Fish The Thickest Timber For Heath Lake Slabs

Crappie fisherman Mark Bowen says get back into the standing timber to catch a limit of slabs at Rocky Mountain PFA.

Kevin Dallmier | April 1, 2007

DNR Fisheries tech and Rocky Mountain PFA crappie-fishing specialist Mark Bowen with a couple of Heath Lake crappie. By April, the fish will be back in the timber in extremely shallow water. Mark picks jigs over minnows to catch the shallow slabs.

Spring crappie fishing is supposed to be as easy as falling off the proverbial log, right?

Well, for a few glorious weeks on Heath Lake at Rocky Mountain Recreation and Public Fishing Area (PFA), it is. When the crappie move into the lake’s shallow timber coves to spawn, catching them is as easy as casting a jig out and bringing it back. When the jig falls off a sunken log is often when the strike comes.

Crappie are one of the first fish to spawn every spring, and they are drawn to shallow wood like moths to a flame. Since the fish have moved in tight, are very aggressive, and shallow timber isn’t exactly subtle structure that takes a lot of time and effort to find, the fishing doesn’t get any easier. The key is to be in the right place at the right time.

Predicting the exact time that crappie will move shallow isn’t an exact science. At some point the water temperature, moon phase, and everything else come into line and tell crappie it is time to perpetuate the species. All sorts of folklore is involved in predicting this mass migration, like “when the dogwoods are blooming, the crappie are biting” and so on. One of the best though, is “when you drive by the boat ramp and there is not a parking place to be found, the crappie are biting.”

Fishing the crappie spawn kicks off the angling year for many anglers, and for some, is the highlight of the year. Predicting the exact timing of the spawn may be a little tricky when scheduling your vacation time months in advance, but fortunately, you don’t have to hit it right on the mark. Fish don’t all spawn at the exact same time. From the early birds to the late stragglers, the spawning migration into and back out of the shallows spans several weeks or even a month, leaving plenty of time to fill the freezer with some tasty crappie fillets.

One Georgia angler who looks forward to the first few days of April every year is Mark Bowen of Rome. As a DNR fisheries technician, Mark spent about five years stationed at Rocky Mountain, and he has laid eyes on a lot of Heath Lake crappie, both while patrolling the lake and while enjoying the fishing himself.

The PFA is part of Plant Rocky Mountain, an Oglethorpe Power Co. hydropower development. In a sweetheart deal for anglers, DNR operates the recreational aspects of the project with Oglethorpe Power providing 100 percent of the funding.

Rocky Mountain has two fishing lakes. Antioch Lake is 357 acres and is divided by a road into two sub-impoundments (East and West). Heath Lake is 202 acres. Access to both lakes is excellent with paved ramps and parking, restrooms, shoreline trails and fishing jetties. No horsepower restrictions are in place, but both lakes have a “no-wake, idlespeed-only” regulation.

Both lakes provide good fishing, but Heath Lake is the favorite of anglers, probably because it looks more “fishy.” Standing timber covers about 25 percent of the lake basin, including several large coves that are just right for crappie spawning.

The timbered coves in Lake Heath provide excellent cover and spawning areas for crappie. Mark recommends getting back into the thickest timber and casting 1/32-oz. jigs to take a limit of slabs.

Both lakes are intensively managed through fertilization, creel limits, forage stocking, and in the case of Heath Lake, a limited-access program. In an attempt to keep the lake “fresh” and the fish relatively uneducated, making it feel like a “new lake fishing” each month, the lake is only open to fishing the first 10 days of each month. Crowding at the fishing hole is a classic Catch-22; the better the fishing, the more people want in on it. It is also a sign of success — anglers aren’t coming there just to haul water in their live-wells all day long, they must be catching fish or they wouldn’t keep coming. Mornings can be busy, especially on weekends and opening day. Things slack off considerably by mid-afternoon though, and the evening can be the best time to fish.

Spend a few minutes studying the lake on a crowded weekend morning, and an observant angler may notice something. Avoiding this same mistake will go a long way toward putting together a heavy stringer of fish. As mentioned above, much of the lake’s shoreline is ringed with standing timber out to a couple of casts distance off the bank. In a strange exhibit of some sort of herd mentality, anglers will line their boats up in a row and just work down the edges of the standing timber, one behind the other. They pick up a few fish, but as usual, following along after the popular crowd may not be the best idea.

Mark has noticed this too and fishes accordingly.

“When I am crappie fishing at Heath, I get as far back in the timber as I can go. Sometimes I will be in just a couple of feet of water and catching crappie out of a foot of water or less. When When the crappie have moved in to spawn, you can’t fish too shallow. I have caught them out of water barely deep enough to cover their backs — way, way back in the timber. A lot of guys won’t go to the trouble of getting back in there, and don’t know what they are missing.”

Mark’s assessment is dead on. The Rocky lakes have been full for nearly 15 years, and much of the timber has rotted off above the waterline, but what is below the water isn’t rotten at all. Navigating through it can feel like a round of bumper cars at the fairgrounds. But, the timber is where the fish are, and I don’t know about you, but I try to go to the fish instead of hoping they come to me.

When it comes to lure selection, Mark’s favorite technique is simplicity itself.

“When the crappie are shallow,” Mark said, “I use just one lure. A 1/32-oz. jig with a small twister-tail grub. Fish it on a light spinning outfit, and just cast it out and bring it back with a slow, steady retrieve. The twister-tail will give it all the action you need. To catch the most crappie, fish the thickest timber you can find.

“The reason I use such a light jig is because anything heavier sinks too fast,” Mark continued. “If it sinks too fast you get more hang-ups, and I can’t retrieve the 1/32-oz. jig as slowly as I would like, but I can still keep it off the bottom in really shallow water.

“I pick jigs over minnows because I can cover more water quicker to find the most productive timber, and a minnow rig seems to grab onto the stumps worse than a jig. Reducing the amount of time you are hung up will help you catch more fish. You can’t be as productive when you are tying on a jig every other cast, and nothing is more frustrating than being on fish and watching your buddy put crappie in the boat one after another while you fumble around trying to tie a knot!

“No matter what you do though, you are going to lose plenty of jigs, so make sure and stock up before you hit the lake.”

In his experience, Mark has found the crappie aren’t picky about color, but he does have a basic guideline.

“I try to generally match the color of the grub to the color of the water.

“So, if the water has started to green up already, then I start off the day throwing something with some greenish color to it. If the water is dirty, I’ll go with something darker like a natural brown, motor oil or root beer. In clear water, which is unusual at Heath Lake, I would go with a pearl or shad color. A little brightness on the tail seems to catch their eye a little better though, so I like grubs with a chartreuse tail.”

How good is the fishing? One of Mark’s best April days saw him and his father-in-law boat more than 300 crappie, culling through them to keep a limit of slabs for the freezer. The next day, they went back and did nearly as well.

“Crappie populations are cyclic,” Mark said, “so some years are going to be better than others. But, we catch lots of fish weighing a pound or so and the better ones push a pound and a half. You will catch some throwbacks, too, especially when things aren’t quite right yet and most of what has moved shallow are the smaller males. Hit it right when the females are in though, and you can fill a limit of good ones in a hurry.”

On an early March day, four of us hit the water in two boats to put Heath Lake crappie fishing to the test. Unfortunately, water temps in the mid-50s, bluebird skies, and a dead-accurate forecast of 20 to 30 mph winds were the conditions we faced, not exactly prime-spawning conditions. A quick check of the shallows confirmed that the crappie were still in a land far, far away. Where we eventually located them was a deep drop next to the mouth of a shallow spawning cove. I took the low road and slowly dragged a 1/4-oz. jig in 20 feet of water at the base of the drop, while Mark fished a tandem rig of 1/16-oz. jigs on the break in 10-12 feet of water. Working at it, we managed to put enough fish in the boat for a tasty meal that evening.

Unfortunately, the real slab crappie remained in hiding, and we had mostly smaller males to show for our efforts. Low and slow may have been the way to catch fish of any size that day, but by the time you read this, the shallows are where it is at for the big female crappie.

If you plan on making a Heath Lake crappie trip, keep it simple. Load up your tackle box with some light jigs and a selection of grubs. Then, hit the lake and look for shallow timber, it shouldn’t be hard. Good places to try are the very upper end of the boat ramp cove, the timbered shallow flat between the big island and the mainlake shoreline, the two timbered coves on the right past the big island, and the far end of the lake which is almost completely timbered. All of these places will produce fish. Remember to work your way back into the timber to get to the shallow spawning areas.

Once you get into a good spot, fan cast all around the boat before moving on to another spot. It doesn’t have to be far, but sometimes a short move can make all of the difference. Remember, go to the fish; don’t make them come to you. Also, if you catch a few fish right off the bat, don’t immediately give up on the spot when the action first slows. Crappie bites seem to come in waves — fast action, nothing for a short time, then fast action again.

Antioch Lake is no slouch when it comes to crappie fishing, either. The lake doesn’t have nearly the same amount of shallow timber though, so finding the fish can be a little more difficult. But, the fish are there, and the size and numbers rival what is found in Heath Lake.

Other facilities available at Rocky Mountain include tent and RV camping, swimming, hiking trails and picnicking. Bank access is excellent, so the lakes are a good choice for anglers on foot. Vehicles parked on Rocky Mountain must display a $3 daily parking permit or annual parking permit. Permits are available at all entrances to the area. A WMA stamp is not required at Rocky Mountain PFA. Antioch Lake and the rest of the area are open every day from sunrise to sunset. Heath Lake is open to fishing from sunrise to sunset the first 10 days of every month.

To reach Rocky Mountain PFA from Rome, take U.S. Hwy 27 north 10.4 miles to Sike Storey Road on the left. Take this road 0.4 miles to Big Texas Valley Road, which is on the left. Travel 5.4 miles on Big Texas Valley Road to the area. The Heath Lake entrance is the third entrance road on the left.

For more information, contact the Rocky Mountain PFA office at (706) 802-5087.

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