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Millers Ferry (Dannelly)
Millers Ferry Crappie Get on the Beds in April
Minnows and jigs work on bedded crappie this month.
By Paul Sims
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of AON
Joe Allen Dunn of Millers Ferry said crappie get super shallow in April as they get on the beds. He uses minnows and jigs to load the boat.
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We were slowly trolling down the side of a sloping bank in Hog Pen Slough when Joe pointed to an area in the water that caught his attention. I looked at the water and immediately saw what he was talking about. A large area of water stretching down the bank and several feet out from the bank was murky and muddy unlike the clearer water surrounding it. Joe explained this was a sign that crappie were in the area. The crappie, fanning and preparing their beds, had visibly stirred the muddy bottom, waiting for the temperature to rise high enough so they could spawn. As we fished the area, we quickly learned that the most productive placement of our baits was just outside this “muddy zone.” Using minnows and fishing about 2 feet deep, Joe was able to pull several crappie into the boat before the bite slowed down.

Crappie fishing in March and early April can be a test for the best anglers. The water temperature starts warming, and the crappie begin to move from their winter deep-water staging areas into the shallower creeks and sloughs in preparation for spawning. The deep-water honey-holes, if not completely deserted, are far from being as productive as they were during the winter months. During this transitional period, anglers who are successful must understand what is going on and what is about to happen in the crappie world.

Joe Allen Dunn is one of those anglers, and fishing with him was a textbook experience on locating and catching these transitional crappie.

Joe lives in Millers Ferry. His house sits on the bank of the William “Bill” Dannelly Reservoir, known locally as Millers Ferry, a lake that he has fished most of his life. The day we were able to fish was typical for this time of year. Surface temperatures in the river were in the 53- to 54-degree range, and the air temperature reached into the mid 60s. We were fishing under a steady high pressure about six to eight hours ahead of a major cold front. Winds preceding the weather front were in the 10- to 15-mph range but reached 20 mph by 11 a.m.

As we left the dock a few minutes after 7, Joe told me about his fishing trip the day before. He had caught several nice-sized crappie out of deep water in the main river channel, but fishing had been tough with a slow bite.

“This time of year I am prepared for anything,” said Joe. “I am set up for trolling, bottom fishing or jig fishing. Whatever it takes. Flexibility is essential in locating crappie during this transitional period.”

Joe checked with the Millers Ferry Lock and Dam Power House, and they would be pulling water while we were fishing. Three units would be running from 5 a.m. until 7 a.m. and then two units from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. This would provide a current in the reservoir, which usually increases the feeding activity of the fish.

The first locations we fished were out in deep water, locations that had been successful for Joe the previous day. We stopped at a rock wall on the outside of a bend. Joe explained the reason for his first selection.

“Concentrate on the deep ledges located in the outside bends of the river,” he said. “Go down the bank using your depthfinder searching for deep structure and the drop offs; there you will find the fish. The structure on top of the water such as the trees and tops — everyone fishes these areas because they can see them. I like structure fishing, but I like the rock type of structure. Do you see all of the rocks on the bank here? That is what you need for crappie, a good steep ledge with a rocky or hard bottom. Rocks are more enjoyable to fish because you do not get hung up as often or as easily. There are fish in the tops, but you will stay hung up most of the time.”

We were in about 35 feet of water, and we were using what most fishermen call a drop-shot rig. Joe prefers a 1-oz. weight tied on the bottom with his minnow suspended about 12 inches above the weight. Joe worked the rig by lowering it all the way down and slowly bouncing it off the bottom. This technique allowed him to feel the bottom and any structure that he might encounter. I fished the same type of rig and easily felt the ledge we were fishing. When any structure was detected, it was easy to pull up and go over it. As we worked our weights up and down, this also gave the minnow a little extra action to attract the crappie.

“Using this type of rigging, I have found that the 1-oz. weight helps you keep good contact with the bottom and doesn’t drift so badly in the current. I don’t really see an advantage with using a lighter weight,” said Joe.

Joe also explained the importance of having a depthfinder.

“Another key to locating deep crappie is having a depthfinder. You need to have it on your trolling motor so that you can watch it and stay right on top of them. I have one mounted on my steering wheel and one on my trolling motor, but it is really more crucial to have it mounted on your trolling motor so you can stay in that zone,” said Joe.

We continued to fish the bottom as Joe maneuvered us to several different places. He carefully watched his depthfinder, locating the all-important bottom structure.

“If anybody is watching us, they are probably asking themselves, ‘Why are they fishing way out there?’” said Joe, laughing.

If someone had asked that question, I was able to answer them as I watched a couple of sharp tugs on my line. I gently set the hook and reeled up a nice, large crappie, right off the bottom. We fished this area a little longer, but because the bite was slow and the wind had picked up, Joe decided to move into Hog Pen Slough. There, the day before, he had observed a large number of shad in the water, a good indicator that other fish would be there also. As we moved into the slough, Joe noticed the water temperature was steadily increasing, moving into the 57 and 58 degree range.

“Generally water temperature is the key for monitoring the movement of crappie,” said Joe. “As the water warms, the crappie will leave the deep water following channels into the creeks and sloughs. Obviously you have got to have warm days to get that water temperature up, but it is when you start having the warm nights, when the lows do not drop below 50 degrees, that really gets that water temperature up. When the water temperature reaches the mid to high 50s, you look for male crappie shallow making and fanning the beds. The female crappie are waiting nearby staging in deeper water. By the time the water reaches the mid 60s, the spawning is in full force.”

However, you have to watch the temperature. If a cold front, which is common this time of year, comes through and cools things down a few degrees, the crappie will pull back into the deeper channels. They will not leave, but they will pull back and just shut down. Do not try to fish these cold mornings. Wait until the afternoon when the water warms up.

“The recent high water is another reason for the crappie to be in the creeks and sloughs. When the river rises, it forces the fish back into these areas, and with the temperatures already in the upper 50s the fish are going to stay. They will not return to the deep water,” said Joe.

We changed over to a cork rig and prepared to start fishing structure as we trolled down the bank. By doing this, we hoped to quickly cover a large area and locate the crappie.

“I am a firm believer in the Bobstop Rigs,” said Joe, as he flipped his minnow toward a partially submerged top. “This type of rig allows me to flip my minnow under limbs, docks and other structure that most people are not able to fish.”

The Bobstop Rig consists of a small rubber stop that is threaded onto your fishing line first. The stop slides on your line and can be set at the depth you wish to fish. You then place a sliding cork on your line, followed by your weight or weights and then your hook. Until it is in the water, the cork is sitting on top of the weights right above your hook. All of your rigging is relatively close together at the end of your line.

By keeping everything tightly together, it is easy to “flip” your minnow under or into tight places. Joe does this by taking up the slack line with his right hand, pulling the rigging up close to the tip of his rod. By flipping the rod with his left hand and releasing the slack line, a very accurate placement of the bait can be made. As the rigging goes into the water, the line passes through the cork until it is stopped by the Bobstop, so that you are fishing at the set depth.

As for hook preferences, Joe uses a size 2, Tru-Turn, fine-wire hook. Joe likes these for their flexibility in the event he gets hung.

Flipping minnows under Bobstop Rigs in shallow cover will really work over the next month as more and more fish begin to move and hold shallow in preparation for the spawn.

We continued to fish and worked our way around the edges of the slough. It was at this time Joe noticed the muddied area of water just off the edge of the bank. Joe realized that this could be a hot spot, so we slowed down and fished this area with our minnows. Joe managed to catch several crappie from this location.

As I mentioned before, casting into the muddy area did not produce any bites but fishing a few feet out from it in deeper water paid off with a couple of good keepers. We found a few other places in the slough that produced good bites, and although the bite was never really strong at any one location, by alternating back and forth between them, several nice crappie were landed. At one point Joe decided to use an ultra-light reel and rod. Joe tied on a black-and-chartreuse Slater’s Jig with 1/16-oz. head. After casting several times, Joe got a good strike at the end of a submerged top and reeled in another crappie.

“Another tip on catching crappie is to watch other fishermen,” said Joe, as he made reference to another boat fishing in the slough. “They live here on the edge of this slough, and they know what is going on with the fishing. Notice they are fishing jigs like us, but they are using a cork to keep the jig suspended at a depth of about 2 or 3 feet. They are fishing the deeper channel edges of water and are not trying to fish the shallows and cypress trees in the back of the slough. You can see that the majority of crappie here are staging on the channel edges and slightly deeper water. But as you can see from today, the crappie fishing is about to explode, and everyone who has been keeping tabs knows this.”

By 11 a.m. the water temperature had risen to 59 degrees in Hog Pen Slough. It was about to reach the all-important 60-degree-plus mark. There is no doubt that in a few weeks the water will be right, and the crappie will be spawning. During this time the crappie can be hammered, and nice stringers of slabs can be caught easily in the spawning areas.

As we discussed the movement of the crappie and what was about to happen, you could begin to feel the excitement in the air just like before the opening day of deer season or before the kick-off of the Auburn-Alabama football game.

“Winter crappie fishing is my favorite due to the fact that the crappie are so concentrated and just gorging themselves on everything as they prepare for the spawn,” said Joe. “The last weekend of January we were wearing them out in the deep river, but now it is more in the shallows and less in the river. In my opinion the next best time to load up on crappie is to catch them during the spawn.”

On our four-hour fishing trip we caught crappie three different ways in water ranging from 35 feet deep to water less then 8 feet deep. We saw proof that the crappie have moved into the shallows and are about to spawn. The old saying, “The early bird gets the worm” certainly applies to crappie fishing. Once the word gets out and the big loaded stringers start coming in, the fishing pressure around here will be unbelievable.

Now is the time to get out and start pre-fishing those backwater areas, creeks and sloughs. Watch the water temperature, and fish now to learn the best locations to get that stringer full of slabs when the bite is on.
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