The ‘Crappie King of Allatoona’ Shares “The Ticket” to Winter Slabs

On a blustery Friday, January 19, with the water stained red following a recent downpour, it was a testament to Stewart Wright’s know-how that we were able to put more than 40 crappie in the boat. And — as I was informed by another angler with only one fish in the livewell at the boat ramp— it’s that same know-how that earned Stewart the nickname “Crappie King of Allatoona.”

A humble angler, Stewart would never answer to the nickname, but he had no problem admitting that other crappie boats on Allatoona sometimes pull into his wake and follow when they see his red, 21-foot Lund Alaskan trolling the waters. He also doesn’t have a problem giving a helping hand. Before leaving the boat ramp Friday, he handed that fisherman with just one fish a fistful of grubs and precise directions to the area where we hooked into the most fish.

“I’ve got no problem helping someone who’s just getting started figure it out,” Stewart said. “And it’s not like he’s gonna catch all of ’em.”

Stewart may have needed some help figuring out the crappie on Allatoona, but that was back in 1992, before he fell for crappie in a big way. He was a bass fisherman, fishing club tournaments all over the Southeast, until his buddy Wayne Tatum of Conyers took him out on Oconee, and they boated 41 crappie and 27 hybrids in a day.

“I went home, sold my bass boat and now I’m strictly hybrid/crappie fishing, and crappie is my number one,” he said. “It ruined me. You catch more fish, plus it’s not as hard on me when I’m out there trolling instead of standing up casting all day.”

Trolling was the order of the day as we ran out of Galts Ferry at daylight. Expectations were not high due to gusty 10-15 mph winds, and a recent rain of about four inches that muddied the water and brought the level up by more than three feet, but Stewart was sure we could find at least a few fish. He planned on catching them trolling jigs, his method of choice for most of the year, and especially during the pre-spawn, winter months. When the fish move shallow to spawn in April, Stewart will sometimes anchor up and cast jigs or minnows to them, but January through March he follows the same trolling pattern, adjusting his depth to put his jigs in front of the fish.

“They’ll move out anywhere from 13 to 18 feet of water,” he said. “Front moves in, they go deeper. Front moves out, they’ll move back into the creek channels.”

The first stop of the day was at Kellogg Creek, a short run upstream and just around the bend from the put-in. Stewart said he concentrates most of his effort in January and early February at Kellogg Creek because that’s where the majority of his larger fish come from during this time of year. As the winter wears on, he said the fish will begin moving farther upstream in preparation for the spawn. Upstream was where we were headed also, as one look at the water told Stewart that Kellogg Creek was way too muddy to fish.

“Boy that water is red. I was hoping it would have cleared by today,” he said before cranking the motor up and pointing the boat back out into the lake. “The water color is the ticket. We’re looking for just a light stain.”

When the water gets muddy, Stewart suggested looking for clearer water either upstream or in the creeks. He mentioned Clear Creek, Stamp Creek and the Allatoona Pass, from Bethany Bridge to Allatoona Landing, as places where the water tends to hold less of a stain. After running about another four miles upriver to the “S” turn above Victoria Harbor, Stewart found what he was looking for in a pocket on the west bank, a slight stain and arcs of baitfish on the depthfinder.

“Bait is a priority. You find the baitfish and there will be fish with them,” he said.

Working out from the back of a pocket in about 10 feet of water with the temperature varying between 47 and 49 degrees, Stewart started putting out the rods. The plan was to space eight 9-foot rods across the stern with two 12-foot rods out of either side near the bow, but the fish made it difficult. Before he could get all of the jigs in the water, the bottom dro-pped off to about 14 feet, and we had two nice crappie on.

Stewart likes to use an assortment of different colors of twist-tail grub on a 1/16-oz. red or black jig head. He ties them on 6-lb. test line with a loop knot to give the jig more play. That day we were pulling black/chartreuse, John Deere, bubblegum/chartreuse and black/red with a chartreuse tail, but the first two fish were both taken on the black/chartreuse. The black/chartreuse proved to be the best producer throughout the day, with the bubblegum coming in a distant second.

Four of Stewart’s rods are standard lightweight crappie rods, but the rest are 5-weight fly rods with lightweight spinning reels taped securely to their handles. He likes the fly rods because of their soft tips.

“A soft tip is the ticket,” he said. “The softer the rod tip, the more advantage you have because when the crappie is just nipping at the tail, it won’t pull the bait away from them. The speed we’re pulling, it pops it out of their mouths like a slingshot if you’ve got a stiffer rod. Very seldom will they come back after that.”

We caught fish steadily working out of that pocket and up the west bank of the “S” turn until about 8:30 a.m. when we had 11 keepers in the livewell. Trolling at about 0.8 mph and controlling the auto-pilot motor from the back of the boat, Stewart said the jigs were getting down to about eight feet with 40 feet of line out. We got all of our hookups in between 14 and 15 feet of water.

“That auto-pilot is the ticket. You just tell it what direction to go and it goes,” he said. “I like catching fish. If I get out of ’em, I’ll turn around and go back into ’em. A lot of times, I’ll put out buoy markers when I find a good nest of ’em, and just run up and down those markers so I can stay in them.”

Despite the steady bite, Stewart wanted to find some faster action and we headed upstream after boating 13 fish by about 8:45 a.m. We put the rods back out on the west bank across from Little River with a plan of trolling up to Sweetwater Creek.

“The big crappie hold together,” Stewart said. “A buddy and I once caught 30 crappie that weighed 33 pounds right here.”

The troll up to Sweetwater only produced one crappie, but it was a good one at about 12 inches. Stewart also reeled in a hybrid, but he didn’t think the area was worth another pass. We ran upriver to the flats around Fields Landing, looking for a drop-off near the east bank that Stewart suspected would be holding some bait. The display on the depthfinder didn’t look too promising, so we turned around heading back downstream.
The crappie on Allatoona move upstream as the winter progresses, Stewart said. He also said the fish spawn earlier higher up the lake.

“They’re moving up the river and should be up to Sweetwater by early to mid February,” he said. “In late March or early April they’ll be moving into the creeks getting ready to spawn higher up the river. Down low on the lake they start their spawn a little later, from the middle to latter part of April.”

Back at the “S” turn above Victoria Marina, trolling a different section of the west bank, we got back into the fish. We tipped a few of the jigs with minnows that Stewart brought “just in case we need to sweeten the bait,” but the fish took jigs with and without minnows. Stewart keeps two handheld counting devices, or clickers, attached to the front of his overalls — one to count the number of fish caught, and the other to count the number of fish in the livewell. He said they come in handy for those 150-plus days, when the action is so fast that there are “fish still attached to rods flopping around in the front of the boat.”

The wind picked up and started blowing harder at about 10 a.m., making it harder to control the boat’s speed. Stewart likes to troll with the wind, and he said he sometimes carries two five-gallon buckets with holes in their bottoms to drag off either side of the stern. He called it a poor-man’s drift sock. He also watches his rods closely, making sure all their tips are close, from five inches to a foot, off the water to keep the wind from picking the line up and raising the jigs in the water column.

When the fish are suspended at about 12 feet in 18 to 22 feet of water, he likes to get his jigs deeper by either tying on tandem 1/16-oz. jig heads about two feet apart or by adding a 1/16-oz. splitshot about 18 inches up the line. He likes to follow the fish a little deeper when a front or bright sunshine pushes them down. Using tandem rigs and a few singles on 1/8-oz. jig heads, Stewart and a friend caught 86 crappie the day after we went out.

Despite the wind, we continued catching fish steadily on into the afternoon. Most of the fish we caught were between one-half and three-quarters of a pound, but we caught several slabs that broke the 12-inch mark and weighed between 1- and 1 1/4-lb. They would later make for some nice fillets. Stewart said it wasn’t a great day on the lake, but considering the conditions he was happy to have boated as many quality fish as we did.
Trolling jigs while keeping an eye on the depth at which the fish are holding is a pattern that will produce fish until they move shallow to spawn in April. About five days a week Stewart can be found on Allatoona catching crappie, and you can bet if you see that red Lund on the lake, it’s probably in the middle of them, because you don’t earn a name like “Crappie King of Allatoona” for nothing.

Stewart guides part-time for crappie on Allatoona. He would be happy to take you out after a mess of fish, and he said his high-sided boat is perfect for fishing with kids. He can be contacted at (770) 335-8667 or by e-mail at <kew52sbw@bellsouth.net>.

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