Don't wait for spring to roll around before you get your share of slabs. Here are some expert tips on fishing Falls Lake and Buggs Island. (January 2009)
A few years ago, a dedicated group of North Carolina tournament crappie fishermen were plying their trades around the various waters of their home state, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as destinations even farther away. Trading back and forth between various crappie tournament trails, this group of anglers felt that something was missing. Rather than piecing together various events to decide which team was the best, they determined that there was a need for a more localized crappie tournament trail -- a trail that would cater to anglers in North Carolina and surrounding areas. All that was needed was a person to put the trail together and stand as the organizer. Enter Ed Duke.
"I had a lot of local crappie teams who were having a hard time traveling to other states convince me that we should start our own trail. North Carolina is blessed with some great crappie fishing and the anglers here didn't see why they needed to travel two or three states away -- and sometimes farther -- to compete. That's how the Southern Crappie Association got started."
Duke and his wife, Trudy, are from Concord and love to crappie fish together and make a formidable team to boot. The couple has traveled to nearly every body of water in the Tar Heel State that contains crappie.
Asking the Dukes about their favorite crappie destination is not a question to ask lightly. The couple simply does well on most all of North Carolina's waters and many in South Carolina and Virginia as well. However, Ed Duke's top picks for wintertime North Carolina crappie destinations came surprisingly fast: Falls Lake northeast of Durham and Kerr-Buggs on the North Carolina/Virginia border. Here's what the president of the Southern Crappie Association had to say about these two lakes.
Falls Lake is a 12,500-acre man-made lake located in Durham, Wake and Granville counties in North Carolina. The lake is formed near the confluence of the Eno, Little and Flat rivers, and is in turn the source for the Neuse River. The lake is named for the Falls of the Neuse, a section of the Neuse River that falls from the Piedmont into the lower Coastal Plain and which is now submerged under the lake.
Before 1978, flooding of the Neuse River caused extensive damage to public and private properties, including roadways, railroads, industrial sites and farmlands. The Falls Lake Project was developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control damaging floods and to supply a source of water for surrounding communities. The construction of the dam that holds the lake began in 1978 and was completed in 1981.
When Ed and Trudy Duke set their sights on fishing Falls Lake in the winter, there's no question of where they will start.
"Without hesitation, we're heading for Ledge Rock Landing on the upper end of Falls, close to the I-85 bridge," Duke said. "Once we've launched the boat, we're going to head downriver a bit and turn right into the Neuse River. From there it's just a little piece down to the mouth of Little Lick Creek and we'll start there and work all the way down to where the power lines cross the lake."
Back in the very headwaters of Falls Lake, Duke is going to fish the creek channel. The surrounding water is very shallow in this location, typically only 3 to 4 feet deep dropping off into the creek channel, which will be somewhere between 15 and 20 feet deep. Littered across the top of the channel edge are stumps and ledges. These are the locations that Falls Lake crappie come to during the winter to stay warm.
"Don't let anybody tell you that all the crappie go deep during the winter," Duke said. "That stretch of water is almost always dingy, and that dingy water will be warmer than the rest of the lake."
Duke also said that same stretch of water will hold some of the biggest crappie in the lake as well. "That whole upper end is really just a big, shallow flat with a creek channel running through it. It's hard to imagine catching fish only 3 to 4 feet deep in January, but we do it all the time up there."
Duke and his wife rig for these shallow-water crappie by using long rods in the 12- to 14-foot range. Because the fish are so shallow, the boat will cause them to spook. So Ed and Trudy have their best luck tight-lining straight down out away from the boat. The Dukes will rig their rods with a 1/2-ounce egg sinker wrapped three or four times in the line with 18 or so inches left below the weight. To this end is tied either a small No. 6 hook for a live minnow or a 1/16-ounce hair jig tipped with a live minnow.
The couple likes to employ four rods from the front of the boat and four from the back. There is no rod limit on Falls, but Duke said that the area can get kind of tight in spots, and it's hard to maneuver a bunch of rods when the water is down as it has been over the last couple of years.
"Ed fishes in the front and I set up in the back," Trudy Duke said. "That works out OK most times, but if the water is too shallow or too clear, I'll move to the front with him because the boat will spook the crappie and make them hard to catch from the back. Lately, we haven't really been able to get up on the flat much and do most of our fishing in the channel."
"The crappie won't show up on the graph," said Duke, "they are so close to the bottom we just have to work the structure along the channel. The bends in the channel are a great place to find bigger crappie congregating and I'd encourage anglers to take their time and work those areas thoroughly. Just drop the rig to the bottom and reel up one turn and make sure you're pretty close to the bottom as you bump along with the trolling motor."
While the area is a good producer, it's not the only area that holds fish. Duke said anglers can work their way down the river channel all the way to the Hwy. 50 bridge, which is adjacent to the mouth of Big Lick Creek. The area may not hold as many fish, but it is a good place to catch a 2-pound crappie.
"If you're looking to load the livewell, literally, then you need to take out and head back to where the Eno and Flat River come together to form the Neuse," said Duke. "It's a hard stretch by boat and much easier to get to by road. You can go upriver and put in at the Eno River Landing off State Road 1632 and start working your way downriver and catch hundreds of crappie that will be hugging the bottom."
Duke said that the area is not widely popular but is well known by the locals, and many will go there to fill a cooler with good eating-sized crappie in the 3/4- to 1-pound range.
"There is no limit on size or numbers of crappie in this area," he said. "A few days of fishing along the Eno and you can absolutely fill a cooler with good coldwater crappie fillets."
Buggs Island Lake (aka Kerr Lake) is a 48,900-acre reservoir that straddles the Virginia/North Carolina border. The states have a reciprocal license agreement, so either a Virginia or North Carolina license is valid throughout the entire lake. The lake is an impoundment of the Roanoke River, which is also known as the Staunton River in Virginia.
The Dan River and several smaller creeks also feed the lake. Just upstream from the current John H. Kerr Dam lies Buggs Island, named for Samuel Bugg, an early settler. During dam construction from 1946-1952, the dam was called the "Buggs Island Project." Officially, the lake is named John H. Kerr Reservoir for the U.S. Senator from North Carolina, a prominent supporter of the project. It was constructed in 1952 to produce electricity and for flood control. It is currently owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Because it is used for flood control and hydroelectric power, lake levels fluctuate and can have a dramatic effect on the fishing. A good lake map is essential, as it is easy to get disoriented on this sprawling lake.
"Buggs Island is a great place to catch big crappie in January," Duke said. "The best spots are above the Hwy. 58 bridge at Clarkesville. You may find this hard to believe, but some of the best places to catch crappie on Buggs in January are also in some really shallow water."
Ed and Trudy will head to the backs of Buffalo, Bluestone and Orange creeks looking for dingy water. Whether due to unseasonable spawning urges or a desire to seek out warmer water, Duke said that crappie love to hold in the dingy water this time of year.
"One of my favorite places is to go behind the bridge under Hwy. 58 and go all the way to the back. There's a 20-acre flat back there and we'll start in the back of that flat and troll jigs all the way out to the mouth. The funny thing is, we catch crappie 4 to 5 feet deep in the back of the flat and we're still catching them 4 to 5 feet deep when we get out to the mouth, which is over 20 feet deep," Duke said.
Another favorite option is the back of Bluestone Creek, which is due east across the lake from Buffalo. The best access to the fish in Buffalo is from the Buffalo Access area west of Clarkesville off Hwy. 58. Likewise Bluestone Access is just north of Clarkesville off Hwy. 15.
The Dukes hang to the right at the fork and go back under the Hwy. 49 bridge. Similar to Buffalo, there's a big flat where they'll start and troll back out to the intersection with the Roanoke River channel. "You can find almost the same conditions in all the creek arms above the Clarkesville bridge," Duke said, "They're all good and they'll all work on a trolling pattern."
While the Dukes use tight-line tactics at Falls Lake, they prefer to troll jigs for Buggs Island slabs. This method of crappie fishing goes by a variety of names: long-lining, flatlining, fast trolling or just trolling. What this tactic is not is a vertical presentation. Vertical presentations are what most folks in crappie circles call spider rigging and are often go-to tactics in the cold of winter and the heat of summer when crappie move deep.
For the purpose of long-lining, rods are deployed out to the side and from the back of the boat. Long-line trolling does not work from the front because lines will tangle while fishing. The boat moves forward under the power of an electric trolling motor and the baits on each rod trail behind the boat. Long-line trolling is a systematic tactic where the couple fish 16 rods, eight from the sides and eight from the rear. True to its description, the jigs are cast far behind the boat and may be as far as 150 to 200 feet back, especially when trolling the shallows.
The diameter of the fishing line used and the amount of line out factor in how deep the bait will troll. Ed and Trudy prefer Triple Fish brand, a high-visibility, abrasion-resistant mono line in 6-pound-test. The high vis will allow the angler to notice if lines are crossed back behind the boat and makes detecting a light-biting fish easier. Abrasion resistance is necessary because the best fishing grounds tend to be near some type of cover. A simple knot that can be tied quickly is best.
"The key to this tactic at Buggs is understanding that the boat will spook crappie as it passes over them," Ed said. "It pushes them out to the side, that's why the side rods are 16-footers, as the boat is pushing the fish right into the path of the oncoming jigs."
"And if Ed doesn't get them out there, I'll get them with the back rods as they move back to where they were," Trudy said. "I'm fishing way back there, at least 150 feet. When the crappie filter back in after the boat passes, I get a second shot at them."
Trolling jigs with a variable speed trolling motor, the Dukes can control the depth of the jig by trolling faster or slower. They can also control how deep they fish with the tiny 1/48-ounce jigs they use. The jigs are outfitted with either a triple ripple jig skirt or a Charlie Brewer slider grub. Trudy also has her secret weapon.
"Oh yes," exclaimed Ed's backseat partner, holding up a jar of Berkley fish attractant, "I've got my Crappie Nibbles."
The couple uses their electronics to measure their speed. The sonar unit isn't much help when crappie are holding so shallow, but the GPS unit is a great asset for measuring trolling speed. The Dukes will run up to 2 miles per hour down the back creeks at Buggs Island.
"That's scooting for this time of year," said Ed, "but you have to go fast on a shallow pattern with over 100 feet of line out to keep the jigs up." Even though the water is fairly dingy, Ed Duke said that the mistake most people make in trying to catch these fish is they don't fish far enough away from the boat. "I really believe that the bigger crappie don't particularly care to associate with the smaller fish, so there will be stretches of smaller fish and then stretches of bigger fish -- and the bigger fish are typically farther out in the creek but still suspending at a depth of 4 or 5 feet."
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
The Southern Crappie Association (SCA) is a non-profit organization that caters to the ever-increasing competitiveness of crappie fishermen, women and children throughout the Southeastern United States. Tournaments begin in late-summer/early-fall and last through April. The month of May brings the season ender grand finale, which is the two-day Southern Crappie Association Classic where qualified members compete for more cash and prizes than are offered in any other single tournament.
For more information on fishing with the Southern Crappie Association, check out its Web site at www.southerncrappie.com.