October 04, 2010
The crappie probably haven't headed for the shoreline to spawn yet, but they are beginning to think about it in late winter. Here are some places where you can tangle with these fish south of Macon.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Bob Kornegay
The boat ride from the marina to the mouth of the creek was a long and chilly one. The late-winter/early-spring days had been balmy of late, but the early-morning hours were still fraught with a humid frigidity, despite the fact that "spring" crappie season was well under way. Even in South Georgia, conditions often warrant the donning of jacket, gloves and warm headgear for a boat ride this time of year.
The crappie were on the move and actively feeding. Besides, there was plenty of room in the dry storage boxes for the heavy clothing once the sun was well up. Nevertheless, the few miles from marina to creek mouth seemed like many leagues as the boat skimmed across the lake's surface at a brisk and frigid clip. The three anglers aboard were more relieved than excited when they turned from the reservoir's main expanse into the quiet cove that formed where the little creek fanned out to merge with the big water just off the river channel.
It was not a big creek, not even having a name, but it was a traditional spawning ground for hordes of black crappie and a smattering of white crappie that found their way into and up its winding channel this time every year. Here the fish would wait, biding their time, moving back and forth between the creek channel's depths and the woody, grassy shoreline. Then, when the time was exactly right, they would move by the hundreds into the shallows to deposit their eggs onto the bank-side structure and shallow subsurface vegetation. Now was the time, the fishermen knew, to catch them at their hungriest, while they were feeding heavily with a determined effort to fuel their reproductive "engines."
The chill of the long ride burned off rather quickly once the boat slowed and the big outboard gave way to trolling-motor propulsion. The occupants limbered up and began preparing the myriad rigs they use to present their bait offerings: spinning and spincast rods and reels spooled with light-but-sturdy monofilament, long poles for "spider-rigging," and a couple of lengthy spinning rods for trolling behind the boat. They were out for crappie - lots of them if good fortune and the lessons learned from previous seasons so dictated.
Crappie have been staple sportfish in Georgia for as long as most anglers can remember. In many areas, these ubiquitous fish are year-round targets for panfishermen who enjoy the sport they provide as well as their reputation as excellent table fare. Few freshwater fishermen grow up not knowing the crappie, and often the crappie is the fish with which young Georgians begin their angling experiences.
As common as crappie and crappie fishing are across the state, and regardless of the time-honored spot the fish holds in our angling tradition, there has arisen new interest in Peach State crappie fishing in recent years. Many anglers are expressing interest in catching more and bigger crappie, and countless public and private discussions have been held to talk about ways to better implement crappie management programs on public waterways.
With this resurgence in an already avid interest among South Georgia panfishermen comes a need to know where to go when it comes time to break out the minnow bucket and crappie jigs and go off in search of the area's hottest papermouth angling.
Where crappie are concerned, the season begins early. "Hot" crappie fishing is often ushered in when the weather is still a bit on the cool side. What follows is a look at some South Georgia go-to spots as the crappie begin their spawning rites this year, as well as what to do once you get there.
According to biologists and anglers in the South Georgia region, three reservoirs stand out as prime crappie destinations for late-winter and springtime fishing. Lakes Blackshear, Walter F. George and Seminole are heralded as superb crappie producers year in and year out.
Lake Walter F. George, long known for big bass and just as popular among crappie fishermen for the large numbers of quality-sized crappie it yields each season, is a good place to start. According to fisheries biologist Matt Thomas, this reservoir is South Georgia's premier crappie fishery for a very simple reason. It is large enough to support a large number of fishermen and it is an easy lake to negotiate.
"The creeks and other areas where crappie like to congregate beginning in February are easy to find on this lake," Thomas said. "It's not tricky and it doesn't have a lot of difficult-to-access creek arms and sloughs. Anglers know this and that's why they come. People will drive a long way, even from other parts of the state, to go crappie fishing on Walter F. George. Here, it's often a matter of just putting your boat in and looking for the other crappie boats already in place."
During a typical February, the crappie in Lake George are still deep-water fish, not quite ready to venture too far up the creeks where they will eventually spawn later in the spring.
"The fish are just now coming off the river channel ledges and beginning to stage near the creek mouths," said Thomas. "They're not yet at that 'magic' 8- to 10-foot depth with any consistency. In fact, as the February weather conditions fluctuate, they move and change their behavior a great deal. They may be deep one day and shallow the next. You can catch them when you figure out their pattern and depth on any given day."
While the fish are feeling things out during this pre-spawn staging time, deep-water structure near the creek mouths are good places to target.
"This is a good time to hit deep brushpiles," Thomas explained. "Fish attractors are good producers during this time of year. Deep structure holds the fish that are in transition from deep water to shallow or from shallow to deep. They're just now beginning to concentrate in large schools. You've pretty much got to hunt them."
Drop-fishing with live minnows is the preferred method during this month, and a good depthfinder is very advantageous. It is also to the angler's advantage to take care. The water can be cold and rough on Lake George during this transition month.
As February moves into March, the crappie become easier to locate and catch.
"Go to the creeks," Thomas instructed. "They aren't at the backs of the creeks yet, unless it is unusually warm, but you can find them stacked up along the creek channels. I'd suggest staying in the creeks until you find the fish. During March, they are still in transition and might be shallow or deep, depending on the weather and temp
erature changes from day to day. You can be fishing pretty deep in the creek channel one day and maybe even bank fishing the next. They're very weather-dependent."
This is a good time of year on Lake George, particularly for newcomers who don't know the lake as well as some others. The fish are limited in their movement and in the places they will be found. The prime water will be somewhere in the creeks and is usually obvious based on the numbers of boats or bank-side anglers frequenting an area. Both minnows and jigs work well now, and, again, a good depthfinder is a valuable tool for locating good spots along the creek channels.
By the end of March and into the first of April, the main spawn has normally occurred and most of the crappie are on their way out of the creeks heading back into deeper water.
"Now you can pretty much reverse the procedure you followed during February," Thomas said. "Generally move from the backs of the creeks to the channels and eventually out into those deep-water structure areas."
"In February, crappie on Lake Seminole have two basic patterns," said Seminole old-timer and master panfish angler W.T. Womble. "They can be deep or shallow. They're in transition, getting ready to spawn. On Seminole, some actual spawning may also take place this month."
During February, crappie are dependent on water temperature and other variables. The often-unpredictable weather and water conditions determine whether the fish stay deep, move into the shallows, or stage somewhere in between.
"Depending on the conditions, they might be found anywhere from the river ledges to the shallow inshore pockets," Womble explained.
Though Seminole's crappie may exhibit varying behavior patterns in February, the fishing is not a hit-or-miss activity. There are distinct lake locations that are easily checked and "read."
"You have to intercept the fish at one point or another during this transition period," Womble said. "I'll start off in February looking in deeper water along the river channel ledges. They may be down as deep as 25 feet or so. As the temperature rises, they begin to shallow up."
On the "outside" ledges where the channel starts to level off toward shallower water, Womble anchors his boat and fishes straight down, using live minnows. On the deeper channel drops, it is necessary to keep a close eye on the depthfinder and use the trolling motor to stay on the fish.
"If you have trouble staying on fish in deep water, you can do some deep-water trolling," he suggested. "Fish slow and keep your bait at the depth where you originally marked fish. Often, this is easier than fighting the wind and current, trying to stay on top of them. Jigs and minnows can work equally well in this situation."
Trolling is also an excellent fish-finding technique on Lake Seminole.
"You're not having to wait for them to come to you," Womble said. "You're carrying the bait to them. With your depth set correctly and constant movement, trolling can be very productive."
If fish are not found on the channel ledges, don't proceed directly to potential spawning sites. Move gradually away from the channel into shallower water. Just because the crappie migrate away from the river channel doesn't necessarily mean they've made a mass exodus to spawn. They could be somewhere in between, waiting until spawning conditions are just right.
"Wait until you're certain they've moved out of the deeper water, then go shallow," Womble instructed. "Get into the shallow ponds and pools."
These shallow areas dot the lake all along its expanse. They are wide "flats" areas dotted with wooded islands, flooded stump fields, and grassy hummocks. The topwater and subsurface vegetation here draws spawning crappie by the hundreds.
"Crappie attach their eggs directly onto some sort of structure," Womble explained. "They instinctively move into the places where the grass is a permanent fixture."
In these shallow areas, crappie may spawn in 12 to 15 inches of water or all the way out to the edges of a grass line, at depths of 8 or more feet.
"I start fishing along those inside grass edges and work gradually toward shallower water," Womble said.
In the deeper-water grass areas, Womble fishes vertically and dangles live minnows directly into the schools of crappie. Once he locates the fish with this method, he stays on them. In the shallow grass, sight-fishing can be important. Watching the surface motion of the water and movement of the grass often reveals spawning fish.
"In this situation you can fish a minnow with nothing but a hook," Womble said. "Leave off the weight altogether and let the bait flutter down to the fish. In very shallow water, a heavy rig can carry bait too deep too quickly."
The Seminole veteran concludes by reminding anglers that there is no foolproof formula for catching crappie, even during a prime month like February.
"The key is getting out there and establishing a pattern," he said. "You have to figure out which way they're moving and where they're headed. It takes some time and a willingness to learn something about fish behavior."
Lake Blackshear is a small reservoir by Walter F. George and Seminole standards. It does not attract the large numbers of early-season anglers you find on the larger lakes, but for its size it contains a sizable and noteworthy crappie population.
Trolling works well on Blackshear this time of year, with crappie often willing to take jigs or slowly drifted minnows. Begin in the 8- to 12-foot areas away from the shoreline vegetation to take advantage of the staging fish in their pre-spawn mode. This early in the season, you might try even deeper water, found in areas just off the river channel. If a bait can be run consistently deep enough, crappie may be found in large schools holding near the channel structure. The same holds true for the channels of the creeks. Jigs and many of the popular "crappie-fly" lures seem to work better in these areas.
As your search for a mess of slabs continues, work progressively closer to the bank, letting the weather and your depthfinder be your guide. As on most bodies of water in February, the Blackshear crappie move back and forth from channels to shorelines while waiting for that just-right moment to move hard into the shallows for the annual spawn. Spawning fish can be taken in the grassy areas or in shallows containing wood structure, often in only several inches to a few feet of water.
Lake Blackshear's shore is highly developed and anglers are remiss if they neglect the many private docks that seem to literally "sprout" from the reservoir's shores. Begin fishing a dock by casting a jig toward the structure from an appreciable distance before moving in too close. If the crappie bite for you,
continue fishing. Often, the fish around dock pilings or sunken off-the-dock attractants will be spooked by too much close-quarters angling. Move near the dock only when absolutely necessary.
In February, target docks that run out into deeper water and save the shallow-water dock fishing for those early spring days when you know for sure the fish are working close to shore. Early and late in the day seem to be the best general times to fish Blackshear's dock structure, but once the spawn begins in earnest, the fish will often bite throughout the daylight and on into the nighttime hours.
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Lakes Blackshear, Seminole and Walter F. George provide good access and ample public boat ramps for the crappie angler. The fisherman without a boat can sometimes find success fishing from the bank, especially on Lake George, where several public bank-fishing facilities are strategically located.
Of course, these three waterways are not the only lakes or reservoirs in South Georgia that produce. But wherever you go, a trip to a South Georgia crappie lake during late winter and early spring can be well worth your time.
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