Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Does a warm day this month start you thinking about crappie fishing and make you want to hurry ahead to March and April, when the crappie move shallow and are easy to catch? Why wait? The slabs are there and are on predictable patterns, just waiting for you to catch them right now.
All across Middle Georgia, female crappie are full of eggs they developed last fall. All they need is a few warm days and a slight rise in water temperature to make them head toward the spawning flats and shallow bushes. After a winter of holding near the channels of rivers and major creeks, they’ll answer any hint of the coming spring to start this move.
In early February, the longer days give them the hint they need. If the water is warming at all, it becomes more than a hint — it tells them to start their migration and speeds up final ripening of their eggs in preparation for spawning. Schools of crappie start moving, and you can follow them and catch them all month long.
This time of year, the crappie are healthy, too. They have fattened up and are strong, getting ready for the rigors of reproduction. Their meat is firm and sweet, and the cold water makes it taste even better. Right now is a great time to catch a mess of slabs.
Since last year’s spawn, crappie have been out over deep water, holding in standing timber or suspending over river and creek channels. You can catch them all winter long by dropping minnows and jigs to them, after finding the schools on a depthfinder. But this is slow fishing, requiring you to keep your bait in front of them until they hit.
As the crappie move toward the spawning areas early this month, they follow those creek channels, moving toward the shallows, but staying down 11 to 18 feet in most lakes. As they start moving, they’ll feed more actively, so you can catch them by trolling jigs and minnows slowly through the schools. A good depthfinder helps, but you can troll the river channels and follow the major creek channels back until you start catching fish. Then you’ll know where to concentrate your efforts.
Standing trees and brushpiles along the channels and points hold the crappie as they move. Papermouth fishermen with years of experience know where those holding areas are located and go right to them. Others have put out their own brushpiles, sinking them in 15 to 30 feet of water to give the crappie places to hold, thus creating their own honeyholes.
Casting jigs and minnows to brushpiles is a good way to catch them, if you don’t like trolling. Once you locate the depth at which the fish are holding, you can use a slip bobber or count your bait down to the right depth. Reel it slowly back in, keeping it where the crappie can see it.
Remember to keep your bait slightly above the schools of crappie. Ordinarily, they do not move down to take a bait, but will move up a foot or so. If you hold a crappie with it facing you, it’s easy to see why. Their eyes point up, so it is easier for them to see food above them.
On many lakes, you can find brushpiles by looking at markers on the bank. A can in a tree behind a red spot on a tree trunk may line up on a brush pile. A dot of paint on a shoreline tree tells you to work straight out from it. These are subtle marks left by anglers who have created or simply located some of the debris piles.
Your other option is to just ride the shoreline and creek channels and locate them with a good depthfinder. That’s also the way to find trees left standing when the lake was built.
If February is warm and the water temperature rises steadily, many of the big slab crappie can be surprisingly shallow this month. Now is the time to fish for the early spawners. You may catch some of the biggest fish of the year — those ahead of the schools of smaller fish.
All Middle Georgia lakes are different, but all have good populations of crappie. The following impoundments are excellent bets this year, and you can fish them in a variety of ways.
Bartletts Ferry Lake
Bartletts Ferry, officially known as Lake Harding, is a 5,850-acre reservoir just north of Columbus and downstream of West Point Lake on the Chattahoochee River. There is good access on the Georgia side at Idlehour Park. Blanton Creek State Park usually does not open in February, however.
According to the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, the crappie population on this lake is good, with over half running in the 9- to 14-inch size range. Most crappie fishermen consider fish that size to be keepers or even “slabs,” so your chances of getting a mess to eat are very good
Bartletts Ferry is like two lakes in one, with deep coves and a main, flooded channel on the lower lake. The upper lake is basically the old Chattahoochee River channel, with shallow side creeks and old oxbow lakes. On the lower lake, crappie are found at the mouths of creeks and major coves at the beginning of this month and move into them during February. Up the river, they hold out on the river channel and move into the shallow areas when the water warms.
On Bartletts Ferry, a fast way to locate deep brush for crappie is to check out the state-maintained fish attractors. There are six such WRD brush piles. All hold February crappie, since they are on the papermouths’ migration routes as they move in to spawn. Cast jigs and minnows to the debris or simply drop them straight down and tightline around the attractor.
As soon as the water starts warming, troll jigs and minnows around the mouths of feeders and coves in Halawakee Creek and on downstream to the dam. As the crappie move, work further back. Late in the month, try jigs and minnows around the docks and brushpiles in these coves.
Up the river, troll the main channel with jigs and minnows, but concentrate on the openings to any backwaters. These shallow areas are often full of stumps and warm up surprisingly fast. If there have been three warm days in a row, ease back into these shallows and cast jigs and minnows to the stump fields. The crappie will show up there, often sooner than you think.
High Falls Lake
High Falls is an old 660-acre reservoir partially located in a state park east of Griffin and south of Jackson on the Towaliga River. Boat motors are restricted to 10 horsepower or less, so fishing pressure is lighter here than on many larger lakes. Two ramps, one at the dam and one on Buck Creek, offer good access.
According to the WRD, High Falls has a large population of crappie, but they tend to be smaller than on some other lakes. Their average size is 6 to 8 inches long, but you can catch a bunch of them. There are some slabs in the 1- to 2-pound range, too.
For most of February, you can locate large schools of crappie in the open water from the dam up to where the Towaliga River is joined by Buck Creek, Brushy Creek and Watkins Bottom. The area where those creeks join is the biggest water on the lake.
Troll the open water with jigs and minnows. High Falls is a fairly shallow lake and very old, so most of its channels are silted in. You can find the old channel edges, but the drop may be only a foot or so. Crappie still relate to that drop, so troll it, following the contour with your depthfinder.
Much of the water you’ll troll is only 14 to 16 feet deep and early in the month, the crappie suspend near the bottom. Vary your trolling speed to keep your jig or minnow just above the depth where they’re holding. As the water warms, they continue to move up and suspend closer to the surface, so check their depth each time you go.
As the water warms, the crappie also move into the abundant shoreline cover on the main lake and back in the creeks. There are many docks on the lake, and most have brush sunk around them. Areas without docks are full of stumps. Buck Creek, above the bridge the crosses it, is loaded with stumps.
Drop jigs and minnows around dock posts and stumps later in the month, when the water reaches 60 degrees.
Located just upstream of Lake Sinclair on the Oconee River, Lake Oconee’s 19,050 acres are full of standing timber left when the lake was dammed. Access is good at Georgia Power ramps as well as private marinas and Forestry Service ramps. Large flats of shallow water up the Oconee River, and the standing timber on the lake make this one of our best crappie lakes. The WRD says there are good numbers of keeper-size crappie in the lake, and the biggest ones are usually caught on warm afternoons in February.
All the major creeks, like Sugar, Lick, Sandy, Double Branches and Richland, are good bets for trolling the channels early in the month and catching shallow-bedding crappie later, when the water hits 60 degrees. Start at the mouths of the creeks early in the month and follow the fish as they move shallow.
Al Bassett lives on Sugar Creek and guides for crappie on Oconee. Early in February, he says, you’d be surprised at how shallow slab crappie move on the Oconee and Apalachee river arms of the reservoir. Muddy water is usually found on the shallow flats up those feeders. It warms very fast, and two to three days of sunny weather really turns on the big papermouths.
“Look for 3- to 4-foot deep flats just off the channel,” Al recommends, “and troll jigs and minnows.”
He likes to troll two 1/16-ounce Jiffy Jigs on each line, and often has six to nine lines out when spider-rigging. Al says it is important to try a lot of different colors until the crappie tell you what they want. Then you can switch most of your lines to that color. He will also run a couple of live minnows to see if that’s their preference that day.
The fish up the rivers turn on first, and you can follow the good fishing down the lake as the water warms. The channel in Sugar Creek is the next area that Al fishes, then on down toward the dam and in Richland Creek. It seems that the bigger fish move in first, so he tries to follow them, even though smaller fish can continue to be caught in previous locations.
Rig your baits as if you’re drop-shotting for bass, with a sinker on the end of your 6-pound-test line and the jigs tied a foot apart, beginning about a foot up the line. Vary the size of the sinker to control depth, as well as to vary the speed. Once you find the magic depth, stick with it.
You can arrange a guided trip with Al Bassett by calling (706) 473-7758.
Clarks Hill Lake
Officially called Strom Thurmond Reservoir by the Army Corps of Engineers, Clarks Hill is our biggest lake at more than 72,000 acres. With 1,200 miles of shoreline and large areas of open water, you can find just about any kind of fishing conditions you want somewhere on the lake.
The WRD says crappie fishing has been superb the past two years, with 3/4 pounds being the average size and many fish in the 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-pound range. Clarks Hill is probably your best bet for catching an honest 3-pound crappie in the state.
Find a standing tree on a creek channel in Fishing, Soap, Grays, Newford, Hart, Germany or Lloyd Creeks. Drop a jig or minnow down vertically and you can load your boat early this month. As soon as the water begins to warm, start trolling the creek channels in those creeks where the edges are 15 to 25 feet deep. Troll at different depths until you find the fish.
There are many state-maintained fish attractors in the lake and huge numbers of brushpiles put out by fishermen. Go into almost any creek off the Savannah River arm and you can find brush in 15 to 30 feet of water. This month, that brush will hold crappie as they move in toward spawning areas. Cast jigs or minnows under slip corks to them, if the fish are holding less than 10 feet deep. If they are deeper, fish directly over them, dropping your bait down vertically.
Later in the month, move in to shallower water and look for the old hydrilla beds. They won’t be actively growing, but crappie still hold on the edges of them, since shad and other minnows feed on the dead plants. Troll the edges or cast to them with both minnows and jigs.
Also try different ways to catch them. Trolling, fishing vertically and casting jigs and minnows all work at different times. Vary the size of your bait, too. Sometimes tiny jigs work better for big fish than bigger jigs. And color does count — try different color combinations until the fish show you what they like.
Early in the month, check out creek mouths, but keep an eye on the shallows, too. You catch more crappie in the mouths of creeks, but often the bigger fish are found in shallower water than you would expect.
You can fish with any kind of equipment, from cane poles to expensive rods and reels. The crappie don’t care. But stick with light line. You catch more fish on 4- and 6-pound line than on heavier test.
All these lakes are good for crappie and other nearby lakes can be just as good using the same tactics. If you pick one lake and stick with it all month, you will be able to find the schools of crappie and follow them, catching fish before the spawn. You can already have your freezer full by the time many crappie fishermen head to the lakes in March and April.