Slab Happy on the Tennessee River
North Alabama’s great crappie action begins heating up early in the year. Let’s see how one of the region’s top slab chasers taps in on the best fishing.
Spring comes early in Alabama. While anglers farther north are still “walking on water” and pulling fish through holes in the ice, strings of sunny, mild days are beginning to warm the big creeks that feed the Tennessee River in North Alabama. Not all days are warm. In fact, winter’s hardest fronts often crash through the Deep South during late February and even March. Still, hints of spring are in the air, and the crappie fishing is beginning to get hot.
“Things start really picking up with spring patterns around the end of February,” said Keith Dodd, who guides for crappie on the Tennessee River in North Alabama and focuses most of his attention on Lake Wheeler. Dodd typically finds the best early-season success by focusing on water depths in the 8- to 12-foot range. However, during warm sunny snaps, the crappie will move shallow to feed. When they do, the fishing action tends to be very good.
“They’ll follow the baitfish shallow, and when they do, we’ll follow them shallow,” Dodd said.
The Tennessee River goes through Guntersville, Wilson, Wheeler and Pickwick reservoirs in its east-to-west run through North Alabama, and the fertile waters of all four lakes are loaded with shad and other forage to keep the crappie fat and happy. Although these waters are better known for largemouth and smallmouth bass and for heavyweight catfish, all offer outstanding crappie fishing.
Black and white crappie alike grow big in the Tennessee River. Dodd noted that he typically catches more black crappie when the water is cooler and white crappie later in the year, but he often catches the two species together, and he uses the same strategies for both.
The Tennessee River lakes are in some ways similar to one another as they impound the same big river. That said, each is unique and fishes a little different from the others. Dodd does the bulk of his fishing on Wheeler Lake, which spreads across more than 67,000 acres. It has substantially more shallow backwater habitat than the other lakes, and the crappie are more apt to be shallow on this lake than on others in the chain, according to Dodd. Quite commonly, while Pickwick anglers are catching most of their crappie 12 feet deep, Dodd will be up on the flats, pulling fish from 4 or 5 feet of water.
Because all the lakes’ main bodies are fairly riverine, with strong currents at times, much of the best crappie fishing occurs in major creek arms. That’s probably a good thing for many fishermen because it makes the fishing action more predictable and makes the lakes “fish smaller.”
Dodd does fish some main-lake flats on Wheeler when there is little to no current running through the main lake. However, he does the bulk of his fishing within creek arms, and an angler who is less familiar with the Tennessee River is probably wise to stick with the creeks. Dodd suggested looking for stumps, brush or other cover in the creeks, especially on shallow flats that border creek channels. He sinks a lot of his own cover during the offseason, and he puts it in a variety of depths so he has good places to target fish at several depths as they move up and down with changing weather patterns.
Although there is no significant current in many backwater areas most of the time, current flowing through the main body still affects the crappie’s behavior. Dodd, who journals both conditions and results every time he goes crappie fishing, has found that he enjoys his best overall success when current is pushing through Wheeler Lake. Seemingly, the moving water causes the crappie to feed more actively.
Dodd’s primary spring strategy is to “push” jigs and minnows, putting six to eight rods in holders in the front of his boat and moving very slowly over stump rows, brushpiles or other cover. His preferred jig for this technique is a 1/16-ounce Fuzz-E Grub, and he uses every color of Fuzz-E Grub at times, rigging lines with a variety of colors at the beginning of each new day and allowing the crappie to dictate their preferences.
When the water is clear, he tends to do best with color patterns that feature chartreuse, such as Chartreuse Lime or Techni-Glo Chartreuse Shad. When the water is stained, which is more common during early spring than at other times due to big early-season fronts that dump a lot of rain, Dodd generally prefers dark colors like Black Chartreuse or Crawdad.
Whether he is pushing jigs or minnows, Dodd has a Thill Crappie Cork on every line almost all of the time because depth control is critical to the approach. “That way I know all my baits are at the right depth all the time,” he said.
He watches his graph continually, looking for baitfish and crappie, and sets his floats to suspend his baits at the depth where he is seeing the most activity. Dodd often will stagger depths early in the day in much the same way as he starts with a variety of colors, and he’ll pay careful attention to which lines get the most attention.
Dodd uses long crappie poles – 16- and 18-foot B’n’M Poles – so that his rigs stay well in front of him, making it easy to keep a good eye on every float at all times. Watching is important, because the fish don’t normally hook themselves. A quick snap of the wrist is needed to complete the job
Once Dodd hones in on the right depth and the best colors for a day of spring crappie fishing on the Tennessee River, anglers on his boat had better stay ready. They’ll being doing a lot of hook setting and landing slab-sized crappie!
By: Lindy Team