Cold Water Crappie

Crappie can be caught all winter. Join the author on Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga to prove the point!

On The Fly Freshwater

March 2023

Article and photos by Craig Riendeau

Most fly fishers don’t think of warm water fly fishing during the middle of the winter. Though the weather may be cold, the fishing can still be hot.

Case in point, take the winter crappie fishing at Lake Chickamauga near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The lake is nearly 60 miles long on the Tennessee River, stretching northward from Chattanooga to the Watts Bar Dam creating 36,000 acres of fishing habitat.

Although primarily known as a lunker bass lake, the “Chick” has a large population of crappie and they’re willing to bite all winter long. Best part is that they are not hard to find and fairly easy to catch, even for a fly fisherman.

The author with a double-handful of Chickamauga winter crappie.

Although you will need a boat to fish Chickamauga, you will not need a large boat or high horse power to do it. Much of the fishing is done in the creek coves off the main lake. There you are sheltered from most of the wind and you do not need to make long boat rides to get to your fishing spots. Often times you only need to put down your trolling motor and start fishing.

Pick any creek arm that has a marina in it. That means that there will be deep enough water to harbor large boats, even after winter drawdown. Creeks like Dallas Bay, Soddy Creek, Sale Creek or Richland Creek to name a few. Remember, I said marina, not boat launch!

Finding the fish in these creeks is pretty straightforward. Buy a depth map of the lake or use your depth finder to locate the areas of the deepest water in the creek arm. Then choose the bank in that area with the steepest drop on it and look for blown-down trees along this shoreline. Or simply go where all the other boats seem to be.

Steep banks with blown-down trees are a key to finding winter crappie.

The crappie will either be in the tree branches or suspended somewhere nearby. Your boat should be positioned in about 15 or so feet of water while you make casts towards the submerged tree limbs that will be some 30 feet away.

Words of wisdom on crappie fishing: on cold mornings the fish tend to hold deeper in the water and rise in the water column as the day warms. Start the day plying the 8- to 10-foot depths and fish shallower as the day warms. That said, there are always exceptions as high fishing pressure will either move the crappie deep or have them suspend further away from the cover.

With cold water temperatures of  the high 40s to low 50s, you will need to fish slow. In fly fishing that means only one thing, float and fly. A small minnow-like fly fished under an indicator will catch fish all day. I had my best success with a No. 8 M&M Fly that is barely an inch long, fished under a 1/2-inch diameter foam ball indicator. This fly is weighted to fish hook point up, like a jig. I used a No. 4 micro shot 4 inches up the tippet to help it sink faster. My leader was 6 feet of 20-pound braided line, with a 6-foot 2X tippet. The un-tapered leader offered little resistance, allowing me to get the small fly 12 feet down if  needed, without adding too much weight. When fishing shallower, the braid would float allowing you to mend it if needed. A 2X was the preferred tippet because, when I hung up (which was often), it allowed me to straighten the hook and come free. There were times that the crappie got picky and I had to go down to 3X and I lost a number of flies, but that’s the price of success.

Flies tied to ride with the hook point up work best for this action.

These fish will be here all winter. In a couple months they will still be in the same creeks and tree branches, only shallower further up the creek as they set up to spawn. There’s always warm water fly fishing to be had even in the coldest weather, you just have to know where to look.

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