory I have around me. If there are no cattails, I simply use the trolling motor to move the boat.

Sometimes I find the fish on the outside edges of the grass, maybe a foot or so back from the edge. Other times they will be as far back in the grass as I can get the jig. Probing every hole will find them.

The jig needs to go down close to the bottom and then be lifted about half way back to the surface. Make the jig move — give it some action — by wiggling the end of your pole.

When you feel that little "tick" on your line, the crappie has grabbed your jig. Simply lift up hard to set the hook and bring him into the boat!

These are not trophy sized fish. A big crappie in Florida is 2 pounds. But they are some of the best eating fish in the water, and they are very cooperative. If you are fishing on the Harris Chain, you will find that other crappie anglers are happy to share their secrets and fishing locations. The crappie spawn is on from January through March on the Harris Chain. It's a great time of year to fish and a great place to get away from the winter weather! Try jigging the grass on your next crappie trip.

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