Minnow-Rigs, Pop-Eye Jigs Catch Lake Russell March Slabs

When Lake Russell slabs start moving into the creeks, Jerry Craft uses a variety of minnow and minnow/jig rigs to catch them.

Brad Bailey | March 22, 2006

Jerry Craft is a crappie-fishing fanatic. He doesn’t hunt deer much anymore; he doesn’t fish for bass; what he likes best is catching crappie at Lake Russell. In March when the crappie are on the move, coming up from deep structure out on the main lake and moving into the creeks ahead of the spawn, Jerry has a plan for catching them throughout the month that revolves around using various minnow rigs and Pop-Eye jigs.

Jerry lives in Hartwell and works as a cook at the Swamp Guinea restaurant. He spends many of his off days on Lake Russell catching crappie. He has been fishing for crappie as long as he can remember, and he was fortunate that he had a fishing mentor willing to helped get him started.

“There was this old gentleman named Mr. Turner and all he did was fish for crappie,” said Jerry. “He  would come by and get me when I was 10 or 11, and we would go crappie fishing. I was lucky that he would take me, and I learned a lot from him.”

Lake Russell crappie-fishing specialist Jerry Craft of Hartwell with an example of the size slabs you can expect out of Russell right now. January through March are big-fish months, and fishing minnows is a key to catching fish in the colder water.

Beginning as early as late January, the crappie will begin to move into the creeks at Lake Russell. Jerry says to try the creeks nearest the river channel because that’s where the fishing will be best earliest. When I was on the lake with Jerry on Feb. 7, we went into Dry Fork Creek, a creek that branches off the lower end of Vans Creek.

“The crappie will come into the creek channels and suspend in the timber and wait for the water temperature to rise before they make their next move,” said Jerry. “When they come in, they will be out in water as deep as 20 feet, and they will be holding tight to the structure.”

At Russell “structure” means the forest of standing and submerged timber you will find in nearly every creek.

This time of year, minnows are the ticket, and they often mean the difference between catching some slabs and zeroing.

“If you can’t catch them on a minnow, you can’t catch them,” he said. “A lot of times the fish aren’t really interested in eating when the water is so cold, but if you put a minnow in front of their nose, they will bite.”

Jerry says he always has a minnow bucket with him in March, and when the fish are out in the trees he fishes them straight down.

“I just ease through dabbling the minnow around trees,” he said. “Ten to 12 feet should be the strike zone.”

Jerry “dabbles” a live minnow on a No. 4 Eagle Claw gold wire bait hook and a big split-shot on 8-lb. test. He maintains the depth of the bait with a stopper-float and a knot tied on his line. He drops the minnow down beside one tree trunk, lets it sit a few moments, then picks it up and drops it down by the next tree.

Jerry calls the Pop-Eye feather jig the best jig he has ever used for crappie. When the feathers are wet, the jig has a sleek profile in the water. Jerry says chartreuse or chartreuse/black are great jig colors at Russell, and yellow or red/white catch a lot of fish, too.

As he eases through the timber he watches his graph, noting the depth where fish are being marked and making depth adjustments if necessary. He wants to keep the minnow just above the crappie.

“Crappie have their eyes on the top of their head, and they can’t see below,” said Jerry. “If you are not at the right depth where the bait is just above them, you had just as well throw your bait up on the bank.”

There is another danger to fishing minnows too deep at Lake Russell — hordes of hungry, yellow fish that Jerry calls  “bait bandits.”

“You have to keep your minnow off the bottom, or all you catch is yellow perch,” he said.

Even when fishing a lively minnow, the bite is usually subtle. Don’t expect the float to plunge out of sight.
“The crappie aren’t real aggressive this time of year,” he said. “Instead of disappearing with the float, they will just lay it on its side.”

Jerry will also use a minnow-tipped jig below a float as a fish-finding rig when he slow-trolls in March. His No. 1 choice for a crappie jig is a Pop-Eye feather jig made by Cabin Creek Baits of Winchester, Ky. <>.

When a feather jig is wet, it has a streamlined profile. When you tip it with a minnow, it looks like the minnow is trying to eat the jig.

Jerry believes in the jigs. I fished with his jigs, and in pawing through his tackle box, Pop-Eye jigs were all I saw.

“They are the best jigs I have ever used,” he said. “They just seem to work better. When the feathers get wet they come down to a needle point. “When you troll with a minnow on the jig, it looks like the minnow has almost swallowed the jig, and the crappie will jump all over it.”

Jerry likes chartreuse or chartreuse/black jigs. Both come with a big white head and a large black “eye.”

“Anything with chartreuse is good,” he says. “Yellow can be good, but they only bite yellow on certain days. And red-and-white is a good combination, too.”

To make the jig more enticing to lethargic fish, Jerry often tips the Pop-Eye jig with a live minnow.

When he is trolling a minnow-tipped jig, Jerry hooks a medium or small minnow through the lips onto the jig. He then pinches on a couple of big split-shot a foot or so up the line. Depth matters, so he either uses a stopper-float or a weighted float clipped onto the line. This rig is usually fished on a 10-foot long B&M crappie rod to accommodate the long length between the float and the hook.

Jerry slow-trolls along the edges of the stands of timber and moves at a snail’s pace — as slow as his trolling motor will allow. When the water temperature is 50 degrees, as it was when we fished, the crappie aren’t going to run down a fast-moving bait, he says.

While he is pulling minnow-tipped jigs under floats behind the boat, Jerry may also drop another minnow down 10-feet deep right beside the boat. This minnow he hooks through the back just under the dorsal fin, and he keeps it down with a couple of large split-shot. The movement of the water bends the bait over the hook, but Jerry says it is effective.

“I guess the minnow looks like he is in distress,” said Jerry. “The crappie will run up and get him.”

January, February and March are slab months at Russell, says Jerry. His best crappie from the lake weighed 2 1/2 pounds. Last year on February 3 Jerry’s fishing buddy Junior Bannister boated a fish that weighed three pounds and, if certified, would have tied the lake record for white crappie.

By late March or early April the water temperature should be high enough that the crappie will be making their move to the banks. Jerry still likes to fish under a float, but now with warmer water and more aggressive fish, he will skip using the minnows.

“In April you don’t have to mess with the minnows,” he said. “The fish will be a lot more aggressive. I fish a jig about a foot and a half underneath a small float.”

Jerry spends nearly all of his time crappie fishing on the upper half of Lake Russell, fishing in Coldwater Creek, Vans Creek and sometimes in Beaverdam Creek. Pickens Creek is another good creek for crappie, he said.

Many of the creeks at Lake Russell set up similarly for crappie fishing. The center of the creek is a jungle of timber, much of it below the surface. Often there is a quick break from the 20- or 25-foot depth up to the 10- or 12-foot depth, and in March this break, on the edge of the timber, is a good place to concentrate your efforts.Jerry especially likes to find a prominent, secondary point with spawning flats available nearby. The fish will bunch up just off these points in about 10 feet of water awaiting the spawn.

“I’ll troll minnow-tipped jigs across the points, and when the fish are congregated, you will pick up a couple of fish every time you make a pass, or if you find a concentration you can stop and cast minnows under floats to them,” said  Jerry.

Late in March, the fish will start moving off of the points and head back into the flats at the back of the creeks or the back of the pockets to spawn, and a jig under a shallow float becomes the prime fish-catching tactic.

In March the crappie will be moving up, getting ready to go to the banks in April — and Jerry and his minnow rigs and Pop-Eye jigs will be catching them all month.

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