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With water temperatures finally dropping into the low 60's and even upper 50's this week, there's no question that crappie fishing is in the air.

For those who can lay down their bass tackle for a few days in order to put some tasty panfish on the table, there's no better time than now as the crappies swarm around offshore baitfish schools, fattening up for the spawn that will get underway in early spring.

Crappie experts like Captain Lee Pitts, who fishes mostly at lakes Neely Henry and Weiss, say best action at present is typically at 12 to 14 feet on channel edges and humps, anywhere there is woody cover, either natural or manmade in the form of sunken Christmas trees and other debris.

Pitts says he catches most deep-water crappies on live minnows about 2 inches long, fished on light wire size 6 hooks, with enough weight to keep the bait just off bottom as the boat drifts--more weight on breezy days, less on calm days.

Most crappie specialists like long, flexible "Bream Buster" type poles around 10 to 12 feet long, which allow them to easily see the bite on the tip as well as permitting a straight-up lift when a fish is hooked, very useful when the fish are in thick brush. A lightweight reel and monofilament line completes the rig--in clear, open water line as light as 6 pound test will catch more fish, but in thick brush you have to go up to 12 or 15 to avoid breaking off hooks repeatedly.

Finding the fish is 90 percent of the battle in crappie fishing--they're not hard to fool once you know where they are. Experts like Lee Pitts make careful use of their depthfinders to locate shad schools hanging close to bluff banks or tight on deep woody cover, and usually somewhere close by a school of crappies will mark.

Crappies in fall are likely to be in the lower end of larger tributaries on lakes like Guntersville and Wheeler; find areas where there will be good spawning cover in spring--woody shoreline cover or early grass offshore--and seek out baitfish schools on nearby drops and you'll eventually connect.

A really effective way of finding crappies, for those new to locating them on a given lake, is to slow-troll tiny spinnerbaits like the Beetle Spin or jigs like the Hal-Fly or Gitzit. Use a head heavy enough to put the lure just off bottom as the boat eases along at 1 to 2 mph on the trolling motor. In water deeper than 10 feet, you may have to add a 1-ounce lead on a leader about 2 feet above the lure to hold it down.

Some anglers also do very well trolling crappie-sized crankbaits; Strike King and others make a full lineup. These are trolled just fast enough to make the lure wobble; when you're after crappie, you'll never want to boat to exceed walking speed.

Crappies have extremely soft mouths, so to put a big one in the boat it's necessary to go easy on them. Rods with soft tips help, and you'll need a landing net if you want to best fish over a pound.

The crappie bag limit is 30 per person and the size limit is 9 inches on the TVA lakes.

To learn crappie fishing from a pro, hook up with Captain Lee Pitts at www.leepittsoutdoors.com.

Captain Lee Pitts shows a whopper crappie caught on Lake Neely HenryLee Pitts

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