Troy Thiel is attempting to tell me how simple it is to catch crappie trolling on Lake Sinclair.
“People make it harder… there’s a fish… than it really has to be. All you need to do… there’s another one…”
Being interrupted by slab crappie is not a bad thing, even at the beginning of the lesson. Troy had launched his Ranger boat from the Lakeside Bait & Tackle ramp a grand total of five minutes earlier, and the trolling motor had eased us less than 50 yards out into Beaverdam Creek—the hot-water cove that gets its name from Georgia Power’s Plant Branch, directly across Highway 441 north of Milledgeville.
The air temperature was 35 degrees at daylight, and the water temp was 49.
Along with partner Ricky Willis, Troy, 43, of Gordon, fishes a half-dozen or so crappie tournaments in Georgia, Florida and Alabama each year. The pair won the Jan. 23-24 Crappie USA event near Crescent City, Fla. on the St. Johns River. The résumé includes two tournament wins on Lake Sinclair, several on Lake Oconee and Clarks Hill, a regional championship on Hartwell and a state championship on Blackshear. They also fish the Georgia Slab Masters trail.
Now that we have established that he knows what he’s doing, let’s get back to the fishing beside 441…
“I like the early morning bite,” Troy said at our meeting at Lakeside in the dark. “You usually catch your bigger fish then. When I’m tournament fishing or pre-fishing, I want to know where the heaviest fish are. You’ll find them early in the day.
“Typically on Sinclair, start in Beaverdam until the crowd runs you out of there, and then go up Rooty Creek until you find the fish. Most folks are going to fish early and leave about two or three o’clock, and you’ll go through a little lull at lunch sometimes. But when fishermen roll up to the ramp at 9 a.m. or later to launch, we’ve already done our damage as far as big fish go. And they’ve missed some of the best fishing of the day.”
As has been the case for roughly the last million years or so, March weather will be unpredictable, bringing with it stained water. No problem.
“I actually like stained water,” Troy says. “If I have a choice, I’m going to fish it every time. Fish seem to be able to see the jig better in clear water, and that’s not always good. When the water’s dirtied up a little, they just react to it because they can’t make the jig out as well. It’s swinging past like a baitfish, and they just go for it. A good heavy stain helps the fishing a lot more than it hurts it.
“Just remember to use darker colors in dark water and brighter colors in bright water. Shad, pearl or white jigs are better in clear areas where there’s no mud.”
When it comes to trolling, the Ranger is set up with rod-holding brackets to fish eight rods out of the front and eight rods out of the back, but Troy uses only six up front and six out the back. He prefers Wally Marshall rods in staggered lengths of 18, 14 and 10 feet. The longest rods go farthest toward the front of the boat. Beginning with the 18-foot rod in the front holder, followed by the 14- and the 10-footers. Out the back of the boat, Troy uses all 8-foot rods. There is 4 feet in between each rod.
“It took 15 years to fine tune it to this point, but if you don’t have that 4 feet of separation, there will be tangled lines, especially when you make a turn,” said Troy. “I see folks here all the time with 20 or more rods the same length, and they keep a tangled mess. This way will save you a lot of headaches.”
If he’s running the full complement of rods, there will be 12 lines in the water—but 24 jigs.
“I like to double up and use two jigs on each pole,” Troy says. “Keep about 2 feet between the jigs. I tie a loop knot that gets the jig about 3 or 4 inches out from the main line. When the fish bites, he doesn’t feel the main line, and he can’t spit it out until it’s too late.”
The preferred jig sizes for Troy are 1/32- and 1/48-oz. Let’s say your rig just got hung up, and you broke everything off. Here’s how to re-tie:
You always want the heaviest jig on top, so slide the 1/32-oz. jig head up your line. Forget it’s there. Tie the 1/48-oz. head on at the bottom with a loop knot; above it, the other jig is swinging free. Grab that top one and put about 24 inches between the bottom one and the top one in your hand. Tie that top loop knot roughly 3 inches off the main line.
So now you have two jigs, heavier at the top, lighter at the bottom and 24 inches in between.
Equally as important as the jig sizes is the size of line you’re using. For these rigs, Troy wants only 4-lb. test.
“Crappie come up to feed; they will not go down,” he says. “With the jig weights I prefer, 6-lb. test line is too buoyant. If you’re using heavier line, you have to use heavier jigs to try and stay in the depth range the fish are in.”
Three of his favorite brand jigs are Southern Pro, Sugar Bug and Kalin, all available at The Crappie Shop in Gray.
“Crappie on Lake Sinclair love Sugar Bugs more than anywhere I go,” Troy remarked. “We catch fish on them everywhere, but fish here seem to really love ’em.”
This lake can be intimidating, with approximately 417 miles of shoreline and 15,330 acres of water. But most of that can be quickly and easily eliminated.
As we moved around a little on this finally warming morning, checking this spot and that, Troy is fielding calls from some of his fellow tournament competitors scattered all over Sinclair.
“All my tournament buddies are real open, except for when we’re actually fishing a competition,” he laughs. “We swap information back and forth and keep a good idea of what’s going on all over the lake. Then, too, you have to master at least the basics of this type of fishing to have success.”
As he speaks, his eyes are constantly roving across one of two depthfinders, a Humminbird 998 and an 1198.
“The electronics make a huge difference; they save hours and hours of trolling unproductive water. It’s pretty simple, but you won’t find crappie if you don’t find baitfish. I look for the fish on the graphs, then try to catch them after they’re located.
“The best thing to tell somebody if they’re looking to go crappie fishing in early March is to go to secondary points on the main lake and the mouths of the creeks. Rooty Creek, Beaverdam in the warm water and Nancy Branch are good places to start. This morning, most of the fish we’re marking are in the 12-foot range. With my trolling motor on 0.9 and jigs weighing 1/32- and 1/48-oz. on 4-lb. test, that will get you down to right at 11.5 feet.”
Troy said watching your boat speed in March will be important.
“Speed is really important right here,” said Troy. “Stay consistent so that the jigs don’t bob up and down. A trolling motor that you can fine-tune is key to catching fish, and keep the boat in a straight line. Don’t be going around and around in circles.”
As things warm in March, it will be easier to eliminate even more areas that are void of fish, or where they’re not gathered in bunches, which is what you’re looking for.
“Just focus on the fact that you won’t be fishing deeper than 15 feet unless a really hard cold front moves in,” Troy says. “Weather dictates everything; it will move them back and forth, but in every case you must find where the baitfish are. If we get 60- to 65-degree days consistently, they’re not going to do anything but move shallower, because they’re looking for places to spawn. If you look in 12 to 15 feet of water, and they’re not there, look different. As it warms, the fish may be in 12 to 15 feet of water Monday and 6 to 8 by Saturday. They’ll spawn on shallow flats, as well as near the banks, and when the water temperature climbs above 50 is when it really starts happening. You can catch big numbers pretty easily then.”
As the crappie do move shallow, in that 6- to 8-foot range, you may want to move to a single-jig rig, but Troy suggests keeping two while going even lighter. Remember to adjust the trolling speed to reach the desired depth.
“Usually the middle to the end of March is when crappie move real shallow,” said Troy. “If you get four or five warm days in a row, they’ll move up close. But if you get a cold snap, they’ll go right back out. Between 55- and 58-degree water temperature is what it takes to push them in, and it doesn’t last long. They get in there, do their spawning thing and get out of there and go into a postspawn stage. The fishing drops off then, because they’re stressed out and dormant for a few days to recuperate.”
When the crappie move up shallow to spawn, a lot of anglers quit trolling and start pushing. Not Troy.
“I’m going to still troll, although pushing can be very productive,” said Troy. “I like to troll across flats in the depth of 6 to 8 feet. When fish are locked on brushpiles, pushing is effective, but I’m not as good at that as I am trolling. Pushing can be slow and boring to me, because you’re just sitting there watching your rod tips. You put all your rods directly out the front of the boat and push right over that brushpile; if they don’t hit, back out and try the structure again from a different angle. I’m just better at trolling for them than pushing.
“In low water, I go back to a double 1/48-oz. or a single 1/32-oz. and adjust my speed accordingly to keep it shallow. Double 48s are really light, so they’re not going to drop out of sight. Every time I can, I like to put on two different colors at the same time. It makes a big difference.”
One other thing about trolling that makes it simple is that if you find the boats, you’ll usually find the fish. It may look like a nautical merry-go-round, but respect the folks around you and everybody can catch a 30-fish limit. There are plenty of crappie in Lake Sinclair. Don’t make catching them harder than it has to be.