October 04, 2010
The period of the spring spawn isn't the only time for loading up on crappie. Here's a look at the action available while the fish are staging to move shallow. (February 2009)
By Kevin Dallmier
Fishing for spawning crappie is about as easy as falling off the proverbial log: Find some shallow wood, cast a small jig or minnow-and-bobber combo up next to it and start reeling in dinner.
And for a few glorious days, it really can be about that easy; you'd almost have to work at not catching fish.
This assumes, of course, that you show up during the spawn.
Timing the peak of the spawn can be difficult, given early spring's unsettled weather, and the water's quick reaction to changing conditions. What looked like perfect timing on a balmy Monday (when you'd planned a few days off work at the end of the week to fill the freezer with crappie fillets) can turn into a miserable, tooth-chattering day. On the water you may encounter cold rain and biting wind roiling the shallows into cold chocolate milk -- the worst fishing conditions possible.
Even if you do time things right, another drawback is the quality of the catch. Female crappie don't move up until they're ready to spawn. Before and after that, smaller males make up the bulk of the catch in the shallow timber. Depending on the quality of your local crappie lake, this may not be a problem, as "smaller" is a relative term; those dependable male fish swarming the shallows may be keepers too. At a lake that's not quite so good, though, having to sort through 10 little paper-thin males to get a decent fish for the cooler can get aggravating.
The final factor: competition. The first nice days of spring combine with the prospect of easy fishing to bring anglers out in droves. The boat ramps are crowded, the bait shop is sold out of minnows, and every shallow blow-down attracts a boat or two.
Rather than wait for those conditions, a much more consistent approach is to intercept the crappie before the spawn. The fish are near the usual spawning hangouts, but in deeper water. The weather might not be quite as nice as they ordinarily are during the spawn, but the fishing can be better. Crappie holding in deeper water aren't affected quite as much by changing conditions, and unless a real northeaster is blowing, the fish can be found in the same places day after day.
The key is to work backwards. Think of places in which you've experienced good fishing during the spawn; now just work your way out. If winter has begun relinquishing its hold, expect crappie to be staging on the middepth flats out from the spawning areas. These fish are going to be suspended in loose, roaming schools, trying to intercept some bait.
Trolling a spread of small jigs is an excellent way to cover a lot of water on the flats and find the fish. If you catch a crappie or two, listen to what the fish are telling you and make note of the location, depth and bait they took, and make more passes over that exact area until the action tapers off. Crappie aren't solitary fish -- they like company, and hang out in large schools. Catching one will indicate that a bunch are down there. Don't just keep on trucking down the flat pulling your jigs through empty water. Instead, work over the treasure trove you've found.
If winter still has a serious grip, or a strong front has moved through, the flats aren't the best place to be. For these conditions, you'll have to move farther out, to the really deep water.
At most reservoirs, flats are drained by creek channels, leading eventually into a larger, deeper river channel. Or, on flats that are actually the tops of a broad sloping point, the point may break sharply into deeper water. These are the places that crappie go to when conditions are really tough.
These fish aren't going to be holding up high, looking for bait; instead, they're going to be hunkered down at the bottom around some cover riding things out until conditions improve. To catch these crappie you've got to be on your best game and make a presentation that puts a bait right in front of their noses and keeps it there long enough to convince them to bite when they really don't want to.
If you're good with a jig, crawling a small one with a shad-imitating trailer along the bottom can produce. If trying to feel a crappie mouthing a jig 20 feet down isn't your forte, then bumping bottom with live minnows may be the way to go.
Bumping bottom involves vertically presenting a minnow by means of a dropper rig. The dropper rig is composed of a 1/2-ounce bell sinker tied to the end of the main line and a No. 1 gold Aberdeen hook on a dropper line approximately 18 inches above the sinker; a standard snelled Eagle Claw hook simply tied on the main line above the sinker works, too. Line testing from 6 to 12 pounds can be used, depending on water clarity and how the fish are biting.
If conditions allow, go with the heavier line, as its use results in fewer rigs lost to snags. A slow, steady pull often straightens a snagged hook, and a few seconds' work with a pair of needlenosed pliers will put you back in business. However, if the fish are biting tentatively, lighter line sometimes increases the number of strikes.
For bait, the standard crappie minnow can't be beat, but if trophy-sized crappie are the goal, try a larger minnow. The dropper rig is presented vertically, with the weight just ticking the bottom ever so often. Any stumps or other structural features found on the ledge should receive extra attention, since the biggest fish often claim these prime areas as their own.
The key to the correct presentation is boat control. Presenting the bait over a very specific target requires exact positioning. Placing the bait a few feet off to either side of the target results in few if any fish.
When you fish a ledge by bumping bottom, the trolling motor is used only to "hover" over the target; forward movement faster than that is too much for inactive crappie. It should take an hour to fish 100 yards of ledge. Watch your electronics; follow the ledge. If the depthfinder's not marking fish, don't worry: The slabs may be holding so tight that you can't separate them from the structure.
Crappie are notorious for being soft biters, and when they have to be coaxed into striking, the take is even subtler. When resistance first occurs, by gently "feeling" with the rod before setting the hook, you can develop a knack of being able to tell if the thing down there is a 2-pound crappie or a 200-pound stump. If you do miss that call -- everyone does sometimes -- slightly jiggling the rod may pop the hook free. Failing that, a slow, steady pull frequently straightens the light-wire hook.
This is a precision technique, so doing it right is going to be tough if the wind'
s up. Even in a light breeze, fish into the wind to get the best chance of keeping the boat exactly in position. If the wind isn't a factor, fish heading "downstream" if there's any current. Even if there isn't enough current to be noticed on the surface, you can bet the fish know it's there -- crappie will face into it. Sneaking up from behind may work in the deer woods, but not so much on the water. You want to bring your minnow to the fish in a natural manner, not make them look over their shoulder to find it.
Now that we know a little bit about where to find pre-spawn crappie and some of the best ways to catch them, let's take a look at five Georgia reservoirs that are consistent favorites with crappie anglers. Put these tactics to work on any of these lakes and the result should be a stringer full of fish.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates this 11,860-acre impoundment on the Etowah River for hydropower and flood control. On its shores are boat ramps and recreational facilities.
Allatoona, 30 miles north of Atlanta, isn't the best lake in the state for trophy slabs, although some lunkers are out there. Instead, it's a bread-and-butter lake that consistently produces good numbers of keeper fish averaging around 10 inches and weighing about a half-pound each.
Favorites areas for the crappie crowd: Kellogg, Illinois, and Stamp creeks. The Little River arm of the lake is also much liked by anglers.
Although Allatoona receives very heavy recreational use, most of that pressure is from summer boaters, who are still months away from breaking the boat out of winter storage. During the winter and early spring, anglers have the lake to themselves with plenty of room to spread out. One other thing to keep in mind: Spring comes later to northwest Georgia than to much of the state, making Allatoona a good choice for pre-spawn anglers wanting to expand the season.
CLARKS HILL LAKE
On the Savannah River near Augusta, this is at 71,535 acres Georgia's largest reservoir. Georgia shares the lake with South Carolina. This Corps reservoir with numerous large creek arms consistently ranks near the top of Georgia crappie lakes. Most crappie caught average 3/4 pound; plenty weigh up to 2€‚1/2 pounds.
Favorite creeks for crappie anglers are Soap, Grays, Fishing, and Newford, and the Little River near Raysville. Other good pre-spawn areas are tributaries like Big, Hart, Dry Fork, Knoblick and Cherokee creeks.
As that long list suggests, crappie fishing is good all over this large reservoir. Anglers can be confident that almost any creek holds plenty of crappie, so your time would be better spent in learning the ins and outs of one or two feeders than in running all over the lake from creek to creek.
Georgia Power's Lake Oconee, near Madison, has long been a favorite of middle Georgia crappie anglers. The 19,050-acre reservoir is full of wood cover, with 1,250 acres of standing timber left along creek and river channels during construction. The lake also has many plots of topped-off timber. Getting a boat in the water is no problem, as public ramps are scattered around the shore.
The pre-spawn period offers prime fishing for catching slab crappie up to nearly a pound each. Good areas to try include Sugar Creek and the Oconee River channel in the upper end of the lake. Richland, Sandy and Lick creeks are also favorites with anglers. Stay out in deep water near the main lake early in the season, and then follow the crappie back into the creek arms as the season progresses.
Lake Blackshear is Georgia's largest privately owned lake. The Crisp County Power Commission operates the 8,500-acre Flint River reservoir for hydropower generation.
The shallow, fertile waters of this lake near Cordele continue to produce plenty of crappie every year. Blackshear has a solid crappie population, with good numbers of fish of more than 10 inches, although the average fish may run a little smaller. Anglers may have to do a little culling, but can expect plenty of fish in the 3/4- to 1-pound range to make it into the cooler. On a good day, a few slabs nearing 2 pounds may be in the mix.
Blackshear has plenty of cypress trees, and crappie make good use of them for spawning. During the pre-spawn, look for fish to be holding out deep from these areas.
Consistent producers: Collins Branch, Spring Creek, Gum Creek, and Boy Scout Slough. Blackshear's South Georgia site makes it a good choice for the anxious angler just dying to get on the water early in the year. Of all the lakes listed here, the spawning cycle starts earliest at Blackshear. The impoundment's site just off of I-75 makes it easy to access for nearly anyone in the state.
LAKE WALTER F. GEORGE
Lake Walter F. George is another huge Georgia reservoir that spans a state line. Better known as Lake Eufaula, the reservoir is on the Alabama border near the town from which it derives that unofficial name.
This 45,180-acre Corps impoundment on the Chattahoochee River stretches for 85 river miles between Columbus and Fort Gaines. Many public access points exist, though, so finding somewhere to launch close to where you intend to fish shouldn't be a problem on this large lake.
According to DNR sampling results, the overall number of crappie has trended slightly down the last few years. Such cyclic population trends are common with crappie in large reservoirs. The plus side is that when numbers are down, size usually goes up. The average Walter F. George crappie should weigh 3/4 of a pound and stretch out 10-plus inches. Anglers should find no shortage of slabs pushing up close to 2 pounds, too.
Areas that are consistent producers include Moccasin Slough and Pataula, White Oak, Rood and Grass creeks. The Georgia side of the lake has 24 fish attractors marked with buoys; they're always worth a try.
This year, get a jump on the competition. The best crappie fishing of the year is under way right now for those who can read a lake bottom and unlock the code of pre-spawn crappie. The great thing about pre-spawn crappie is that, if the fish are biting, hundreds are in the schools. Put the proper tactics to work on these hidden concentrations of fish, and you can have a great trip.