Catch Slab Crappie Under Docks at Lanier
When the striper fishing is slow for guide Doug Youngblood, his clients often get a lesson in dock-shooting and catching crappie.
Just north of Atlanta is a great opportunity for those of you who enjoy eating fish. It’s been said that crappie are the best-tasting freshwater fish out there. If you agree, now is a great month to fish Lake Lanier. However, you’ll need to hone your dock-shooting skills before you go.
Although Lake Lanier is well known for it’s fine spotted bass population and trophy-sized striped bass, many anglers don’t realize it does offer a pretty good crappie fishery, particularly in the winter. The clear water can prove challenging for anglers, but if you know how to approach the lake, you can achieve some pretty impressive results. I went to Lanier in late January to try my luck at boating some fat slabs. I met guide Doug Youngblood at the Thompson Bridge ramp and headed out on a cool, overcast and misty day. Doug has been fishing Lanier virtually all of his life and has been guiding professionally on the lake for 28 years. He is best known as an accomplished striped bass guide, and he stays pretty busy all year chasing big stripers with his clients. In the dead of winter, however, when the striper action slows at times, he has a back-up plan that provides action for his clients and some pretty good eating as well.
“I always keep some light tackle on board to offer my clients an option if the stripers aren’t cooperating,” said Doug. “When the water is cold, crappie stack up under deep-water docks near the creek channels, and a small jig placed in the right spot can produce a lot of good fish.”
Doug said this dock pattern begins to get good when the surface temperature reaches the lower 50s and lasts through the winter months until just before the fish go into their spawning period.
Starting in late December or January, depending on weather conditions, Doug begins targeting docks in deep water, close to the channel near the mouths of creeks.
“Fifty-three degrees seems to be the magic temperature,” said Doug. “Once the surface temperature is consistently at that level or below, you’ll start picking up the crappie on the deeper docks.”
Doug believes the crappie use the docks as a shelter from predators and to get out of the bright sun. For that reason, docks with a cover over them are usually better than open docks, and it is even better when there is a boat in the slip to provide additional cover.
To fish the docks, Doug uses ultra-light spinning gear spooled with 4-lb. test line. He ties a 1/32-oz. lead-head jig to the line and threads on a small tube jig to complete the outfit. It is important to have a very light jig so the fall of the bait is slow. Even something as heavy as a 1/16-oz. jig can descend too fast and fall through the school without producing a strike.
The method of “shooting docks,” or “sling-shotting,” is used to get the jig under the dock. It’s a little difficult to get the hang of at first. Doug uses short spinning rods that are 4 feet in length. The cast is made by releasing the bail and pinching the fishing line to the rod, just above the reel. With about a foot or less of line dangling from the rod tip, grab the jig between the thumb and forefinger of the free hand and pull toward you to create a bow in the rod. This will load the rod up for the cast, or “shot.” With the rod pointed at the target, let go of the jig and the line near the spool, and the rod tip will spring forward and propel the jig toward the target.
You are simply turning the rod into a bow to shoot the jig into tight spots around and under the dock. It’ll take a bit of practice to master, but if you are patient and keep at it, you’ll be pleased with the results. While getting the bait to the right spot is a challenge, once you get it there, detecting the strike is also a little tough.
“These fish are really sluggish in the cold water,” said Doug. “They don’t chase the bait, and you have to get the jig right in front of them to get them to eat it.”
The crappie usually just suck the bait in and sit in place, so there is almost never a tap or sideways movement of the line. Strikes are tough to detect until you get a little practice and catch a few fish.
“If you think you feel something, set the hook,” said Doug. “Any little difference in the way the line is falling or reacting on the retrieve is likely a fish.”
We stopped at a dock near the mouth of a creek not far from the ramp, and Doug positioned the boat so we could get a good shot at the openings.
“Boat positioning is extremely important,” said Doug. “You have to be close enough to the dock to allow you to reach the back but not so close as to crowd the cast.”
And obviously the angle is important as well. Doug showed me the technique he finds most effective.
“Shoot the jig as far under the dock as you can,” said Doug. “The tighter the spot the better.”
He bent low to the water, pulled an arc in the rod and let the jig fly into a tight spot between the dock and boat. The jig hit the water about 15 feet under the dock.
Once the jig was in the water, Doug engaged the reel immediately and let the jig fall on a relatively tight line. The dock was in 30 feet of water, and Doug let the jig drop about 12 feet before beginning a slow, steady retrieve with the reel. He put just a slight bit of action in the retrieve by shaking the rod tip very gently.
“Don’t jerk the rod too much; the fish like the bait presented slowly,” said Doug. “If you reel too fast or shake the rod tip more than an inch, you are likely not to get bit.”
We worked the dock for about 10 minutes, letting the jig fall to various depths to try and find where the fish were holding, without any luck.
“Let’s move,” said Doug. “If they are on a dock, they’ll usually hit right away.”
We moved down the bank to a dock with the same characteristics and in the same depth range. This time Doug got bit on the second cast and landed a fat crappie. We caught about a dozen fish on that dock and moved on. After the first dock, we caught at least a couple of fish on every dock we fished. Most of the crappie were about hand-sized, but we managed to land a couple of nice 10-inch fish.
The water in the area of the lake we were fishing was slightly stained. Doug always looks for stained water for this pattern. In clear water, the fish are spooky and much harder to catch.
With warm weather when we fished, the fish were all pretty high in the water column. We caught almost every crappie about 8 feet below the surface. Doug said the fish will often be suspended pretty deep first thing in the morning and move up as the day warms. Also, when you catch a few fish, the school will often move up and become a little more active.
“Sometimes the crappie will take the bait as soon as it hits the water,” said Doug. “Other times you will have to let it fall before beginning the retrieve. They can even be sitting right on the bottom.”
Vary your retrieve until you find what the fish want. Once you catch one fish, though, you are likely to catch several others at the same depth and with the same retrieve action.
“Play around with jig colors,” said Doug. “Crappie can be pretty finicky.”
Generally, he recommends dark colors on overcast days, like black with a chartreuse tail, black with a pink tail, or green pumpkin. On clear days, he goes with lighter colors like powder blue or watermelon. But have a good assortment of colors on hand and experiment. The jig-head color is not as important as the color of the jig itself, in Doug’s view. Most of the time he uses a plain lead-head jig with no paint. It doesn’t seem to make much difference in getting the fish to bite.
Wind is a factor, however.
“The crappie always seem to bite better in the wind,” said Doug.
While the wind can make boat positioning more difficult, wind seems to make the crappie a little more aggressive and easier to catch. Brush under a dock is a plus but is not necessary. Doug says he has caught dozens of crappie from under docks with a completely slick bottom.
“The fish are relating to the cover of the dock, not brush,” said Doug. “Fish the area of the dock with the most shade. That is the important factor.”
Doug doesn’t use minnows for shooting the docks. He doesn’t feel it makes much of a difference and a minnow on the back of the jig makes it harder to shoot the jig effectively. Plus, many of his crappie-fishing trips are spur of the moment during a striper outing, so keeping minnows on board is impractical. He will spray the jig with an attractant, like a shad formula, when the crappie refuse to cooperate. It can help turn the fish on when they are stubborn.
Doug said shooting docks is effective on most of the lakes he fishes. He has caught crappie shooting docks on Weiss, Oconee, Hartwell and Clarks Hill.
“It will work on virtually any lake that has deep-water docks,” said Doug.
The pattern is fairly straightforward. Start fishing docks in about 30 feet of water when the surface temp reaches the low 50s. As spring approaches, go farther back into the creeks to progressively shallower docks, following the crappie into the spawning areas. After the spawn, the crappie will move back to the shallow docks and progressively move out of the creeks in the reverse order they came in, working their way back to deep water.
The location you fish is less important than the condition and depth of the water under the docks. Doug likes to fish Six Mile, Two Mile and Four Mile creeks as well as the upper parts of the Chestatee and Chattahoochee rivers. The water in these areas tends to stay pretty stained during the winter and offers ideal conditions for fishing the docks.
While it will take a little work on your part to learn to fish this technique, it is extremely effective. Doug says he and his clients can often catch 100 fish or more in short order under just a couple of docks.
A good way to practice is to set a 5-gallon bucket in the yard and keep shooting until you can hit it every time. Once you have prepared yourself, give Doug Youngblood a call at Fish Lanier Guide Service at (770) 945-0797, and book a trip. He’ll be glad to put you on some excellent docks and let you try out your skills. You’ll very likely go home with a nice mess of crappie for the table.
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