Shoot Docks For West Point Crappie By The Hundreds
You can catch more than 200 crappie a day at West Point shooting docks in June. That may seem like an unachievable dream, but Payton Caldwell does it almost every trip.
In the June 2003 issue, GON published an article on shooting docks at West Point with Payton’s grandfather, Joel Chambers (gon.com/fishing/run-run-and-gun-for-west-points-deep-shade-crappie). During the fishing trip in mid-May of 2003, Joel and now-retired GON editor Brad Bailey boated an incredible 273 crappie, which was an unofficial ‘GON magazine article record.’
Grandfather Joel Chambers and Uncle Matt Chambers taught Payton well. He started fishing with them before he can remember, and he has pictures of himself fishing for crappie with them when he was just 2 years old.
Payton called me and said he wanted to go beat his grandfather’s record. On May 5, a rainy day, we set out to try to do that, and to allow Payton to share his secrets on catching crappie that work so well in June.
“I hope the sun comes out this afternoon,” Payton said when we met at Georgia Park to launch his boat at 7 a.m. He said sunlight positions crappie under the docks in the shade and makes them easier to catch.
Although it rained all day and the sun never came out, we boated an unbelievable 321 crappie before I had to leave at 2 p.m. That is landing an average of a crappie every 72 seconds during the seven hours we fished, and we rode down to the back of Whitewater Creek and back in that time. Payton stayed to fish and ended up with 485 crappie caught before dark.
You won’t go to West Point, start shooting docks and catch 200 crappie in a day. Or even 100 most likely. But if you listen to Payton’s tips on finding the right docks and using the right tackle and methods, you can learn enough to break your personal best.
Many folks use tackle that is too heavy for crappie. Payton uses a 5-foot custom Mud Hole Tackle rod with a light tip but good backbone paired with a small spinning reel. He spools the reel with 4-lb. test yellow Super Vis line and ties on a 1/24-oz. jig head. Keeping the reel about half full of line eliminates many loop problems.
That seems like way too light a line to get fish out from under docks, but Payton says the light line is important. Although several bigger crappie got us around the lower units of boat motors, we never broke one off or lost one due to light line.
Grandfather Joel pours Payton’s jig heads, but any head the correct weight should work. A small barb to hold the body on is a good feature when shooting docks. Payton likes a black jig head and buys black/white/yellow 2-inch tube jigs in bulk. You will lose some, so cheaper is better!
I saw how important it is to get your jig way back under a dock. Payton was catching 10 fish to my one, landing 20 off the first dock where I didn’t get a bite. That was before I realized my jig was hitting a foot or three short of where his was hitting. After about two hours of re-learning an old skill, I was able to shoot mine all the way to the end of a pontoon or the last float of the dock.
At least I could do that “some of the time.” Payton still caught about four or five fish to my one! He has the “touch” learned over hundreds of trips catching crappie with his grandfather and uncle, as well as guiding folks to a mess of good-eating crappie.
We fished docks from the back of Whitewater Creek to upstream of the Highway 219 bridge. We would often go into a cove with several docks and fish one, then leave. I could not see a reason for fishing that one particular dock, but Payton explained the keys for finding the right ones. Often in a cove one dock will hold fish and others won’t, and the ones that do are usually consistent from April to July.
The first key Payton requires is at least 10 to 12 feet of water under the dock. It does not matter where the dock is located in the cove or out on the main lake. If the back dock in a cove has a ditch under it deep enough and the others in the cove are on flat shallow banks or points, the back one will be the one.
The second key is cover. A brushpile is great—Payton puts out many in key spots for crappie fishing, but you will get hung in the brush if not careful about controlling your jig’s depth.
It surprised me when Payton said a pontoon tied under a dock is as good as a brushpile. The pontoons offer a lot of shade, and algae grows on the floats attracting the minnows that the crappie eat. And they are fairly easy to shoot. Some of the best docks we fished had pontoons but no brush.
A boat lift gives more cover, and those on floats work like pontoons. Those with mechanical lifts are harder to fish since so much metal is in the water and gaps around them are smaller, but they attract fish, too.
To shoot a dock, Payton positions his boat about 10 feet from it and leans over, pulling his jig back with one hand to make a bow in the rod. He aims it and lets the jig go. Keeping it at a low angle will get it far back under the dock.
At first, many of my “shots” did not go where I wanted them to go. Watching Payton, I noticed he almost always kept his rod bowed vertical to the water, not sideways as I often tried. When I started keeping my rod vertical, it helped me aim and put my jig closer to where I wanted it.
When the jig hits the water, instantly engage your reel. Sometimes the fish are right at the surface and eat the jig as soon as it hits the water. If not, on successive shots, let your jig sink to different depths. Count it down to see which depths the fish are holding on that dock.
If there is no brush under the dock, work your jig all the way to the bottom. Payton says sometimes the crappie will hold right on the bottom, so cover the whole water column. If there is brush under the dock, try to count your jig down and swim it just over the brush without getting hung.
Supposedly, crappie will look up and eat a jig but won’t go down, so make sure you are just above them. Payton agrees with this. He has forward-facing sonar, and it really helps see what is under docks, how the fish are relating to it and how they react to your jig. He uses it more when scouting than while fishing since he depends on his skill to catch them daily.
Slowly reel your jig back moving it a couple feet then twitching your rod tip to make the jig jump. A small twitch or jiggle is all that is needed to add a little more action as the jig swims along. Pay attention to every shot and look for a pattern that you can replicate.
“Sometimes crappie will hit on one side of the float on a pontoon but not on the other only 2 feet away.” Payton said. I saw this many times when we fished, with both of us catching more than the other at certain places, although our jigs were only a couple feet apart.
Every dock is different so you must hit every opening. On one dock we fished, a slight breeze made the pontoon go from one side of the dock to the other, moving about a foot each way. When it was against the side of the dock, you could not get your jig all the way to the back float on that side of the pontoon.
Since I was in the back of the boat when it opened on my side, I caught crappie. When it opened to the other side, Payton caught crappie. The crappie were on the back float on either side of the pontoon boat.
Although my jig was going all the way to the front of the pontoon under the boat when the gap was on Payton’s side, it was a couple feet from the dock float on the other side of the pontoon float and they would not hit. The same happened to Payton when it moved back.
That dock was not unusual, with basically two schools of crappie only 15 feet apart. If we had just pulled up and shot under the pontoon boat, we would not have caught a fish. By finding where they were located through trial and error shots, we landed more than 30 from that one dock.
Wind and waves can both affect fishing. Both make boat control difficult but do not seem to help the bite. If the wind is blowing parallel to the sides or the front of the dock, keep your boat bow into the wind to control its movement. Spot-Lock on a trolling motor really helps when fishing docks in the wind.
Current, even on docks on the main lake, does not seem to affect the bite but it too can make boat control difficult. Like wind, point your boat into the current to keep it under control in the right place to shoot the dock.
Water color does not matter much if it is not real muddy. The river was stained when we fished, and I could see my jig only a couple inches down. We caught crappie there. But in Whitewater Creek the water was much clearer, I could see my jig down more than a foot. We caught crappie there, too.
I worried the bright yellow line would turn off the crappie, I know it will spook bass much of the time. Payton says the bright color helps watch for bites, and it does. You can see the slightest tick when a fish hits. And the yellow did not seem to bother them.
You do not need to “set the hook” when you see or feel a bite. Keeping your rod tip low when retrieving your jig helps keep your line off the boat and dock, but raise it a foot to stick the small hook in the crappie.
Crappie are called “papermouth” for a reason, their mouths are very tender. Setting the hook like you do on a bass will tear a hole letting the hook slip out. I lost two or three decent crappie when lifting them out of the water after a strong hookset. Watching Payton taught me to back off and I didn’t lose any more.
We caught crappie that were a wide range of sizes—from literally only a few inches long to one that was well over a pound. Payton does not keep crappie shorter than about 10 inches long, the size limit on some Alabama lakes. He thinks keeping only bigger crappie gives the smaller ones a chance to grow.
We kept 51 crappie—I wanted to restock my freezer. Those 51 weighed 36.5 pounds, almost a 3/4-lb. average. All of these fish had all spawned out and were not fat. Many folks that never weigh crappie brag of catching 2-lb. crappie. I measured and weighed one of ours, a pretty 12-inch fish. It weighed almost exactly one pound on my kitchen scales. That is a good size to filet. A 10-inch crappie will weigh around three quarters of a pound after they spawn.
Late in June and the rest of the summer, look for brushpiles out in 20 feet of water. You can find them by riding that depth in coves and on the main lake. Payton puts out many, and crappie are just as happy in a brushpile put out by a bass fisherman as they are ones put out just for them.
When you find a brushpile in the right depth, you can usually see the school of crappie holding over it on your electronics. Mark it and back off—crappie seem to have learned a boat on their heads, even 20 feet above, is not a good thing.
Payton stays a short distance from brushpiles and casts a 1/16-oz. jig with the same body. He will also put a Z Minnow on a No. 2 hook below a split-shot for brushpile fishing.
You can catch a good mess of crappie by following Payton’s tips, or even better set up a trip with him at 678.633.1668 or through his new website. You can also message him on Facebook and see his catches at Crappie Killaz Guide Service.
Other Articles You Might Enjoy