Photo by Kevin Dallmier.
Alabama has two capitals: the one in Montgomery, where the politicians hang out; and the one well to the northeast, near the town of Centre, where you’ll find the center of gravity for crappie anglers — Weiss Lake, a fertile, sprawling Alabama Power reservoir on the Coosa River. Widely hailed as the “Crappie Capital of the World,” Weiss has consistently served as a papermouth factory since its impoundment in 1961.
At full pool the lake covers 30,200 acres and boasts 447 miles of shoreline. Many of those acres of water cover shallow stumpflats dropping off sharply into the river and creek channels that wend their way through the reservoir, creating channel ledges. And shallow wood and deep drops in a fertile lowland impoundment are just what the doctor ordered for some of the best winter crappie fishing you can ever hope to experience.
Like crappie lakes everywhere, Weiss gets the most attention from anglers in the early spring, when the fish are spawning. To ignore the papermouths for the rest of the year is to commit an error in judgment, though. The winter months too offer fishing of substantial quality. Winter crappie are in deeper water, so finding them is a little more difficult than it in springtime, but the payoff comes in stringers of truly nice fish. Locate a honeyhole, and you can fill the livewell in a hurry, even on a day that sees the wind cut to the bone and set your teeth chattering.
Three techniques — bumpin’, pullin’, and pushin’ — excel for catching Weiss’ winter crappie. Their names sound like NASCAR maneuvers, but in this case, they describe not the behaviors of cars and drivers as they circle the track, but methods that expert anglers use to catch impressive stringers of Weiss crappie. Let’s take a look at each and some of the best places on Weiss to put them into play.
“Bumping bottom” is the superior approach for the inactive crappie commonly encountered during the hardest cold spells. It consists of vertically presenting a minnow by means of a dropper rig. Using dropper rigs with crappie is hardly a new idea, of course; the exceptional efficacy of bumpin’ lies in the location in which selected for fishing the offering.
Crappie relate to ledges in the winter, and though it’s generally a shallow lake, Weiss is blessed with plenty of ledges, some of the best of which are found in the Chattooga and Little River arms and Yellow Creek. Ledges are subtle structure, though, and finding these cold-weather crappie magnets may require some detective work with map and depthfinder.
A good starting point for looking for the perfect ledge: a submerged channel. Although a channel’s sides may slope gently for hundreds of yards, the channel will at some point make a bend, and at that point you’re likely to find a nearly vertical drop. The best ledges break sharply, and have a good bit of additional structure like stumps, brushpiles or rocks along the break. The depth that the fish will hold at may well vary with conditions; begin probing somewhere in the 15-foot range.
The colder the weather, the tighter the crappie will hug the ledges. On a warming trend, other techniques may prove more appropriate, because the fish get more active, and thus more willing to move to hit a bait. But when the thermometer plunges, crappie are in no mood to chase anything, and have to be coaxed to the hook.
Boat control is the cardinal skill for bottom-bumping that gets results. The bait must be presented in exactly the right place — because the old fishermen’s adage about having to “bump them in the nose” to get a bite is absolutely true for winter crappie. When conditions are tough, you have make these fish an offer that they won’t want to refuse.
At Weiss, achieving this exacting presentation requires the use of a simple yet extremely effective dropper rig. The rig consists of a 1/2-ounce bell sinker tied to the end of the main line, with a No. 1 gold Aberdeen hook on a dropper line approximately 18 inches above the sinker. A snelled Eagle Claw hook simply tied on the main line above the sinker works just fine. Depending on water clarity and the fish’s willingness to bite, line anywhere from 6- to 12-pound-test line will work. If conditions allow use of heavier line, fewer rigs will be lost to snags, as it will often enable you to free a snagged hook with a slow, steady pull. But, if the fish are biting tentatively, lighter line may increase the number of strikes.
For bait, a standard crappie minnow can’t be beat, but if true slabs are your prey, go with a larger minnow. Big bait will generally mean big bites, and large minnows — up to 4 inches long are good, if you can find them — will virtually eliminate strikes from fish smaller than the lake’s 10-inch minimum length for papermouths. Hooking the minnow through the eyes results in both livelier bait and more hookups, since the crappie have a harder time stripping the bait without revealing their presence.
To bump bottom properly, the dropper rig is presented vertically along the ledge with the weight just ticking the bottom ever so often. Any stumps or other bottom features should receive extra attention, since the biggest fish often claim these prime areas as their own. The key is boat control. Presenting the bait over a very specific target in deep water requires some boat-handling skill. Get off target even a few feet, and the number of strikes will decline sharply.
Correctly fishing a ledge with bumpin’ tactics call for the trolling motor to keep you “hovering” over the target, not moving along it. Any forward movement will be too fast to work on inactive crappie. A point of reference: It should take an hour to fish 100 yards of ledge if you’re properly bumping bottom.
Crappie are notoriously soft biters, and if they have to be talked into it, the take will be even softer still. It takes a while to learn the feel of a fish as opposed to that of a stump or brushpile. When resistance is first felt, gently feel with the rod — before long, you’ll develop a knack for determining if that’s is a 2-pound crappie or a 200-pound stump down there.
Because bumping bottom demands precision in the presentation, calm conditions are necessary; many veteran bumpin’ anglers believe that if the wind is blowing at 10 miles per hour or more, you might as well stay home. Since the goal is an exact vertical presentation on ledges typically found in open parts of the lake, it just won’t happen when the wind’s up, even for the most skilled angler.
When you’re planning how to fish a ledge, a couple of things should be kept in mind. The primary factor will be the wind. Fishing into the wind is the only way to control the boat with the exactitude that the presentation calls for. If the wind’s not in play, fish a channel ledge heading “downstream.” Although a very slight current may be undetectable at the surface, it’ll be there, and like all fish, crappie are adept at detecting the slightest movement of water and positioning themselves to face into it.
An additional factor: water clarity. All things being equal, a ledge in clear water will yield better results than will the same ledge in an area with muddy water. Although many workable ledges at present at Weiss, the water in much of the lake is often stained to muddy during the wet winter months. On the other hand, Little River and Yellow Creek drain the Lookout Mountain plateau, and nearly always run clear; the Chattooga River arm can also have decent water clarity. These three areas contain many promising ledges, and those combine with high water clarity to win favor with winter anglers.
During a warming trend that falsely convinces the fish that the spawn might not be too far away, the next two techniques may be more suitable, as they get you covering more water.
This basically amounts to trolling a spread of crappie jigs, and is an extremely serviceable way to catch substantial numbers of fish. Areas to target are flats bridging the gap from deep channel breaks to shallow shorelines that serve as spawning areas.
Trolling isn’t quite as simple as just aimlessly drifting around the lake while dragging a jig behind the boat. The key factor is depth, both of the fish and of your presentation. To figure out the depth at which the fish are suspended, always keep a close eye on your depthfinder; then, try to get your jigs running at a depth right above them. Crappie prefer to move up to take a bait, so don’t argue with them, but give them what they want: a spread of jigs passing by just overhead.
When crappie are holding at 8 feet or deeper, a 1/16-ounce jig is the thing, but for papermouths holding shallower, a 1/24- or 1/32-ounce jig would be better. Selecting the proper jig will go a long way toward making sure that your spread is running at the right depth, but some room will remain for fine-tuning. Use your speed to regulate depth; faster means shallower, and slower, deeper.
It usually takes a little experimentation to determine what will work best on any given day. If the fishing suddenly slows, check the depthfinder to make sure that the fish haven’t moved up or down in the water column; if they have, adjust accordingly. A few other hints can make your Weiss trolling day a little more profitable. Use the same line on all your trolling rods. Most anglers prefer 6-pound-test, since it gives you a reasonable chance of straightening the hook on a hung jig, and isn’t so heavy it spooks fish or kills the jig’s action. Keep the jigs an even distance behind the boat. Generally, the more line you have out, the deeper the jig will run. The idea is to keep all the jigs at the same depth; dial in the right formula for the conditions, and all your baits will be performing optimally fishing the best they can, rather than being spottily staggered up and down the water column.
The conventional wisdom at Weiss calls for fishing bright colors on bright days, darker colors on dark days. On a sunny day, patterns with chartreuse, lime green and hot pink are good; overcast will favor gray, brown, and especially blue. Try the Little River and Chattooga River arms, Yellow Creek, and up the main Coosa River channel at the mouth of any of the major sloughs, Deadboy Cove and Trotters Cove being much liked.
Our last trolling tip may sound like a no-brainer, but you see anglers do it all the time: Don’t leave fish! If you catch a couple of fish in short order, don’t just keep merrily trolling your way across the flat. The fish have shown themselves, so make the most of it. Mark where you caught the fish with a GPS waypoint or marker buoy and circle back again and again until several unproductive passes tell you that it’s time to move on. You can often find fish just by watching other anglers. If you see them catch a few fish, but they just keep on going, give it a few minutes to assure yourself that they’ve cleared the area; then, go try it yourself.
The final tactic for your Weiss winter arsenal is simply a method of putting live bait exactly where you want it in relatively shallow water and keeping it there. At Weiss this method is best for late winter, when fish are starting to move in to spawn. Weiss is full of docks, stumps, and brushpiles, and when the spawn nears, shallow woody cover on a flat is likely to hold fish, especially if deep water lies nearby. The Chattooga and Little River arms of the lake hold considerable promise early in the season; later on, Coosa River sloughs around Riverside Campground will prove savvy choices.
The tackle needed for pushin’ isn’t complicated. First get your hands on some long soft-action crappie poles — something like 10 or 12 feet in length; pair the rods with ultralight spinning reels spooled up with 6-pound-test monofilament. Tie a 3/4-ounce bell sinker to the end of your line; about a foot up the line, add a snelled No. 1 Aberdeen hook and, a foot above that, another similar hook. Anglers serious about this method rig the front of the boat with a battery of rod holders so that they can easily fish multiple rods at once.
The rods should extend out from the bow of the boat in something like the way the fingers extend from the palm of your hand. Bait the hooks with lively minnows, remembering that a big bait means a big bite. Select an area, and simply drop your lines down until the weight hits bottom, and then lift it off by the giving the reel a crank or two. Begin moving very slowly around the area, making sure to use the long poles to put the bait up under docks, around brushpiles, or anywhere else that looks as if it might hold fish.
The speed at which you move along is critical. If your lines are going straight down, or are just barely angled back, you have it just right; if the line’s swinging back much at all, you’re going too fast.
As with bumping bottom, the one drawback to pushin’ is sensitivity to wind speed. A windy day makes proper boat control almost impossible. Go with the wind, and you’re moving way too fast; go against it, and it’ll be hard to keep your baits in position. You’ll be constantly getting blown off course, and just as with bumping bottom, the idea is to get your bait right in front of the fish’s nose and keep it there for as long as it takes.
Although locals bill Weiss Lake as the “Crappie Capital of the World,” it does see its ups and downs, as do all reservoirs. Crappie populations are cyclic, and some years are better than are others. Last year was one of the best for crappie fishing that anglers had been treated to in years, and that level of fishing quality should persist into this year — especially for bigger fish, as a strong year-class continues to make its way through the fishery.
If you’re making your first visit to Weiss, a word of caution’s in order. This
impoundment is shallow, so boating and fishing conditions can change quickly. Three unseasonably warm days in a row can really turn the fishing on, even in the dead of winter, but a cold snap will instantly shut the action down. The keys are to be flexible in your approach, and to adapt to conditions.
Since it’s shallow, and loaded with stumps, Weiss is a dangerous lake to run if you’re unfamiliar with it. Plenty of boat ramps are available, so try to launch close to the spot that you mean to fish, thus avoiding a long run through shallow, stumpy water that you don’t know well.
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