Lanier’s Forgotten Crappie

Some big slabs and good numbers await dock-shooters on Lake Lanier.

Joe DiPietro | May 2, 2010

Lanier crappie fisherman Brian Johnson shows off a good eating-sized crappie caught shooting jigs to shaded docks.

The sound and aroma of crappie fillets sizzling in hot oil is enough to make just about anyone salivate.

But, when someone mentions Lake Lanier, it often brings to mind huge striped bass and plentiful spotted bass, not crappie. However, under the countless docks on the lake, there are tons of black and white crappie to catch. Because most anglers target the larger species in the lake, the crappie receive a relatively low amount of pressure. The fact that you can almost always find a few crappie willing to bite is one of the best reasons to chase the paper-mouthed panfish on Lanier.

“I love catching them,” said Capt. Clay Cunningham, owner of Catching Not Fishing Guide Service. “The steady action is great.”

Even though it takes a bit of work to clean enough crappie for a big fish fry, it’s definitely worth every minute spent preparing it. The consistency of crappie catch rates is sure to keep anyone entertained for hours, from the youngest angler to the oldest.

“They’re so tasty, too.” said avid Lanier crappie angler Brian Johnson, of the TimberGhost on Lanier. “It’s a good change of pace, too.”

The crappie action was awesome the last two weeks of April, and it should continue into May. A key point to hooking up with crappie in May is being able to find them as they move back into deeper water after they spawn, Clay said. In May, he will be targeting deeper docks off the main creek channels. He said the best docks will have 20 to 30 feet of water under them, and the more shade the better.

“They’re going to start to pull back out into deeper water sometime in May,” Clay said. “Try the deeper docks along the channel side of the creeks.”

The afternoon we fished, I thought the action was great. While Clay and Brian weren’t complaining, they did mention just how much hotter the action can be.

“Sometimes, if the time and conditions are right, you can have a hundred-fish day, no problem,” Brian said. “I mean, literally, a fish on every cast.”

Clay, Brian and I headed out of War Hill Park, located on the upper west side of the reservoir. After a short boat ride, we found the fish. We started the afternoon fishing on the north side of the lake where the Chestatee River flows into the lake. The Toto Creek area is typically productive, also.

That’s not to say there are not crappie on the Chattahoochee River side of the upper lake. Locations around Wahoo Creek and Clarks Bridge are both great starting points on the upper eastern side of the lake, Clay said.

The day we fished, the water was slightly stained and the water levels were finally back to normal after several years of drought.

“Most people fish the north end of the lake for crappie because it’s more stained, and the fish tend to like that,” Clay said. “There are also more fish per acre up here. Part of that is just because it’s not as big as the lower areas of the lake, so it’s easier to find the fish.”

Brian added, “You’ve really got everything working in your favor up here.”

A Popeye Jig sweetened with a crappie minnow is deadly under Lanier docks.

As we pulled up to the first dock, Clay carefully positioned his boat to get as close to the dock, boat and other structure as possible, but not so close that the fish spooked.

“A lot of people drop Christmas trees under their docks,” said Clay. “Look for docks with rod holders and bait buckets. That’s a good indication.”

Once positioned, Clay shot a 1/32-oz. white jig back into the boat slip, dropping his jig perfectly between the dock and the boat which was up on a lift. Before I was even rigged up, I heard a Clay holler, “There’s one! I can tell he’s a crappie by how he’s fighting.”

After a quick tussle, Clay dropped an average-sized 1⁄2 -lb. white crappie in the livewell.

“Sometimes you can catch them right out in front of a dock,” Brian said. “But, always try to get way back under the docks. Either way, once you find them it’s usually gravy.”

Brian and Clay continued catching crappie after crappie with their favorite tactic of using ultralight and light spinning rigs spooled with 4-lb. line. They would kneel on the deck of the boat, lean over the gunwale and hold the rod with an open bail in one hand and the lure in the other. Then, they’d pull back on the lure, bend the rod and fire the lure back under a dock, almost like they were firing their lures with a bow.

Both anglers agreed that the standard crappie jigs like Hal Flys, Popeye Jigs and rubber-bodied jigs work well. Naturally, small minnows also do the trick on a jig or on a bare hook when fished under a cork, but it’s tough to shoot a minnow rig with a bobber.

“When I’m using live bait, I’m a big fan of size 6 to 8 Tru-Turn or Eagle Claw Aberdeen hooks,” Brian said.

In spite of all the options, the lure that was really working well when we fished was a Popeye Jig, which is made locally by Mack Farr. It’s a simple 1/32-oz. jig head with two long lengths of feather tied on each side of the jig. Popeye Jigs with white and pink heads and white feathers work well in clear water, Clay said. When the water is stained, it’s tough to beat a chartreuse-body Popeye Jig.

“They also seem to really like what’s called the ‘Halloween pattern,’” Brian said. “They call it that because it’s Halloween colors — orange and black.”

After spending about 30 minutes at the first dock, Brian and Clay had already put several fish in the boat. Meanwhile, I was missing plenty of hits as I struggled to get the hang of the bow-casting technique. It was like riding a bike, though. After I got the hang of it, I was catching crappie right alongside Brian and Clay.

“Fish a dock for 15 to 20 minutes, then move on if you’re not catching good numbers or anything,” Clay said. “Don’t waste your time.”

While there are plenty of docks to pick from, “it’s still important to scout and pinpoint which ones are the best,” Brian said.

Watch for soft bites that crappie often fool anglers with.

“Sometimes you’ll feel them hit it,” Clay said. “But, usually I’m watching my line to tell when I’ve got one.”

This Lanier crappie fell for a Popeye Jig, a simple feather jig tied locally by Mack Farr.

It’s also time to move on if you find a place “where you wear them out, but every one is a dink,” Brian said. “Or if you catch a bass or see one hanging around. I haven’t quite figured out just why, but for some reason the crappie just don’t seem to hang out under docks with bass.”

Next to fishing the docks, pitching live minnows or jigs under a cork is a great way to find fish in the vegetated coves that have woody brush in them. The brush grew up during the long drought the state recently went through. Coves and sloughs that went dry began growing vegetation. Some of the brush is still green and leafy, and in other spots it is standing dead.

Fishing the vegetated coves “is a good, relaxing way to fish because it’s a little slower pace,” Brian said. “The fish seem to like the dead brush best.”

Clay added, “It’s a great way to take a kid crappie fishing, because it’s not as hard as pitching jigs at the docks.”

After hitting a few more docks, we motored over to a brushy cove and once again started catching crappie. The fish weren’t as schooled up in the brush, but there were usually one or two around any bush.

“They’re more spread out in places like this,” Brian said. “It’s good that we’ve got the cover, but it can make the fish harder to locate.”

The livewell was filling up fast, and I couldn’t help but dream of fried crappie for dinner. After plucking a few crappie out of the brush, we moved on and went back to hitting docks. The first dock was a total miss, and we moved on in just a few minutes. We headed to a different cove that Brian said had been excavated some years ago. Apparently, the excavation created a good spot for crappie because it had a good solid bottom.

I made one cast that landed near the corner between the main dock and the floating walkway from shore. It was just a few seconds before my jig was nailed by a crappie and my bobber went under. I fought the fish to the boat, and into the livewell he went.

All three of us began catching crappie hand over fist. We couldn’t help ourselves as we caught all we could. However, most were in the same 8- to 10-inch range.

“Let’s go hit a few more docks before we go,” Clay said to me. “I’m sure you’ve got plenty for dinner now.”

Clay lined his boat along the front side of a covered dock with a sailboat in one slip, a fishing boat in another and a jet ski tied off to it.

“They love the covered docks because it gives them that much more shade and security,” Brian said.

Be sure to look around and be open to new spots, but “it’s about the same docks every year,” said Brian.

Even though Clay doesn’t eat much fish, he likes to keep crappie for his family and friends.

“My dad and brothers absolutely love it,” he said. “For me it’s all about the steady action.”

For Brian, tracking the schools of big crappie is one of his favorite aspects of targeting them.

“I like the hunt for the fish,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a bust, and other times it’s on fire, and it really pays off.”

After about four hours on the water, we called it a day and each took our “one last cast.”

“There he is,” Brian shouted. “This one is definitely a good one.”

Brian’s 6-foot light spinning pole was doubled over.

“Is it a bass?” Brian asked. “No, wait, I see him, it’s a big crappie.”

A few seconds later, Brian made everyone’s day with a very respectable crappie of about 2 pounds and about 16 inches long.

“Now, those are the ones I like the best, “ Brian said.

With just shy of 40 fish collectively caught by three anglers in the middle of the day, we felt more than satisfied. We motored back to the ramp and loaded everything up.

Clay and Brian both said that crappie can be caught anytime of the day if you can find them.

“Once it gets dark, a lot of guys like to use Hydro-Glows and fish around the bridges,” Clay said.

As soon as I got home, I sat down to fillet all the fish and then battered and fried the succulent, white, flaky meat.

“It’s one of the best-tasting fish in the lake,” said Brian.

For more information on Popeye Jigs or any other crappie tackle, call Brian at (770) 888-0920. To book a trip for crappie or any other species in the lake, call Clay at (770) 630-2673.

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