March is a time of transition. Winter is still hanging on to its grip, but an occasional warm day promises the balmy spring weather to come. With that transition also comes a change in the fishing action on area lakes.
Crappie fishermen love March. The fish begin schooling up and staging to prepare for the spawn. They also come out of their winter doldrums to begin actively feeding and putting on weight. That means crappie are at their most accessible this time of year, and you can bet on some spectacular days of fishing under the right conditions. First of all, you need to know how to find the fish and what it takes to make them bite.
Stewart Wright, of Euharlee, is a dedicated crappie angler who calls Allatoona his home lake. By many accounts he is one of the most accomplished crappie anglers in the area, especially on Allatoona. He has been fishing the lake regularly since 1992, and he spends 90 percent of his angling time on Allatoona. Stewart is a part-time guide, and he is on the lake at least two or three times a week during March and April so he can stay in touch with the fish and make sure his clients are successful.
I had the pleasure of fishing Allatoona with Stewart in early February. We met at the ramp on Little River at midday on Super Bowl Sunday. It was a little early in the season for the prespawn crappie action, but Stewart felt sure we could boat a few fish.
Conditions were tough, though. Heavy rains two days before had raised the lake level by about 6 feet and dropped the surface temperature by 4 degrees. Little River was muddy, and the air temperature was in the low 40s as we left the ramp.
We took a short run to the far bank of the lake near the mouth of Little River, and Stewart got set up to troll. While trolling for crappie may appear to be a simple affair, it was clear that Stewart had a very well-developed method he used to attract the fish.
“Speed, depth and color are critical factors in presenting the baits to the fish,” said Stewart. “This time of year the crappie are relating to points and brush, staging for the spawn, and I like to run my jigs about 8 to 10 feet deep.”
Stewart’s big Lund V-hull was equipped with a well-designed, rod-holder system, and he placed the rods to present a pod of jigs to the fish while minimizing tangles.
Stewart fishes 10 rods at a time. One 7-foot rod goes on either side of the outboard, six 9-foot rods are placed across the stern, three on either side, and two 12-footers, one on each side near the bow. The rods are equipped with light-action, open-faced spinning reels spooled with 6-lb. test line. Stewart is very particular about his gear, and he re-spools all of his reels after five trips to the lake.
“The brush and rocks can be tough on line, and the last thing I want to do is lose a fish due to line failure,” said Stewart.
As Stewart set out the rods, he let about 40 feet of line out on each of them. At his normal trolling speed of 0.8 miles per hour, the jigs will run about 8 to 10 feet below the surface with that much line out.
For terminal tackle, Stewart chooses 1/16-oz. Hal-Flys or curly tail grubs from Big Bite Bait Company. The curly tail grubs are also on 1/16-oz. jig heads. He ties both types of jigs on to the line with a loop knot, leaving about a 1/4-inch opening in the loop. He says the loop gives the jigs more freedom to move naturally than a traditional clinch or other knot. Natural motion is a big deal in attracting the fish.
He also says it is important to thread the curly tail grubs on to the hook carefully to make sure they run straight and true through the water.
“There is a mold seam running along the grub,” said Stewart. “I make sure I put the point of the hook dead center in the front of the grub and bring it out through that seam, about 1/4 inch in front of the tail.”
If you follow those instructions, your jigs should run properly and not twist your line.
Although Stewart normally uses 1/16-oz. jigs, later in the season, when the fish are in the shallows, he may drop back to 1/32-oz. heads.
His choice of jig-head color includes black, red and pink.
If the fishing is really tough, Stewart will tip the jigs with a live minnow.
“The extra action and scent will often be just enough to cause the fish to strike,” said Stewart.
He hooks the minnows through the bottom lip and out between the nostrils, allowing the minnow to trail the jig in a straight line.
Since the water was stained and the skies were overcast on our trip, Stewart had an assortment of dark-colored jigs tied on. Blacks, browns, dark blues and dark greens were the primary colors of the day, but most had a little flash of chartreuse, pink or red in the tail.
On lighter days and in clear water, Stewart selects light colors like white, yellow, pink or chartreuse as the main body colors.
In either case, he puts out an assortment of colors until he finds what the crappie want that day, and then he changes several rods to the color the fish are hitting. He always keeps an assortment in the water, however, because crappie will change their preference from time to time. Flexibility is key in bait selection.
As we began our troll, Stewart kept a keen eye on the depthfinder mounted on the console.
“Electronics are very important,” said Stewart. “They provide most of the information you will need to locate and catch fish.”
Stewart pointed out that depth, water temperature, bottom structure, brush, bait and fish can all be seen on a good graph. And if your unit includes a GPS, it will even give you the speed of your troll.
At the beginning of our troll, the picture wasn’t promising. The screen looked pretty clear.
“The fish were here three days ago, along with a bunch of bait,” said Stewart. “But all of that rain may have caused them to move.”
Stewart directed the boat with a remote-control device that allowed him to control speed and direction from the stern. The unit makes possible handling the boat and rods simultaneously. And that can be important in a stiff wind when you have three or four fish on the line at the same time.
We trolled the area thoroughly for about 45 minutes without much luck. We only picked up a small fish and had one other strike. So Stewart thought we should move on.
Heading down lake, we stopped at a small cove near Victoria Landing and trolled for a bit. Again, not much luck.
Then we took a run to the mouth of Kellogg Creek, where Owl Creek and Kellogg Creek come together. This proved to be a good decision. The water was much less stained, and it didn’t take long before we had a double hook-up and landed two 3/4-lb. crappie. We had some additional luck in Owl Creek, but there was a fair amount of trash on the water from the recent rain and that made it hard to fish.
“Trash on the surface will slide down the line and get caught on the jig,” said Stewart. “The crappie won’t bite if there is any trash on the bait.”
When there is trash in the area, Stewart recommends you pull in the jigs often and make sure they are clean.
We moved over to a cleaner section at the mouth of Kellogg Creek and got into some really good fish. We landed several crappie that topped 1 pound, as well as a fat, 2-pounder that made our day.
Stewart advised that in early March you should try staging areas in pockets and creeks over brush or humps. If a cold spell hits, the fish will generally move deeper, so move out to primary points after a cold front. Eighteen to 25 feet is a good target bottom depth.
Crappie always look and feed up. You are not likely to attract them to bite if you drag your jigs below suspended fish.
When trolling over brush, always keep the bait just a bit higher than the top of the brush. Often Stewart will drag the jigs to the edge of the brushpile and cut the trolling motor for a second or two, allowing the jigs to drop to the top of the brush. He then speeds up, causing the jigs to rise a little and move away from the brush.
“That will often cause a reaction strike as the crappie will think the jigs are a school of shad that has spooked and is fleeing,” Stewart said.
While Stewart tells us that points and brush will hold fish throughout the lake this time of year, he particularly likes the Sweetwater Creek area, Kellogg and Owl creeks, and sections of Little River, including Rose Creek and Blanket Creek.
Remember to pay close attention to your electronics, and look for schools of shad over the structure. Crappie are focused on shad and fattening up in preparation for the spawn.
Later in the month, particularly if there are a few warm days in a row, the fish will move onto flats to feed. There is a huge flat in the main river just out from the mouth of Sweetwater Creek that is an excellent spot to try in warmer weather.
When fishing open water like that, wind can be a problem. A stiff breeze can push the boat too fast for effective trolling. To combat the wind, Stewart carries two, 5-gallon plastic buckets he drags about 3 feet behind the boat. The buckets have a 3-inch hole cut in the center of the bottom allowing some of the water to pass through. This configuration provides just enough drag to slow the boat, and the hole in the bottom makes it easier to lift the bucket out of the water when changing locations.
Remember, anglers have a tendency to troll too fast. Keep the speed at no more than 0.8 miles per hour for best results. The crappie won’t chase the bait very aggressively in the cold water and, if you are trolling too fast, the jigs will run high in the water and out of the strike zone.
Also pay close attention to water temperature. This time of year surface temps can vary by several degrees depending on where you are in the lake.
“It is generally best to look for the warmest water you can find,” said Stewart. “A change of a couple of degrees can make the difference between a frustrating day and a full livewell.”
Stewart recommends you troll with the outboard in gear. Sometimes when slowing to land fish or in sharp turns the lines can come in contact with the outboard. If the prop is free, it can turn in the current and the line can wrap around the foot of the motor. This can cause a lot of grief when the outboard is started, breaking seals and other ugly things like that.
Stewart also makes a simple device that prevents losing rods. When the rods are in the holder, at certain angles of the boat, a crappie can pull the rod out of the holder and drag it into the lake. Stewart tapes a simple loop of rope on the rod handle that fastens to the ear of the rod holder. The loop is large enough to allow the angler to remove the rod from the holder easily, but it securely holds the rod in place when a fish strikes.
Also, it is not necessary to set the hook. The crappie generally hook themselves on the strike. Crappie have soft mouths, and if you set the hook hard, you are likely to lose the fish. Stewart recommends you be patient and wait for the fish to put a bow in the rod. Then simply remove the rod from the holder and start reeling.
There are some excellent crappie in Allatoona, and this is the best time of year to go out and catch a mess of ’em. This style of fishing, while pretty precise in the setup, is a great way to introduce kids to fishing. There is likely to be plenty of action, and the kids don’t need a great deal of technical skill to boat a fish.
Stewart Wright is knowledgeable and well equipped to provide an excellent spring crappie outing on Allatoona. Call him at (770) 335-8667, and book a trip for this month. You are likely to have the best spring crappie outing you have ever experienced.