For many successful anglers, the difference in their ability to catch fish depends on the little things. For crappie fisherman Jerry Pheil, of Cordele, the little things that help fill his livewell with crappie are minnows.
Jerry has lived on the lake since 1970. He has been fishing Blackshear for whatever swims in the lake since he was a kid. Bass fishing used to be his specialty, and he was one of the guys to beat in local tournaments, but he now prefers to fish for crappie, and he fishes commercially for catfish. He has been catching slabs from the lake for years. In March of 1994, he caught a 2-lb., 3-oz. white crappie that held the lake record. On the day before I fished with Jerry, he caught a 2-lb., 9.7-oz. black crappie while trolling in the mouth of Cedar Creek (the Blackshear record for black crappie was 3-lbs., 4-ozs.).
Minnows have made a recent, big difference in his fish catching, says Jerry.
“This year is the first time I have tried fishing with minnows (on jigs),” he said. “I found out that I caught a lot more fish.”
On April 10, 2007, we set out at daylight from Jerry’s boathouse to fish for Blackshear crappie, and riding beside Jerry was a 5-gallon bucket equipped with an aerator and loaded with 100 tiny minnows.
Our first stop was the right-hand bank just inside the mouth of Cedar Creek. Jerry went to work tipping jigs with minnows. He uses a custom-made jig produced by another Blackshear crappie fisherman, Rusty Parker, of Cordele. Like most crappie fishermen, he puts out a variety of colors, but he has his favorites, too.
“Black/root beer with a gray tail is a good color,” he said. “I also like black/junebug with a gray tail, and black/smoke with silver-and-black metalflake, and a gray tail, is good too.”
The carpeted gunnel in Jerry’s Bass Tracker next to his seat was festooned with dozens of multi-colored jigs that he swaps in and out, or uses to replace broken-off jigs. All were 1/16-ounce, and maybe 50 percent had gray tails — another of Jerry’s favorites.
Other effective jig colors, in Jerry’s experience, include white/pump- kinseed/white; black/ orange with metalflake with a gray and orange tail. In stained water he likes another unusual color combo: black/ pink/chartreuse.
I get my jigs custom made by Rusty Parker,” said Jerry. “A lot of them are colors that not every- one has.”
Jerry set three rods, staggered by length, on either side of the boat into a simple, but effective, rodholder system: short sections of 2-inch PVC pipe screwed to a board attached to the gunnel.
“You have to watch it when you turn because a fish or snag can pull a rod straight out,” said Jerry, but other than having to fish one rod out of the lake, he says he has never lost a rod.
We trolled toward the back of Cedar Creek in water that averaged about 7 feet deep, and Jerry’s electronics were marking a lot of fish, and he was soon swinging in an occasional crappie.
Some crappie fisher- men who tip their jigs with minnows like to use a big, fat, minnow. Not Jerry.
“I try to get the smallest minnows I can,” he said. “You will miss a lot more fish if you use a bigger minnow.”
With a pint-sized minnow on the jig, the crappie is more likely to get the hook when it hits, rather than just stripping the min- now off the jig.
With minnow-tipped jigs, you don’t have to pull jigs so far behind the boat, says Jerry.
“When there is a minnow on there, they will come and get it,” he said.
By 8:45 a.m. Jerry had caught 17 crappie, but he wasn’t pleased with the size. We picked up and headed up the lake toward
Pecan Slough, located on the west side of the lake just south of the railroad trestle.
Most of the trolling we did was in water less than 10 feet deep. When he is fishing in deeper water — 10 to 14 feet deep — Jerry catches crappie doing something he calls “pole fishing.” He has eight South Bend Crappie Stalker rods that are 8 to 12 feet long. Each pole has about eight feet of line that attaches to a swivel. Above the swivel is a bead, then a 1/2-oz. barrel weight. Below the swivel is about a 2-foot-long leader to which is
attached a minnow-tipped jig. The pole rig allows Jerry to fish nearly straight under the boat as he eases along in slightly deeper water.
In Pecan Slough, we started trolling on the right-hand bank, and almost immediately, the middle rod on the right bowed over. A 3/4-lb. crappie was soon skiing across the surface toward the boat. Then the long rod on the right side of the boat was hit, and another 3/4-lb. fish was boated — two of the biggest fish of the morning.
“I have caught a lot of big fish in here,” said Jerry. “There are a lot of stumps, and it is shallow the way white perch like it.”
Jerry said that over the years he has caught a half-dozen crappie from Blackshear that weighed over two pounds, including one 3-pounder years ago.
The wind was beginning to whip, and there were scattered rain showers in the area the morning we fished.
“I’ d a heap rather fish in rough weather with a 5 to 15 mile an hour wind,” said Jerry. “The fish bite better. They don’t bite as well when the water is slick.”
The wind was blowing a lot of oak- tree tassels and pine straw onto the lake, however, and that debris was fouling the lines regularly.
“They won’t bite when you’ve got that stuff on your line. You’ve got to keep checking lines,” said Jerry.
At 10:30 a.m. we moved to the mouth of Gum Creek and continued to catch a few fish trolling.
When the trolling bite slows down at the end of May, Jerry still catches crappie by fishing brush. He has put out brush all over the lake on breaks, ledges and ditches in the 10 to 15 foot range.
Late in the morning we pulled up and anchored beside one of his brush- piles near the railroad trestle.
I was using one of Jerry’s ultra- lights with a jig with a black head, a smoke-colored body with silver-and- black metalflake, and a white tail. I didn’t add a minnow to my jig.
“Cast over that way, and let it sink a little before you start to retrieve,” said Jerry. “I’m going to cheat,”he added as he dipped into the minnow bucket for a minnow to tip his jig.
On my first cast over the brush, two fish bumped the jig before I hooked up. I caught three fish on four consecutive casts while Jerry was temporarily skunked. We caught 17 crap- pie off that one brushpile before they quit biting, and in the end, it was about a draw between fishing minnow-tipped jigs and a plain jig.
In half a day, we boated 48 crappie, a couple of catfish, a white bass and one hybrid bass that weighed about 2 pounds. For Jerry, the trolling bite will hold out until the end of May. After that, the fish will move to deeper cover, and when Jerry wants a mess of crappie, he will anchor out over one of his brushpiles and cast jigs — and you can bet the jigs will be tipped