September 28, 2010
In the spring, expect to find slab crappie hiding under the many boat docks on this reservoir. Here's a look at the best way to get your lure into their lair!
Crappie fishing at Weiss Lake conjures up many stereotypes of the sport. The healthy population of slabs on this northeast Alabama reservoir fall victim to the various methods of trolling and casting and the live-bait applications most often associated with the action.
Darrell Baker and fishing partner Kelly Matthews prepare to send a couple of jigs shooting up under a Weiss Lake dock. Photo by Greg McCain.
However, a growing number of anglers on this 30,000-acre Coosa River impoundment are practicing a slightly different approach to crappie fishing: shooting docks. Though slow to gain widespread acceptance in crappie circles, the technique an exhilarating change from the tedium of trolling or dunking a minnow under a float.
On a windy March afternoon, long-time Weiss Lake guide Darrell Baker and former guide Kelly Matthews demonstrated the potential of this tactic. Trolling in the Church House Slough area near Weiss Lake Dam had produced a few strays -- nothing like the numbers normally associated with Weiss at this time of year.
"Let's ease right over there and shoot those docks," Baker suggested.
Moments later, both anglers were standing on the front deck of Baker's boat, rods bent in a serious curve, anticipating the first "shot" of the day. Releasing their tiny Southern Pro jigs, the two guides doubled up almost immediately, and eventually caught nine crappie from beneath that single dock.
"That's how much fun shooting docks can be," Baker said after the frenzied action. "Find the right dock, and you can catch numbers of fish shooting."
Of course, "shooting docks" has nothing to do with firearms. The term describes the method of casting a tiny jig under the structures to tap a largely neglected segment of the Weiss Lake crappie population.
Despite growing popularity, shooting docks only accounts for a small percentage of the overall take of crappie on Weiss. Unlike, say, trolling, it isn't applicable year 'round. But in prime periods around the spawn or in fall, it adds a challenging element of variation to crappie fishing.
"It's not for everyone," Baker admitted. "We don't necessarily shoot docks a lot on our guide trips, although some of our clients like to try it. But it does offer a change of pace from trolling or bottom bumping or any other method of catching crappie."
Another well-known crappie angler is Russ Bailey, host of the Sportsman Channel's Midwest Crappie show. He loves the dock-shooting opportunities on Weiss Lake as much as he does any other technique, scheduling extended stretches on Weiss each year, as he depends on variety to maintain the popularity of his TV show and video series. That fact doesn't stop him from shooting docks at Weiss as often as possible.
"Well, it's just a lot of fun," Bailey explained, "and different from most other means of catching crappie. It's a lot more involved than trolling. There are a lot of different ways to catch crappie, but this is one that most fishermen haven't tried."
Most dock-shooting experts use a "bow-and-arrow" or "slingshot" analogy to describe the process. Using a short, flexible rod, the shooter takes advantage of the rod's whip-like qualities to propel the lure underneath the structure. The motion is not a cast, a flip, or a pitch; neither is it an underhand toss. It's literally a shot, with the rod as a weapon.
To shoot a dock, take the head of the lure between the index finger and thumb of the one hand, pulling out just enough line the jig about even with the reel with the rod fully bowed. Releasing the jig shoots the lure forward at the same time the line is released with other hand, thus sending the lure up under the dock.
Safety is an issue, and more than one shooter has lodged a sharp hook in finger or hand upon release. Bailey emphasizes grasping the jighead and not the hook, which should always face away from the hand, thus alleviating some of the element of danger.
The technique demands practice and can be frustrating. But with just a little practice, even first-time shooters can quickly become adroit with the technique.
Baker suggested that many fishermen already possess the perfect dock-shooting practice field at their home. "Raise the garage door," he said. "Practice shooting underneath it. Raise it up as much as you need to get started, 1 foot or 2 feet -- whatever height you need to be comfortable at the start. Then, as you get more skilled with it, drop the door down. Many of the docks that we shoot under only have a few inches of space. You have to be pretty good to get the jig in some of the tight spaces under the very best docks."
During shooting practice, mounting a steady platform elevated 12 to 18 inches off the floor helps to create the feel of actually fishing from a boat on the water.
"It takes time to get really good at shooting," Baker admitted, "and even then you're going to hit the dock occasionally, or shoot short, if you don't have the rod angled correctly. But once you establish a rhythm, shooting gets a lot easier. Then you can focus on the fish more than on the shooting."
The rod is definitely the most important ingredient in the dock-shooter's arsenal. The preferred rod for shooting is 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet long. Baker prefers rods designed specifically for the purpose -- B 'n' M Fishing created its Sharpshooter series of rods just for shooting -- but any extremely flexible rod will suffice.
"I prefer a 5 1/2-foot model," Baker said. "You need a small but quality ultralight reel. And I always use 6-pound-test line. I know other people who use 4-pound-test at times, but you have to be able to get the fish out from under the dock. Six-pound-test allows you to put a little more pressure and get those bigger fish out from under there."
Bailey uses the Sharpshooter rod but occasionally moves to a slightly longer rod. "There are times when the docks are really long," he offered, "and you need that little extra to shoot farther. The longer rod gives you a little more power."
Shooting docks eliminates the need for a supply of minnows. Because of the force of shooting, it's difficult to keep a minnow on the hook. Thus, shooting docks is easier with jigs. Some shooters do tip their jigs with some type of crappie "nugget," especially when the fish are fi
nicky. Jigs, however, are usually the only terminal tackle necessary.
The shooting effect allows the use of jigs that normally can't be cast effectively. Baker favors 1/24- or 1/32-ounce jigs with some type of plastic trailer. When suspended crappie move to depths of 10 feet or more, he ties on a 1/16-ounce lure. The fish frequently suspend high in the water column, however, and a heavier jig is unnecessary then.
Other anglers, including Russ Bailey, use even smaller jigheads, some as light as 1/48 or 1/64 of an ounce.
Both Baker and Bailey mention the Southern Pro Stinger as their go-to dock-shooting grub. The skinny lure offers a lazy, tantalizing action that most crappie find hard to resist. The former likes the Stinger in black, blue and chartreuse; the latter favors lighter colors, relying on white, pink, red, and yellow, but makes use of darker colors under certain weather and water conditions.
"There is something about the Stinger that makes them especially effective for dock-shooting," Bailey offered. "They are very soft plastic baits, and the fish appear to like the feel of them.
Baker uses a variety of retrieves to entice crappie, -- all slow, relative to most crappie fishing. Sometimes he allows the lure to drop once it hits the water and watches for line twitches or slight pressure to indicate a strike. A slow, steady retrieve accounts for most of his dock fish.
While shooting docks doesn't require suitcase-sized tackle boxes or a lot of other gear, Bailey does add a feature that makes his presentation a bit different: He frequently uses a float or a slip-cork to drop the jig-and-grub just above suspended fish.
The traveling angler uses the tiniest cork possible. In Alabama, the smallest floats found in most stores aren't small enough, so Bailey uses ice-fishing corks, available via the Internet or through fishing catalogs.
"Once you've made a good cast, you want the lure to stay in that most productive area for as long as possible," the fisherman explained. "Standard shoot-and-retrieve won't allow you to do that.
"Depending on current and wind action, the float allows me to keep the jig in front of a crappie for several seconds and at times even longer than that. Crappie find that subtle action of the grub hard to resist when it is suspended in front of them."
Pegging the cork with a toothpick as much as 2 feet above the lure increases the degree of difficulty of shooting, but the advantages outweigh the disadvantage. One positive associated with the use of a float is the propensity of crappie to come up to a lure rather than take one fished below them.
Another advantage: When fish are holding in specific locations -- adjacent to a dock post, for example -- basic shooting and retrieving may not be able to reach them. Using the cork can to position the lure in exactly the right location.
"You want a cork just big enough to float the lure," Bailey said. "The toothpick makes for easy adjustments, putting the jig at the correct depth that the crappie are holding.
"A key to cork fishing is not a lot of movement. I'll pop it or move it slightly and let it sit. The fish can't resist this approach."
WOODEN CRAPPIE HOUSES
Some docks are, as is case with most fishing structure, better than others. Baker's suggestion: Find the oldest wooden docks, and those with the largest surface area.
"The crappie hold more on those old wooden docks that have been there for a while," he noted. "I also look for crappie under the biggest platforms, which create the most shade."
Regardless of the location, Bailey suggested a systematic approach to fishing a dock. Fish a dock thoroughly, especially one that has been known to produce in the past. "I think one mistake that many people make is fishing a dock too quickly," he observed. "I usually start on one side or the other and work my way in or out until I locate fish. If you don't find them on the side, work the front. By fishing a dock too quickly, it's difficult to determine how the fish are locating."
Baker likes to start from the front and then fish the sides. "It's important to stay off the face of a dock and not spook the fish," he remarked. "Stay far away from the dock but still be able to shoot comfortably."
While wooden docks appear to be best for holding crappie, floating piers also attract fish -- especially if some other type of structure, like treetops or brushpiles, has been planted there. Bailey also noted that the shade of boats, especially those with a wide bottom like pontoons, serves as holding areas for crappie.
The pre-spawn weeks of March or, perhaps, early April offer one prime time for shooting the docks on Weiss Lake. The fish begin their pilgrimage from deepwater haunts to the shallows and target water three to 10 feet deep. Logic dictates that those docks closest to winter holding grounds will hold fish first.
Baker also pointed to the post-spawn -- that roughly one-month window during which the crappie begin to leave the spawning areas -- as another ideal time for shooting docks. At Weiss, this post-spawn fishing occurs from late April into May.
"Shooting docks may be the best way to catch post-spawn crappie on Weiss," Baker said. "Fishing can be tough at this time, and the fish hanging around the docks are still aggressive and hungry."
PRIME WEISS LOCATIONS
Any place that claims the title of "the Crappie Capital of the World" won't lack for crappie fishing water. Docks are plentiful around most of the 447 miles of shoreline on the lake.
On the lower end of the lake, both Russ Bailey and Darrell Baker are likely to be fishing in or around Church House Slough, Yellow Creek, or in the Bay Springs area.
Moving up the lake, major tributaries like Big Nose, Little Nose, Cowan, Spring, and Mud creeks are good locations to begin a dock-shooting trip.
"I don't know if there is a bad place to shoot docks on Weiss," Bailey concluded. "It's more about the individual dock and whether that specific location will hold fish.
"Weiss has so many docks that do hold fish -- that is why dock-shooting is about my favorite way to fish here.