Slab Happy Crappie On Oconee

If you wait until the dogwoods bloom, you’re too late. February is the time for “broke neck” slabs on Lake Oconee.

Daryl Kirby | February 5, 2006

Cold wind, low clouds blocking any hint of a warming sun, and water temperatures holding at 48 degrees… Doug Nelms put the trolling motor down and eased into a lane through the timber up the Apalachee River, a spot known as the Powerline, and he began setting out his minnow-tipped jigs.

I glanced at the depthfinder — less than 5 feet of water — and saw that he was setting the rigs to fish about two-feet deep. There wasn’t time to question why we weren’t fishing a little deeper because my dad, Ben Kirby, was suddenly busy wrestling a fat Lake Oconee slab and trying to keep the 2-lb. crappie from tangling the lines.

Oconee guide Doug Nelms with an impressive display of the slab crappie Oconee produces in late February.

Doug netted the slab, and he re-stated something he’d told me on the phone when we had set up our crappie-fishing trip to Oconee.

“The biggest mistake crappie fishermen make on this lake is waiting too late,” Doug said. “You’ll miss these big crappie. By the time the dogwoods are blooming, my crappie poles are put away and I’m back to hybrid fishing.”

For the past seven years Doug Nelms has lived on the Apalachee arm of Lake Oconee. He has been guiding on the lake for four years, mostly for hybrids, and he has been fishing Oconee for more than 14 years.

When you push through a school of big Oconee slabs that are ready to eat, this tranquil scene would be transformed into a Chinese fire drill. Ten rods can make it interesting when several fish bite at the same time, but it’s a problem we all hope to have to deal with.

“Hybrids are my bread and butter, but the crappie, they’re more like my hobby. That’s what I like to do this time of year. I just love to crappie fish, so this year I set my boat up to fish people for crappie.”

On his Ranger boat, Doug mounted two seats up front where anglers can tend to a spread of up to 12 rods.

“Two people can sit up there and each work five or six rods. We usually fish 10 rods total. We can actually fish 12, but it’s a Chinese fire drill if several fish get on at the same time. I have a remote control for the trolling motor, so my customers sit up front and fish, and I stay in the back and run the trolling motor and watch the graph,” he said.

If crappie fishing is your pleasure, Lake Oconee is hard to beat. It seems like Georgia Power had crappie anglers in mind when they designed this lake. The water color in the spring, generally the color of a weak cup of coffee, makes the fish less spooky and lends itself well to catching shallow crappie. The acres and acres of timber left standing when the lake was constructed created great habitat for crappie. And plenty of threadfin shad provide what it takes to have a good population of crappie, plus some big slabs.

“Lake Oconee is the best-kept crappie-fishing secret in Georgia,” Doug said. “I have pictures that people would not believe. People come here this time of year, and they are astounded. This morning I caught five and every one is knocking two pounds.”

Ben Kirby of Buckhead — the real Buckhead at Lake Oconee — with a fat slab caught on a minnow-tipped tube jig in four feet of water on February 17, 2006.

If you’re more interested in limits of crappie, late March and April might be better, but Doug’s focus is on the big slabs, and late February and early March is when he catches them.

“I caught four last year that were right at three pounds, and the weights were not a guess, we had a boga-grip with a digital scale. The crappie on this lake are as healthy and as huge as any you want. We call them broke-necks, because when you hold them up by the lip it looks like their neck is broken.”

Doug learned a lot about how to catch these big early spring slabs on Oconee from a cadre of regulars, including his neighbor George Cox. George was fishing near us in the Powerline when we were on the lake to get this article February 17.

Fishing nearby when we were on Oconee February 17 was George Cox, who lives a few houses away from Doug on the Apalachee arm of Lake Oconee. Doug says he learned a lot about crappie fishing from George, who he called the Mac Daddy and Ninja Master of Oconee crappie fishing.

Instead of trolling lines behind the boat, Doug and George fish their rigs from the front, a technique often called “pushing.”

“When these fish are in just a couple of feet of water, putting the baits in front of the boat just makes sense because you’re not going to spook fish with the boat before they have a chance to bite,” Doug said.

A rod-holder frame is mounted at the bow, and Doug uses 16-foot Wally Marshall Tight Line Special rods to put out a spider-rig spread of baits. Doug doesn’t use a cork. Instead, he ties a basic Carolina-rig, just like you’d rig up for bass fishing, but with a small 3/8-oz. bullet weight.

“A lot of people use floats, but with the Carolina-rig you regulate the depth by how much line you have out,” Doug said. “It’s quick and simple to reel them up a few turns or strip out a little line when you want to change the depth, instead of having to reel them all in and adjust the floats.”

His leader on the Carolina-rig is 4-lb. test fluorocarbon line, and he uses 6-lb. test Ande Tournament Line on the reel.

“Any kind of light spinning reel will work. I use an assortment. Reels are not as important, but the long rod is important,” he said.

Doug fishes Gamakatsu-brand tube jigs, and with the typical Oconee stain of spring he likes dark-colored jigs like black/blue and black/purple in either 1/8- or 3/16-oz. sizes. He hooks the minnow through the lips.

Even in late February with water temperatures in the high 40s and low 50s, Doug fishes shallow. In the morning he usually checks along the channels first in water about 10- to 12-feet deep, and he keeps an eye on his graph. If he doesn’t mark any fish, he’ll usually move on to another spot.

“By the time the sun gets up, they’ll move up into the sticks. There’s a flat up on the Apalachee where our lines won’t be a foot under the water, and we’ll be in two feet of water. Some people might think that’s too shallow for this early, but that’s the way we catch them.

“When the temperature drops at night, they’ll get in deep water, but that’s water in the channel that is only about 12-feet deep. As soon as the sun warms up, they’ll bump out on the edges of the channel again.”

I asked Doug to recommend some spots to try for the big Oconee slabs this month, and he quickly rattled off some of the best crappie holes on the lake.

“I have a reputation on this lake for not trying to withhold information. I had an engineer run the numbers for me, and it’s impossible for me to catch all these fish, even though I try really hard. It isn’t like these places are a big secret,” he said. “Lick Creek is a good place the whole month of March. If you put in at JR’s, don’t go under the bridge, go back to the left, back up to the shallow water — anywhere in there. You’ll see the people there fishing. JR’s is a great place.

“Sugar Creek is a good place. If you put in at the Sugar Creek boat launch, don’t go under the bridge, once again go back up the creek where the sticks are,” he said.

Toward the back of Sugar Creek, there’s a point with a cove to the left and a cove to the right. Doug said last year they caught a bunch of big fish in the fork to the right.

Doug also recommended putting in at Swords Landing and running up the Apalachee River arm of the lake. There are some super crappie holes up the Apalachee with local names like Wayne’s Point, the Flat, the Smokehouse, and the Powerline. These spots aren’t marked on any lake map, but you can find them this time of year by where the folks are fishing. Which brings up a point about crappie fishing community holes. Use courtesy and common sense. Don’t crowd other boats, and don’t run through an area throwing up a big wake.

“In the Powerline, it’s kind of like Bristol, you can’t pass three-wide. You just get in a line. Most of the guys are really nice. You just want to make sure your lines don’t get tangled. Try to stay 40 or 50 feet from the next guy,” Doug said.

Despite an unusually warm winter, the crappie at Lake Oconee were just a bit behind schedule this year.
“The big fish showed up three days ago,” Doug said on February 17. “Between now and about four days after the full moon in March is the best time (the full moon is March 6).

“This is it. The old cats say, if you want to catch big fish, you have to put clothes on,” Doug said.

Visit Doug’s website for more info.

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