At about 4:40 p.m. the tip of one of the fishing rods I was watching just barely quivered. Exactly 25 feet below the boat, in the shadow of the sunken old Hwy 39 bridge, something was trying to decide if a minnow was on its menu. I picked up the rod, keeping a close watch on the rod tip for any more fishy information being telegraphed up from the depths. Finally, it dipped again, just a half inch, but that was enough. I popped the rod upward and felt the weight of a good-sized slab pulling the other direction. Moments later, our first crappie of the afternoon, a fat 1-pounder, was swimming in the live-well.
Over the next 45 minutes Lake Eufaula fishing guide Billy Darby and I pulled 18 crappie to the boat. Nice ones, too, with only two throwbacks.
It’s usually much better. Only a few days before our trip, and fishing the same sunken bridge, Billy caught 43 crappie, throwing back 13 and keeping 30 for the frying pan that weighed 30 pounds — a pound apiece average — and he only fished for an hour and a half — that’s a fish every two minutes.
For crappie-fishing expertise, few on Lake Eufaula have the experience that Billy Darby has. He has fished the lake for bass and crappie since the 85-mile-long, 45,180 surface-acre lake was impounded in the early 1960s.
And in Billy’s opinion, for catching crappie there may be no other single place on Lake Eufaula that’s a better bet for February slabs than the sunken bridge at the mouth of Pataula Creek.
On January 14, GON-TV cameraman Eric Thornton and I drove to Lake Eufaula to fish with Billy. We couldn’t have picked a better day — for flying kites. Winds gusted 20 to 25 mph and higher as a front blew through, the air temperature was in the 30s, and whitecaps ripped the open water of the main lake.
Billy was only slightly daunted by the weather. “We’ll catch them this afternoon when the wind lays,” he predicted.
For the next month or so, you will find crappie at Eufaula sticking to their winter pattern, holding in the 15- to 25-foot depths. Good places to check are the channel ledges toward the mouths of the creeks, and there may be none better than the mouth of Pataula Creek. The reason is an outstanding piece of fish-attracting cover: the old Hwy 39 bridge. This submerged bridge is still largely intact. When the lake was being built, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pushed over the bridge railings but left the span standing. Because of the shelter and shade it provides, the concrete structure spanning the Pataula Creek channel is prime fishing structure. The bridge is about 100-feet long and runs north and south across the mouth of the creek where it is easily located with a depthfinder. When the lake is at full pool, the bridge is about 12 feet below the surface. The depth from the surface to the lake bottom under the bridge varies from 20 feet to nearly 50 feet over the creek channel.
Because of the depth, anchoring isn’t a reasonable option at the sunken bridge, but Billy uses a clever trick to secure his boat to the bridge — grappling hooks.
Billy carries two large hooks, one for each end of the boat. First, he locates the bridge on his depthfinder, then he slings out a hook on a length of rope. Using his trolling motor, he then moves the boat over the bridge so the grappling hook swings under the edge of the bridge. When he makes contact with the bridge, he pulls the rope up until the points of the hook hit the bridge. The slack is pulled out of each line and one line is secured to a cleat at either end of the boat. Both lines have a 3-foot bungie-cord tied into a loop of the rope just above the grappling hook to allow for wave-action moving the boat up and down, while keeping pressure on the grappling hook under the bridge.
Billy fishes the bridge with minnows. Later in the year when the water temperature rises and the fish move up he will switch to jigs, but when the water is cold, minnows are your best bet, he says. Billy uses the biggest-size crappie minnows he can get.
“A crappie is looking for a mouthful and he doesn’t want to have to move far to get it,” he said.
This type of straight-down fishing doesn’t require high-tech equipment. Billy’s rig is a No. 2 gold Aberdeen hook on 8-lb. test line with a split shot 10-inches or so up the line. If he is back in the creek fishing channel ledges where he may be using the trolling motor to position the boat, he hooks the minnows through the lips to allow it to swim with the movement of the boat. But on the bridge, where the boat will not be moving, he hooks the bait through the back just below the dorsal fin so the minnow is able to swim more naturally.
Fishing depth matters, says Billy, and a variation of only five feet can mean the difference between your boat catching fish and the boat next door not catching fish. Most anglers guesstimate the depth of their bait. Not Billy. When we met him that morning at his lake-front home, he had a half-dozen spinning rods spread across a picnic table. He was measuring off 25 feet of line from each reel, then marking the distance on the line with a black laundry marker.
Out on the lake, when the black mark just hits the surface of the water Billy knows his bait is at 25 feet and he can adjust the depth upwards or downwards from there with reasonable accuracy. Crappie are notorious for preferring baits at the same depth, or just above the depth they are holding. After catching a fish, the huge advantage to the marked line is in being able to return a new bait to exactly the same depth.
Fresh bait matters, too. Billy isn’t shy about removing a tired bait and looking for a friskier volunteer in the minnow bucket.
“There must be something to using fresh minnows,” said Billy. “How many times have you caught a fish on one particular rod and when you throw back and catch a fish right away, invariably, it will be on the same rod. The fresh, lively minnow is probably the reason.”
To fish the sunken bridge, Billy gently casts 25 or so feet of line out. If you drop a line straight under the boat, you may plant your minnow on the top of the bridge. The cast line swings back toward the bridge, finally hanging straight off the lip of the concrete as closely as possible to where the fish are holding beneath the bridge.
Billy usually starts fishing with minnows staggered at various depths ranging from 20 to 30 feet deep. We caught fish in a range from about 18 to 30 feet. As he begins to catch fish, he will move more minnows to the depth where fish are biting — confident of the depth because of the black mark on his line. Usually during February the fish start out deeper in the afternoon and gradually move up as the sun drops toward the horizon. On cloudy days they may hold at 15 feet all day rather than at 25 feet.
The sunken bridge is a well-known crappie-producing structure in Pataula Creek. A less known structure nearby also produces good catches. Just upstream about 200 yards from the bridge is a submerged dam and an old concrete powerhouse. Both are easy to find on a depthfinder and this time of year you can usually count on your graph to show the powerhouse surrounded by clouds of crappie.
During the morning we ducked into the back of Pataula Creek to avoid the wind while Billy showed us another prime spot for February crappie — the creek-channel ledges just upstream of the Hwy 39 bridge. As you go under the bridge, the creek hooks to the right, then horseshoe-bends to the left. The creek-channel ledges here are well-defined, dropping into 14 or 15 feet of water and in many places lined with stumps. An old bridge foundation (see map) provides excellent cover for crappie (and bass). In February, a minnow dropped to concentrations of fish along the ledges is likely to get bit.
The fish will hold on these deep patterns until the end of February or early March when the water temperature starts to climb into the low 60s. As the water warms, the fish will move off the sunken bridge and out of the creek channel to move up on the flats in preparation for the spawn. When that time comes, Pataula Creek is an excellent place to be. Both sides of the creek between the sunken bridge and the Hwy 39 bridge are flanked with wide shallow flats that are perfect spawning areas.
When the fish move up, Billy will move onto the flats, too, and begin trolling crappie jigs, but in the meantime, you can likely find his boat tied to the sunken bridge foundation — and he is likely to be pulling in one slab after another.
If you would like to take a sunken-bridge crappie-fishing trip with Billy, his guide service can be reached at (912) 768-2369.