Georgia's Outlook for Papermouths

Our state is blessed with a wide range of options for filling a stringer with crappie. Still, there are some places that stand head and shoulders above the rest for fast slab action.

By John Trussell

Some say that a lot of outdoorsmen start acting a little strange this time of year. A general restlessness to get outdoors is generally dismissed as cabin fever, but anglers begin to show more-specific symptoms.

Early in the year, large groups of anglers are observed in their boats, seeming to wander aimlessly about in our lakes, making large circles with a bunch of long poles dangling over the bow.

Rather than cabin fever, these fishermen actually have contracted "crappie fever." The only known cure is to catch a stringer of papermouths, followed by downing large doses of crappie filets washed down with sweet tea. If you feel like you're coming down with this illness, it's time to start the cure!

First we need to identify the best Georgia public reservoirs for catching a good stringer of crappie, but we also need to get some tips on how to catch bigger crappie. Some of this information comes from fisheries biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division. On the other hand, we will also utilize the knowledge of expert crappie anglers. The consensus among these folks is that big-crappie opportunities are found at lakes Oconee, West Point, Walter F. George and Seminole.

Before getting into the information on specific lakes, however, let's get some general tips from a veteran crappie expert. Tim Huffman has authored five books on crappie fishing, including his latest, Monster Crappie.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

First of all, he suggests you go to water that has big crappie, because you can't catch what's not there, no matter how many hours you fish. Next, fish the pre-spawn and spawn time period when crappie are in prime condition and loaded with eggs. Next, to catch big crappie, use bigger-sized minnows and jigs, which eliminates a lot of small fish. Finally, it helps to be lucky by having your bait at the right place at the right time. So, be sure to pack your rabbit's foot in the tackle box!

Huffman also advises anglers to avoid the common mistake of fishing where other anglers are congregated. You want to avoid competition and catching other anglers' leftovers.

If a big fish is hooked, don't try to "horse" the crappie to the boat, and always use a net to land it.

One other recommendation is to use a scent, especially when you're slow-trolling, which is something most anglers don't do.

For more information on crappie fishing or to shop for one of Tim Huffman's books on the Internet, visit www.monstercrappie.com. He can also be reached at (573) 785-2875.

THE LAKES
Lake Walter F. George
Let's begin looking at the best crappie hotspots with Lake Walter F. George, in southwest Georgia. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers (COE), this 45,180-acre Chattahoochee River reservoir encompasses 640 miles of Georgia and Alabama shoreline, plus 85 miles of the river between Columbus and Ft. Gaines.

This should be a good year for crappie fishing on the lake, according to the WRD. Papermouths should average 9 inches and weigh around 1/2 pound each this spring, but by the end of the year they will grow to 11 inches and weigh around 3/4 pound.

Good spots in which to look for the fish are at creek mouths and under bridges. Other popular sites are Moccasin Slough, Pataula Creek, White Oak Creek, Hardridge Creek, Barbour Creek, Rood Creek and Grass Creek. Most successful anglers fish with minnows or jigs, at 12- to 16-foot depths.

A good place to start is at any of the 24 WRD fish attractors on the Georgia side of the lake. All of these received new brush in February 2002. The sites are marked with buoys. A map of their locations with G.P.S. coordinates can be obtained by calling the COE office at (229) 768-2516.

Bank anglers should try fishing the piers at Hardridge Creek and Florence Marina or the marked fishing areas at East Bank and River Bluff boat ramps. These areas are also accessible to anglers with disabilities.

Lake Walter F. George is a favorite destination for Bonaire's Buck Wade. It is the lake's double-hand-sized crappie that attract him.

In early March the spawning crappie move into the shallow flats of Grass Creek in the upper reaches of the reservoir. These fish are suckers for his homemade "Buck Eye" crappie jigs. Wade says Grass Creek is a traditional hotspot where the average fish weighs 1 pound, but some of up to 2 pounds or slightly better are not unusual.

He uses slow-trolling and starts with a 1/16-ounce red or yellow jig in the pre-spawn period.

"To help the jig move around, make sure you use a loop knot to tie it on. Don't use a direct, tight knot or it will decrease your jig's movement and decrease your catch," he says.

Later, Wade switches to a 1/32-ounce jig as the crappie move shallow to spawn. He points out that topographic maps show a shallow underwater island on Grass Creek just a short distance upstream of the Ga. Highway 39 bridge. The submerged hump comes up to 6 feet deep, while the surrounding water is approximately 18 feet deep. Wade trolls over the top of this shallow area and around the edges where it drops off into deeper water.

There are 23 boat ramps on Walter F. George, where the COE charges a $2 daily launch fee. Users can pay an annual fee of $25, which covers all daily use of boat ramps. Fuel is available at George T. Bagby and Florence Marina state parks on the Georgia side and at Lake Point Resort and Chewalla Marina on the Alabama side.

Power generation schedules and lake elevations can be obtained by calling the COE powerhouse, 24 hours a day, at (912) 768-2424.

To contact Buck Wade about his Buck Eye jigs, call (478) 923-3005

Lake Oconee
Lake Oconee was impounded in 1979 by the construction of Wallace Dam, in Greene County near the towns of Madison and Greensboro. The 19,050-acre reservoir is operated in conjunction with Lake Sinclair as a pump-storage (pumpback) hydropower generation facility.

This operation and the lake's long, narrow shape produce noticeable water current throughout the lake during both power generation and pumpback. Crappie tend to be more active and

feed more aggressively when water is moving through the dam.

Fifty plots of timber topped off below water level and 1,250 acres of standing timber were left along creek and river channels to serve as fish attractors and provide fish habitat. Public access is readily available through eight Georgia Power and U.S. Forest Service boat ramps. Several lakeside marinas also offer lodging, food, bait, tackle and other fishing-related services

Good numbers of harvestable-sized crappie should be available again this year, according to WRD fisheries biologists. About 40 percent should be more than 10 inches long.

Fishing around standing timber in Sugar Creek on the west side of the Oconee River arm of the lake or the upper end of the reservoir above the mouth of the Apalachee River is a good bet for crappie in the spring. So is fishing the upper end of Richland Creek and its feeder, Sandy Creek.

Lake Oconee is building a reputation as one of the best crappie lakes in Georgia, according to both Jimmy Shelnut and Robert Esco, a pair of anglers who have many top-10 crappie tournament finishes to their credit. They have some strong preferences with regard to how they target the fish.

"We feel like long poles help us not to spook the fish," says Shelnut. "The crappie are shallow during the spawning period, and our goal is to catch them before they know we're here. That's why we use the long poles, especially on the front of the boat.

"With the jigs 20 feet out in front of the boat, the noise of the trolling motor really doesn't get a chance to spook the fish, especially when we use the bump-and-coast method. This is where we turn the motor on briefly and then off as we coast for a while. Then the boat is very quiet as it moves across the water," he added.

Normally these anglers use a 1/16-ounce Hal Fly on each line and hook a minnow on the jig. The hook is run through the minnow's lower lip, so both baits can run straight through the water while being trolled.

They have a good reason for using this tandem rig.

"We tried it just to see what would happen, and we've kept using the setup. We feel that the minnow on the jig gives the fish a natural scent to follow, and if he happens to miss the bait the first time, he's more likely to strike the natural minnow again than just a jig alone," Shelnut explains.

"Another reason we like the combo rig," adds Esco, "is that we catch bigger fish. If you believe in the theory that bigger bait catches bigger fish, then this rig is for you. It takes a nice-sized crappie to swallow both the minnow and jig together. Over the course of all the many tournaments we have fished, we have found that we caught and culled fewer fish than most of the other teams.

"But more importantly," he continues, "our fish were bigger, on average, and that was our winning edge. It's not how many fish you catch, but the size and weight of your best 20 fish that count."

The trolling method used by these anglers is primarily designed to catch pre-spawn crappie, which move up the points and ledges of the feeder streams. On Oconee, they prefer the upper arms of the Oconee and Apalachee rivers for spring fishing. They also like to troll in Richland, Rocky and Lick creeks on the other major arm of the reservoir.

Usually these fishermen locate the crappie on the edge of a creek channel and troll parallel to it, often crossing the old channel numerous times as they move up and down the stream.

West Point Lake
West Point is a 25,900-acre reservoir operated by the COE on the Chattahoochee River at the Georgia-Alabama border. It lies north of Columbus and near the city of Lagrange.

The abundance and average size of crappie continue to indicate a healthy and stable population, and 2003 should be no exception. About 25 percent of the papermouths should be between 10 and 12 inches, and more than 50 percent should be between 8 and 10 inches. Average weight should be just under 1/2 pound.

The best crappie action is usually found by trolling jigs in the traditional springtime hotspots in the upper portions of Beech, Whitewater, Wehadkee and Stroud creeks

Finally, fishing has been improved at the Rocky Point and McGee Bridge piers due to the addition of PVC-pipe fish shelters.

Billy Wilson, the inventor of the Hal Fly crappie jig, is a regular visitor to West Point and often fishes the above-mentioned creeks with good results. He slow-trolls, using a number of set poles. Ordinarily he targets shallow stumpfields on flats.

Wilson notes that particular spots in creek channels produce good crappie each year and he recommends that you create your own "experience log" over the years so you know where the crappie should be.

Lake Seminole
One last, and sometimes overlooked, spot for bragging-sized crappie is Lake Seminole, near Bainbridge. Since its impoundment in 1957, this 37,500-acre COE reservoir, formed at the junction of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers in the southwestern corner of Georgia, has earned a reputation for producing excellent fishing for largemouth bass. On the other hand, it is not usually noted for crappie fishing.

This lake, however, can produce some good catches, especially in winter and spring. Crappie numbers will be good this year, and the average weight will be nearly 1 pound, with fish over 2 pounds available.

Your best bet for catching these speckled perch is to use minnows and jigs in the open areas near the Jim Woodruff Dam or in the Flint River and Chattahoochee River arms, explains Jack Wingate, the well-known "Sage of Seminole."

Study your topo map and look for stumpfields in 6 to 12 feet of water for best results.

Call the Lake Seminole COE Resource Management Office at (229) 662-2001 with questions about water levels and conditions. Current fishing reports and details on lodging in the Lake Seminole area can be found on the Web at www.bassangler.com.



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