The holidays are over and there are no more bowl games to watch. Winter's chill has kept you cooped up just a little too long. It's time to ease that cabin fever by pulling the boat to the lake and doing a little crappie fishing.
But where to go?
Along Georgia's waistline -- the belt from Columbus through Macon to Augusta -- there are several good possibilities where an angler can have fun catching a cooler full of nice crappie.
The belt buckle on that waist, Lake Sinclair, may well be the state's most consistent crappie haven, especially in the pre-spawn period of late winter to early spring, said Les Ager, head of the Wildlife Resources Division regional fisheries office in Fort Valley.
"There are so many good crappie lakes to choose from through the middle of the state," Ager noted. "But I'd say Lake Sinclair is the most reliable. It's as good a lake as any in the state as being a place to go and have the chance to catch good crappie, especially in February and March."
Two mid-state anglers, Macon's Larry King and Warner Robins' Woody Davis, said Lake Oconee, just north of Sinclair, is a good rival for pre-spawn crappie fishing. And there are several other great places for catching a mess of crappie.
"West Point is also awfully good and reliable that time of year, even if it is kind of on the edge of that band through the middle of the state," Ager said. "Lake Jackson is also a good lake, but it's more known for fall crappie fishing.
"On the other side of the state, Clarks Hill has some good crappie fishing, although I'm not as familiar with it as the other lakes I mentioned," he added.
Those are all large impoundments. Some smaller bodies of water that provide good pre-spawn crappie action, according to Ager, are High Falls Lake, Lake Tobesofkee and the Dodge County Public Fishing Area.
"They aren't as large and so they don't have as many fish, but they also don't get as much fishing pressure, so there is some good crappie fishing at all three of those," he explained.
Let's take a closer look at some of these lakes and discuss areas where you are likely to find fish and methods to catch them in February and early March.
The top method for catching crappie in the pre-spawn period is trolling for them, using a boat powered by an electric motor. This is because the crappie are often suspended several feet deep in water over or near various types of cover -- points, blow-downs, brushpiles, channel edges or standing timber.
For bait, use either live minnows on No. 1 hooks or 1/16-ounce or smaller leadhead jigs with a plastic grub or tube body. Hal-Flies are a popular jig available in a wide range of colors. Six- to 8-pound line is commonly used this time of year.
Many anglers put out several rods rigged with different colors of jigs set to run at various depths as they slowly troll through an area searching for crappie. Once a school is located, re-rig all the rods at the proper depth and troll back through or anchor and cast into the area.
Another method, though more popular at other times of the year when the crappie are holding tighter to cover, is using jigs or spoons to vertically jig down through the cover to the fish.
Light spinning or spin-casting gear is most often used by crappie fishermen.
This 15,330-acre Georgia Power Company lake lies north and east of Milledgeville in Baldwin, Putnam and Hancock counties. Completed in 1952, it impounds portions of the Oconee and Little rivers and the creeks that feed them.
"The hot area, no pun intended, is the hot water cove," Ager said, talking about the area of Beaverdam Creek below the warmwater discharge outlet at the Georgia Power Company Plant Harlee Branch, just off U.S. Highway 441 north of Milledgeville.
The warm water released from the power plant's cooling towers serves as an invigorating spa for a variety of fish during the colder months.
"That's the place to go for the best chance to catch crappie on a consistent basis," Ager said. "Crappie like that warm water and become more active there before they do in colder areas of the lake."
Larry King, who operates a guide service on Sinclair and Oconee, agreed, but said that also makes the cove a very popular place for anglers.
"It can be pretty crowded. You almost have to take a number to troll through the areas where the fish are," King noted. "But everyone catches some -- maybe not 50 or 100 like you could if you were the only one there, but most boats end up with 10 to 25 on those crowded days."
If you want to avoid the crowds, some other areas of Sinclair to target are shallow stump flats back up the creeks, said King. Ager suggested the Rooty Creek arm just north of Beaverdam Creek or back the other way up Little River to Murder Creek.
How to catch them?
Trolling jigs or minnows through the depths where the pre-spawn crappie are suspended is the preferred method of finding the fish, both men agreed.
To determine the depth at which to fish, Ager said anglers should check the water clarity.
"Pre-spawn crappie suspend about three feet deeper than the light penetrates. Start your search there."
Once you find them, zero in on that depth and remember it for later when the crappie begin to move in to the banks to spawn.
"If they are suspended say 6 feet deep over 20 feet of water when you find them in mid-February, then a week or two later they'll bed at that same 6-foot depth on the bank near there," the fisheries manager said.
King pointed out that if you're intent on filling the cooler, you should troll different depths in water that is 10 to 20 feet deep to find where they are suspended and then concentrate on that depth on future runs. They may be in the open or near cover.
"But if you are more interested in bigger fish, you need to concentrate on blowdowns, brushpiles and rocks, because they like to hold close to cover. Try 3 to 6 feet deep to begin with. You hang up and lose more jigs this way, but if you want the big crappie, it is worth it," he argued.
Ager said trolling with live minnows or Hal-Fly-type jigs works equally well.
"The fish don't care, so it comes down to what the fisherman has got the most confidence with," he said. "If you're not focused just on crappie, then minnows make it easier to also catch some bass and hybrids while trolling for the crappie."
King's color combinations for jigs depend on the water clarity.
"If it is real dirty, which you're liable to get that time of year, I like orange, orange-and-black, solid black or some of the browns. Or you can go opposite with real bright, loud colors, such as fluorescent orange and chartreuse. If the water is kind of clear, smoke or pink work well, or your traditional white or red-green-yellow."
Northeast of Sinclair is Lake Oconee, another Georgia Power reservoir. This 19,050-acre lake, completed in 1978, impounds the Oconee and Apalachee rivers from east of Madison to east of Eatonton.
King doesn't fish Oconee for crappie as much as he does Sinclair, but he said trolling the shallow flats and stump fields the way he does at Sinclair also works well at Oconee.
"Some of the guys I know who fish there more than I do occasionally do well way up the Apalachee or Oconee arms that time of year, but as far as consistency it's hard beat the upper third of Sugar Creek, or maybe the primary fork up Lick Creek. But if you can find them up the Apalachee arm or the Oconee up near Town Creek, you may be able to catch larger-sized fish," King suggested.
Woody Davis takes an opposite view from King and Ager -- he likes Oconee better for crappie fishing than Sinclair.
"Years ago, I liked Sinclair better. Back then everyone who had a place there had fishing boats tied to their docks. Now it is all ski boats and personal watercraft. It's a recreation lake and too crowded for me," Davis said.
"I like to fish the edges of the river channels up there at Oconee. If you go up under the Highway 44 bridge, there are a lot of blowdowns on the left side that have fallen in 20 to 30 feet of water. I catch a lot of big fish deep there, like 16 to 25 feet deep. I throw, 75 percent of the time, a 1/24-ounce red-green-yellow Hal-Fly."
WEST POINT LAKE
This 25,900-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake extends 35 miles along the Chattahoochee River on the Georgia-Alabama border west of LaGrange. It was impounded in 1974. And if there is a rival to Lake Sinclair, Ager said it is West Point.
"West Point is awfully good and reliable year 'round for good crappie fishing," Ager stated. "It is also very good in February and March -- fishing much the same way you do at Sinclair then."
Two good areas to target, Ager noted, are Whitewater Creek on the west side of the lake above the railroad trestle, and Beach Creek up the Yellowjacket Creek arm of the lake.
"There's a lot of standing timber in there, and that's a good place to look for the crappie," he said.
Keith Walker of Macon lives on Lake Tobesofkee and fishes for crappie there, but West Point is his favorite place to go.
"There's great crappie fishing at West Point, and there's not really the pressure there you have at places like Tobesofkee and Sinclair," he said. "We go over there and we're the only boat crappie fishing most days."
He puts in at Evansville Landing off State Route 109 on the Alabama side.
"We fish Wehadkee Creek near the railroad trestle. There are treetops and timber in there we fish around or troll over," Walker explained. "I use 1/16-ounce tube jigs and troll pretty slow.
"In February, they suspend 8 to 15 feet deep in 20 to 25 feet of water. They stay pretty close to cover because they're staging and getting ready to come in shallow to spawn. So fish close to cover on the points, ledges and dropoffs."
If you want a not quite so large body of water for crappie fishing, this 1,750-acre Bibb County-owned lake just west of Macon is a good choice. Although very crowded with boaters and skiers during warm weather, it can be a comfortable fishing spot in February and early March.
Walker said a good place to start trolling for crappie is in the mid-lake coves near the Mosley Dixon Road Bridge.
"They're a little shallower in Tobesofkee than West Point," he offered. "The water is only about 9 feet deep in those coves, so you can find them suspended as shallow as 2 feet. I use the same kind of jigs I use at West Point."
Ager said Tobesofkee is also a place where bank-fishermen have a chance to catch crappie up on the top end of the lake in the "Finger Area."
"The main coves are also good for trolling," he added.
Jimmy Smith of Macon likes to anchor and jig around the fish attractors that are placed in several of the coves.
Another small body of water with good crappie fishing is 104-acre Steve Bell Lake, at the Dodge County Public Fishing Area just south of Eastman on U.S. 341/23.
"I have been catching some in Eastman in the standing timber," said Davis. "I use Hal-Flies about 8 feet deep. You lose a lot of flies in the timber, but once you figure out openings in the branches to fish, you can do very well."
Ager also recommended 650-acre High Falls Lake, on the Monroe-Butts County line north of Forsyth.
"It's relatively small and shallow and doesn't get a lot of pressure. There are a lot of blowdowns and docks to provide cover for crappie, and fishing around them is a good choice," he said. "The Buck Creek area and right across from it in Browns Bottom are good spots that time of year."
Lake Jackson, a 4,750-acre lake southeast of Atlanta, has good crappie numbers, but Ager said it is better known for its fall and early winter crappie. But they can be caught during the pre-spawn period in the same types of areas and with similar methods as at Sinclair and Oconee, though not in as great numbers.
Clarks Hill Lake, a 71,535-acre impoundment of the Savannah River on the Georgia-South Carolina border north of Augusta, has excellent crappie fishing, but the best time there is later in March and April. During February, try trolling along the edges of the river and creek channels at various depths.
For more information on crappie fishing in the central portion of the Peach State, contact the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division fisheries office in Fort Valley at (478) 825-6151. If you would like to contact fishing guide Larry King about a trip on Sinclair or Oconee, call him at (478) 986-7395.