Heart Of Dixie Slabs In 2009

Pick any corner of Alabama, and regardless of the choice you'll be close to great crappie action. But here's a look at some of the very best waters to target this year! (April 2009)

When it comes to exciting crappie fishing, Alabama tops all other destinations. With slab action almost too good to believe, it's no wonder crappie tournaments are increasing throughout the state.

After speaking with fisheries biologists and fishermen ranging from competitive anglers to guides, Alabama Game & Fish selected these best crappie waters for this year. However, deciding the best in a state filled with exceptional fishing is like trying to pick the best minnows from the bucket. At first, all appear to be strong swimmers, but after a few dips of the net, there are always a few that stay in front of the others.

"By far," reported Jerry Moss, District III fisheries supervisor, "Aliceville and Gainesville lakes on the Tombigbee River are the best two reservoirs in our district."

Jesse Wright, president of the West Alabama Crappie Association, agreed with Moss, but rated one lake over the other depending on the time of the year.

"Both lakes offer super fishing," Wright said. "Many anglers would be surprised at how many crappie are on the banks in February on Aliceville, but in April Gainesville is my favorite."

Wright's two reasons for making the switch to Gainesville this month are fishing pressure and the availability of big fish.

"More anglers are familiar with Aliceville Lake," Moss explained, "because of the facilities. Gainesville Lake is a little off the beaten path, so there's a real opportunity to fish very productive waters with very little competition."

Moss added that Gainesville is not a border water like Aliceville, so it does not require anglers to have a Mississippi license to fish the entire lake. Additionally, he said Gainesville has less aquatic vegetation, which makes fishing more enjoyable.

As for the availability of big fish, Wright said Aliceville's shallow water warms faster than Gainesville's.

"Most of the big fish have spawned on Aliceville in February and March," he offered, "so by moving to Gainesville in April, I can continue to target spawning fish."

Last year while practicing for a tournament in April, Wright caught 55 fish in less than two hours. Then during the competition, he brought a slab to the scales weighing more than 2 pounds. Wright's biggest fish last year weighed 2 1/2 pounds and measured 17 inches in length. The fish had already spawned.

To find spawning crappie, Wright looks for small pockets in the grass or along the bank. He describes these places as being about as wide as your boat and half as long.

"If the pocket provides protection from the wind and waves," Wright said, "you might catch 10 to 15 crappie from one hole."

The angler works pockets with an orange and chartreuse 1/16-ounce hair jig on 10-pound-test monofilament. A cork fixed 12 inches above the bait keeps his jig off the bottom.

According to Wright, the best fishing occurs when the water is slightly muddy.

"When the water has color," he advised, "the fish are less likely to spook when you approach and are more aggressive. They strike the jig as soon as it hits the water."

Wright recommended launching at Vienna, which is south of the city of Aliceville off State Route 14. Within a few miles of the ramp, he said anglers can find great fishing at Lubbub Creek, Sipsey River, Lost Lake, the Buzzard's Roost Area and Round Hole.

For more information on the West Alabama Crappie Association, visit www.westalabamacrappie.com, or call club president Jesse Wright at (205) 932-3997 or club vice-president Steve Minor at (205) 932-5257.

Last spring on Weiss Lake, anglers brought 162 crappie weighing at least 2 pounds to the scales at J.R.'s Marina near the town of Cedar Bluff. While the marina is popular, its scales account for only a fraction of the big crappie removed from this fishery during this season.

For this spring, District II Fisheries Supervisor Dan Catchings predicted anglers should catch good numbers of keeper fish, with some 2-pounders. The minimum size limit on Weiss is 10 inches.

Four-time national crappie champion David Stancil of Oxford, who considers the upper Coosa River his home waters, said anglers skilled at finding fish can expect to catch papermouths weighing up to 2 3/4 pounds in April.

"Weiss is a great crappie lake," Stancil explained. "It's shallow with an abundance of cover that makes crappie easy to catch in spring. The lake also supports tremendous numbers of shad and minnows. But Weiss' greatest feature is its excellent structure."

For Stancil, structure and the cover it provides is key to winning crappie tournaments.

"To catch big fish on Weiss Lake," he continued, "either fish drops on the ledges or contour lines as shown on a map. A contour line may not indicate a significant drop, but 90 percent of the cover anglers have put in the lake lies on a contour line or on a ledge."

When searching for these slab magnets, focus on only one area of the lake. Stancil warned a lack of focus is the biggest mistake anglers make in spring.

"Weiss is different than other lakes," he said. "In April, anglers do not need to fish the entire lake. Just pick one creek and find fish. Don't run from creek to creek, because every segment of the lake holds the same size fish. For the same reason, it's a mistake to listen to reports about where fish are biting."

He recommended anglers begin their search by fishing ledges dropping from 10 feet down into 16 feet of water.

Weiss has a reputation for producing heavy stringers on jigs trolled on long lines, but Stancil revealed that's not best for catching big fish. Instead, he slow trolls vertically, which is also known as straight-line trolling. This pro fishes with 14-foot B'n'M poles from the bow of his boat. Only three such poles may be used at one time on Weiss Lake.

Straight-line trolling allows Stancil to precisely fish his jigs or minnows at any depth. For example, if the top of the cover is 12 feet deep, he sets the lures at 11 feet and then slows moves into position to hover over

the cover.

For current fishing conditions, drop by J.R.'s Marina on Little River or visit the Web site at www.jrsmarina. com. The marina's telephone number is (256) 779-6461.

Keith Dodd is president of the Shoals Area Crappie Association and a crappie guide. The association holds tournaments on Pickwick, Wilson, Wheeler, Cedar, and all Bear Creek Development Authority lakes. But, Dodd said, the best fishing in northwest Alabama this month occurs on Pickwick Lake.

"On a good day," Dodd offered, "anglers can expect to catch 30 to 35 quality fish weighing 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds. An average fish weighs between 1 1/4 and 1 1/2, but you are going to catch some quality 2-pound crappie in a day of fishing. Last year, I caught my big fish on April 25 and it weighed 2 1/4 pounds."

Dodd's favorite area to fish is Bear Creek, which lies partly in Mississippi. Scientific surveys support Dodd's choice.

"Pickwick always seems to produce a fair number of crappie," said Keith Floyd, District I fisheries supervisor, "especially in the Bear Creek embankment. They do very well there. In our creel surveys, we get some of our highest catch rates from that area. In the last two or three years, it has produced many fish from our creel surveys and from Mississippi's surveys -- good-sized crappie too."

Floyd continued by recognizing Shoal Creek, which is on the north bank across from Bear Creek as also providing excellent fishing.

According to Dodd, Pickwick's crappies don't turn on until the water warms to the high 50s. Last year, he said, that occurred on March 21.

"When the water temperature reaches 58 degrees," Dodd explained, "it's time to start long-line trolling in the creek channel at depths of 12 to 14 feet. The channel is like a highway for crappie migrating to the spawning flats. As the water continues to warm in April, the fish move up in the water column until they spawn.

"Typically, start trolling in the middle of the channel early, then move to a ledge, and finally work the flats. Spring is sometimes difficult because of cold fronts. You may catch crappie in 8 to 10 feet of water one day, and then after a front, find they have moved back into deeper water."

Dodd long-line trolls with six rods on the bow and another six on the stern. To provide spacing for his jigs, which are trolled 35 feet behind the boat, Dodd's B'n'M rods vary in length from 10 to 14 feet. Each line has either a single 1/16-ounce jig or tandem 1/32-ounce jigs.

"Anglers can usually locate fish within an hour and begin to form a pattern," Dodd instructed. "That's the reason for starting deep and then moving shallow; you are establishing a pattern. Once you find the pattern, you can catch a lot of fish."

To book a guide trip with Keith Dodd or become a member of the Shoals Area Crappie Association, telephone him at (256) 233-4339. Also, the association is on the Web at www.crappie.com.

On the lower Coosa River, Jordan Lake is not known as a crappie destination, even though this fertile habitat consistently produces some of the best bass fishing in the state. But, crappie also thrive in Jordan's environment of highly productive water, stable water levels and shad populations.

Earl Ingram of Millbrook fishes competitively for crappie and has unlocked Jordan's secret.

"On a good day," he stated, "two anglers in two hours can put 55 to 60 fish in the boat. My wife and I have had as many as 10 fish on at one time."

The lower Coosa has also produced slab-sized papermouths for Ingram. On a spring day, he caught three fish weighing more than 3 pounds and one 4-pounder.

The key to Ingram's success is manmade cover.

"If you sink 20 to 30 trees a year," he offered, "they will provide a good harvest over the next two to three years. The second and third years produce best. Manmade cover is very important to catch crappie consistently."

One of the best places to sink cover is where you are already catching fish, especially if it's where pre- and post-spawn crappie stage in front of bedding areas.

When April arrives on the lower Coosa, crappie are midway through the spawn, so Ingram targets pos-spawn fish that are moving back into deeper water.

"Look for fish in water 8 to 10 feet deep about 15 feet from the bank," Ingram instructed. "Creek mouths and edges of creek channels are best, because they are coming out of the sloughs."

In April, this crappie master finds fish around the School Park area near Blackwell Bridge, around the old U.S. Highway 231 bridge on the east bank and near Joe's Fish Camp, which is off Titus Road. Surprisingly, he said, both the Bolden Canal and the upper riverine section of the lake provide great fishing, too.

To catch fish, Ingram long-line trolls tandem jigs on 6-pound-test monofilament. His top jig weighs 1/16 ounce; the bottom jig weighs 1/24 or 1/32 ounce. This difference in size allows the lighter jig to follow the top one.

Lure depth is dictated by the length and diameter of his line, the weight of his jigs and the speed of his boat. Since line size and length are constant, Ingram's only decisions are jig weight and speed. He uses the lightest jigs possible to reach the depth he wants to fish, and then he maintains the correct speed, which is learned through trial and error.

"My trolling motor never stops," Ingram emphasized. "As long as it's running, my lines stay off the bottom. If the jigs need to move over cover, I speed up. I also increase my speed if I need to make a turn."

For current fishing conditions on Jordan Lake, visit Big Fish Bait & Tackle at 314 Company Street in Wetumpka, or call (334) 567-7509.

Known for big crappie, Millers Ferry offers the best papermouth fishing in southwest Alabama. And it looks as if this great crappie factory will keep its reputation for 2009.

Biologists predict, based on data projections from their last sample, anglers may encounter a strong 5-year-old age-class that measure 14 to 15 inches, which is a slab fit for any tournament scale or frying pan.

James "Big Daddy" Lawler, a well-known radio personality who lives on Millers Ferry and fishes for crappie year 'round confirms the state of the crappie fishery.

"Unless it floods," Lawler forecasted, "April is going to be a banner month for crappie on Millers Ferry. The fish we are catching have shoulders on them and are real healthy."

Last April at the first annual Wilcox Area Chamber Big Fish Crappie Tournam

ent, Tracy Jackson of Thomasville won $1,000 by weighing in the big fish. Her slab tipped the scales at 2.30 pounds.

Lawler reported anglers can expect to find crappie in all phases of reproduction this month. He prefers to target pre- and post-spawn crappie from staging areas. But Lawler does not troll; instead, he anchors and presents his baits vertically.

"My favorite spots to fish are the dropoffs into the main river channel," Lawler revealed. "The best dropoffs in spring are at the mouth of a creek or slough in depths of 12 to 20 feet. To consistently produce crappie, it must have cover near the drop."

Before setting up on a promising area, Lawler uses sonar to check for shad.

"Anytime you see big schools of shad near cover," he said, "it's going to hold crappie."

Depending on depth and current, Lawler works dropoffs with either a fixed sinker or a modified slip sinker rig. The former has a 1/4-ounce bell sinker at the end of the line with the hook tied a foot above the sinker. Lawler calls the slip-sinker setup the Wilcox County rig, which is a 1/2-ounce egg sinker above a swivel with small split-shot sinkers crimped at both ends to fix the heavier weight on the line. On the other end of the swivel, he ties a 10-inch leader of 6-pound-test and a No. 1 wire hook.

"The Wilcox County Rig," he explained, "helps when dropping a minnow through cover and aids in getting it loose when hung. The split-shot keeps the 1/2-ounce sinker from sliding so it's easier to jiggle the hook free."

Lawler determines where fish are holding by dropping his minnows to the bottom and then working them back to the surface.

To listen to "Big Daddy" Lawler, tune to WIN 98.5 FM on Saturdays from 7 to 8:30 a.m. or visit his Web site at www.mywin98.com and click on "Chattin' Outdoors."

For information on the Wilcox Area Chamber Big Fish Crappie Tournament scheduled for April 18, 2009, call the chamber at (334) 682-4929 or visit its Web site at www.wilcoxareachamber.org.

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