March ushers in the long-awaited first week of spring, but weather this month is capricious at best—and cussed at worst. Juggling schedules while attempting to pick out that sure-fire good day on a lake like Sinclair can be a roll of the dice in March. So what’s a fisherman to do?
Just go, grin and bear it. Forget what other fishermen are saying—and listen to the fish. Then, too, it always helps to have an ace in the hole like Troy Thiel.
If you want to talk the lousiest of fish-catching conditions, read on. You’ll also hear about one of the finest days of catching slab crappie I’ve ever had, and how we made it happen.
Lake Sinclair was the first impoundment I ever fished, some 40 years ago. It remains among my favorites but has undergone lots of changes over the decades, and especially since the Plant Harlee Branch shutdown took with it the warm-water discharge that was such a major fish attraction this time of year.
Troy, who lives 20 minutes away in Gordon, has fished Sinclair nearly as long as I, and he has kept up with the lake’s evolution much better.
Especially its crappie.
He’s far and away the best I know when it comes to finding and catching Sinclair’s signature species; credentials include more tournament wins than Troy can remember. He does recall that he and his partner Ricky Willis have won the Georgia state championship on Lake Blackshear and Florida state championships on the St. Johns River and Lake Talquin. Next up comes Alabama state competitions on Lake Weiss and the Alabama River.
I wouldn’t bet against him. And one of the things I like most about the guy is that he’s always trying to grow the sport.
“Keeping all your secrets to yourself isn’t helping anybody but yourself,” Troy said. “You have to be willing to share information to get people out there fishing, catching fish and having a good time. It wouldn’t do anything for the sport to just pump yourself up and not give back.”
This guy is a pro who can get technical with the best of them, but that’s not what we’re doing here. Keeping it as simple as possible, with some of Troy’s tips and pointers, will help us all catch more fish.
So here’s what we were facing before daylight Feb. 8. There were torrential downpours the day before that had muddy water pouring into the creeks. Another big rain was forecasted the following day, meaning we were between fronts. The water temperature was right at 50 degrees. My phone showed a 46 air temp, but that was before we went blasting away from the Highway 441 bridge, perched in front of the Ranger’s 200 Mercury.
I know that eventually we’ll stop somewhere and begin pulling jigs. But where? Just what are we looking for in all this great expanse of water? And what kind of jigs? Questions lined up as we cruised up the lake, but I knew Troy would answer them all in time. It was too loud and frigid to ask anyway.
Troy Thiel is even more optimistic than I am inquisitive, and we’ve done this before, so he knows what’s coming. After he cruised well into Rooty Creek and cut the motor back, the explanations begin.
“I called my buddies yesterday, and they were fishing in here,” he said. “If anything, conditions were even worse. They caught two fish, and these are really good fishermen we’re talking about. We’ll just have to work hard.”
The reason for stopping in this particular area was to check the water temperature, which was 50 degrees. Crappie will be in the deeper, middle areas of the creeks—and that’s any of Sinclair’s major feeders—waiting to move all the way back to spawn when it rises to 55 degrees and better. There was one other boat trolling toward the very back—and we could clearly see highway traffic whizzing by on 441. Troy checked his graphs at idle speed.
The instrumentation included a console-mounted Humminbird 1197 (11-inch screen) and a 997 (9-inch screen) up front, both with side-imaging. Reading them can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. In 12 to 18 feet of water, Troy was looking for any underwater structure that may hold bait pods and crappie.
“You’re not going to go out there, set the rods out, kick back and catch fish,” said Troy. “It takes a while to figure them out. The graphs eliminate an awful lot of empty water that is devoid of fish. When fish show up on the screens, that’s where we start. Be open-minded and versatile. It doesn’t matter what the fishermen want; what matters is the fish. They’ll let you know if you listen. It takes making the proper presentation and getting those first bites. Then, it’s on!”
As we eased on into Rooty Creek, with 441 on our left, we noticed a very visible divide in the lake—muddy water meeting clear as exact as if marked off with a plumb line.
On our right was a brown dock, covered pagoda-style, then a light yellowish boathouse. A hundred feet or so out in front of those, in 15 feet of water along that dividing line, the graph picked up the first shad pod with fish underneath.
Knowing we’d found at least a few, the next step was to explore a little farther in a sweeping circle. We kept picking up marks, so it was time to get serious. I’ll tell you exactly how we did it, but if there’s one thing to learn from this trip, it’s the following spot-on advice from a terrific pro who knows his stuff.
“Fish will tell you what depths and colors they want,” said Troy. “Water will get dirty, then clean back up, and it will change every time you go. Experiment! It’s the best way to learn, it’s how I learned, and it’s how all these guys I fish with and against have learned. I wish there was a recipe I could give you that would work every time, but that’s just not the case.”
Troy fishes Wally Marshall Signature Series rods exclusively, four on each side. Rod lengths vary from 18 feet up front, then 14, 11 and 8. Jig weights vary, “every time we go.”
Depth. What’s that? Depth. One more time: Depth!
The graph revealed how deep the water was. We trolled over depths of 12 to 18 feet.
But where are the fish? Are they hugging the bottom, suspended halfway between or just below the surface? These are critical questions because a crappie will not go down to feed. They will feed at the level they’re holding or upward. You can drag a steak sandwich adorned with your favorite condiments underneath them, and they won’t even turn down their noses.
You can get as sophisticated and complicated as you want, according to your fishing style, with this depth thing. But what follows is a rule of thumb of sorts from one of the very best in the business.
“Let’s just talk using 4-lb.-test line, which I always do, trolling at a speed of 1 mile per hour. A single, 1/32-oz. jig will run about 3 feet. If you want to get a little deeper, add a 1/48-oz. below it, which will get it around 6 to 8 feet. A double 1/32-oz. will drop you to the 10-foot range.”
We knew fish were underneath the boat, and we knew they were keying on bait. But it took us a while to work out just how far underneath. Troy explains.
“When we first started fishing, the jigs were actually under the fish. I was fishing probably 10 feet deep in 15 to 18 feet of water, but the fish were suspended in about 3 feet of water. That’s a common mistake fishermen make. We were just fishing too deep.
“Always start at a variety of depths. If you have six or eight rods, vary the depths by using the jigs you need to get to the specific depth the fish are actively using.”
Another little item we had to figure out was what color jig the crappie preferred on this particular trip. Crappie fishermen call a jig’s color by head, then the body, then the tail: orange/green/yellow, for example. There are only about 3 gazillion color/weight combinations, but if he had to pick but one, Troy says, “Acid rain (black/black/chartreuse) is always going to be good at Sinclair.”
His only two sources for buying jigs are at The Crappie Shop in Gray and from his partner Ricky Willis, who makes jigs marketed as Sugar Bugs.
Just so you’ll know, we were more than two hours into the trip and hadn’t shed a stitch of clothing or seen a rod bend. A too-brisk breeze whipped up occasionally, but one of the best parts of fishing is going with a friend who you don’t get to see nearly enough of. Our conversation had covered most of the Old Testament and roughly half the outlaws in our respective families. Troy was educating me that, “Sinclair is tough on big fish; you don’t catch that many. Lake Oconee is way better for bigger fish, but you can catch more numbers at Sinclair. You may not catch quite the number at Oconee, but you’ll catch a little better quality… BACKLEFT BACKLEFT!”
That’s pretty much exactly how it came out.
One doesn’t really set a hook into a paper-mouthed crappie, and especially with Wally Marshall ultralight spinning gear on an 8-foot rod. It’s rather a sweeping motion, but the instant the hook struck home, my right forearm was impressed.
Earlier I had informed Troy of the dire need for at least one good picture fish. This plea came with the story of old friend Doyle Dowdy and I driving three pre-dawn hours to south Georgia’s Banks Lake. Doyle heard the same request for a picture fish at least a half-dozen times en route.
This had been a bass-fishing profile for the magazine, and as soon as we arrived and launched, Doyle cast a topwater plug to a cypress tree, which seemed to explode, and hauled in a 10-lb., 2-oz. largemouth. He then asked if I was ready to head back home with our picture fish.
This Sinclair fish wasn’t 10-2; only felt like it on such light tackle. That first crappie was over a pound and a half: 1.60 to be exact. And, trust me, when you’re fishing with a pro, you’ll learn a heap about varying weights on varying lakes. Between bites, I’m on my phone checking emails, and Troy is weighing fish.
That first fish came roughly two-thirds of the way between the pagoda and the highway—directly on that mud line. It was the first of a good number of fish we would pick up over the next three hours, running the same routes up and down the creek center. We could have picked up and run 10 miles to the other end of the lake, but there was no need. The fish were here, and while they weren’t exactly leaping into the Ranger, we were steadily stocking the livewells with enough to fill my cooler. That we were catching fish at all considering conditions was fairly astounding to me.
And shortly, Troy would share my astonishment.
The sun first showed itself around 10 a.m., finally popping above heavy, scudding clouds. Back Left scored again, and I had already grunted out, “Largemouth,” when the fish broke the surface. I’ll never forget the look on Troy’s face.
When you see a guy with his experience that shocked, you know something’s up. As in a 1.94-lb. crappie. Less than a minute after that one splashed into the livewell, Back Right chimed in. The boat’s net extends out to a dozen or more feet, and while pulling this one, I grunted that it was bigger than the last. I don’t think he believed me, but as soon as the surface roiled, that net shot out like a cannon.
“My buddies just are not going to believe this,” he said. “This doesn’t happen on this lake. We could come back out here 10 more times under the best conditions, and I doubt we’d catch two fish topping 4 pounds.”
We hooked, saw, but could not land two more in the same 2-lb. range. With the cold water, the bite was very fragile, the fish almost timid.
Tournament fishermen weigh in their top seven fish. Unfortunately for us, there was no competition going on this day. Not that we cared.
“We had 10.17 with our best seven fish,” Troy related. “With the two big ones we lost, we would have had an 11-lb. bag. That’s just not something you see on Sinclair, ever. Where the first big pod of shad showed up on the graph, right in front of that boathouse, that will be a jam-up spot for over a month. It will get better and better in here and in all the main creeks as the water warms, and they move toward the back.”
What I was most impressed with was the 25 total fish kept for the cooler. A couple of times the crappie were scatted as a troop of hybrid bass stormed through, and while Ol’ Thiel looked at them the way I do a wild hog, they fried up pretty sporty. As did our largest fish: a striper that spent his last 10 minutes in Sinclair showing considerable skill at knitting 4-lb.-test into mass confusion. A single largemouth, about a 3-pounder, inhaled a jig, surfaced to take a look at us, then spit and was gone.
By the way, when you make this trip, remember, once more, to listen to the fish. Troy typically prefers to run double jig sets featuring two color combinations. But on this day the larger crappie all hit singles. Further, jigs equipped with bright orange attracted fish in the stained water better than the chartreuse. Finally, tipping jigs with live minnows proved neither help nor hindrance.
You’ll likely be able to select better conditions for a Sinclair trip this month and beyond. Catching a cooler-full of mouth-watering crappie will do nothing but help this lake. The liberal daily limit of 30 per fisherman is in place for a reason, so take some home. Ease into the creeks, look for 15-foot and less depths, and start experimenting.