By Lawrence Taylor
Talk about fishing in north Alabama will reach a crescendo in late February as the Bassmaster Classic hits Birmingham and Guntersville Lake, but anglers should remember that there are a lot more than bass swimming in 'Bama waters. The crappie fishing in Guntersville and other nearby lakes is every bit as productive as the bass fishing.
Plus, winter is a great time to be trolling, dabbling a jig in submerged brush, shooting docks or simply anchoring under or near one of the many bridges. Even if the fish aren't biting fast and furious, at least you can relax and watch the bass guys zip and zoom all over the place, working way too hard to hook a fish they'll just release anyway.
For those of us who prefer to take it a little slower, as well as take some fantastic fillets back home for dinner, crappie fishing in north and central Alabama is extremely productive. You can take 30 fish a day. A 10-inch length limit is in effective on almost all Alabama lakes.
"We have a tremendous number of crappie in the 12- to 15-inch range," said longtime Guntersville guide Tim Chandler. "When a crappie gets to be 16-inches or so, that's a legitimate 2-pound fish."
Take a boat tour around Guntersville, Wheeler, Pickwick or other area water and you'll see boats and bank-bound anglers stacked at every bridge, and this easy to find spot is a proven location for crappie anglers. Dunking minnows is the normal plan for these anglers, but Chandler likes more-active fishing, so he's happier casting a jig.
"It's more like bass fishing when you cast for them," he said. "It's a lot more fun."
North Alabama crappie begin to spawn in mid- to late-March and wrap it up toward the end of April, so those fat fish will be staging out from spawning areas in January and February. Most of these Alabama crappie spawn on stumps and grasslines in the backs of creeks and bays.
"During January and February, look for shad on the graph near creek channel edges, especially if there's any dormant grass around," Chandler said. "Usually I use 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jigheads and a 2-inch plastic bait like the Wooly Bug or Houdini Fry."
If the fish are less than 12 feet deep, Chandler opts for the lighter jig. For deeper fish he uses a heavier jig to eliminate some of the downtime while the jig sinks to the level of the fish. Baitfish-type colors fit for most of his crappie fishing, but he adds that a touch of chartreuse seems to make a big difference.
"Like with bass fishing here, anything with a little chartreuse in it works."
For non-bridge-fishing anglers, Guntersville offers hundreds of docks that produce slabs almost the entire season. In fact, about the only time you can't catch them from around docks is while the spawn is in full swing. Anglers use several tactics to target docks. One is simple slow "strolling" around the edges while watching the electronics for brush and baitfish.
For slow strolling the docks, a 10- to 15-foot crappie pole allows for more reach, and a double-jig method puts bait in two different depths. To tie on a double jig, leave a long tag end on a basic loop knot for the upper jig, then tie the second jig to the end of it, making sure you've got the jigs a foot or more apart.
Chandler prefers shooting when he's after dock crappie. Shooting involves gripping the jig in your off hand and pulling it back to put tension on the rod, then letting go of the jig so it "shoots" into back corners of the dock. Shooting excels in situations when casting is impossible, such as getting a jig under that dock door that's only 6-inches from the water line.
"It takes practice to get good at it," Chandler said. "It takes me 15 or 20 tries every day before the skills come back to me."
Rod length should be from 5 to 6 foot, in light or medium action. Consensus on line is 4- to 6-lb fluorocarbon or copolymer, although Chandler says that bright "crappie" line is normally fine as long as the water color is not gin clear.
Identifying productive docks is a big challenge. There may be 100 docks along a stretch of bank, but only a few of those will hold any number of crappie. Chandler says that the first thing to do is identify which docks are over the right water depth. At Guntersville, a good starting place is 8 to 10 feet. While planted brush is an important secondary factor, Chandler says that crappie are under the docks simply for the shade, which makes the dock pattern essential on bright, sunshiny days.
To shoot a jig under a dock door or into another hard-to-reach spot, he says the first step is to reel the jig to line guide closest to the reel, open the bail and grip the line in your rod-holding hand, then grab the jig and pull it back toward your chest while pushing the rod outward toward the target. The rod should bend downward toward the water.
Aim the rod toward the target and let go of the jig while letting go of the line. The result is the jig shooting or sling-shotting under the dock door.
"You don't want to shoot sidearm," Chandler said. "If you shoot sidearm you'll skip the jig and it won't go far enough. Many times the fish are at the farthest corner and you need to get the jig back there. If you shoot straight up and down the jig is actually rising a little bit and barely missing the water."