September 22 marked the official beginning of fall. It’s feel good time of year that always ushers in cooler weather and brings a gradual chill to the water — a one-two seasonal punch that almost always puts the slabs in the mood to chomp.
“Slab” is a moniker crappie anglers sometimes use when referring to bragging-size fish. The criteria for the title varies with who you talk to.
Lake Fork fishing guide Gary Paris draws the line at 1 1/4 pounds.
Paris and his clients have boxed thousands of slabs over the years. The guide says man-made brush piles and bridge crossings rank among the best places to look for schools of the popular panfish from summer through fall on Fork and other East Texas hotspots.
Good electronics and mapping technologies have played huge roles in Paris’ fishing strategies over the years. None have helped improve his game like LiveScope has.
LiveScope is Garmin’s version of forward-facing sonar. Like Lowrance LiveTarget and Humminbird MEGA Live Imaging, the high-tech system provides real-time sonar images of structure, bait and swimming fish ahead of, below or around the vessel.
Paris says LiveScope enables him to pinpoint schools of crappie at suspended depths, make precise casts to them and see how they react to his bait. More importantly, it gives him a good idea how many fish are in a school and allows him to bird dog the fish when they move.
“LiveScope hasn’t really changed the way I fish,” he said. “I still key on brush piles and bridges just like I always have, but it has made me way more effective at fishing them than I was before. I can actually follow the fish if they move left, right or under the boat,” he said. “You can’t do that with traditional downscan or sidescan sonar.”
Paris says LiveScope comes in really handy when crappie relocate away from a brush pile or set of bridge pilings. Often times this happens because the bait moves or due to fishing pressure.
“You might catch 2-3 fish real quick and then they quit,” he said. “It’s easy to think that is all that was there, but a lot of times the school may just move and set up 25 yards to the left or right. I find them relating to open water pretty often. Without LiveScope I’d never know those fish were there.”
Paris says the same game plan can be applied on Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, Lake O’ the Pines, Tawakoni, Cedar Creek or any other lake with an abundant crappie population.
“Learn to use it and you’ll catch more crappie wherever you fish, no doubt about about it.”
The downside to forward-facing sonar is it isn’t cheap. Not to worry though. There are still plenty of fish to be caught without it around brush piles, bridges, boat docks and artificial fish structures.
Sam Rayburn fishing guide Randy Dearman knows plenty about brush piles.
Dearman has built dozens of fish hotels at varied depths. He thinks deeper piles in 25-30 feet of water are best from summer through winter.
The guide says cloud cover, sunlight and thermocline can influence how and where the fish will position around brush piles. He almost always finds the fish suspended in the water column.
"Sometimes they'll be on top of the brush, out to the side or right down in the middle of it,” he said. “It’s trial and error. Each day is different. Very rarely will you find the fish right on bottom.”
Dearman likes to build his brush piles vertical in the water column. He prefers using sweet gums and willows. Tall stalks of switch cane placed in five-gallon buckets half filled with concrete also will work.
Dearman weights his piles with 4-6 cinder blocks. He secures a one-gallon bleach jug to the tallest limb in the middle to help keep the tree standing vertical in the water column.
Brush piles of all sizes will attract fish. Dearman is a fan of big ones. He thinks bigger piles attract more crappie than small ones.
The guide prefers to build his fish hotels in the shape of a triangle. He likes to sink 3-4 brush piles spaced about 10 feet apart with enough in the middle to position his pontoon boat. This provides multiple customers ample room for dunking a shiner or jig vertical off the side.
Bridges, Boat Docks and Other Stuff
Bridge crossings are mainstays for crappie on plenty of lakes. Paris says anglers can catch fish soaking shiners vertical around bridge support columns, but he prefers to stay on the move and cast with small jigs when targeting the crossmembers.
He always lines up parallel with the bridge and casts ahead of the boat. The key is to make a lengthy cast, then count the bait down a few seconds before beginning a slow, steady retrieve.
The best depth can vary from lake to lake. At Fork, many of the crossmembers are about 20 feet deep when the lake is at full pool, Paris said.
Dock shooting is a speciality tactic anglers can use to relies on to catch crappie from spring through fall on just about any lake with boat docks, slips and piers. Crappie pro Wally Marshall of Westminster has found success shooting docks at Cedar Creek, Palestine, Tawakoni, Fork, Conroe, Texoma, Athens and Toledo Bend.
Marshall says bait fish gravitate to docks to feed, seek shelter and hide from larger predators. Crappie take advantage of the shade to ambush unsuspecting forage. The fish also are attracted to the cooler water beneath the canopy, and shooting is ideal for getting at them.
Marshall says the magic is built around the presentation of the bait, usually a 1/16 or 1/32 ounce jig, paired with a medium/light spinning outfit and high visibility monofilament line in 4-6 pound test.
Done correctly, shooting will catapult the jig at a low angle, parallel to the water, with enough velocity that it will sail far beneath the dock or whatever you’re aiming at. Marshall claims he can shoot a 1/16 ounce jig about 60 feet with the right outfit.
“Shooting enables you to put a jig into the coffin corners — the deepest, darkest places under that dock that are impossible to get to with a conventional cast,” he said. “Plus, it allows you to get a bait beneath a dock without getting so close that might spook fish that are hanging closer to the outside edge.”
Marshall says anyone can learn to shoot docks effectively with practice and persistence. Beginners can learn in their yard or driveway by sitting in a lawn chair and using a sawhorse positioned 15-20 feet away to simulate the dock.
He suggests practicing with 1/16 ounce lead weight instead of a jig. Practice until you can consistently shoot the weight under the sawhorse and varied distances.
Having the proper equipment helps flatten the learning curve. A sensitive rod is a key component.
Marshall’s favorite is a Lew’s 7 foot, medium/light action spinning model he helped design for shooting. Fittingly, the rod is called the “Speed Shooter.” It’s made from sensitive IM8 graphite with a fast-tip action tip.
Fall is hunting season in Texas, but don't make the mistake of storing your fishing gear away just yet. You could miss out on some of the best crappie fishing of the year.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sidebar: Three Steps to Shooting
Performing the shooting technique is a simple, multi-step process:
1.) Release enough line so the jig falls between the bottom rod guide and the reel. Trap the line against the rod with the index finger on your rod hand. Grip the jig head firmly between the index finger and thumb on your free hand. Make sure the exposed hook is turned downward.
2.) Point the rod tip at the target dock with the line and jig parallel to the water. This will cause the rod to bend or load backwards, sort of like a bow and arrow. You might want to sit or kneel to get a lower angle.
3.) Release the jig and trapped line simultaneously. This causes the loaded rod tip to spring forward and sling-shot the bait towards the target.
— Matt Williams
Sidebar: It’s Not Your Brush Pile
Frustration sometimes sets in when two crappie anglers collide around a brush pile. This is especially true when the angler who built it arrives and finds a stranger locked down on the spot and catching fish.
The rub can get particularly raw when both parties are fishing guides who make a living off the resource, but only one of them claims to have had a hand in dropping the pile.
Opinions are sure to vary as to what is right or wrong with those pictures, but in the eyes of the law it really doesn’t matter. Once a brush pile leaves an angler’s boat and sinks to bottom of public water, it automatically becomes fair game for anyone.
If someone tries to tell you different, they are wrong. Those who press the issue too hard, make threats or retaliate could be pushing the limits of state law. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Code, Sec. 62.0125 contains language related to the Harassment of Hunters, Trappers and fishermen, specifically the Sportsman's Rights Act.
According to part 2c. of that law "no person may intentionally interfere with another person lawfully engaged in the process of hunting or catching wildlife." And wildlife includes fish.
A person who violates this section commits an offense classified as a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail.
— Matt Williams