Lake Oconee Cold-Water Crappie

In February, the Huffs slow push for Oconee crappie in standing timber.

Brad Gill | February 1, 2008

Father-and-son tournament team Robert and Raymond Huff won a Crappie USA event on Oconee in October. They say February is a good month to catch 80 to 100 fish a day fishing jigs and minnows in and around standing timber.

February is a great month to catch crappie on Lake Oconee, according to crappie specialists, and father-and-son duo, Robert and Raymond Huff.

Robert raised his kids on crappie fishing, and it apparently stuck real hard to his 31-year-old son, Raymond.

“Crappie fishing was our vacations growing up,” said Raymond. “We’d camp out on the banks of West Point and catch 300 to 400 crappie in a week.”

Robert lives in Macon and Raymond resides in Newnan, but the pair fish all over the Southeast together competing in Crappie USA tournaments. Their most recent win was on Oconee in October.

“Oconee is one of our favorite lakes in February,” said Robert.

“It’s a good cold-weather lake,” said Raymond. “In February you can catch 80 to 100 fish in a day.”

I fished with these guys in early January. Robert had been catching a lot of big crappie deep. However, warm weather after Christmas had the fish somewhat scattered. We still had a great day on the water, catching a few fish, while I learned just how this team will be catching crappie in February.

“When the water gets cold, the fish will bunch up,“ said Robert. “I like the water 45 to 52 degrees. That’s where I like it to stay.”

It was 50 degrees when we fished.

“February is so good because it keeps the shad bunched up; it keeps the crappie from moving,” said Raymond.

Although February’s weather can often be tricky, the first half of the month should bring some cold weather and keep fish bunched up tight on deep structure.

“Crappie are always on structure, sometimes trees, stumps or a contour change. Sandy areas are good, too,” said Robert.

This team likes to push minnows and jigs tipped with minnows in January and February. Pushing, also called spider-rigging, allows the team to control its speed better than trolling. Being able to control that speed is crucial to catching Oconee crappie in cold-water months.

“The biggest problem people have when wintertime crappie fishing is they move way too fast,” said Robert. “In February, they like it real, real, real slow. The colder it is, the slower I’ll go, and sometimes the deeper I’ll go.”

We launched their boat at J.R.’s in Lick Creek, passed under both bridges and went several hundred yards downstream to an area on the right that had some deep submerged timber and stumps. We stayed about 100 yards off the bank, paralleling a line of docks in 25 feet of water.

When slowly pushing multiple rods into standing timber and stumps, it takes serious team work. Here, Robert gets ready to net a fish for his son Raymond. This tournament team will spend most of its month fishing deep timber with jigs and minnows.

Quickly the team had nine Wally Marshall rods out the front of the boat. Five of them, which were positioned between 10 and 2 o’clock, were 18-foot-long rods. The other four, placed out to the sides of the boat were 16-foot rods. Each rod had marks on it — 5, 8, 10 and 12 feet from the top — so they could pull line out and know just how deep they were fishing.

“I’m starting at 8 feet,” said Raymond. “We first have to find what depth they’re at. They’re the most finicky fish I’ve fished for.”

All nine rods were loaded with tandem baits. On the end of each rig was a 1/24-oz. Jiffy Jig tipped with a minnow.

“Up here I like a Tuffie minnow,” said Robert. “They’re a thicker minnow and two times stronger than a regular crappie minnow. I love that action.”

Eighteen to 20 inches up each line was an 8- to 10-inch tag line with a No. 1 or 2 hook and a Tuffie minnow hooked through the bottom of the mouth and out one of the eyes. This avoids killing the bait, which is important since crappie prefer lively minnows.

The tag line is attached to a swivel that sits below two beads and a 1/2-oz. bullet weight. Weight size can vary depending on depth or current conditions. The entire rig is fished on 10-lb.-test Bass Pro Shops Mr. Crappie Line, but they’ll rig their leader with 8-lb. test so when they hang into a tree, they’ll snap the line and get their lead back.

“I like yellow line — so an old man can see it,” Robert laughed. “Sometimes when it’s cold, crappie won’t hit it hard. They’ll just pick it up and move it off. With yellow line, I can see it, and the bright color doesn’t bother them, not at all.”

The fishing was tough. Several times Robert’s yellow line would lightly twitch.

“That’s not a feeding bite, that’s a you’re-in-my-area bite,” said Robert. “These are real sensitive rods, which you really need in the winter.”

By 8:30 we had managed only one fish in the boat pushing in 23 to 28 feet of water at a slow pace of .1 to .3 mph. Our push had been along the edge of some standing timber and stumps. After the several-hundred-yard push, we turned the boat around, moved the boat a touch more offshore and into the actual timber itself.

“Looks like we’re going to have to start getting hung,” said Raymond.

They got hung a few times, but I could tell I was with tournament pros. They ran a tight ship, always watching rod tips and quickly popping free many of the hooks that found trees. Still, with nine rods out, getting hung was inevitably part of the deal.

“We’ll lose 30 to 40 jigs a day, and I’ll start with 200 minnows,” said Robert. “We’ll swap colors if we’re not getting bit. Chartreuse/white/chartreuse is my favorite color. If I only had one color to fish, it would be that one. Muddy, clear, still, it’s the best color there is.”

They also like black/blue, black, black/green/black, red/black/chartreuse, and they drop a lot of blues into structure when the water is clear.

“If I’m tournament fishing, I fish tighter to structure,” said Robert. “I’m looking for seven fish then, and big fish hold real tight most times.”

Raymond told me not to expect to find a pile of big slabs on one tree.

“You don’t have a whole lot of big fish hanging together,” said Raymond. “They don’t hang in big schools. Most times they’ll be two, three or four fish.

“And usually they bite real early. Usually by 10 o’clock, we have a couple of 2-pounders.”

A few fish were swiping at our baits, but it was obvious the crappie weren’t aggressively feeding. One thing that was hurting us was that Georgia Power Co. was not moving any water.

“Moving water makes them bite better,” said Robert. “Push with the current. You can control your depth better this way. If you go against the current, your bait will come up unless you add more weight.”

Another element that could mess up a good day on the water is wind.

“It’s very important to know which way the wind is coming from,” said Robert. “I like to know which areas will be protected that day. If wind is bad, push with the wind. Sometimes I’ll throw a drift sock out, and let it slow us. Boat traffic can get you, too.”

Wind and boat traffic cause a yo-yo effect on the jigs, something crappie don’t like when slow pushing. To avoid too much yo-yoing, the Huffs keep their poles only 6 inches from the water’s surface.

Here’s what submerged, standing timber looks like on a depthfinder. Timber is marked on most lake maps, but all creek mouths are subject to have it.

By 10 a.m. we had motored just outside the mouth of Lick Creek, past the new condominiums at South Bay and over to the mouth of the first creek on the right. Our plan was to fish the point on the upstream side at the mouth of that creek. On the point is a dock with no roof, and there was a for-sale sign in the yard when we fished. The point runs several hundred yards out. At the end, it’s 18 feet deep and quickly drops into 25 and 26 feet and has lots of submerged, standing timber.

The Huffs had barely gotten their lines wet when a 1 1/2-pounder jumped on Robert’s minnow-tipped jig.

“I caught 50 here the other day, but they were up on the point in 18 feet of water with the shad,” said Robert.

When pushing smaller areas, the Huffs work all edges of the timber and straight over the timber itself. If they don’t get bit, they’ll ease off from the timber, usually up on a point or ledge, until they find the crappie.

“That fish hit 12 feet deep in 25 feet of water,” said Raymond. “If you bump that tree with a jig, they’ll come up and get it. Nine times out of 10 times that’s when they’ll get it.”

As they continued bumping the small area of timber, their technique was to slowly push up to the timber, bump it and let the wind push them back out before making another push at a different section of the timber. A few times we caught several fish on one push.

“What makes that happen is the shad get bunched up on one side,” said Robert.

As we continued to fish, Robert let me in on a very important key to getting bit when pushing jigs.

“You have to tie your jig right,” said Robert.

Put the line through the hook’s eye and pull out 6 or 7 inches of line. Double the line, and wrap it around your index and middle fingers. Wrap the jig over and between your two fingers — twice. Tighten your knot one inch above the jig. This knot gives the jig more action.

“If your knot is on the jig, you’ll lose 90 percent of the action,” said Robert.

We had put eight or 10 good crappie in the boat, and they weren’t keying on one particular color or favoring the single minnow over the jig. Although the fish were biting 12 feet deep over timber in 25 feet of water, the Huffs will often be forced to experiment with different depths until they find the fish.

“As temperatures rise in late February, their eggs get fuller,” said Robert. “You’ll find crappie 2 to 4 feet deep in 25 feet of water letting the sun warm their bellies. Look for this when the water gets 58 to 64 degrees.

“You’ll also find lots in shallow water in late February. They’ll be in 2 to 3 feet of water. Don’t be afraid to go shallow.”

By late February and March, the Huffs will be up the Apalachee River catching fish in skinny water along the edges of shallow timber. When they are still working deep and shallow fish on the same days, and they don’t want to re-tie their rigs, their sinkers will be sticking out of the water they’ll sometimes be fishing so shallow.

Meanwhile, there’s still going to be a real good bite deep in standing timber. Robert said to push the timber on the left side of Sugar Creek between the island and the mouth. Just hug the edge of the timber and slow push. The timber in Richland Creek and Double Branches is better for numbers of small fish. Other areas of standing timber are marked on most lake maps.

“Creek mouths are all subject to have standing timber,” said Robert.

Our best seven crappie of the day weighed 9-lbs., 12-ozs. We didn’t catch a lot, but we had some in the 1.75-lb. range. Robert called GON on Jan. 23 to say the water temperature was 49 degrees, and he had just gotten off the lake with some beautiful slabs.
“It’s getting right,” he said.

When water temperatures holds between 45 and 52 degrees, look for fish deep on standing timber. If it warms, push shallower in or adjacent to brushy areas until you find them. By the end of the month, some of the females can be 2 or 3 feet from the surface over 25 feet of water or right on the bank getting ready to lay their eggs.

Just keep pushing real slow until you find them.

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