Altamaha River Crappie In February
Catch slabs on the river points.
Speckled perch…crappie…white perch…specks. However you choose to refer to them, crappie are fun to catch and make delectable table fare. And while often overlooked, the tidal portion of the Altamaha River near Brunswick is a great place to pursue crappie.
During the mid-1990s while fishing the Altamaha River out of Altamaha Regional Park, I frequently talked with a soft-spoken, very friendly angler on the front porch of the store located there. The angler, Harold Moore of Brunswick, always had a tale of crappie, or white perch as he called them. Crappie were his specialty. On any given day you could count on Harold to bring in a mess of crappie, even when other anglers could not catch them.
About three years ago, I asked Harold if he would show me the ropes so I could write an article and share his approach with other Georgia anglers. In his jovial manner, he immediately agreed to do it when the fishing was good. As with many fisheries, the recent drought took its toll on fish populations in the Altamaha. During the last few years, each time I called him to check, the fishing was poor. Harold said that he would prefer to wait until next year when the population might be higher.
With the return of decent water levels, the crappie population is finally back up to where impressive catches are again commonplace. After several years of waiting, Harold said the time was right to fish the river. He owns a cabin at the park and frequently fishes the river and oxbow lakes within a half-hour run of the park. Harold retired this year, so he now has more time available to fish. We finally fished together on January 3. You could not have asked for better weather than the day we fished. High temperatures were forecast to reach the upper 70s, and the weather had been stable in the upper 60s and 70s for over a week. The hour drive from my house to Altamaha Regional Park seemed twice as long as usual due to the anticipation of a day fishing with one of the best crappie anglers on the river.
Our day began at Altamaha Regional Park where we slipped our boat into the water and purchased Harold’s standard three-dozen live minnows per angler at the park store. My learning began shortly after we pushed off from the dock as our boat pointed upstream. I knew that Harold was well known for fishing a large oxbow lake below the ramp, so I questioned him as to why we were heading upstream. He shared his philosophy on choosing fishing locations.
“The downstream lake I usually fish has too much current when the river is at the present 9-feet level (at the Doctortown gauge). At this level I look for other lakes where the current is slower or non-existent,” he said.
I made a mental note of his comments and checked when we got to our first spot. Sure enough, we were in a slack area. Harold has logged enough time on the river that he knows what to expect at each river level and how the crappie relate to cover and structure at each level. Our first spot was the mouth of an oxbow lake. The water temperature was 51 degrees, and the water clarity was good for the Altamaha River, about a foot of visibility. Between the mouth of the lake and the main river was a bare mud-sand point that ran parallel to the main river. The point is where Harold concentrated his efforts. Water depth on both sides of the point was about six feet and the top of the point had a foot of water over it.
“On sunny days the fish are usually out a little deeper on the points, but on cloudy days or early and late in the day, the fish may move up into a foot of water or less,” Harold said.
Harold started the day by impaling a live minnow through the lips and setting the collapsible crappie pole across the boat in front of him. With an ultralight outfit, he cast a small crappie jig without a float, all the while keeping an eye on the float with the minnow dancing below. Following his lead, I also put out a crappie pole while casting a small crappie jig. Harold fished a yellow/white 1 1/2-inch crappie tube while I cast a yellow/clear-black flake version. He does not play the color game as do most crappie anglers.
“If the crappie are biting on the river, they will hit the yellow tube,” Harold said.
As we approached the point from the downstream deep end, Harold loaded the rod with a fat 3/4-lb. crappie. The yellow/white tube bait scored first.
“That fish was on the deeper part of the point in about four feet of water,” Harold remarked.
A few casts later he connected again with the tube. After he had already caught several fish, I finally got in on the action and caught a feisty half-pounder on my yellow/clear-black flake tube. Several fish later, Harold determined that the fish were concentrated in the two- to four-foot depths. He snapped a float about two feet above his tube to see if a suspended tube would trigger more strikes. Several fish came overboard using this rig, but at about the same rate as my tube without the float. At one point it got hectic, as Harold had fish on both his minnow and tube, while I was also battling one caught on my tube – a triple.
“When the fish are biting, it is common to have a fish on every pole. It can get chaotic,” he stated.
During the first hour, we caught about 15 crappie, up to three-quarters of a pound. When the action slowed slightly, he moved into the lake to show me where the fish will spawn in February.
“In February, the crappie will either be at the mouths of the lakes like the location where we caught them today, in the lakes staging near the banks, or in flooded timber spawning,” Harold said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out what the fish are doing at any given time.”
We eased back into the oxbow lake and caught a couple of scattered fish casting the tubes to the bank and in the open water. Harold noted that this meant the fish had not yet begun staging for the spawn. When the surface temperature reaches 58 degrees, it is time to start checking the backs of the lakes for spawning crappie. By the time the water reaches 60 degrees, the fish should be spawning in the timber.
Although Harold doubted that the fish had moved up yet, we fished one of his favorite areas to catch spawning crappie in February. The flooded forest in the back of the lake was about two-feet deep and did not have any current. He meticulously worked his narrow boat through the trees, pitching the minnow to every nook and cranny in the flooded trees. We pitched both minnows and tubes to no avail. Pitching minnows with the telescopic pole has been Harold’s most effective presentation when the fish are in the trees, but the tube has also caught some fish. His favorite telescopic pole is a 10-foot model with a reel on the bottom, such as the B‘n’M Cadillac Crappie Combo. This reel allows him to quickly change the amount of line out, an advantage when he wants to shorten the length for pitching to the trees or lengthen it when fishing open water. Trees closer to the back of the lakes are his favorite targets if the river level is nine to ten feet. If the river level is in the six- to nine-foot range, trees closer to the mouth of the lake usually produce more crappie. When you find an area of timber where the fish are spawning, which they should be doing around the new and full moons in February, the fish are packed in very large numbers.
After showing me the February hotspots in the back of the lake, we ran back to the point where we started earlier in the day. The crappie were still biting sporadically. We managed another half-dozen fish between a quarter and half-pound. During the morning we caught 26 crappie, the largest of which weighed three-quarters of a pound. While a decent day, Harold said our numbers were much below the typical February creel. He frequently catches his limit of crappie in February, with some fish larger than a pound and a half. Harold had other commitments later that day, so he left shortly after noon. When he left, I hopped in my boat with my dad, Herb Deener, who had been shadowing us during the morning in my boat. We decided to give Harold’s approach an immediate test.
For the next hour we worked our way back to the ramp, stopping at each lake mouth and fishing our way into each lake. We boated an additional half-dozen crappie, all on the most effective pattern for the day — yellow/white tubes fished without a float. After an hour at the fish-cleaning table, the trip back to Waycross was full of replays from the day and planning for a return trip in February.
While Harold’s approach is simple, he has refined it over decades of chasing crappie. He rigs his favorite yellow tubes on either a 1/16- or 1/32-oz. jighead without a weedguard. When rigging a pole for live minnows, he threads a one-inch float on 8-lb. test monofilament, followed by a single BB-sized split shot about a foot above the hook, which is a size 4 blue aberdeen light wire version (Mustad #3262). On his spinning outfits he prefers 6-lb. test monofilament line when fishing open water and 10-lb. test Berkley FireLine in the smoke color when fishing heavy cover.
Spincasting outfits such as the Wally Marshall Specialty Crappie outfits in the underspin models are Harold’s choice for casting tube baits. He uses ultralight spinning outfits also, but has fewer problems with tangles when using the spincasting gear.
Harold fishes from an older model, narrow, fiberglass stick-steering boat. He prefers the narrow boat because he can maneuver with the trolling motor much easier than a wide boat while fishing flooded timber. He has customized his rig over the years, from the slit in the lid of the livewell that allows you to drop fish in without raising the lid, to the perfectly placed depthfinder that allows him to effortlessly monitor even subtle changes in depth.
Tide is a predictable, but often baffling, variable for many anglers. Under normal February river levels, high water will negate this factor. When the river level is above about eight feet, the portion of river around Altamaha Regional Park is not measurably affected by tides. During periods where river levels are low, tides may fluctuate as much as four feet in the area. When this is the case, Harold has most successfully caught crappie during the last two hours of the outgoing tide and the first two hours of the incoming tide. At times he may run 15 miles or more to get to a remote downstream stretch and work his way back upstream with the tide, staying on a peak bite the entire way. He has a 40 h.p. motor to help him accomplish these runs.
Altamaha Regional Park is a great location from which to fish the lower Altamaha River. The park store carries live minnows and other baits, tackle, ice, gas, groceries, and many other supplies. Camping is also available for a nominal fee. You may want to consider the park for your next family getaway. If the kids do not like to fish, there are plenty of other options, including the park playground, the mall in Brunswick (about a half-hour away), or one of the other many attractions around the Golden Isles. For the latest fishing report or more information, contact park manager Bill Minder at (912) 264-2342 (mornings are the most likely time to talk with Bill).
As with many types of fishing, catching fish is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Harold’s approach will help you unravel some of the mystery of the tidal Altamaha River, allowing you to find your own honey-hole for February slab crappie.
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