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Bigger Fish To Fry

A tournament angler shows you how to catch bigger slabs on Sinclair.

Nick Carter | February 1, 2009

Crappie-tournament anglers don’t care about taking home a cooler full of fish for the fryer. Loading the boat is not the goal. A tournament angler is looking for just seven fish. The seven fattest, heaviest slabs on the lake.

That may seem silly to your aver- age weekend slab seeker. Trolling a circuit on a February creek channel is about catching fish… lots of them. The more fish you catch, the more people you can invite to the annual fish fry, and seven fish just won’t get it done.

But there is a middle ground. Whether it’s for a weigh-in or the dinner table, everyone likes catching big fish. And while your everyday jig- trolling meat fisherman will catch a good slab or two every trip, a tournament angler sinks or swims on his ability to put the heavyweights in the livewell.

Jamie Moore is a tournament fisherman who said February is the best month of the year on Sinclair to catch true slab crappie that will weigh in heavier than 2 pounds. He’ll change locations and tactics based on what the fish are doing, but he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve to put fish the size of a doormat in the boat. “In February, the fish will start moving out of the deep channels into the deepest areas they can find near a spawning area. If you’re going to catch a monster, February is the month you’re going to do it,” he said. “She’s been hanging around with the shad, not exerting herself much all winter, and she’ll just be starting to fill up with eggs.

“The sure enough big ones are going to lay back behind in the deeper water longer, but when it’s time to spawn, they’ll be the first ones up to the bank. Then they’ll be the first ones back out when they’re done.”

In February, as water temperatures start warming into the mid to high 50s, those sure-enough slabs will likely be hanging out in the deeper pockets adjacent to shallow water staging up for the spawn. In fact, that’s where most all of the fish will be. So, if you’re more interested in catching a lot of fish than a few big ones, it’ll make you happy to know that good numbers are often a by- product of tournament tactics.

Jamie said you can poke your way into the ragtag carousel of boats trolling loops in Rooty Creek and catch all the fish you want to catch, but he prefers a little more solitude. We put in at Crooked Creek Fish Camp the day we fished and made a short run north and under the Hwy 108 bridge into Crooked Creek. We saw only one other boat in Crooked Creek, and there were plenty of fish to catch — and some good ones, too. Jamie also suggested the hole in front of Sinclair Marina and Nancy Branch as good places to find crappie staging up for the spawn.

“The fish will be in 18 to 25 feet of water, suspended in the 10- to 12-foot range from February on into March,” Jamie said. “Find the channel and either run the ledge of it or across it. Normally the fish will either be relating to a channel, a stump or a hump.”

Most crappie fishermen view trolling as the most efficient way to put fish in the boat, and Jamie agrees. But he has a little twist he throws into his spread when he’s chasing that tournament-winning fish. Like everybody else, he has a favored assortment of jigs, but he also pulls crankbaits.

After dropping the trolling motor along the main channel of Crooked Creek, Jamie put out his trolling spread. In tournaments, you’re only allowed a total of eight rods, but when he’s pre-fishing or fishing for fun, Jamie pulls a few more.

We arrayed six 8-foot rods with open-faced reels loaded with 6-lb. test across the back of the boat. They were baited with an assortment of jigs. Jamie likes 1/16-oz. Tom’s Jigs and also fish- es some handmade jigs from A&R Jigs in Danville. His favorite colors are blues and greens, but he said the mind- blowing assortment of color schemes for crappie jigs is for catching fisher- men, not fish. He’s got boxes upon boxes of different color combinations, but on Sinclair he typically fishes something with red, green and yellow.

Jamie said maintaining the proper speed is the key to maintaining the right depth, which is the key to catching fish.

“They’re all going to be pretty much at the same depth, unless there’s a hump or something that makes the current change,” he added. “Crappie are opportunists. It’s like a box of Dunkin Donuts somebody brings into the office. You might not be thinking about a donut, but if it’s in front of you, you’re probably going to eat it. It’s the same with fish. If they have to work harder to get it than it’s worth to them, they’re not going to eat it.”

When he’s trolling just jigs, Jamie likes to pull them between 0.6 mph and 1.2 mph (GPS speed). When he’s trolling crankbaits as well as jigs, he bumps it up a little faster into a range of 1.2 to 1.5 mph to get a good wobble from his crankbaits.

With jigs or crankbaits, more line out gives you more depth, and to adjust depth at different speeds you can feed out more line or reel it up. Jamie also doesn’t hesitate to throw a No. 3 to No. 7 split shot on the line a couple of feet above his jigs for a little help getting them down.

Another trick Jamie uses to keep his jigs in the 10- to 12-foot-deep strike zone involves a very thin rubber band. Once he hooks a fish on a particular rod, he’ll wrap a rubber band around the spool of the spinning reel before reeling the fish in. That way, when he’s ready to let the jig back out, the line will stop on the spool at the rubber band, and the jig will be exactly the same distance behind the boat and at the same depth as it was when it got hit the first time. A very thin rubber band ensures the line will slip free easy enough to avoid causing drag issues.

With crankbaits, Jamie uses a different setup. The front rods he fishes off either side of the bow are 18-footers with lightweight baitcasting reels, also spooled with 6-lb. test. He likes the baitcasters because he can use the flip- ping feature to maintain better control of the fish when it’s close to the net.

Using a line counter, Jamie let his crankbaits out behind the boat. His favorite plugs are a Berkley Frenzy, which has a long bill, a rattle and a tight wobble, and a Bandit 300 Series, which has a wider wobble. His favorite colors are white/chartreuse and blue/silver. Both of these baits float when they’re not diving, as opposed to lipless plugs, which keeps them from hanging up on turns when the inside baits on the spread slow down.

Lipless baits like Rat-L-Trap’s Tiny Trap or Mini Trap will catch crappie, too, but they sink faster, so you only want to fish them 40 to 50 feet behind the boat. You also need to watch them carefully on turns to avoid hangups.

At the speeds Jamie trolls, the Bandit will run about a foot deeper for every 10 feet of line he lets out. So the line counter is important to keeping his baits at the right depth.

“That way I’ve got more baits in the strike zone instead of just riding around hoping,” he joked.

Working toward the stern, inside of the long crankbait rods, Jamie fishes 14-, 12- and 10-foot rods rigged with jigs the same as the rods on the stern of the boat. He catches fish on all of his rods, but he doesn’t get excited until a crankbait rod begins bouncing.

As we rode along, enjoying the sunshine, talking fishing and catching fish along the creek ledge, Jamie’s voice suddenly took a more urgent tone.

“Now that’s a crankbait fish, man,” he said, feeling the weight of a good one as he raised the long rod from its holder and began reeling. “You might not get as many bites on the crankbait, but when you do, it’s usually a tournament fish.”

It took a while to reel in all that line, but when he netted the fish and swung it into the boat, it was indeed one of the better slabs of the day — a fat and healthy 1 1/2-lb. fish.

From the other side of the channel, more than 100 yards away, the one boat we shared Crooked Creek with nosed around and started trolling our way.

“They saw my crappie flag,” Jamie laughed. “See that net on the end of that long pole? That’s a crappie flag. If you want to know if somebody is catching fish, look for the flag waving up and down. Then it’s monkey see, monkey do. In tournaments, some will go as far as to carry two. They’ll leave one standing upright, so it looks like they’re not catching any fish.”

But we weren’t tournament fishing, and there were plenty of fish to share with what appeared to be a grandfather with his grandson out fishing on a Monday afternoon. Besides, the bite had died off pretty significantly from the morning flurry.

You can get into crappie all day long, but Jamie said the best bites are early and late. The first two hours of daylight are typically the best two hours of the day, and the last hours before sunset can be good too.

At the end of the day, we estimated Jamie’s best seven fish would have weighed between 9 and 10 pounds, a good tournament weight for Sinclair. He added his seven slabs to the 20 or so lesser fish already flopping around in my cooler. And the funny thing is, when I put all those fish under the knife, those seven fish were easier to filet and produced more meat than all the other fish combined. It seems tournament tactics can work just as well for meat fishermen.

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