Oconee Slabs With Mr. Jiffy Jigs
Jimmy Brantley operates his popular Jiffy Jigs company in Vidalia, and he joined guide Doug Nelms to show us how to find and catch Lake Oconee's big crappie in February.
There are fish down there. Somewhere. Under all that Lake Oconee mud.
They’re stacked up in the creek channel (hint, hint), clearly visible on the Humminbird depthfinder. The three of us up top in the big Ranger want a closer look at them—as in aboard. And I’m confident we can get it done; mainly because I happen to be fishing with two of the best crappie fishermen to be found: Lake Oconee guide Doug Nelms and Jiffy Jigs owner Jimmy Brantley.
It’s Jan. 9, 48 degrees air temp, 51-degree water. If we went any farther up the lake, we’d be on the bank, having launched at Swords Landing and motoring up toward the Apalachee River and mouth of the Oconee River. To our left lies the Indian mounds, a well-known local landmark. This particular spot is called the Smokehouse, and we’ll push through it and quite a few more in this northern end as we attempt to get you set up for the February Lake Oconee bite.
As always when dealing with fish and lake conditions, things can change quickly. Here’s what to look for, with tips from a couple of go-to guys on how to adapt.
On the trip from Dublin that morning, Lake Sinclair was shimmering like a jewel in the day’s first light. Rolling up 441, the cove at Lakeside Marina and the old steam plant featured surprisingly clear water considering the fact that December and January seemed to have morphed into Georgia’s monsoon season. We weren’t fishing Sinclair, however; and that was the last clean water I’d be seeing for a while. Oconee was the most stained I’d ever witnessed. But that seemed to bother me more than it did guide Doug Nelms.
“The clearer the water the better, usually,” the guide said, “but I’m not entirely opposed to the mud. It’s always muddy up the Apalachee. The old-timers used to say that it doesn’t matter how much mud there is as long as it’s at least three days old. I’ve proven that true. Fresh water influx is what shuts the fish down, but after three days, the fishing will pick back up.”
It has been about a 15-minute run to where we first set out rods, and Doug stresses that it pays to take care during that stretch.
“It’s treacherous up here sometimes, with a lot of standing timber under water and flats that you can run up on,” he warned. “You have to stay in the channel and stay on top of your electronics.”
I’m easily entertained, and fascinated by staying on top of that Humminbird depthfinder. As the big Ranger 2360 slithers up the channel, 250 Yamaha growling as it idles along, the screen displays everything down there within its 55-foot coverage span: channel clearly outlined down to 22 feet, slopes leading up to shallow flats at the sides, a few bottom-hugging large fish—and then loads of smaller ones stacked up at about 7 to 10 feet.
Bingo. Let’s set out some rods.
This is a BIG boat; riding with Doug is traveling in style and comfort. That said, the craft’s size comes into play when it’s time to go fish.
“The bigger the boat, the longer the rods need to be to get the bait away from its profile,” he explained. “I run all the way down to a 14-foot boat and adjust rod length accordingly. We’re using 16-foot Wally Marshalls.”
The rods are set up with Celsius Ice Reels, 30 to 40 yards of 8-lb. test Seaguar Red Label Fluorocarbon line tied onto the reel’s backing. Going down the line you run into a clacking red bead between two bobber stoppers. This adds a little noise to draw in nosy crappie. If the lure hangs up, you can pop the line at the stops and make it quicker to re-tie. The bead will also alert a fisherman to slow bites, which bigger fish are notorious for.
“When I first started guiding, Mr. J.C. Brantley (Jimmy’s dad) was my first sponsor. He came out to fish and gave me a bunch of different Jiffy Jigs and has supplied me over the years. I use them exclusively, because they catch fish,” said Doug.
Jiffy Jigs (912.537.4699) is based in Vidalia, and it has come a long way since being purchased by J.C., who passed away in 2018. It’s a family affair, with Jimmy, wife Jamie—“who’s more important than I ever was around here”—sons Chris, Justin and Bryan, and even his mom pitching in to churn out jigs by the ton.
“They all start with a naked, 90-degree hook,” Jimmy explains. “We add the lead, spray it with a taxidermy-type paint gun, dot eyeballs on each side, then go through the hook eye with an old-fashioned ice pick to be sure we don’t have any clogs. You can dot about a thousand in 15 minutes, and every feather on every jig is hand tied. My boys can do over a hundred an hour.”
Makes you look at a jig in a new light…
“Daddy bought the business in 2002, and there were eight colors at the time,” Jimmy continued. “We’ve added colors over the years, customizing the jigs as customers asked for different things, then putting them into production. Every fisherman seems to have his favorite colors, and they vary from lake to lake and season to season. As conditions change, different colors and sizes produce fish. If you have a variety to offer, the fish will let you know what they want.”
Doug agrees and starts rattling off favorites from trips past: “First off, I like the 1/16-oz. body because it’s windy a lot this time of year, and even though I have the lead on, I want to keep the lure down. As far as colors, there’s the black head with blue glitter body and black feathers. There’s one I call the sexy bug with a chartreuse head, red glitter body and a chartreuse tail. My Doug bug is a chartreuse head, ice blue glitter body and a chartreuse tail. Just any of the dark colors, black head, purple glitter body and black tail is a good jig. Then some days all they want is the solid pink jig.”
The variety is endless, and at times picking and choosing may sound like guesswork. Actually, it’s called fishing. We’re going to come back to the following point in a bit, but if there is one thing you don’t want to guess at—the single most important factor in catching Lake Oconee crappie—it’s electronics.
Now that we’ve used them to find the fish and have come equipped with a large variety of jigs, thanks to Jimmy, it’s time to start asking questions—a dozen at a time.
We’re pushing jigs, which means that there are 12 rods in the holder on the bow as we move up the channel. Why pushing, instead of pulling, with rods behind the boat?
Simple: “You will always catch bigger fish pushing than you will pulling,” Doug says. “We have a fishing derby on Oconee, and every fish that has ever won any of the top three prizes has been caught pushing, with the exception of one. We’re pushing a big offering with 12 rods out, and we’re moving very slowly to keep the bait in front of that big fish longer.
“We’re fishing straight down with lure depths of 7 to 10 feet, going no more than half a mile an hour. If you’re pulling, you’re doing twice that or more most of the time. Too, when you get into fish, you can whip right around and get on them this way instead of making a long loop while pulling. You can pull and catch a hundred fish, but they’ll be smaller fish. When pushing, 40 or so is a big day, but they’ll be much bigger fish.”
The pleasant morning is warming under a glorious sun. Doug’s educating. I’m watching Humminbird TV and scribbling. Jimmy’s fishing. Then I hear, for the first time, “POP IT!”
But Jimmy had seen the rod tip, fourth from the right in case you’re interested, go down, too. He popped it upward before removing the rod from the holder, then swung in our first fish of the day. Black head, clear glitter body, black tail. Jig number 38.
“It’s a habit,” Doug laughs, “and if my clients don’t pop it, my voice will get louder and louder and louder! I tell ’em ‘Pop, strip and lift.’ Pop it hard to set the hook, strip it to run line out, then lift the fish to you. It takes a big pop to set the hook on a big fish, and that’s what they are this time of year. The bigger the fish, the lighter they bite sometimes, and you have to be ready.”
Speaking of bigger fish…
One good thing about a jig and minnow combo is that just about anything in the lake will try to eat it given half a chance. If you’d like a clear picture of what a debacle truly is, let a striper or hybrid bass charge into a 12-rod crappie set. In 10 seconds, they can tie knots that Houdini couldn’t get out of. Most crappie fishermen despise such fish upon such occasions. But I never met a striper or hybrid that I didn’t like. White bass, either.
We pulled in a couple more crappie before Jimmy popped something that quickly popped back. (Fourth from the left; black head and body, chartreuse tail.) He stripped, but there was no lifting this one. There was about a foot and a half of displeased striper down there, and somebody was about to be required to ramble around the Ranger to get him away from those other 11 lines. I offered to take him off Mr. Brantley’s hands, pushed him forward and out of the set, then walked to the back. That 4-lb. striper on 8-lb. test and a 16-foot buggy whip was worth the drive. And there’s more on stripers later…
With the muddy conditions, we were well aware in advance that it wasn’t going to be a boat-loading trip. January is always iffy at best, but things should be settling down—and hopefully clearing up—as February rolls in. Capt. Doug Nelms lives on the lake. We fished a few hundred yards from his home. So if anyone can keep up with Oconee, he can, and sometimes just by gazing out the window. Look him up at www.bigfishheads.com or buzz him at 770.354.0300.
I’d have a hard time trying to scrub up a pair of more likeable guys than Doug Nelms and Jimmy Brantley. They’re just fun to be around. And I’ll let Doug leave you with some great advice on where and how to chase and catch Oconee crappie in February and beyond.
“The water temperature is going to be in the 50s in February, and crappie will stage in the river channels and secondary points,” said Doug. “You’ll see the fish in 7 or 8 feet of water, but you won’t see a fish outside the channel. If the temperature happens to bump up a little with a good sunny day, they will move into the coves or up onto the flats into 4 or 5. If the weather drops, they’ll move right back out into the channel.
“Some of my favored locations include up the Apalachee, Lick Creek, between the bridges, Sugar Creek, down the marina side, Big Satellite and Little Satellite coves, and Grayson White’s cove is another place I’ll look. On any given day I may just hit all those coves.”
And you may want to sit up and pay attention here. It can help eliminate an awful lot of empty water on a very large lake, as well as all the hours and expense required running up and down it. We’ve sectioned off a small portion of Oconee here, but the pattern—channels, coves and their resulting water depths—can be applied from one end to the other. That especially comes into play should you be looking for clean water or an area sheltered from those blustery February/March winds.
“The biggest fault crappie fishermen have this time of year is that they don’t trust their electronics,” Doug says. “It will become very, very clear when you go into a spot whether the fish or there or not. The depthfinder will tell you right off. If they are there, just stay on it. It’s hard to go in there one day and catch fish, then go the next and not see them. Don’t just crank up, run out and go down the lake searching for another spot similar to this one and looking for fish. Crappie tend to just stay around the same spot. Move around a little until they’re located. Trust your electronics.”
So there’s your recipe for February crappie on Oconee. From then on, that recipe changes—including the ingredients. Doug is a superb crappie fisherman, but BigFishHeads Guide Service didn’t get its name from a panfish.
“By the end of March, I’m not pushing for crappie any more,” he laughs, and you can hear the excitement in his voice. “From March through May I’m just on stripers. I’ll be sick of those little tiny fish by the time it’s striper season. It’s like tying on rope the first time I gear up to go after them or Oconee’s big hybrids. You don’t hear much about it, but Oconee is a great striper lake. I went out on a DNR shocking trip and saw fish in the 20-lb. range. Masters week or right around spring break is always striper time. It’s all a live-bait bite and absolutely the best time for big fish.”
But if those big stripers or shoulder-wrenching hybrids aren’t your thing, “We start back on the crappie June, July and August, hitting the brushpiles,” said Doug.
Whatever your Oconee fish of choice, Doug likely has a good idea of where it’s hanging out and when. Call him up at 770.354.0300, or find more info at his website bigfishheads.com.
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