Winter Winter Crappie Dinner
The specks don’t stop biting just because winter has arrived. Russell McQuaig talks tactics and locations to supply a winter fish fry.
Craig James | January 3, 2017
If there was a crappie fishing Hall of Fame, you could bet your boat Russell McQuaig would be in it. I’m sure many of you reading this have never heard the name, but for those who have, you know what I’m talking about.
Russell and his brother Billy created a jig in 1981 that was and still is a crappie-catching machine. Simple but effective, 35 years later the Mac-a-jig is still filling stringers.
When Russell first gave me several of his Mac-a-jigs to try, I was optimistic at best. At first glance it looks like any other 1/16-oz. lead-headed curly tail jig out there, but two casts in and two slab crappie later, the Mac-a-jig had my full attention.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the bevel-head design of the jig caused a slight wobble that drives fish wild. Adding to the appeal is a 2-inch curly tail that flutters like no other I have ever seen. A No. 4 gold Eagle Claw hook is the insurance policy that ensures fish go on the stringer.
The Mac-a-jig came to be through trial and error. Fed up with a very limited selection of crappie jigs at the time, the brothers resorted to constructing their own. Russell and Billy enjoyed making jigs as a hobby in the late 70s, and in 1981 they designed the Mac-a-jig and realized immediately they had something special. As demand grew, Billy distributed the lure throughout the Southeast. Now years later, Billy has gone to be with the Lord, but Russell along with his wife Barbara continues to assemble the jigs. His brother Van McQuaig occasionally assists in assembling the jigs, as well.
Russell was more than happy to take me fishing on a cold—make that a really cold—winter day. He shared his tactics and techniques for catching slabs in January. Now retired, Russell has plenty of time to focus on catching specks and pouring jigs. He admitted that catching fish is priority No. 1, and he makes enough jigs to keep up with demand and to fill his tackle box.
The first thing Russell pointed out about January crappie fishing is you have to slow down, way down. Many anglers tend to fish too fast for January’s often frigid water temperatures, not to mention fronts that change water temperatures rapidly and leave fish more than a little sluggish. He targets deep water and interestingly prefers to fish his jig about a foot above the structure he is targeting. He believes most anglers count on crappie to feed from below, when in reality Russell says those big googly eyes have excellent peripheral vision. He will use a cork at times to drag his jig slowly over cover to tempt slab crappie in the winter months.
Another important factor Russell mentioned is that three days before a full moon he does better than any other time of a month, especially in January.
“In today’s world, I’m afraid too many anglers are neglecting to pay any attention to lunar cycles and how they affect the waters they fish,” Russell said.
It sure pays to keep a journal of how you did on the water that day in relation to what the moon phase is, Russell went on to say.
As far as colors go, Russell prefers anything that has chartreuse in it. On sunny days, he really likes chartreuse/glitter.
When it’s cloudy, he opts for a black/chartreuse grub. Other colors worth a try in January are tractor green, pearl and electric chicken. On the flip side, in clear water he will keep his color selection natural. Russell says it really comes down to what you have confidence in. He said anglers should have the willingness to be flexible in their selection until they home in on what the fish want that particular day.
When I asked Russell about tackle selection for January crappie fishing, he reply was quick and to the point.
“You have to stay as light as you can. Heavy line hampers the action of your jig and makes strike detection much harder, especially when fishing deep or when fish are lethargic,” Russell said.
He went on to say that a good 6-foot ultralight rod is better for casting and also aids in making sure the hook does not set too hard. As far as line, he spools up with 6-lb. test and occasionally 8-lb. test when in heavy cover. He pointed out that most of the time even 6-lb. test is more than capable of straightening a hook on a snagged jig. He also mentioned it’s hard to beat a Lew’s reel for this type of fishing, and he’s had great success with them over the years.
At this point in his fishing career, Russell prefers the seclusion of fishing private lakes owned by friends and family members, but you can still find him all over the state if there are big slabs to be had. When I asked Russell his No. 1 pick for January crappie fishing in Georgia, without any hesitation he said Lake Eufaula.
He said in his opinion Eufaula may be the best all-around crappie destination in the country. Abundant amounts of crappie and a large number of slabs make for some of the best action in the state.
“Even if you have never been to Eufaula in January, you can find fish just by focusing your efforts around bridges and in the mouths of creeks,” Russell said.
When he fishes for Lake Eufaula crappie in January, he likes to fish slowly around bridges, and when he locates fish, he will really work an area thoroughly.
“Rood Creek is also a great place for January crappie fishing, and you will often find a lot of guys trolling the steep drop-offs the fish are holding on.”
Russell likes the trolling technique, but in the wintertime he prefers to work the Eufaula drop-offs slowly with one rod, paying close attention to his depthfinder for subtle changes in the bottom where fish are heavily concentrated. When water temperatures are in the upper 30s, it’s a good idea to tip your jig with a minnow for further appeal. Russell said the addition of a minnow could be the difference between a fish fry and a chicken box for supper.
Eufaula isn’t his only wintertime option.
“Lake Oconee is definitely worth a try in January, as well. Lots of guys have done good fishing the Mac-a-jig in Sugar Creek in January. Though it’s not my preference, the best way to fish Sugar Creek is by trolling slowly over 8 to 10 feet of water,” Russell said.
Put out as many rods as you can manage, and troll at about 0.75 mph. A tractor-green curly tail performs well in Oconee, he went on to say. If the fish are biting, there will be boats everywhere. Russell said that a good strategy is to mark your path on your fish finder, and then keep using the graph to troll over productive areas, as long as the fish are cooperating. Another tactic on the Oconee, particularly on sunny days, is to work jigs slowly under docks to produce strikes. When working docks in cold water Russell, says it’s imperative to work slowly and methodically to tempt sluggish fish.
A third option for wintertime crappie on Lake Oconee is straight-lining a minnow-tipped jig in the standing timber. Oconee has lots of standing timber, including at the mouth of Sugar Creek and a patch just up the creek from Sugar Creek Marina. With some searching, an angler can find a school of crappie stacked on one tree.
Another top destination in Georgia that Russell likes in the winter months is the Ocmulgee River. Located in south Georgia, this tributary of the mighty Altamaha River is full of crappie.
“I love the Ocmulgee because the fish are so easy to locate. Fishing deep holes, creek mouths and around willows will all produce quality fish,” Russell said.
He mentioned that he has had success up and down the river, but in January he has had the most success fishing around Barrs Bluff near Broxton. Russell’s tactics for fishing this area of the Ocmulgee River include fishing jigs under corks set just deep enough to stay off the bottom. He will often fish with 8- or 10-lb. test to combat some of the heavy snags that the river offers.
In the deeper holes, Russell likes to throw a chartreuse/glitter jig and work it a few inches off the bottom. When he fishes a creek mouth and lands some fish, he will move on when the action dies, and then he will return later in the day to find the crappie biting again. Russell says the Ocmulgee River has rarely let him down and most always produces the main ingredient for a fine fish fry.
When Russell and I finished talking, he made it a point to say that these are only some of his personal favorite spots to target crappie in January. He stated that about any body of water that can be found in Georgia will produce crappie in January’s frigid temperatures. Just remember to fish slowly and thoroughly, and be willing to experiment with colors until you find what’s working that day.
For those of you who would like to purchase Mac-a-jigs or just talk January crappie fishing, you can reach Russell at (912) 381-7942. He’s always glad to talk fishing and says that he still likes to do business the old fashioned way. For those who live in the south Georgia area, there are several stores that carry the Mac-a-jig. Just give him a ring, and he will be glad to point you in the right direction. He makes the jig in about any color combination and multiple sizes, and he will even customize the jig to your preference.
For those who pursue other species of fish, the Mac-a-jig has been known to catch nearly every species of freshwater game fish, and multiple folks even fish them in the salt to catch yellow tails by the hundreds.
Without a doubt, we all know January is a notoriously difficult month to put fish on a stringer.
But by using a few of Russell’s tactics or some of his Mac-a-jigs, your family will be changing the tune of the popular phrase Winner Winner Chicken Dinner to Winter Winter Crappie Dinner!
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