Cold-Water Crappie At Lake Eufaula
Capt. Sam Williams uses a slow-trolling approach with minnow-tipped jigs to entice cold-water slabs into biting.
For crappie fishermen there isn’t a much better time of year than spring. In our Georgia lakes these prolific fish congregate in large schools and migrate to the shallows looking for a place to spawn. Even though it is not technically spring yet, the action is already beginning to improve over the deep winter doldrums. Water temperatures are starting to rise, and the fish are feeding more aggressively in preparation for the spawn.
Lake Eufaula, on the Georgia/Alabama border south of Columbus, is no exception. In fact, since it is farther south than many of our larger reservoirs, the fishing activity at Eufaula usually heats up earlier than at most reservoirs.
We met Sam Williams of Eufaula, Ala. on a cold morning in mid February to try our luck fishing for crappie. Sam is a full-time guide on the lake for crappie, bass and just about anything else that swims, and he keeps pretty good track of what is happening on the lake throughout the year.
“The fishing could be tough today,” Sam warned. “There have been several fronts come through in the last few days, and the weather has been colder than normal.”
The cold weather and pressure changes can cause the fish to halt in their migration and send them back to the depths if the conditions are severe enough. But we were set to give it a try. As long as the wind didn’t get up we hoped to pick up at least a few fish.
When we launched Sam’s boat at the ramp at the Lake Point Marina the air temperature was brisk to say the least, with the mercury hovering in the low 30s. Thankfully there was no wind to speak of, but the surface temp gauge read a bone-chilling, fish-chilling 37 degrees.
“We aren’t going to run far,” said Sam. “There have been a few fish stacked up here in Cowikee Creek, and we might be able to pick some up near the mouth before the wind gets up.”
As we motored out slowly downstream we began marking fish almost immediately along the channel edges. Ledges are the most distinctive fish-holding feature in Lake Eufaula. The lake is relatively shallow overall with creek and river channels cutting through large flats. In most cases, the edges of the channels are almost vertical, forming steep dropoffs of 10 feet or more. The fish like to hold on or near these “ledges” in the late winter because they allow a lot of vertical movement without having to travel long distances as would be the case in a gradually sloping bottom.
Sam turned off the big motor, and we began setting an assortment of rods in the four rodholders (two on the gunnels and two on the stern) each of which held three rods. The rods varied in length from six to 12 feet and were spooled with 4-lb.-test line. Several of the rods were rigged with tube jigs on lead heads and some held a hook/sinker/bobber combination for fishing minnows.
The jigs Sam favors are Bad Boy Jigs in size 1/8-, or 1/16-oz. depending on current and wind conditions. Color combinations are selected based on water color and clarity. In our case the water was deeply stained so we used brighter colors like chartreuse and blue to start. In clear water conditions, Sam prefers a more natural color choice like brown or green.
In either case Sam likes to tip the jigs with a minnow to up his chances.
“When the water is this cold and dingy it can be difficult for the fish to see the bait, and they won’t travel very far to get it,” said Sam. “The smell and lively action of the minnow can make all of the difference when the fish are slow to bite.”
Once we had the baits set out we began a slow troll, on the electric motor, right down the edge of the channel. The water under the boat was in the 15- to 20-foot range while the adjacent channel was close to 40 feet deep. We could see plenty of fish on the depthfinder, but after an hour of trolling we still hadn’t had a strike.
There were several other boats in the area, and almost no fish were being taken by anyone. By mid morning the wind was beginning to come up, so we knew that we were eventually going to need to move to an area that was more sheltered.
“It is almost impossible to troll at the right speed in a stiff breeze,” said Sam. “When it is this cold the baits need to be moved very slowly. Just touching the trolling motor every few seconds and keeping a little headway is usually about right.”
By noon the wind at the mouth of Cowikee Creek was just too strong to troll effectively. We weren’t catching fish at any rate, and we were marking far fewer fish on the graph than we had earlier in the day.
We took a run up to Rood Creek to give another creek a try. Sam had marked fish in the area late in the previous week, and the wind wasn’t as much of a factor as it was at the mouth of Cowikee.
But after about an hour in Rood Creek with no hits and no fish showing on the graph, we decided to move back down lake.
The bridge pilings where Hwy 431 crosses Cowikee Creek were our next target.
“Fish will hold around these bridge pilings most of the time,” said Sam. “And if the current and wind isn’t too strong you can pick up a mess here in a hurry.”
We worked the pilings thoroughly, again with no success. It looked like it really was going to be a tough day.
The air was warming up and the surface temperature of the water had climbed to 45 degrees in the bright sun. Just upstream of the bridge we could see several boats working the channel ledge on the Eufaula side of the creek. Every once in a while they were picking up a nice fish or two, and we moved over in the line to get a closer look.
The boats were all slow-trolling jigs, and most were “pushing.” This trolling technique makes use of rods mounted right in the bow with long rods extending out in front of the boat. The rods are baited with jigs or minnows as with any slow-trolling set-up. But in this case, a weight of about an ounce is tied on the line to pull the rig straight down below the rod tip. This arrangement ensures that the jig is consistently running at the desired depth, and the angler always knows precisely where the jig is positioned, both vertically and horizontally.
Another good reason for the long rods, 12 feet in length or so, and a heavy weight is to keep the lines from moving under the boat and into the trolling motor. The mess that such an event would cause doesn’t require further discussion. Let’s just say it would be best to avoid it.
Since we weren’t really set up for the pushing technique, we decided to add a little more weight to the jig/minnow rigs that we were dragging alongside and behind the boat to make sure we got them down and into what appeared to be the proper strike zone. The fish were holding very close to the bottom and obviously weren’t moving up much to take a bait. With that slight modification it didn’t take long to get a strike.
The combination of the warmer temperatures, the deeper presentation and the almost windless conditions in the area upstream of the bridge paid off — not to mention our persistence. We eventually landed some nice slabs so the day wasn’t a total loss.
The consensus of all the crappie anglers that we talked to on the water was that we were on the edge of the prespawn activity. By the time this article comes out, the conditions are likely to be just right and the action in full swing. The water needs to warm up a bit, and the fish should be schooling nicely and hanging on those channel ledges.
Sam says that this pattern will last through March and into April and maybe even a little later depending on water temperature. Once the water temperature reaches a constant 60 to 65 degrees, the fish should be on the flats and heavy into the spawn. Until that time, they’ll be on the ledges.
In addition to Cowikee Creek, which has a lot of ideal water and is easily accessible from the Lake Point Marina Ramp, Sam recommends that you try the ledges in Rood Creek and Bustahatchee Creek. They are favorites that consistently hold lots of fish in the spring. However, most any of the major creeks on the lake that have deep channels next to flats are good candidates for finding a bunch of crappie in the spring.
So why not brave the early March cold and head to Eufaula for some HOT cold-water crappie action. Bring your long rods, a box full of jigs and maybe a minnow bucket full of minnows and get ready for some action. When the conditions are right you can literally load the boat.
If you are looking for an overnight spot, give the Lake Point Resort a try. This full-service resort has cabins, a lodge, and a restaurant. It could help you turn your fishing weekend into a family outing.
Capt. Sam Williams’ guide service on Lake Eufaula can be reached at (334) 687-6266 or (334) 355-5057.
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