Bartletts Ferry Crappie Bonanza
Smitty's time-tested techniques for a boat load of slabs.
With big, fast boats and sophisticated electronics becoming the norm for anglers on Georgia’s lakes today, it’s refreshing and reassuring to find fishermen who don’t need an arsenal of expensive equipment to catch fish. And, while there is little doubt that the gadgetry provides an advantage for those who can afford it, there is still no substitute for good, old-fashion time on the water to make a man into a good fisherman.
Robert “Smitty” Smith is verifiable proof that the trappings of the modern fisherman are not necessary to catch a mess of crappie on Bartletts Ferry. He grew up on the lake, spending countless days since 1974 learning the habits of the crappie population. With his partner Howard Collier, he has won all of the four crappie tournaments he has fished on the lake, and he knows the location of just about every productive dock and brushpile. An old man, who he knew only as Mr. Hardy, taught him to target bass and crappie in the clear waters of Bartletts Ferry during the 70s; apparently Mr. Hardy taught him well.
“I don’t even need a depthfinder from here down to the dam, but it’s amazing how much they help,” Smitty said as a 1974, 40-hp Evinrude pushed his 16-foot Collinscraft up onto a plane.
It was about noon, and with my rear end planted firmly in a metal, folding chair in the back of the boat, we motored out of Longbridge Marina in Halawakee Creek, headed down to the dam and across the river channel to the Georgia side of the lake. Smitty cut off the big motor, and we drifted in tight to a dock in an arm of the lake northeast of the dam that he called “Condo Slough.”
“I don’t know if I do anything like you’re supposed to, but we’re gonna catch some fish,” Smitty said as he lowered a relic of a trolling motor off the front of the boat. He wasn’t kidding.
Using limber, 9-foot Shakespeare crappie combos we pitched, flipped and tossed hair-tail jigs in, under and around the dock, which poked out into about 17 feet of water at its end. The yellow-headed, chartreuse-and-white jigs were tipped with either regular crappie shiners or Rosy Reds, which are just like a typical minnow, except they are orange — and sometimes hard to find at bait stores according to Smitty.
“I use both of them indiscriminately, and I don’t know if the Rosy Reds are any better, but they seem to catch more fish,” Smitty said. “That may just be me thinking they catch more. One way or the other, I always tip my jig with a minnow, it just makes it seem more like dinner to the fish.”
In addition to the 9-foot rods we were casting, Smitty put out two 12-foot rods in rodholders rigged with the crappie version of a drop shot. A 1/4-oz. clamp-on bullet weight was crimped to the bottom of the line with about a foot of line leading up to a loop knot which held a size 10 crappie hook baited with a minnow.
The hook and minnow hung about 3 inches off the side of the main line. The rig was a lot like a typical double-jig trolling rig, and he just let them hang about 12 feet deep off the side of the boat while we fished.
Smitty also kept a short, stiffer rod ready to shoot docks, with a bow-and-arrow style cast, where the technique was applicable. The rod was a typical ultralight, but with the tip broken off to make the rod about 5 feet long. It was also armed with a 1/16-oz., hair-tail jig.
“This can be a hard lake to shoot on,” said Smitty, explaining why he doesn’t shoot docks as a primary tactic. “They’ll put boards up under the docks to keep you from throwing under there.”
Despite the number of rods Smitty keeps in the water and at the ready, his techniques are in no way precise sciences. Some of the reels are strung with 4-lb. test and some with 6-lb. test. He uses a variety of different jigs and adjusts his depths as he fishes to find where the crappie are holding in the water column day-to-day. We fished Laker crappie jigs that can be bought at Walmart, and we also used soft-bodied Rusty Parker Rag Fly jigs. Both caught fish.
“I like to change up a good bit,” Smitty said while tying on another jig. “Sometimes that different jig or different color will get a bigger fish. Any color will work, as long as it’s chartreuse.”
Within about 20 minutes of arriving at the first dock, the livewell was already filling with fish, and the bite had begun to slow. With the fish still biting sporadically on all the rigs, Smitty decided it was time to move on in search of more and bigger fish.
“Crappie hate sunlight. It drives ’em deep. They look for shade, which is one reason they get under the docks,” Smitty said. “You can pick up fish at most any dock on the lake in deep water, but some hold fish better than others.”
Moving out of Condo Slough toward the dam, Smitty cut the big motor off about 50 yards from another likely looking dock where he caught some fish the previous day.
“I like to cut the motor off a long way from the spot I want to fish and then move in quietly,” he said. “I don’t know if it does anything for me, but when I catch fish, it makes me think it works.”
We already had a few fish that would weigh about a pound in the livewell, but he was after a 2-pounder, and said he caught a couple of crappie that weighed a little less than 2 pounds at this dock the day before. While baiting the long rods and placing them in the rodholders, he reached over and handed me a couple of gel-tab nutritional supplements. He wasn’t concerned with my health; it was another of his tricks that he said seems to work. They were filled with cod-liver oil.
Using a hook to poke a hole in the gel-tab, we squirted a little of the pungent, light-brown fluid onto our jigs. He may not have been sure about the stuff, but it sure didn’t scare the fish away. On the first cast at our new location we were into the fish. Again, we caught them on the long rods and the short, and again we picked up and moved on to the next dock when the bite slowed.
It was about 3 p.m., and the livewell was getting full when we pulled out of the Condo Slough and headed upriver on the Georgia side of the lake to Smitty’s next honey hole. This one was a brushpile in about 15 feet of water in a shady cove off the main lake.
“If you’ll notice, a lot of the things I fish look like they have the same characteristics,” Smitty said pointing to the steep bank behind the brushpile. “One thing I look for is steep banks. When you see a steep bank, you know the bottom drops off into some deeper water. All the places I fish have sharp dropoffs and cover near deep water. There’s always going to be deep water involved when you’re talking about crappie — good ones, anyway.”
Before he even got the trolling motor down, Smitty stepped back to the steering wheel, fired the big motor and turned us back out of the cove. A big snake had popped its head up near the boat and Smitty, who had a better look at it than I did, said it was a water moccasin.
“We’ll have to give the snake that hole,” he said. “I never said I was a brave man. Look how close my boat sits to the water.”
So, it was on to the next dock where the crappie fishing slowed considerably, but Smitty did hook and land a long, toothy gar that took a jig tipped with a minnow. The fish put on an impressive air show and a long, hard fight, but Smitty said catching gar was too much like work. By this time, we had just about run out of live minnows, so we headed back to Longbridge Marina for some fresh bait and some cold drinks before heading out to see if the Alabama fish were biting.
We spent the rest of the afternoon fishing docks using the same techniques to catch fish on brushpiles and under docks in Halawakee Creek on the Alabama side of the lake. Late in the day, we hit a hole where Smitty said he caught a 3.9-lb. crappie on February 16, 2004. He weighed it on hand-held scales.
“I thought I had the world record. You should have seen it. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I’ve been fishing for crappie a long time, and I’ve never caught anything like that.”
The fish would have qualified as a lake record, but Smitty didn’t have it properly documented. That day, we didn’t catch a lake record or even a 2-pounder at that hole, but we did catch a few more fish to almost fill our limits. We probably would have had two limits if we had kept some of the smaller fish we released.
An average fish at Bartletts Ferry weighs about three-quarters of a pound, Smitty said, and there is an abundance of fish weighing up to 2 pounds. We kept about 45 fish, and most of them weighed from three-quarters of a pound to a little heavier than a pound. We released probably 20 more that I would have considered keepers.
Smitty said this postspawn pattern will last through the summer, with the fish moving to deeper docks as the water temperatures warm. It was between 76-78 degrees when we were on the water, and the fish were holding in cover from 12 to 20 feet deep. This month and through the rest of the summer, crappie will hold on brush and docks in the 15- to 25-foot range.
Wherever they are, Smitty can likely take you out and put you on the fish, but he only guides one trip a week and — because of the size of his boat — he can only take out one angler or one angler and a small child.
He is also one of the organizers of Crappie Fest, a tournament and fish fry held from time to time at different lakes around Alabama and Georgia.
Editor’s Note: With great sadness we are sorry to report that Robert “Smitty” Smith passed away from cancer on Dec. 17, 2019.
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