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Wilson Lake’s Cold-Weather Slab Crappie
Take your pick this month. Trolling and dock shooting work for trophy slabs on Wilson.
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of AON
Want a quiet fishing experience with the chance to catch a slab crappie? Wilson Lake gives you the chance this month.
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When the cold blasts of winter send water temperatures plunging, northwest Alabama crappie fishermen have a common suggestion: Try Wilson Lake.

Admittedly, not many anglers brave the wintry elements in search of crappie. In fact, a day’s fishing in February on Wilson Lake, the smallest of the Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs in Alabama, is liable to be a lonely experience, save for a curious waterfowl or two. Yet even the coldest conditions, when the water temps drop below the 40-degree mark, produce a few fish.

“I don’t think it ever gets too cold for the fish,” said veteran crappie fisherman David Waters, of Muscle Shoals. “Maybe the conditions get too cold for the fishermen but not for the fish.”

David is a member of the Shoals Area Crappie Association and a regular tournament competitor with that organization.

A variety of factors combine to make Wilson a likely winter destination. While other north Alabama waters — specifically Pickwick, Guntersville and the Bear Creek lakes — will yield better numbers throughout the year, Wilson offers the elements that comprise a good cold-water crappie fishery: acres and acres of deep water, easily targeted habitat and a population of bigger fish that is a well-kept secret.

Both David and Muscle Shoals crappie guide Brad Whitehead remark that Wilson is the top destination in the region for bigger slabs.

“If I wanted to a catch a 3-lb. crappie,” Brad said, “I would head to Wilson before I would begin to think about going to Pickwick or somewhere else.”

David adds, “I’m not going to catch huge numbers of fish. Sometimes you get lucky and have those 30- or 40-fish days. When I do go to Wilson, I am thinking quality. If I can catch 15 or 20 crappie at this time of year, I’m really happy because the average is going to be 12- to 14-inch fish.”

Trolling Tactics

Both David and Brad utilize trolling tactics extensively on Wilson.

David employes what he calls a “multi-rod” approach that others might call spider rigging. Regardless of the name, the technique is designed to cover ground with multiple baits in the water. David can cover a swath of water wider than 30 feet with eight rods in the front and an additional eight rods in the back of his Ranger boat.

“I’m going to be fishing deep, tight-lining minnows,” David said, “literally bumping the bottom and not so much fishing cover as structure. Cover like brush tops and stumps certainly helps, but you’re going to find fish all along the drops regardless of the presence of cover.

“I try to fish drops or channel ledges, even if they are small, even a foot or 2. Fish the channel drops, and you will come into contact with crappie sooner or later in these areas.”

David encounters such locations in the larger tributaries that feed into Wilson. He specifically focuses on his electronics to show him the bends in the creek channels.

“The outside bends are probably the best because that’s where your brush is going to wash into,” David said. “I’m rarely going to be in water shallower than 15, maybe even 18 feet. A lot of times the boat will be sitting in 30 feet of water and run into the bluff or drop and then back off.

“I’m not sure this is always the case, but about 19 feet seems to be ideal. I know I have several places that I go straight to that are exactly 19 feet deep.”

David exclusively uses B’n’M rods, 14-foot Pro Staff models in the front of the boat and 12-foot Capps and Coleman models in the back. His reels are Ambassador 5500s spooled with 12-lb. test Silver Threat lo-vis mono.

“I use the heavier line simply because I’m going to fish deeper,” David said. “You’re going to get hung up a lot, and the heavier line allows you to save a lot of tackle.”

At the end of the main line, David creates what he calls a “catfish rig,” a two-hook setup with a 1-oz. weight at the bottom. Up the line, he attaches two No. 1 Aberdeen hooks with loop knots, the first only about 8 inches above the weight and the other about a foot or so above the lower hook.

“I really feel like a lot of these fish are literally touching the bottom,” David said. “I want that lower hook to be close to the weight. The upper hook I will put a greater distance up the line to get it above any brush I might run into.”

David baits exclusively with crappie shiners in the extreme cold of winter, explaining the bigger minnows “emulate shad more than tuffy minnows.” He doesn’t switch to hair or plastic jigs until later in the year when the water temperatures begin to warm.

Once rigged and near a likely location, David inches his boat along at speeds of 0.5 miles per hour or even less. When the depthfinder shows fish or quality cover, David often stops the boat to give the fish a longer and better look at his presentation.

“I’m always going 0.5 miles per hour or slower in water temperatures this cold,” he said. “Sometimes I am going so slow the GPS won’t even pick up the speed. And when I find brush, I might sit right on top of it. The fish are lethargic, and you have to give them time to take the bait.

“The rule at this time of year is go deeper and go slower.”

In many ways, Brad uses many of the same tactics and tackle setups as David. However, his trolling approach has changed drastically in the last year. Brad has adopted the side-pulling techniques of famed Pickwick Lake guide Roger Gant, and said the different trolling method works especially well over the drops and ditches of Wilson Lake.

Instead of the standard rods extending “spider” style from the front and rear of the boat, side-pulling involves a series of eight rods extending out of the left side of Brad’s War Eagle boat, designed for side-pulling by Roger for the company. Brad uses a trolling motor mounted on the side of the boat to “pull” baits over likely drops and cover.

Brad’s rigging is similar to that previously discussed, although he does make use of pre-packaged B’n’M minnow rigs, which make re-tying quicker and easier, a major factor in cold weather. He also occasionally increases his weight up to 2 ounces in order to maintain a totally vertical presentation in cold water.

“I want it straight up and down, and I want it to get there fast,” Brad said.

In terms of tackle, Brad uses 8-foot rods called “The Difference,” another B’n’M product designed by Roger Gant. He mounts casting reels filled with 10-lb. Vicious mono on these rods.

Brad favors No. 1 or 1/0 Daiichi hooks, which he baits with crappie shiners up to about 3 inches or bigger tuffies if the shiners are not available.

Alternative Approach

Brad’s approach to cold-weather crappie on Wilson Lake is not exclusively devoted to trolling, however.

“Actually, there are two approaches I will use,” Brad said. “Up until about 10 o’clock, I will be trolling or in my case side pulling. Then I will start shooting docks. Now a lot of people will tell me I’m crazy, that it’s too early in the year to shoot docks. But not on Wilson.

“The major difference I see on Wilson is the shad tend to congregate around the docks and piers and this attracts the crappie. A lot of times the cold temperatures will cause shad kills, and I think this causes the crappie to turn on, also.”

While extremely popular in other areas, shooting docks for crappie is a little-used tactic in northwest Alabama, primarily because there is a lack of docks that hold crappie in most lakes. Wilson is the exception, especially on the lower end where most of the crappie fishing takes place. The lake brings together the correct mixture of deep-water docks and crappie numbers necessary for successful dock shooting.

For the uninitiated, shooting docks involves a whip-like spinning rod, an ultralight spinning reel filled with 4- or 6-lb. line and a small jig. Grasping the jig between the thumb and the index finger with the hook pointed forward (to avoid an embedded hook in the hand) and letting out slightly less than a rod’s length of line, pull the rod into an arch and “shoot” the target by releasing the jig and allowing the action of the rod to launch the lure forward.

Shooting docks is not for everyone. Even experienced fishermen find the technique difficult to perfect. But for an alternative approach to crappie fishing, it can be an exciting, even addictive method.

“I know it’s unusual to be shooting docks this early in the year,” Brad said. “Most people will tell you that you don’t shoot docks until the second or third week of March or even later. But I’ve found some of my best dock shooting on Wilson in January and February. Plus the water is dropped so much at this time of year you’ve got that extra foot and a half of space to play with under the docks. That’s big when you’re trying to get into a tight space.”

Jigs for shooting docks range in weight from 1/8-oz. when fish are deeper down to miniscule 1/32-oz. and 1/48-oz. models when the crappie are shallower. Most of the winter fish around piers hold deep, making bigger jigs ideal. Brad combines the jig with a YUM Vibra Tube plastic bait in blue flake or black and chartreuse.

“Start at the deepest point on the dock, and do your best not to spook the fish,” he said. “Like any type of fishing, you have to be patient shooting docks. You might fish six or eight piers before getting to that ideal one that holds the fish. Then, bam, you might pick off 15 or 20 crappie if you don’t scatter them by hitting the pier or banging something in the boat.”

Brad suggests shooting the jig as far as possible under the pier, flipping the bail, letting the lure drop, and then swimming it slowly back to the boat, all the time looking for the tell-tale line jumps that indicate a crappie strike.

“You might shoot under a pier that stands over 15 feet of water and allow the lure to drop down to 25 or 30 feet (as it falls back toward the boat into deeper water),” Brad said. “The fish will suspend somewhere in that range at this time of year, so fish the area around any dock thoroughly.”

Shorter rods in the 4 1/2- to 5 1/2- foot range are ideal for beginning dock shooters. More experienced shooters often use longer rods, up to 6 1/2 feet, because of the power generated by the extra length.

Wilson Crappie Waters

When most fishermen discuss Wilson Lake, the first destination in the conversation is the Wheeler Dam tailrace on the extreme upper end of the lake. That part of Wilson is not the focus for crappie fishermen. Both David and Brad mention two large tributaries, Shoal (or Shoals) Creek coming from the north and Donnegan Slough/McKernan Creek from the south, as the best destinations for winter crappie on Wilson.

The Donnegan area is located a short run upstream from the Fleet Harbor ramp on the south end of Wilson Dam. Shoal Creek is situated diagonally upstream from Donnegan. A better bet for fishing Shoal Creek is to launch at the ramp near the U.S. Highway 72 bridge.

Other likely locations include Six Mile and Four Mile creeks. These are both smaller tributaries but still good crappie waters. Most of the upriver creeks on Wilson don’t hold as many crappie, although Brad said he occasionally hears reports of catches coming from Town Creek, located only 3 miles from Wheeler Dam.

February on Wilson

“Generally my favorite time to fish up there is from the third week of January into April with February being my absolute favorite time,” David said. “At that time of the year, there are not many people fishing, and the cruisers are not going up and down. These conditions allow you to slow fish and tight line with no wave action.

Believe it or not, February also tends to produce numerous days David finds favorable for crappie fishing.

“I like a blue-bird sky with low wind on a warming day after a front has blown through,” he said. “These conditions tend to get them closer to the cover and the structure. Cloudy skies move them up shallower, and I want them to get tight to that cover. That’s what I’m targeting. The fish are not spread out. The warming weather gets them to be a little more active and not quite so lethargic.”

Brad echoed David’s thoughts about the lack of activity during the winter months.

“There is virtually no boat traffic, no bass tournaments or pleasure boaters,” Brad said. “I love to get out on the lake under those conditions. It makes the type of crappie fishing that we do ideal.”

To reach Brad Whitehead with Crappie Connection Guide Service, call (256) 483-0834 or (256) 381-7231.
© 2018 Alabama Outdoor News