February Is Time For Slab Crappie On Oconee

The biggest crappie at Oconee spawn way before the dogwoods bloom. Oconee produces huge slabs this time of year.

Don Baldwin | February 1, 2011

Here’s the kind of day crappie anglers can have in February when the Oconee bite is on. These fish were caught during a trip with guide Doug Nelms using the techniques detailed in this article.

For fishing guide Doug Nelms, February is one of his two favorite months of the year. The other is March. While that might seem to be an odd selection, the reason can be summed up in one word. Crappie. Doug is a devoted crappie angler, and these two months consistently provide the best action of the year on his home lake, Oconee.

“In February the big slabs start staging for the spawn,” said Doug. “The fish are fat with eggs and moving into the shallows.”

With so many big fish concentrated in relatively shallow water, the prespawn period offers the best odds for catching the biggest crappie of your life.

Doug lives on the lake in the Apalachee Woods subdivision north of I-20. While he spends most of his time during the year as a full-time guide for Oconee’s stripers and hybrids, February and March are dedicated to crappie, and he attracts clients from all over the country in search of Oconee’s giant slabs.

Doug pursues pre-spawn crappie in a relatively small area of the lake. He historically has had excellent results in the Appalachee arm of the lake in a stretch of water that is less than a mile in length. Lick Creek is another area that produces well for Doug but is generally the most productive in late March and early April. If you are out on the lake in February to early March, you’ll likely find Doug with a guide party on any given day. Doug said he ran 35 guide trips for crappie during March of 2010 alone.

Doug’s approach to boating crappie is based on a pretty simple but specific technique.

“I set up my boat with a spider rig this time of year,” said Doug. “The rig consists of a custom built rod holder/seat arrangement and 12 long rods.”

The rods are splayed out across the bow in a fan configuration and form a half circle for maximum coverage. Doug fits the rods with ultra-light spinning reels spooled with 6-lb. test line. He finishes each rig off with a free sliding 1/4-oz. sinker, bead, barrel swivel and about 3 feet of 4-lb. test fluorocarbon leader attached to a 1/8-oz. Jiffy Jig. There is no cork on the rig. The 1/4-oz. weight keeps the line tight to the rod tip while allowing the jig to move freely on the light leader.

Early in February, Doug usually begins his search in an area known by locals as the “Smokehouse.”

While it isn’t marked on the map, most Oconee crappie anglers can take you there.

“It is just across the channel from Swords Landing,” said Doug. “The water in that area is around 25 feet deep, and I usually start on the second ledge in about 20 feet of water.”

Before he starts fishing, Doug moves slowly across an area keeping a close eye on his graph. He said the fish relate to temperature this time of year and will suspend at various levels at different times during the day. If he sees fish on the graph, he drops his jigs down to that level and varies the depth by about a foot (up or down) on several rods. He then moves slowly over the fish dragging the jigs through them. And he does mean slowly. Doug said the biggest mistakes novice anglers make when trolling for crappie are “too big and too fast.”

Oconee produces some huge crappie, but many anglers don’t realize how early in the season these slabs are caught. The fishing is so good in February that full-time guide Doug Nelms takes time off from chasing linesides to guide crappie-fishing trips.

Fish as light a line as you can get away with, and move the boat at about 1 to 1 1/2 miles per hour, any faster than that and you are very unlikely to get bit. On Doug’s trolling motor the first “click” on the speed setting is about right.

“The crappie are lethargic in the cold water and won’t chase a bait,” said Doug. “The jig needs to almost hang in front of them before they will bite.”

While the level that the fish suspend will change, a good place to start is fishing the 14- to 16-foot range early in the season.

Doug tips his jigs with medium-sized crappie minnows to help entice the strike. The jig-minnow combination needs to hang vertically on the downline so it looks natural to the fish. This is one of the reasons for using light fluorocarbon line along with the limited visibility the fluorocarbon provides.

Later in the month, as the water warms, Doug moves up the Apalachee River to areas like Wayne’s Point, another local spot. Then Doug keys on about 15 feet of water. He continues following the migration up the river through the month, and by mid March he will be fishing water near the powerlines all the way up the Apalachee in as little as 2 feet of water.

That is part of the beauty of the spider rig. Since you are fishing vertically, the depth of the jig is determined by the amount of line you have out, not the speed of the troll.

“We fish in some depths and locations that would be virtually impossible to fish with traditional trolling methods,” said Doug.

While Doug tells us the crappie are not relating to brush on the bottom, he will fish close to standing timber — but not in it — later in the month. Fish will sometimes hang out near the vertical timber and can concentrate there in large numbers.

Information flows pretty freely among the guides on Oconee when the crappie are running. Everybody is fishing in a fairly small segment of the lake, and they keep track of the movements of the fish.

“If someone gets on a big school, the others are notified quickly,” said Doug. “There are plenty of fish to go around, and we all want to keep our clients happy.”

Speaking of keeping your clients happy, these slabs are excellent table fare, and Doug said most of his clients leave with full coolers.

“I even offered a client a $100 discount on the trip if he would give me the fish; he declined,” said Doug.

If there haven’t been significant changes in weather conditions, the crappie will usually stay in the same general area from one day to the next. So, if Doug has caught fish in a specific location over the previous couple of days, he’ll work that area for up to an hour before moving on. He said the bite will turn off and on during the day for no obvious reason, so it pays to be persistent if you have confidence in a location.

If you are fishing a location and catching fish and they disappear, which they will, it is probably best to move on to another spot. Try moving in to a shallower area and explore with the graph.

Although he agrees there is no consensus on this opinion, Doug believes the crappie bite best when there is no current flow.

While he spends most of his time in the Apalachee arm of the lake, Doug said his biggest crappie have come from the Lick Creek area. Oconee produces some huge crappie, and Doug said he’s seen fish in the 3 1/2-lb. range in Lick Creek.

“Last year we had a double hook-up in Lick Creek, and both fish topped 3 pounds.”

Doug’s bait of choice in Lick Creek is a small red-chartreuse tube jig on a 1/8-oz. chartreuse jig head.

“That bait is especially productive in Lick Creek on bright sunny days,” said Doug.

These winter crappie are really big fish. Doug said the locals call them “brokenecks.”

“That’s because they are so big they almost look deformed,” said Doug, adding that he always keeps a long-handled net aboard. “You need to keep these fish in the water.”

Oconee’s big slabs, known locally as “brokenecks,” are too big to swing in the boat, so bring a long-handled net.

The long rod is used more like a cane pole than a rod-and-reel outfit. The reel is almost useless. But don’t try to swing the big slabs into the boat. Doug scoops up every big fish with the long net. Otherwise the fine leader is likely to break or the crappie’s mouth will tear. Either way you have lost the fish.

This has been a tough winter so far, so the action might be delayed just a little, but it will be here before you know it, and the big slabs will be moving up into the Oconee shallows. Doug likes to say, “If you wait ’til the Dogwoods Bloom, you’ll miss the best of the action.”

So load up your long rods and minnows, and head out to Oconee this month. Doug and the boys will be out there for sure, but there are plenty of fish to go around. When the water temperature reaches the magic 50-degree mark, the crappie will be on the prowl.

If you head to Oconee this month and follow Doug’s plan, you have a great chance to catch one of the biggest crappie of your life.

Visit Doug’s website at to book a trip. You’ll learn the ropes firsthand, have a great day of fishing, and almost certainly take home a cooler full of crappie.

Doug’s boat is set up to spider rig this time of year. The rig consists of a custom-built rod holder/seat arrangement and 12 long rods that are splayed out across the bow in a fan configuration and form a half circle for maximum coverage.

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