Poling And Trolling For Jackson Crappie

Fred Brinkley knows how to put more crappie in the cooler on Lake Jackson.

Roy Kellett | March 10, 2005

You have spent time outdoors and you know that the best-laid plans can sometimes go to waste. Mother Nature unleashes a downpour, or Old Man Winter puts fishing on the deep freeze. And sometimes, the outboard gremlin can put a kink in your ability to get to your favorite fishing hole.

Such was the case for Fred Brinkley and myself on a recently planned trip to catch crappie at Lake Jackson. But that didn’t stop Fred from imparting his knowledge on successful Jackson crappie fishing. Like all serious fishermen, Fred adapts well to changing situations, but he loves to pole and troll for crappie in March.

Fred Jackson hauled these two papermouths out of Jackson on a recent trip. Poling when it’s cold and trolling when it warms up will help you catch more March crappie.

Most consider crappie a fish that is best caught one time a year: during the spawn. However, Fred says crappie can be caught all year with the right techniques.

“The crappie is a great fish to catch,” Fred said. “However, it is the hardest fish to catch year-round. They are easy to get in the boat when they are spawning, but they can get real hard to find when the spawn is over.”

Fred is a serious crappie fisherman and has competed in tournaments on several circuits since 1998. He usually fishes on the Crappie U.S.A. trail, twice qualifying for the tour’s biggest tournament, the Classic. Fred has also earned enough points to qualify for national tournaments on the Fishing in America and Southern Crappie Association tours.

Fred is so serious about catching crappie, he has customized his boat, a Triton 205, especially for the purpose. The boat is actually built for walleye fishing, but Fred has turned it into a bona fide crappie machine.

The first major modification of note is Fred’s livewell system. The key is keeping crappie alive for tournament weigh-ins, so Fred has rigged an oxygen aeration system to keep fish spunky until they are weighed and released at tournament’s end. A 40-lb. oxygen tank at the back of the boat has lines running to each livewell. Fred places an aquarium stone (the aerator you see in home aquariums) in each. A medical oxygen gauge on top of the tank tells Fred when his oxygen level is correct.

“When I see just a trickle from those stones, I know the oxygen is right,” Fred said.

Like any big-reservoir fisherman who chases any species of fish, Fred will tell you how important electronics are to his fishing success. His boat is equipped with a Garmin 240 fish finder/GPS system on the front deck and an Eagle 480 in the back.

“It’s vital to have good electronics and a GPS,” Fred advised.

If all that sounds like a lot of detail for chasing panfish, it is. But it is all part of Fred’s success throughout the year. See, crappie are very finicky fish. The slightest change can turn a dull day of fishing into a boat-loading affair.

Fred has several years of experience fishing Jackson, a reservoir that sits near the intersection of Hwy 36 and Hwy 212 on the Jasper/Newton county line. Fred says Jackson is a good fishery, but like any other lake, you have to know what to do once you find fish.

“You have to be able to adjust. I can shoot docks, too, but poling and trolling are what I like to do,” Fred said.

Poling, or tight-lining as some people call it, can be deadly on fish holding deep on ledges or in heavy cover. Crappie are structure-oriented fish, so getting to them sometimes means getting hooks down into the brush.

Fred likes to pole when the weather is cold and fish are deep. He uses 12 rods at a time. Six are placed around the bow of the boat, six are placed off the stern. Fred prefers 12-foot Wally Marshall rods and Zebco 2010 closed-face spinning reels spooled with 10-lb. Stren Gold line for poling. At the end of the line, a 3/8-oz. egg sinker goes above a glass bead and a barrel swivel. At the other end of the swivel, Fred uses a three-to five-foot section of 6-lb. test and ties on a 1/16-oz. easy load jig head, which will hold his favorite curly-tail jigs. Fred likes to tip his jigs with minnows for better poling results.

The heavy line is critical to getting fish out of cover. The short leader made up of the lighter line means if you do break off the end of your line, all you’ll lose is the leader and the jig, so re-tying will be quick and easy.

Fred will use his trolling motor to cruise around while he looks for promising signs of life on his electronics. Once he marks fish, Fred uses his GPS to store the coordinates so he can come back to a spot if he needs to.

Fred’s tight-line tactic is a great way to catch March fish, particularly if cold weather keeps them deeper in the water column. Because you will barely move when poling, your jigs can get all the way down to where the fish are suspended.

One Sunday in early February, Fred was trying to pick his way across Jackson but the amount of debris in the water was unreal. The recent ice storm and subsequent thaw had brought large timber, pine straw, leaves, basketballs and various other items down the Alcovy and South rivers, and running a boat on plane would not only be challenging, it might be downright dangerous.

Still, Fred got where he wanted to go, which was almost to the dam, just past the South River. Soon after he arrived, Fred marked fish on his electronics and set about the task of getting lines in the water. The first line, then the second were dropped to the proper depth. As Fred was getting his third jig in the water, a nice crappie hit one of the other poles. He landed that fish and another quickly and then, the bite was over. On the other spots he tried, Fred poled with pretty good success, even though conditions weren’t ideal.

“Poling is a great technique to try in deep water or around ledges,” Fred said. “You are just barely moving, and you can get on top of the fish and drop your jigs right down to them.”

When the weather gets a little better and the water clears up, Fred will start trolling to catch Jackson crappie. When you see him on the water, you’ll notice Fred still uses 12 rods when he trolls. He prefers three different lengths in the front of the boat, one on each side, with the longest rod closest to the front of the boat to keep his lines from getting tangled.

When Fred is sitting in the front of his boat, he likes two 14-foot rods, one immediately to his right and one to his left. Behind those, he uses 11-foot rods, and last, he chooses two eight footers. Off the back of the boat, rods are fished in a straight line and can be any length you are comfortable with. Fred happens to use 10-foot rods for the back of the boat.

If Fred starts out trolling early in the day, when fish are up to feed, he will use a 1/48-oz. or 1/32-oz. jig. Trolled at about one mph, a 1/48-oz. jig will stay a couple of feet down, while the 1/32-oz. will run about four feet deep.

Later in the day as fish move back to deeper water, Fred sizes up to a 1/16-oz. jig. Occasionally, he will double rig a line with a 1/32-oz. jig fished above a 1/16-oz.

Don’t be afraid to try different colors and sizes of jigs until you find what the fish want.

Fred constantly watches for the little keys that can turn the bite on. For example, if his GPS indicates he is traveling 1.3 mph when he starts catching crappie, Fred will continue to troll at that speed for as long as he can.

For either poling or trolling, the color of your jigs is critical. Fred likes a lot of different colors and keeps a variety of favorites to try in different water-clarity situations. Some of Fred’s go-to colors include acid rain (a white and yellow body with a chartreuse tail), John Deere ( a green/yellow/chartreuse pattern), blue/chartreuse, black/chartreuse, pumpkinseed and motor oil.

The old reliable idea of fishing with dark-colored jigs in stained water and lighter colors in clear water holds true when you are trying for crappie on Jackson. Still, Fred urges changing up colors when the fishing gets slow. Sometimes, he will even fish with dark colors in clear water.

“One day I was catching nice, big slabs on a black/chartreuse jig in gin-clear water,” Fred said.

He has caught his two biggest crappie, a 3.02-lb. fish in South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie and a 2.96-pounder out of Lake Oconee on a red/chartreuse pattern.

Typically, Fred fishes with chartreuse or orange jig heads and will experiment to see which the fish prefer from one day to the next. One tip Fred likes to share is to use an orange jighead when you are fishing on a full moon.

“I don’t know what it is, but an orange jig head during a full moon is always productive for me,” Fred said.

Fred points out that much of the prime crappie fishing in Jackson could come in 20 to 30 feet of water. This time of year, particularly right before fish spawn, crappie will hold in the mouths of coves, waiting to move up to spawning water in waves. The big fish typically spawn first, the medium fish go second and small fish move up last.

“In my experience, the best time to catch big crappie is right at the beginning of the spawn,” Fred said.

In case you are wondering when that is, a few days after the March 10 full moon will be a good time to start trying. Of course weather patterns and rainfall amounts can speed up or slow down the beginning of the spawn, but this date is a good indicator. And when the spawn starts, it should last for three or four weeks.

Though there are several boat ramps around Jackson, Fred likes to put in at the Berry’s Boat Ramp on Hwy 212. You can find crappie all over the lake. Fred says big coves are the best place to look in March.

Near Kearsey’s Marina lies some of Fred’s favorite crappie water on the lake. From the Berry’s ramp, you will need to go southwest before the lake makes a big turn, at which point you will head north. If you are traveling north-northeast on the lake, Kearsey’s Marina will be on your left.

Look for a big cove on the right immediately after you pass under a bridge next to the marina. Another good cove is the big cove on the left side of the lake before you get to Kearsey’s Marina. Crappie tend to stack up in these coves during the prespawn and spawn periods on points with eight to 12 feet of water. Fred likes to key on those areas when he’s trolling for slabs.

While Fred is mainly a pole and troll fisherman, he will shoot docks on occasion. Dock shooting will net some nice fish, especially during the late part of the spawn when crappie are under heavy fishing pressure. Because crappie like cover, they will spawn under docks so they can have some peace from the influx of springtime fishing.

“A lot of times, the big crappie will run under docks to spawn, and you can get some big ones by shooting a jig in there,” Fred said.

If you are searching for some fun crappie fishing this month, don’t overlook Lake Jackson. Fred Brinkley’s tactics might fill your cooler with slab crappie, or at least provide a fun day of fishing.

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