Longline Slab Crappie During West Point’s Spring Spawn

This is the perfect time to catch big crappie as the spring bite heats up.

Nick Carter | February 23, 2011

Georgia Slab Masters tournament trail regulars Earl Kitchens, of Gray, and Wayne Ard, of Lizella, (from left) said now is the best time to catch West Point slab crappie.

There’s a reason tournament partners Earl Kitchens, of Gray, and Wayne Ard, of Lizella, drive halfway across Georgia to fish West Point Lake. The crappie fishing can be that good.

And, in late February and early March, when the first waves of egg-heavy females begin pushing into the shallows to spawn, the fishing gets that much better. It’s the time of year when Wayne and Earl might even take a day off the Georgia Slab Masters tournament trail for a meat trip. And where do they go to fill their freezers?

“I live a few minutes from Sinclair and Oconee, and I’ll ride two hours to fish West Point,” said Earl, putting an abrupt end to that line of questioning.

I met cousins Earl and Wayne up the Chattahoochee arm of the lake at the Highway 219 access on an early February day when heavy rains had just swept through. The lake had risen 3 feet in the last two days, and both anglers were sandbagging, blaming the weather for the lack of fish that we hadn’t even tried to catch yet.

After spending a few hours on the water, their outlook began to change, though. Fish after fish fell victim to the jigs — or crappie bugs, as they call them — in their longline trolling spread, which plied a wide swath of water behind the boat.

Wayne, a decorated Vietnam veteran who is spending his retirement working at Bass Pro Shops in Macon, was the first to notice the signs of the upcoming spawn.

“A lot of these females are full of eggs,” he said. “The last week of February, the first couple of weeks of March, it’ll be on,” Wayne said. “A lot of people want to wait until (the water temp) gets into the high 50s or 60s, and they’ve waited too late. All the big fish have moved back out.”

The big 1 1/2- to 2-lb. plus slabs Earl and Wayne look for to anchor their tournament sacks will make up the first wave of fish moving up onto the interior points and the flats in the backs of creeks to spawn. Wayne said the magic water temperature is 50 to 54 degrees. For this early stage of the spawn, a few days of warm weather will push fish up into 3 to 6 feet of water; a cold front will push them back out.

“Late February and early March, they’ll start out suspended over the points then follow the points up into the shallows,” Wayne said.

Earl, intent on his rod spread, chimed in from the front of the boat, “When it gets to be March, I’ll be running 1.2 to 1.3 miles per hour in 3 feet of water. I’ll pull just as shallow and as fast as I can.”

But trolling up slabs is more than just riding around on the trolling motor. Earl explained the team’s plan of attack for a creek or slough.

“We’ll start at the mouth of a creek and pull the middle all the way back, then pull back out on one side,” he said. “If we’re not doing anything there, we’ll go to the other side.”

Wayne interjected, “What we’re doing is checking the temp and looking for fish on the way in, and then on the way out we’re usually catching fish wherever the water is warmest.”

Wayne said they’ll make sure to clip points that have rocks or sand, where the water temperature may be a degree or two warmer. As the sun warms the water throughout the day, sunny banks or flats with stumps or brush become attractive, as well.

“Got another one, cuz,” Wayne barked from the back of the boat as he swung a respectable 3/4-lb. slab over the side. “Looks like we’re doing all the catching back here.”

Earl has done a little customizing of his trolling bars so he can seat his rods upright when he is running. He used 1-inch PVC piping, installed 1-inch T-sections on either end and a 4-way connecter in the middle. He attached the upright holder to the rod bar with a radiator hose clamp and painted the whole thing black to match the trolling bar.

Earl shot back, “That’s ’cause you’ve got me up here guiding you all over the lake, cuz.”

Wayne responded, “I think they’re hitting the pink.”

Hot pink, acid rain, electric blue, Tennessee shad, blue/chartreuse, lemon meringue, those are just a few of the colors Earl and Wayne like.

“We’re running 12 rods and 24 different color bugs,” said Wayne. “We’ll switch them out if they’re hitting a certain color.”

Earl added, “He has his colors, and I have mine, and we give each other a hard time all the time about which ones are better. One thing I do like to do is fish brighter colors in the sunshine and darker colors when it’s cloudy.”

Cuz and cuz like AWD and KBait tripple-ripple and curly tail bodies on 1/16-, 1/32-, and 1/64-oz. jigs depending on the depth they’re trolling. When the fish are suspended 6 to 8 feet deep over the points or channels, they’ll typically fish a double rig with a 1/16-oz. bug on top and a 1/32-oz. bug about 18 inches down the line. Earl ties on both his baits with a loop knot to allow for more action.

When the fish push up into the shallows, Wayne and Earl will keep on longlining, but they’ll adjust their depth to keep from hanging bottom by trolling faster and going with either a single 1/32-oz. bug on each line or running a 1/64-oz. bug 18 inches behind a 1/32-oz. bug.

In the back of the boat, Wayne has two three-rod trolling bars mounted on the stern deck. On meat trips he fishes 9-, 7- and 5-foot rods from the outside in. He likes his lines out about 50 feet behind the boat. In the front of the boat, Earl has two three-rod trolling bars mounted on either side of his seat. To cover as wide a swath of water as he can, he fishes 16-, 14- and 12-foot rods from the bow back in his rod holders. He’ll let his lines out about 40 feet, which helps avoid tangles with the stern lines when they go into a turn.

With so many bugs in the water, line and boat control are essential, and a wayward school of West Point’s hard-pulling hybrids or stripers can quickly foul the whole spread. Cuz and cuz angle their rod tips down to about 3 inches off the water’s surface for better line control, and if a tangle occurs, they’re quick to help each other out.

“A little help here, cuz,” said Wayne, holding a small hybrid on the end of a rod in one hand and swinging a rod with a crossed line toward the front of the boat with the other hand. Steering the boat with controls on his wrist like a watch, Earl stepped to the back of the front deck and cleared the tangle. A speedy fix can keep a small mess from turning into a big one.

The one thing that bothers Earl about spring crappie fishing on West Point is all the other boats. Although that’s directly related to the good fishing, Earl tries to avoid the crowds by avoiding the most popular areas.

“Every time you see anything about crappie fishing on West Point, it’s always the same creeks,” he said. “Everyone’s going to fish Yellow Jacket and Whitewater. You can walk from boat to boat when the fish are on.”

The reason boats are packed so tightly is because people are catching fish in those creeks from late February through March. But tournament anglers know that just because fish are biting doesn’t mean better fish aren’t biting somewhere else.

“We leave biting fish to go check out other places all the time,” said Earl.

Wayne added, “We’ll move off of biting fish to try to find bigger ones. The reason is, we know they’re there, and they’ll stay there. We can come back if we need to. In a tournament, you have to experiment all the time and try to find bigger fish.”

North to south on West Point, cuz and cuz have filled livewells in Wolf, Half Moon, Turkey, Wilson, Stroud and Maple creeks. Wolf, Turkey and Wilson are the favorites they were willing to share. But, at times they have resorted to joining the crowds.

Also, don’t hesitate to try the smaller sloughs, some of which aren’t even named on maps. There’s no telling where you might troll into a mess of crappie, and right now is the time to do it at West Point.

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