Black Shoals Crappie

Thinking like a bass fisherman has been producing huge crappie on this Rockdale County water supply reservoir.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | April 2, 2002

Tim Guthrie, of Lithonia, never guessed that when his turn at fishing fame came around, it would be a result of catching crappie. Having been a serious bass fisherman for 30 years, and a crappie fishermen for a little more than one, Tim doesn’t quite fit in with your average crappie fanatic found on Georgia lakes.

For example, Tim didn’t know that the state record for black crappie is 4-lbs., 4-ozs., which is the reason that he never got a certified weight on a fish he caught back in December that pulled digital hand scales to nearly five pounds. It’s the reason he has never bothered to get a certified weight on any of the number of crappie he has caught in the last year that probably went well over three pounds.

Like a bass fisherman, Tim instead keeps track of his catches by length, talking of how many crappie he has laid on the lid of his 48-quart cooler that stretched to 15 inches on the ruler. His stories are verified by photos, by the fish in his freezer awaiting the taxidermist, and by dozens of folks who fish and work at Black Shoals Lake in Rockdale County. Tim, not one to hide his catch or his techniques from other fishermen, weighed his biggest crappie at the guard station in front of several fishermen and Rockdale County Deputy Sheriff Earl Blake, who works full time at Black Shoals Park. Even though the big fish was not weighed on certified scales, folks around the lake refer to the fish as the lake-record crappie.

The story of how Tim became known as the catcher of big slabs on Black Shoals is tied in with the story of how he wound up fishing Black Shoals to start with. I learned the story when I fished with Tim on March 15 to learn his fishing technique.

“I do a lot of bass fishing,” Tim told me. “I’ve been bass fishing for 30 years, and I’ve fished Oconee, West Point, Lanier, and the biggest bass I’ve ever caught in those lakes is six or seven pounds. That all changed when I started fishing Lake Varner and Fox Lake (at Charlie Elliott PFA) a few years ago. I’ve had my line snapped so many times on Lake Varner it’s a crying shame.”

Tim Guthrie, of Lithonia, took up crappie fishing just over a year ago, but he has caught more big crappie in that time than most lifelong crappie fans. He caught this Black Shoals crappie on March 15, 2002.

Tim made the conversion to small-lake bass fishing — he sold his bass boat and bought an aluminum jon boat, which he rigged out with dual trolling motors in the back for propulsion on “electric-only” lakes and one on the front for steering. He put in seats, batteries, depthfinders, thermometer and an aerator to make his cooler into a live well. It’s a transition that a lot of bass anglers are making with the growing number of water-supply reservoirs being built, most of which are “electric-only” lakes. “I know a lot of people who have sold their bass boats and bought a jon boat,” said Tim.

Since going electric-only, Tim has been rewarded at Varner with two wallhangers: a 13 1/2 and an 11 1/2-lb. largemouth. His new love for lakes like Varner led him naturally to Black Shoals Reservoir, which first opened to anglers in May of 2000. Myself and GON editor Daryl Kirby were there on opening day, and we were 14th in line at the gate that morning ahead of hundreds of other boats. Tim was third in line, having arrived at 5 a.m.

At that time, Tim didn’t know anything about crappie fishing, except what he remembered from catching them as a child. But last spring, after noticing all the other boats that appeared to be dragging jigs or throwing minnows for crappie and catching good numbers of fish, Tim decided he would give it a try. As someone who enjoys cooking, Tim remembers the days when bass fishing was done to put food on the table, and the thought of catching fish to take home to the fryer was appealing.

“When I was young, my grandfather was eating 8- and 9-lb. bass,” said Tim. “He’d bake them and have the whole family over. Of course now you wouldn’t think of doing that. If I don’t intend to mount them, I don’t keep them.”

Tim bought enough crappie tackle to get started, a bucket of minnows and headed to the lake. It was there that Tim’s inexperience with serious crappie fishing turned out to be the best thing going for him. Not knowing much about where to find the crappie or how to fish for them, Tim applied his bass knowledge instead. Early last year, when many boats could be seen dragging jigs up and down the main lake, Tim headed for a main-lake point by the mouth of a creek — the type of place he would expect bass to stage before the spawn. After verifying fish with his depthfinder, he anchored down and tossed out minnows under corks at various depths to get a read on the situation. He immediately started catching crappie over the points in 16 feet of water. Later, as the spawn approached last spring, he set up over the creek channel at the same depth, catching fish as they moved into the mouth of the creek, and he followed them inside as spring progressed and the water temp-erature climbed. Last fall, he found them back on the points and over the creek channels. Over the course of the year, he caught numerous fish over three pounds, more than a dozen he says that measured close to 15 inches in length. Deputy Earl Blake said he saw Tim weigh several fish that went four pounds or better, but no one knew that the state record was 4-lbs., 4-ozs.

“We were under the impression that the state record was 5-lbs., 2-ozs.,” said Earl. “We were just waiting for somebody to bring out a 5-3. Tim has caught a 4-8, a couple around 4-2, several in that area.”

On December 5, while fishing with a friend, Ken Townsel, Tim caught the biggest one yet. He was fishing on top of a creek channel in 15 feet of water when he caught the fish, and at the boat ramp a set of hand-held digital scales registered five pounds. Tim showed me photos of the crappie lying on his cooler lid, stretched to between the 17- and 18-inch hashmark on the cooler. None of the photos Tim has do the fish justice, but you can get an idea of how impressive the fish is by looking at the lid of a 48-quart cooler. Tim’s has a 20-inch ruler on its lid, so imagine a crappie that takes up 18 out of 20 inches of the lid.

Tim still has the fish. It’s frozen in a block of ice as the taxidermist instructed Tim to do. When Tim thaws it out to have it mounted, he’s going to get a certified weight first to find out if the fish would have been a state record. Georgia DNR has a time limit on weighing a fish that reaches to three months after the day of the catch, so Tim’s crappie can’t qualify, even if it does weigh over 4-lbs., 4-ozs. when thawed.

Tim’s crappie-fishing method is nothing high-tech or innovative — just live minnows under a cork. But there are a few fine adjustments Tim has made to his approach that may help him find the big ones.

One of the first ideas Tim got was to try to make his minnows more attractive. He was dunking a few under a cork when he happened to notice the bottle of chartreuse dye that he uses to color his plastic worms and lizards, and he dipped his minnows in it.

“That could have nothing to do with it,” says Tim, “but I have caught some big crappie doing it.”

Eventually, he got the idea to pour the dye straight into his minnow tank. The minnows don’t seem to mind, and they do take on a chartreuse tint, particularly in the eyes and around the gill flaps. Tim also adds “Please Release Me,” a product meant to extend the life of bass in a livewell, to his minnow tank, which tends to keep the fish livelier, and he also adds table salt — one tablespoon in a 48-quart cooler.

On March 15, Tim began the day by trolling into the major creek across the lake from the boat ramp. Here, in the mouth of the creek over the channel in 18 feet of water, is where he caught his biggest crappie. The graph wasn’t showing much activity in the structure here, but Tim decided to give it a few minutes worth of effort.

“They have to come through here to get back into this creek,” said Tim.

Tim uses the smallest weighted cork he can find and a No. 4 Tru-Turn hook. He fishes this on 4-lb. test when he’s out in open water, and he adjusts the cork to about three feet up from the minnow, less in shallower water. He also sprays each cork with Baitmate crappie/panfish attractant — Tim is a big believer in sweetening a lure with scent, which comes from his bass fishing experience. He even makes his own garlic scent in the kitchen.

With two lines out on either side of the boat, he then tosses out a minnow on a free-line — a hook, one tiny split-shot, and no cork. This line he lets fall right beneath the boat, and it was in fact the free-line that caught the big crappie back in December.

If the bite is slow and corks aren’t disappearing as fast as he can put them out, Tim also tosses a chartreuse curly-tail grub on a light jig head, tied beneath a small plastic cork. He reels this rig in with a stop-and-go retrieve to give the jig an up-and-down motion.

After five minutes with all corks still showing, Tim was ready to move. With the air temperature scheduled to go into the upper 70s that day, and with the water temperature rising, Tim concluded correctly that the fish were already farther inside the creek.

I then got to see the pattern that will be the one to use this month: shallow fishing along bank structure in the middle to the backs of creeks and coves. Black Shoals is loaded with structure, particularly shoreline and shallow brush that will hold spawning crappie this month. When he fishes this structure, Tim upgrades slightly to 6-lb. test. He also grips his hooks with a pair of needle-nose pliers and flexes the bend in the hook several times to weaken the metal. This way, when the hook gets caught in brush, it will be more likely to bend and pull loose than to hang on until the line breaks.

“They really get way up in the structure when they spawn,” said Tim. “A lot of people don’t catch fish when the spawn is on because they’re scared of the structure.”

It was clear from watching the other crappie-fishing boats that day that other anglers were following the fish to shallow water. However, as they reported to us, the bite was slow. Tim and I caught one fat crappie that day and several yellow perch. It apparently took three days in a row of warm weather, because on Saturday Tim went back to the lake. He reported that he caught a 30-fish limit in five hours of fishing. On Sunday he took his wife fishing, and they caught 26.

“The water temperature was up to 60 degrees where we found them,” Tim said. “They were steadily coming in. All of the crappie were under a pound, hand-sized, and I think it could be all males coming in to make the beds. I cleaned them all, and only one or two had roe in them. I give it from here to Monday (March 25). If it stays warm, those big females should be in there.”

The big creek across from the boat ramp on Black Shoals is Tim’s favorite destination, but straight up the main lake channel toward the upper lake also leads to some good, shallow, spawning structure. Downlake, there are major coves off the dam that set up well, with shallow structure near deeper water. Find shoreline brush, logs, stumps, tree limbs and grass and anchor your boat in eight to 10 feet of water. Cast your corks and minnows into six feet of water or less and get close to the structure. Tim said that curly-tail grubs and crappie jigs also work well thrown to this structure, but the minnows are a sure bet.

On the day Tim and I fished Black Shoals together, it became clear that the crappie regulars know Tim as the guy who catches the big crappie. When you go to the lake, look for a jon boat with two trolling motors on the back and a small American flag waving from one of them. That will be Tim, and if he’s bass fishing when you see him, you might as well do the same. The crappie aren’t biting.

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