Lake Lanier Crappie With Randy Dover
If you’ve never tried Lanier for crappie, now is the time. May is the prime time to shoot docks, and Lanier crappie are in good shape and heavier than they’ve been in a while.
Randy Dover is in a different boat almost every time you pass him on Lake Lanier. Due to his local reputation for knowing the best docks for crappie, you might think his constant selling and buying of boats is his way of throwing other crappie anglers off his trail. Take one look at Randy and you know that isn’t the case — if he was trying to avoid being recognized on the water and followed, he’d lose the beard.
But Randy doesn’t mind being recognized. He fishes for fun, not for competition, although like any fisherman he is secretive about a handful of his most prized, most productive hotspots.
When you’ve spent 30 years shooting docks on one lake, sorting through the duds, the average, and the good docks to pinpoint the rare, golden few that seem to be perpetually swarming with crappie, you hate to see those magnum docks become over-pressured community holes.
Randy knows, though, that there is an endless supply of both quality docks and crappie on Lanier.
Randy lives near Buford Dam not far from The Dam Store, where he is a familiar regular. He has fished Lanier his whole life and has at one time or another been a serious angler for every species of fish in the lake. He was a diehard striper angler for years (one of his three sons, Randy Lee, still is; he was the National Striped Bass Association champion on Lanier last year). But crappie fishing has remained Randy’ s chief passion through all the others, and now it is all he does. “Shooting” jigs underneath docks and parked boats is his favorite method, and May and June, he says, are the peak months for dock-shooting.
“You can shoot docks all year with success, but May and June is when it is best.”
To learn about Randy’s methods, I fished with him on April 9 in his cur- rent boat — a short, blue, battered but seaworthy rig. Rather than buy shiny, new boats, Randy said he buys old, used boats and fixes them up, fishes out of them for a while, then sells them and moves on to the next one.
“My family accuses me of keeping the ugliest ones,” said Randy, “and I guess that’s right. But my thinking is that if you’re going to fish seriously, you’re going to get the boat dirty. Why buy a new boat and be worried about every little scratch? Besides that, I’ve owned brand-new boats that leaked from the start. Sometimes the old ones are just built better.”
This philosophy also applies to Randy’ s reels. For shooting docks, he uses older-model Zebco 33 spin-cast reels on 5-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik ultra-light rods. The Zebcos are models built between 1960 and 1971, Randy said, and he looks for them at flea mar- kets and garage sales and buys every one he finds.
“All of the parts in those models were made from metal or brass, before they started using plastic for the cover and the mechanical parts,” Randy said.
“You can tell them by the metal cover and the metal knobs. And you can just pick it up and reel it and tell by the feel. They’re just more durable.”
For shooting docks, these reels are spooled with 6-lb. Stren.
Many dock-shooters use open- faced spinning reels. A spin-cast reel is definitely easier to operate and can shoot a jig just as far. If you’ve never shot docks before, or you’re trying to introduce a youngster to dock shooting, spin-cast is the way to go. Make sure you match it with a rod that has some back-bone — a rod tip that is too limber won’t give you the snap you need to launch a jig underneath docks and pontoon boats.
Randy and I fished out of Little River Park access off Hwy 129/11 on the upper end of the lake. Though he lives at the dam, Randy trailers to the upper end to fish for crappie.
“The water color is dingier on the upper end, and I like stained water for shooting docks,” said Randy. “There’s more cover on this end, too, and there just seem to be a lot more fish.”
Leaving the ramp, we motored around the corner and into Wahoo Creek, then under the 283 bridge into the back of Wahoo. This creek and all of its coves and tributaries, along with Taylors Creek, Little River, and the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers, are Randy’s prime areas.
With the heavy and regular rains we have been getting recently, Wahoo and the other creeks we fished on April 9 were stained and full of floating debris. The water temperature had dropped after a recent rain to about 60 degrees, though the afternoon before Randy had been fishing 64-degree water and was slaying crappie under docks. Between seven or eight different docks, Randy hooked 60 crappie.
“When the water temperature gets to 65 degrees and stays there rather than fluctuates, the crappie will be on the banks getting ready to spawn,” Randy said. “That’s usually April 1, but we’re running a couple of weeks behind on water temperature this year because of all the rain. Just before that 65-degree mark, they will bunch up under the docks like they are doing now, staging for the spawn. When they get on the bank you can catch some really nice ones with a weighted cork about three feet up from a jig. At 68 degrees, they’re spawning, then they pull back to the docks and hold tight. That’s when you can really wear them out under the docks in May and June. But, since we’re a couple of weeks behind the normal schedule, when this article comes out you might still be able to catch them on the banks for a few days.”
As we headed toward a shoreline of boat docks in the back of Wahoo Creek, I noticed that Randy was making a straight line for one particular dock rather than taking on a line of docks and fishing them all. This is where years of experience come in. Randy has come to know the docks that are consistently strong producers. He also knows which ones not to bother with, like docks whose owners have installed obstacles especially to repel fishermen or prevent them from casting underneath the structures. Luckily, the docks where anglers are unwelcome are fewer in number, but in order to keep them from becoming more numerous, Randy encourages all fishermen to respect dock owners. Because many people swim around their docks, make every effort to retrieve hung jigs and lures without stepping onto a private dock. A void bumping your boat into the dock or other, parked boats. New dock shooters should practice their skills on public docks or other structure before fishing private docks in order to reduce the number of misfired jigs hitting unintended targets.
Short of GPS coordinates, it would be difficult to give directions to specific docks that I fished with Randy — Lanier is just too big a place and there are too many docks, most of which look alike. “Large, two-boat dock with a pontoon boat, a ski boat and a jet ski” describes a heck of a lot of Lanier docks. The good news is that most of them hold a few crappie, and many of them hold a lot of crappie. Your odds of catching crappie are very good if you just fish every dock in the first cove you pull into.
“There’s no particular depth to look for under a dock this time of year,” said Randy. “You might find one in eight feet of water that is full of fish, and you might find one in 20 feet of water that is full of fish. Some docks are brushed up with Christmas trees, and that’s a bonus, but there are also good docks for crappie that don’ t appear to have any brush. You’ve just got to fish docks and see what’s there.”
As you work docks, Randy said to expect to catch fish quickly if they are there and you hit the right spots.
“You might fish 10 docks before you hit one that pays off,” Randy said. “You’ll pull up on one and catch fish for 45 minutes almost every cast.”
Shade is everything. When you approach any dock, the most likely place to shoot a jig and get a bite is the darkest area under the dock. This is why dock shooting will not be as productive (though still effective) early in the morning and on cloudy days. When the summer sun is out in May and June, crappie are locked into the well-defined shade under docks. When that shade is less well defined on cloudy days, the schools of crappie spread out.
As you approach a covered dock, which describes the majority of docks on Lanier, and assuming that a pontoon boat is parked in the slip or slips in this dock, which also describes the majority of docks on Lanier, the darkest areas of opportunity will be down the sides of the pontoon boats and even between the pontoons of an individual boat. If the pontoon is parked motor outward, you’ll have to shoot between the prop and the pontoon on each side, but this can be a very productive spot if you become skilled at hitting this hole. If the pontoon is parked front-end out- ward, the gap between the pontoons is much wider and easier to hit, but it also admits more sunlight, and the crappie are still more likely to be found under the far end.
As a good example of the importance of heavy shade, Randy pointed out a dock as we passed it. It had an empty boat slip on the inside and a pontoon boat tied up to the outside edge of the dock, exposed to the sky.
“That used to be a real good dock,” said Randy, “then for some reason they started parking the pontoon boat on the outside instead of under the roof. I don’t know why they did that, but since then that dock quit producing.”
More than any other jig, under normal water conditions, Randy uses a 1/24-oz. Hal-Fly with a yellow head, yellow chenille body and a white Maribou tail. He will occasionally alternate to an all-white Hal-Fly. In heavily stained water, he’ll switch to a 1/16-oz. Mack Farr’ s Popeye jig with a pink head and white tail.
“When you lower your jig into the water, and you can’t see it below six inches under the surface, you need to go to that Popeye jig,” said Randy.
If you aren’t familiar with dock shooting, simply let out line to about half the length of your rod, pinch the jig by the head with your free hand, pull on the jig until the rod is bent like a catapult and — fire! Remember to let go of the spin-cast button or, if you’re using a spinning reel, the line. You should practice this a few times over open water before trying to make shots into cover. Once you begin fishing docks, you may have to kneel down in the boat or lean out over the water to hold your “slingshot” low enough to make the more difficult shots, like between a prop and a pontoon.
Randy’s shooting technique is simple. Shoot the jig into a dark, interior corner or cranny of the dock, raise your rod tip to take out the slack in the line, and watch the line as the jig falls.
“Ninety percent of the time, they’ll hit it on the fall, and sometimes, like yesterday afternoon, they’ll pick it up right when it hits the water,” said Randy. “Until I find out how deep the fish are, I’ll shoot and start reeling it back slowly. If nothing hits it, the next cast I’ll count to two or three and then start reeling it slowly back, and a little longer count the next time until I find the depth. Sometimes when I reel it in I retrieve steadily, and sometimes I twitch it as I bring it in.
“Most of the time it’s just a little tap when they hit it,” said Randy. “You’ll see the line twitch and you’ll just barely feel that tap, and you set the hook. A few days this week they’ve been real aggressive, and they’ve been hitting it hard.”
Occasionally, your crappie jig may attract the attention of something other than a crappie. Channel cats are likely to stretch your string now and again, along with spotted bass, largemouths, stripers and, on rare occasions, walleye.
“I caught a 5 1/2-lb. spot about a week ago on a Hal-Fly,” said Randy. “I had my hands full with him. I like to never got him in the boat.”
The day I fished with Randy, we didn’t catch any of these other fish, and we didn’t catch a lot of crappie, either. For two days Randy had been hauling them in steadily, and then a high pressure front moved in and the water temperature dropped back to between 60 and 61. Friends of Randy’s who were also out shooting docks that morning said they were struggling, too. Trollers we passed seemed to be having better luck, indicating that the crappie had scattered back out from the docks with the slightly cooler weather and high pressure. We caught several throw- backs and we did manage to put a couple of 3/4-lb. crappie in the boat, as well as one that pushed over a pound.
“That’s what I’ve been catching a lot of this year,” said Randy, showing me the pound slab. “This is the best year we’ve had on Lanier in a long time. Normally, a half-pound crappie is a good one. This year I’m catching a lot of pound, pound-and-a-half crappie.”
Being his own boss makes it easy for Randy to get on the lake when conditions are right, even on a weekday. He and his family own and operate 3D Construction and specialize in Bobcat work, concrete finishing and timber walls. Though he hits the lake by himself any chance he gets, he likes to share his boat, too.
“I really enjoy taking people fishing, especially older folks and young kids who have as much fun as I do,” said Randy.
He added that he has given some thought to becoming a part-time crappie fishing guide. If you’d like to get on the lake with Randy and try shooting Lanier docks for crappie, give him a call. You won’t have a hard time talking him into going fishing — he’ll probably be on the lake when he answers.
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