Sensing some slight, imperceptible twitch in his line, Joel set the hook and moments later a crappie skidded across the surface from under the dock toward the boat.
“I think that’s 10 in a row,” he said.
I had caught zero, and as far as I could tell, had not had a bite.
Joel fired his jig back under the dock — and set the hook again.
“That’s 11,” he said, grinning.
Most people think the crappie fishing is over at West Point when the spawn ends in April and the fish move off the banks and out to deeper structure. Those people put up their crappie-fishing tackle and go on to other pursuits. Not Joel Chambers. He gets his dock-shooting rods ready and catches fish in the early summer by the hundreds.
Joel, 53, lives in Franklin and is a veteran of the crappie-tournament circuits. He and his son Matt fished tournaments in the late 80s and early 90s when Crappiethon tournaments at West Point drew more than 400 teams. Joel doesn’t fish tournaments anymore, but he still enjoys catching crappie, and shooting docks is how he does it in May and June.
“You can catch fish under bridges and in treetops, too,” said Joel. “But the trees can be aggravating because you hang up so much, and the docks are so dependable that they are about all I fish anymore.”
On May 13, I met Joel at the Georgia Access ramp on Hwy 219 to see whether we could catch a couple of hundred crappie.
We slid Joel’s 14-foot G-3 jon boat into a lake that was up, muddy from three days of thunderstorms, and the surface temperature had dropped nearly 10 degrees.
Joel was completely confident. “Fish feed every day,” he said. He and a friend with two kids had caught about 200 crappie three days earlier.
Joel carries two anchors in his boat and anchors parallel to, and about 10 feet away from, a dock he wants to fish. Then it’s a matter of shooting jigs under the dock to fish holding in the shade.
Shooting docks looks easy. With the jig a foot or so from your reel, you open the bail and pin the line against the rod handle. With your other hand you pinch the jig head between your thumb and forefinger and pull it back, putting a “J” shaped bow in your rod. You then aim your rod at your target — a crack between the water and the bottom of the floating dock, for instance — and release the jig followed immediately by releasing the line.
Done properly, like Joel does it, the jig rockets off the end of the rod for 30 or 40 feet into the deepest, darkest recesses beneath docks. That’s where the crappie hang out.
Done like I do it, the jig either; a) remains between your thumb and forefinger, b) shoots straight up in the air, c) torpedoes into the water at the rod tip, or d) ricochets off the wooden planks of the dock. And, occasionally it even goes far back up under the dock. And after a day of practice on the lake, even a rookie can shoot docks.
Joel fishes with small tube jigs. “A 1/16-oz. jig falls too fast,” he says. Joel fishes almost exclusively with 1/24-oz. jigs. He pours his own lead-heads, and buys tube jigs in bulk through the mail. He says he has four or five cents in a jig.
Joel says that color doesn’t matter much, but you couldn’t dynamite him off the yellow/white tube jig he used when I fished with him. He tried a blue/white combo for only a few shots before he pulled it off and slipped a yellow/white tube back onto the jig head.
“It is just a good color on this lake,” he said. “The yellow shows up well in the muddy water.”
Aside from 20 years experience catching fish at West Point, one detail that helps make Joel so successful shooting docks is his fishing line. He fishes with day-glow yellow 4-lb. line. “You have to be a line-watcher to shoot docks,” he said.
The bright yellow line is like having fiber-optic sights and makes it much easier to see any bump, jump or slack in the line. And the fish don’t seem to notice the colorful line.
The glowing line makes a huge difference. Early in the day we pulled up to a dock and Joel had outcaught me 20 fish to 1. At the next dock he caught 15 to my zero!
Shortly after I borrowed one of Joel’s rods with fluorescent-yellow line and a yellow/white tube jig my catch rate improved.
Even with the bright line, you have to keep a close watch, and how you hold your rod makes a difference.
“Shoot the jig then raise your rod tip above 45 degrees,” said Joel. “That will put a little bow in the line and it makes it easier to see if the line jumps.”
While occasionally an aggressive fish would literally knock slack in the line, more often the hits are extremely subtle. “I have watched crappie in an aquarium, and they can take a jig in and spit it out in one motion,” said Joel. “If you are waiting to feel the fish, you are too late.”
Joel targets the darkest shade. Once his jig has hit the water, he raises his rod tip, then twitches the line every second or so.
“Sometimes you have to coax them into hitting,” he said. The 1/24-oz. jig sinks slowly on the 4-lb. line, and Joel tries to keep it shallow. “Most of the time the fish will be pretty shallow,” he said. “Most people fish too deep. If you use as 1/16-oz. jig it falls through the fish too quickly, and the fish won’t go down to get it.”
Under some circumstances, Joel will go to an even slower-falling 1/32-oz. jig. If the water is muddy, which means the fish have a more difficult time seeing the bait, he will slow down by going to the lighter jig. The only time he will go to a heavier jig is when it is very windy. “Sometimes I will use a 1/16-oz. jig when the wind is blowing so that I can feel the jig.”
The catch to shooting docks at West Point is that the lake doesn’t have a lot of docks, at least when compared to Bartletts Ferry, Sinclair, or Jackson. Instead of “run and gun,” a dock shooter at West Point, has to “run, run some more, and gun.” It can be a long ride between docks. Even when there were docks around, Joel doesn’t fish them all. Several coves we fished had three or four docks, but Joel would fish only one dock before moving on. He skips the shallow docks.
“Water depth is the most important thing,” said Joel. “Mainly I look for water depth. If a dock has 10 feet of water under it, it will have fish.”
We fished as far downlake as the mouth of Thompson Creek and about halfway back into Whitewater Creek. In the afternoon we worked our way back uplake, fishing Highland Creek and just under the first bridge in Yellow Jacket Creek. We caught at least one fish from every dock we hit. We caught 40 fish from under a dock in Whitewater Creek; 32 from under another dock in the mouth of Thompson Creek. Most of the fish were small, but we regularly added a few fileting-size fish to the live well. Joel imposes a 10-inch minimum size on the keeper crappie in his boat.
“There are good docks all over the lake,” said Joel. “If you had a boat that would run 60 miles per hour, you could fish a lot of good docks in a day.”
The best docks have been brushed up — sometimes by Joel. He says he puts out 30 or 40 cedar trees each year to encourage fish to hold under docks.
Joel targets shade, and the shade determines what time of day he will fish a specific dock. He likes to see shade extending from the dock out over the water in front of the dock. Often there are Christmas trees, cedar trees or other fish-attracting structure in front of the dock. When the shade extends out from the dock into deeper water, it encourages the fish to move out toward the brush. Joel likes to see long, deep shade, because that’s where the fish will hold.
Joel passed up a dock just upstream of the bridge in Highland Creek in the morning because the shade was on the bank side. “It will be better this evening when the shade is on the other side,” he said. When we returned at about 5 p.m., we caught 30 fish from under the dock.
Shooting docks will hold up through June, says Joel. After that it gets too hot to fish during the day, and while smaller fish will stay under docks all summer, the bigger fish move off to deeper structure, he says.
We quit fishing at 7 p.m. “The fish weren’t very aggressive,” said Joel. “If the lake hadn’t been muddy, and the water temperature hadn’t dropped, we would have done better.”
As it was, we caught 273 crappie, (plus six bass, four catfish, and four bream). That’s a pretty good day of crappie fishing at a time of year when lots of anglers think the crappie fishing is over.