It looked like we were going to be lucky. There was a late fall cold front approaching and the weather forecast called for rain and gusty winds. We could deal with the rain, but the winds, if they came up, would shut us down in a hurry.
“The approaching front could turn the bite on,” said Carlton “Bubba” Teague of Gaylesville, Ala., our expert and guide for the day. “But if we have heavy wind, we just won’t be able to keep the bait in front of the fish.”
Carlton should know what he is talking about; he has been fishing Lake Weiss for crappie virtually all of his life and is a regular at national-level tournaments held here and throughout the circuit.
Lake Weiss, on the Alabama/Georgia border west of Rome is well known for its great crappie population, especially in terms of average size. And in its best years it is arguably one of the best crappie lakes in the nation.
My son-in-law Kevin Graves of Dallas and I met Carlton at Riverside Campground on Saturday, November 11, and launched the boat at about 7:00 a.m.
The sky was heavy with thick gray clouds, but the winds were calm. There was no rain as of yet, and the surface of the lake was as slick as glass. But we knew that worse weather was on the way, so we loaded the boat and set off.
Carlton had been off the fishing circuit for a few weeks as he managed his successful campaign for county commissioner of Cherokee County, Ala. Having won the election the previous week, he had a little break in his schedule and agreed to take us out.
“I came out yesterday and caught some pretty good fish in about 15 feet of water,” said Carlton. “I expect that we will find them in the same areas today.”
Carlton navigated downstream to a spot on the river channel near marker 72. “The near shoreline is Pruett’s Island,” said Carlton. “Much of the water is very shallow here, but the river channel comes in close to the bank. We’ll be fishing on the edge of the channel in water 12 to 17 feet deep. I expect that most of our fish will come from about 15 feet of water.”
Carlton’s 21-foot bass boat was set up specifically for crappie fishing. There were rodholders on both sides of the bow with a double swivel seat set up right behind them. A depthfinder and GPS mounted on the floor between the seats and the trolling motor completed the setup.
As we started unhooking lines from rods, Carlton told us we would be fishing small minnows suspended directly beneath the boat on a single- hook bottom rig.
The rig consisted of a 3/4-oz. sinker tied at the end of the line with a snelled 1/0 light-wire hook attached to the line about 18 inches above the weight. The leader on the snell was relatively stiff and about six inches in length. This allowed the hook to stand out from the main line well above the weight, minimizing tangles. Hooking a small minnow through the lips or eyes, we dropped the rigs overboard and let them sink to the bottom.
“Once the rig is on the bottom, I like to crank it slowly until the rod bows then pops up as it lifts the weight off the bottom, and then crank another half turn,” said Carlton. “This time of year the crappie are usu- ally right on the bot- tom, so the bait needs to be kept near the bottom to be in the strike zone. Too close to the bottom, however, and you’ll spend all of your time breaking off and retying rather than fishing.”
Carlton uses rods varying in length from seven feet to about 10 feet for this style of fishing. The rods are equipped with spinning reels spooled with 10-lb. test Berkeley Trilene XT. While many crappie anglers fish lighter line, Carlton says the heavier, tougher line allows him to straighten out the light- wire hook rather than breaking off when it gets caught in the brush.
On Weiss you will get hung in the brush. There is plenty of cover in this shallow lake, both natural and planted, and the crappie relate to it. So if you are fishing in the right location you will get caught in the brush from time to time.
With nine rods set out, three in the stern and six in the bow, Carlton start- ed moving us slowly on the trolling motor. And I do mean slowly. The GPS showed that we were travelling at 0.2 mph, so we were barely creeping along. If you don’t have a GPS that will measure speeds at that level, there is an easier way to tell if your speed is at the proper rate.
“The lines should be straight down,” said Carlton. “If there is any slant to the lines at all, you are moving too fast.”
Sometimes, if the wind is blowing, the only way to go slow enough is to head the boat into the wind. According to Carlton, speed is one of the most important elements in this type of fishing.
We had gone less than 50 feet when Kevin had the first hookup, a nice slab of about 11 inch- es. In another five minutes we had two more keeper-size fish and then a fat slab of 13 inches. The wind was calm, and the fish were biting. What could be better?
We continued fishing the channel ledge near Pruett’s Island for about an hour and a half and caught about 20 nice crappie with a few stripers and a catfish thrown in for fun.
In addition to the slow trolling described above, we dropped some stationary lines right next to visible cover and picked up some good fish using that method as well. All of our fish came out of 15 feet of water. A foot or two either side of that depth didn’t produce a fish. When the wind started to come up, we headed to another spot on the river channel near the Riverside Campground at about marker pole 90. We set out our rods and picked up a few fish almost immediately, but the wind and rain came and our day was over. There was just no way to keep the boat under control, and moving slowly, in 20-plus mph winds.
But in a couple of hours of fishing we’d had plenty of action and a nice mess of fish for the pan. We had several slabs in the 13-inch size range and caught only a few fish below the 10- inch keeper size limit the whole time we were out.
Carlton tells us this slow-trolling pattern will continue to produce fish through December, but as the water gets colder, the fish will bunch up a little more and go deeper. By the middle of December the fish should still be on the ledges but in water in the 20-foot range. Use small minnows close to the bottom, and move the boat SLOWLY. I believe you will be pleased with the results.
Near the end of December, as the lake level drops, there is another location and technique Carlton says always produces on Weiss. With the dropping water, the Chattooga River shrinks to the point that crappie upstream head down to the lake in search of deep water. The first deep water they find is at the mouth of the river where it enters the lake, around Cornwall Furnace, near Cedar Bluff. Under these conditions large quantities of crappie stack up in the mouth of the river and suspend at about eight to 12 feet below the surface.
“When the fish stack up like this the screen of the graph will be solid with fish,” says Carlton. “I have found that a great way to catch these fish is to tie two chenille crappie flies on a light spinning outfit, one above the other, and fish them under a slip cork.”
Carlton uses Hal Flys or JR’s Jigs in various colors. He ties a 1/16-oz. jig on the bottom and a 1/32-oz. jig on the top about 24 inches apart. The jigs are fished under a small cork which slips to the desired depth when it hits the water. The slip cork allows the jigs to be cast to the fish without having to get too close and spooking the school. Under these conditions Carlton says double hookups (a fish on each fly) are not uncommon and you can catch a limit of fish in a hurry. Carlton says you can also cast minnows to the school with good results, but he prefers the jigs as they are easier to fish.
Obviously there is plenty of opportunity for excellent winter crappie action on Lake Weiss. However, a word of caution is in order; Weiss is a very shallow lake on average, and it has a great deal of cover on the bottom, some just under the surface. The low-water conditions in the winter can make the situation even worse for those that are not familiar with the lake. Where we were fishing near Pruett’s Island the lake was wide and looked safe enough. Carlton told us that at winter-pool levels much of the water in that area, on either side of the river channel, is less than two feet deep. This can spell dis- aster for a lower unit and a disappointing end to a short fishing trip.
One complicating factor is that there is a lot of planted brush in the lake. Though most of it is planted in deep water, sometimes it is put in water that is dangerously shallow. As stated earlier, crappie love structure and properly placed, isolated cover can concentrate fish, making for excellent fishing conditions.
We checked with the DNR and Alabama Power regarding the legality of placing brush in the lake. Doug Powell of Alabama Power says that while there is not a certification process for putting brush in Weiss or any of the other Alabama Power lakes, there is a desire on the part of Alabama Power to help interested individuals or groups place fish attractors properly.
“The biggest concern is for safety,” said Doug, “and brush that is put in locations that are too shallow can prove hazardous to recreational activity.”
Doug said there should be at least eight feet of water over planted brush when the lake is at its lowest level. This is especially true for “stake beds” because these long stiff poles can be especially dangerous. Alabama would much prefer that brush such as trees be used rather than stakes.
In 1993 Alabama Power created the Habitat Enhancement Program to assist groups such as marinas, lake associations and fishing clubs in placing brush to enhance fish habitat and improve fishing conditions. Alabama Power collects and places Christmas trees in the lake each year and can always use the support of volunteers in this activity. To get some assistance in placing brush properly or to volunteer to help out, call Doug Powell at (205) 664-6189. For more information including GPS locations for planted brush you can visit the Alabama Power website at <www.southernco.com/hydro>.
Click on the “community” tab then “lakes and recreation.” A drop-down menu will guide you from there.
Although Carlton Teague is not a full-time guide, he knows a great deal about fishing Weiss and does take out parties occasionally. If you would like to get more information or book a trip, give him a call at (256) 643-5437. He may just find the time to take you out.