April is the time of year to be on Georgia’s lakes in search of slab-sized crappie. The fish can be caught using a variety of methods including trolling with minnows, pitching jigs to brush or even fishing bridge pilings. However, if you crappie fish any Georgia reservoir, especially those with lots of docks, shooting jigs into hard-to-reach, shady spots is one of the most effective ways to catch a mess of fish for the frying pan in the spring and summer.
Ricky Willis of Gray, a crappie-tournament fisherman, can catch crappie every way imaginable. He and tournament partner, Troy Thiel, consistently finish well in tournaments, earning enough points last year to fish in the Crappie U.S.A. Classic, which was held on Indiana’s Patoka Lake. The pair finished 11th out of 96 amateur teams.
“That’s how we are,” Ricky said. “Consistently in the money.”
Ricky has been chasing crappie for 25 years, so he knows their habits and where to start searching for them on a body of water. His favorite way to catch fish is shooting docks. Ricky shared some of the secrets of his success and showed us how to have a ball catching speckled perch on Lake Jackson in April.
“Jackson was the first place I shot docks 20 years ago,” Ricky said. “It’s easier to learn here than Oconee or Sinclair because most of the docks are on floats and you don’t lose a lot of jigs.”
Ricky said dock shooting on a windy day was challenging enough, and on Oconee or Sinclair, it can mean you spend as much time tying on jigs as you do actually fishing, because the current will push the light jigs in the water, sometimes causing them to get around corner posts on docks. On Jackson, however, once you find the technique, you can spend all day shooting jigs into the darkest spots under docks and pontoon boats to catch plenty of nice crappie without worrying too much about losing tackle.
Speaking of which, dock shooting, like other types of fishing, requires the proper equipment. Ricky prefers 5 1/2-foot medium-action Wally Marshall and Pinnacle rods paired with Pinnacle Solene spinning reels. Ricky uses 4-lb. test line, and typically he shoots 1/24-oz. jigs.
Ricky likes BAB flies and Tom’s crappie jigs. However, his favorite shooting jigs are those he and his brother make at home, specifically for the purposes of shooting docks.
“I pour the heads myself, paint them, wrap the bodies and put on the feather,” Ricky said.
Ricky makes his feather jigs in a variety of colors, though he says color isn’t as important when shooting docks as it is when you are trolling.
“Color doesn’t matter a whole lot,” Ricky said. “I like black/orange/ yellow and black/pink/green jigs, but I think that’s my preference, not the fish’s.”
To shoot the jig, think of shooting a bow. Sort of.
Hold the rod just as you normally would, with your index finger holding the line at the handle section of the rod. Make sure you have out enough line so that when you hold the rod tip up, the jig is about even with the line guide closest to the reel seat. Pinch the jig head between the index finger and thumb of your free hand. Pull the jig back toward you, bending the rod tip back and under until you have the jig even with the butt of the rod or even a little farther. Hold the handle of the rod level or pointed slightly down and aim the rod at a hole between dock floats. Let go of the jig with one hand and the line with the other simultaneously.
For the first little while, your jig will probably land in all sorts of unintended places, over the dock, beside the dock, just over the side of the boat you are fishing out of. Everywhere but under the dock, which is where you were trying to put the jig. In other words, this technique takes some getting used to. Try shooting your jig over open water a few times before you aim for a small opening between a a pontoon and the outboard motor on somebody’s boat.
Once you feel confident you can put the jig where it needs to go, it’s time to start locating fish. At the first dock Ricky and I visited on Lake Jackson, he shot his jig for a good five minutes as I took notes of his equipment and technique. Finally after one shot, Ricky lifted his rod tip and hooked a crappie.
“That didn’t take long,” I said.
“It took longer than I thought it would,” he grinned.
Shooting jigs under docks for crappie is more interactive than trolling, which is certainly a good method for catching a limit of crappie. However, instead of working one creek from the channel out until something works, dock shooters fish faster. Ricky said if a dock is going to produce, it usually will show signs of aquatic life from the time you pull up.
“I’ll try a dock for five or 10 minutes, and if I don’t get bit, I’ll move to a different dock,” Ricky said.
Still, be sure to work a dock thoroughly, shooting jigs between every float, from every side, and if there is a pontoon boat in a slip, don’t hesitate to shoot a jig under the boat. Crappie, like most gamefish species, relate to structure such as a dock. What Ricky thinks is more important when shooting jigs is shade.
“Typically when the sun is bright, the crappie are going to be in the darkest shade under a dock or boat,” Ricky said. “I’ll hit a dock from every angle, but I’ll really concentrate on the shadiest spots.”
Ricky says there are a couple of methods to dock shooting. You can shoot the jig under the dock and turn the reel handle very slowly. Ricky likes to let the jig sink and just bounce the jig out with small moves of the rod tip and small turns of the rod handle.
“I just sort of bump it out by just turning the reel handle a little at a time,” Ricky said. “You have to pay close attention to what your line does.”
Detecting strikes on a shot jig can vary. When the water warms up and the crappie are in a feeding mood, they will whack the correct offering with gusto. On post-front, bluebird days when a period of warm weather is followed by a cold spell, crappie might just suck the jig in as it falls through the water column.
Ricky says if you want to catch fish shooting jigs, you have to keep in close contact with your lure and line. A 1/24-oz. jig is hard to feel as it falls through the water. Keep your line as tight as you can without affecting the natural fall of the jig so you can feel if crappie hit it.
“Sometimes if the current is really strong I’ll switch to a heavier jig,” Ricky said. “But you always have to be ready to set the hook.”
Ricky watches his line intently. When he first started shooting docks, he used green line so he could see it move as crappie bit his jig. He’s so used to the feeling of it now that he uses clear fishing line.
Ricky said that a stable period of warm, spring-like weather is going to push Jackson’s crappie way back in the coves. The day we fished, main-lake docks with water 12- to 15-feet deep were the most productive. However, the time is getting right for crappie to be seeking shallow water in which to spawn. The warmer it gets, the faster the fish will move there, and the longer they are likely to stay.
“I have caught crappie under docks in two or three feet of water, and you have to really be ready for them because they hit the jig as soon as it hits the water,” Ricky said.
Ricky said the best part about shooting docks at Jackson in April is that big crappie, the slabs we all want to catch in the springtime, will be in shallow water so they’ll be easier to find, and he believes that where there’s one big fish, there will be others.
“If I catch a big crappie or two in a spot, I’ll stay with it,” Ricky said. “Usually big fish are with other big fish, whereas little fish will be with other little ones.”
Perhaps even better news for crappie anglers, many of whom are trying to catch enough fish to throw a full-scale fish fry or three over the summer, crappie are schooling fish. And they might just be susceptible to peer pressure, because most times when you catch a crappie, you will catch several from a spot.
On my trip to Jackson with Ricky, that trend was no different. The crappie weren’t hiding under every dock we stopped at, but when the fish were there, we knew it quickly, and I would sit and watch Ricky pull fish after fish from the water for a period of minutes, they would stop biting, and we would motor to another spot.
“That’s how it goes,” Ricky said. “You can sit here and catch crappie for a half hour about as fast as you can get a jig under the dock, and then they quit biting.
“When they stop biting on a dock, I’ll move to a new spot, but if I have success on a dock, I’ll go back to it later in the day and try it, because they’ll bite there again.”
At the third or fourth dock on our trip, a pontoon boat was tied to the outside of a dock, and another pontoon boat was parked in a covered slip. Ricky and I started fishing there and in short order, putting fish in the livewell. Meanwhile, I was feeling pretty confident about this newfound fishing technique, so I fired a black/orange/green jig between the pontoon and the outboard motor as far as physics would allow, let the jig begin sinking, and started reeling a quarter turn at a time when I felt a quick tightening on the line. The jig began falling again and got thumped again. The third time, I set the hook and landed my first dock-shooting crappie ever.
Ricky fired a jig under the pontoon boat on top of mine and as soon as I started reeling in my first fish, he was hooking another. I shot my jig back into the darkness and watched my line carefully.
Ricky was busy boating another fish as I pinched the jig head and prepared to make another shot. The little jig disappeared, the line started sinking as the jig swung toward the boat, and when I felt a slight tug, I lifted the rod tip. Another crappie.
In a few minutes, the crappie under the pontoon were bored and Ricky and I were on the move again. It took a few more docks to locate another hungry school of fish.
The next dock where Ricky caught a fish was so low to the water, I thought it would be impossible to shoot a jig under it on a normal day. The day Ricky and I fished, the water was rolling and the wind was whipping up to 20 miles an hour.
“This dock is hard to shoot on a calm day,” Ricky said.
It took him several tries to get a jig in the right position, and when he did, he started catching some pretty nice fish, quite a bit bigger than the ones he had caught earlier under easier docks.
Ricky was having to time his shot to squeeze under the boards between waves, and once in a while, he did it and a fish would hit his jig. However, even somebody who has been shooting jigs for two decades can have a hard time, so Ricky found another dock, and pretty soon, you guessed it, he was catching fish.
In the meantime, I literally shot docks. I hit the front boards of docks so many times it was growing pitiful, and if there was a way to put a jig anywhere around the outboard motor on a pontoon boat, I found it.
If you want to catch a mess of crappie, and try a different and fun way of doing it, take yourself to Lake Jackson in April. Start checking docks in the backs of long coves. Ricky usually starts off by checking for docks in 10 or 12 feet of water and working shallower.
“When it gets warm, the crappie will be really shallow and that’s when the dock shooting gets great,” Ricky said.
Ricky said the slab crappie should start showing themselves in shallow water at Jackson around the April 13 full moon. If you play your cards right, and you can swing a trip to Jackson on Good Friday, or the Saturday of Easter weekend, you could be catching the crappie in a prime mood to eat.
o find some good docks, load up on jigs and practice shooting. That way when the time comes to fire up the old fish cooker, you will have filled your family’s needs at Lake Jackson.