When you think of great crappie fishing in Georgia, a few lakes come to mind right off the bat—West Point, Oconee, Clarks Hill. Those are historically great fisheries that continue to produce full strings year after year. Georgia is lucky to have so many excellent and diverse fisheries scattered all across the state. There is probably more than one lake or river within an hour’s drive of most every fisherman.
Lake Blackshear just happens to be an hour drive from me, and other than Lake Tobosofkee in Macon, it’s the closest reservoir to me. I cut my teeth duck hunting the north end of Blackshear and have many fond memories from the lake of limits of wood ducks and even my first black duck drake.
This month, a great way to catch crappie at Blackshear—and many other Georgia lakes—is by “shooting docks.” Shooting docks is a method of bending and loading up your rod and using it to sling-shot your crappie jig low to the water and far up under docks.
When I started fishing Lake Blackshear, I found out fairly quick how hard it is to narrow down a place to fish. With so many “fishy” looking spots, I didn’t know where to start.
Most of us know how hard it is to learn a lake and how much time it takes to really find out how to actually catch fish. I’m fortunate enough to have an ace in the hole when it comes to Blackshear. My good friend Clint Shipman, of Byron, has been catching big strings of crappie in the Crisp County reservoir, and he was happy to take me and retired fisheries biologist Les Ager on a dock-shooting trip to learn some of his techniques and places on the lake where he consistently catches Blackshear crappie.
With Clint and Les in the boat, I was in for some entertainment, regardless of whether the crappie were biting.
Clint is a full-time taxidermist here in Georgia and part-time duck-hunting guide in Arkansas. He’s a two-time Georgia State Champion duck caller, too. For the last couple of years Clint has been guiding some crappie-fishing trips on various Georgia lakes. Meanwhile, Les is just a wealth of knowledge on fish in general, and whether or not he wants to admit it, he might as well be a comedian.
“Be the bait” was one of my favorite Les Ager sayings of the day.
We started off launching the boat at Georgia Veterans State Park. The park is located centrally on the lake and gives easy access to pretty much the whole lake. There is a $5 parking fee, but for the convenience it’s a small price. There is also a campground and cabins in the park, so if you wanted to fish for a few days, you can stay right on the lake.
Just a short run down the lake, we were at our first dock of the morning. The wind was fairly strong and made holding the boat steady and in range of the target fairly difficult, but heading into the wind and using the trolling motor, we were able to line up parallel with the front edge of the dock.
Clint says he targets docks close to or in deep water. The crappie will hold close to the structure and in the shade of the docks, but they still want to have easy access to the deeper water.
Les added, “Crappie are very sensitive to light and hold close to structure to remain in the shadows.”
Docks have the best of both worlds, shade and cover. So once you locate a promising looking dock with all the aforementioned ingredients, how do you know if it holds any fish? Here in lies one of the problems with shooting docks. Most docks hold fish, but getting bait to the fish is the next problem.
The concept seems simple enough, but actually getting a jig under the bottom of the dock and above the surface of the water, can be a little tricky. Most of us have been fishing for years, and we usually cast a lure or bait over handed to a target, so the concept of holding a jig in one hand and the line with your other hand, making a big bow with your rod, and then letting it all go at the same time is a whole new ball game. With a lot of practice and a lot of paint missing from jig heads, you can be a dock-shooting pro.
We wanted to target docks in or close to deep water, and all or most of the docks on the east side of the lake fit this criteria. If you consult a map of the lake, the river channel follows that east bank for almost 2 miles. The problem with this portion of the lake is catching the wind right. With a strong west or south wind, it’s difficult to keep your boat in position.
Another problem with any moderate wind is not being able to watch your line for strikes. Once you shoot your jig under the dock, it instantly starts to fall or sink. This is usually when the fish will bite. More times than not, you will see your line twitch before you ever feel the strike. It’s evident fishing with someone like Clint, who shoots docks a lot, that watching for instead of feeling strikes puts a lot more fish in the boat.
Clint likes to use a longer rod when shooting docks, at least 5 feet. This along with a wide, more shallow spool on his spinning reels enables him to shoot farther under the docks, where most people never reach. This is another key to catching fish; the more shaded areas are usually way back under the dock, so it pays to shoot farther. Another aspect of this is that the farther you can get back under the dock, the more water you cover. If you think about the concept, you want your jig falling for as long as possible. The rod tip acts as a pivot. If you only have so much line out, the jig is going to only fall until it starts to swing toward the boat.
Once you find a dock you want to try, ease by with the trolling motor and look under the dock to check for cross members and other obstructions. If it’s impossible to get your bait under the dock, you might as well find another. This is where a little scouting goes a long way. Once you find some docks that you can access by shooting jigs, record their locations, especially if you catch any fish.
Les told me, “Once you find a place that holds fish, they will usually stay there, and sometimes crappie use the same dock or area for years.”
We tried many of the docks on the east side of the lake, where Clint has historically caught fish, with no luck, so as we were fishing I asked Les, “If Clint has caught fish here before, why are we not catching them today?”
As I expected, I received a to-the-point dry answer.
“They just aren’t hungry,” was Les’s response.
If this answer had been from anybody else, I probably would have laughed it off, but a man with his experience catching fish and raising fish for the last 30 years really made me think.
Some of the places we fished, Clint and myself have caught limits before, so now why are we not catching anything today?
“That’s why they call it fishing,” was Les’s response.
Point taken. We continued down the east side of the lake into Cedar Creek, where at least we were out of the wind. We hit three or four docks but with nothing to show except a couple of lost jigs.
We had been fishing for almost three hours and not the first fish in the boat.
It was then that Clint told me, “You can fish all day and not have a bite, and then in 30 minutes you catch a limit.”
I was still skeptical until we motored all the way to the south end of the lake and back into Swift Creek. At the first dock we pulled up to Clint caught a solid 3/4-lb. fish on his first shot. Next shot, another fish, then a missed strike. All of the strikes were coming from one spot under the dock, between two pilings. I finally got a jig in the right spot, and almost instantly I had a fish. We sat there catching and missing fish and even had two break us off, for probably 10 minutes, but as fast as it started, it was over.
And so it goes with fishing, as we sat scratching our heads as to why they shut off so fast, Les commented that could have been all of the fish under the dock, or they just quit biting. The fact that a man with his years of knowledge doesn’t have all the answers made me feel better. Sometimes they just won’t bite. To add more evidence to this theory, Clint has a state-of-the-art side-imaging Lowrance depthfinder. Clint uses the side imaging to see the structure and locate the fish under prospective docks. On that particular day, we could see the fish under some of the docks even though we didn’t get a single bite.
The month of March is still a little early to be shooting docks. With most fish scattered and getting ready to spawn, other techniques such as trolling and tight-lining minnows usually produce more numbers. But as the water temperature rises and the spawn is over, shooting docks is usually a good way to catch fish. The water temperature the day we fished was 60 degrees, and we had a couple of days with the air temperature in the 70s. By the end of March most of the fish will have spawned and be more concentrated in schools with more numbers under docks and holding to deep water structure, so the results we had early in March should improve dramatically and continue all the way through late summer.
As far as jig color goes, Clint’s preference is a red head, light-green body and a chartreuse tail, but he has caught them on other color combinations as well, and he feels like it’s just a confidence thing for him. If you have other preferences, by all means use what you’re confidant in. Speaking of jigs, don’t leave home with just a handful—you are going to loose some.
As Clint says, “If you ain’t loosing jigs, you ain’t catching fish.”
Clint likes to use 1/32-oz. Betsy Bug jigs. He likes a chenille body. Clint says using the lightest-weight jig possible increases the time the jig has to fall or sink, keeping it in front of the crappie longer. Like I said earlier, you want to keep the jig under the dock and as far back in the shadows for the longest amount of time possible. Clint also uses Hi-Viz 4-lb. test line to help see strikes better, but said, “When the water is very clear, change over to clear monofilament.” You can still see your line twitch, but it is more hidden from the fish. Remember, you very seldom feel a strike, and if you aren’t watching, you will miss a lot of fish. It took me quite some time to figure that out, and I can’t emphasize this enough.
When you come to a dock, explore all sides of it, and try to fish all the way around it. For some reason, there will usually be as sweet spot where the fish really bite. Literally, you can be just a foot off and not have a bite. The fish we caught were in a spot about the size of a 5-gallon bucket. Maybe there was a piece of structure there. I don’t know why, but if you weren’t on it, you weren’t getting bit.
Speaking of structure, Blackshear is full of it. If shooting docks isn’t producing, use your electronics to locate structure in 10 to 15 of water, and look for fish suspended. Tight-line minnows or vertically jig around the structure for a change of pace. Two places that come to mind are the Highway 280 bridge and the railroad trestle just south of it. The river channel is clearly marked, and the pilings around both the bridge and the trestle usually hold fish. We checked a few rows of pilings the day we fished but never found a good concentration of crappie. There are also docks lining the west bank above the 280 bridge. Most of these as well are in or close to deep water. The problem with them is the number of cross members used to construct the docks, which makes it almost impossible to present a jig.
Clint says if you find a dock with biting fish, and after fishing for a while the fish stop biting, change colors or even switch to another type of lure such as a jelly body, minnow-type jig.
When I say you can catch a limit of fish quick, I mean you can literally catch fish almost every cast. It might take a few docks or a few hours to find biting fish, but when you do, the action can be continuous. Once you find them, always remember that particular dock. You can fish one dock and go 30 yards to the next dock and not get a bite. I can’t stress this enough, even though I can’t explain it.
With the temperatures continually getting warmer, the fishing will only get better. Try to plan your dock-shooting trips on sunny days. Cloudy days don’t seem to produce as well, probably because the bright sun concentrates the crappie under the shade of docks. And if possible, go when the wind is light. As I said earlier, it’s hard to see a strike when then wind is blowing your line.
For those who learn how and put the time in, shooting docks can be very rewarding. You can practice at home before you go. Place a bucket out from you about 10 yards, and try to ring it using the method I described earlier. Have patience—even after lots of practice, you still will have times when you can’t hit anything but the front of the dock you’re trying get under. Always have a couple of extra rods rigged up with the same jig and line size as your primary rod, and if possible have all the same type and length rods. When the fish are really biting and you break one off or loose a jig, it’s much easier to pick up another rod than to be tying on a new jig. The reason for the same length rod is because they all react differently. If you don’t believe me, just give it a try, and nothing is more aggravating than to go from catching them every shot to not being able to get a shot to the fish.
The dogwoods are blooming, the turkeys are gobbling, and the fish are biting.
Get out there this month, and give dock shooting a try for Lake Blackshear postspawn crappie.