Alabama River Produces Slab Crappie, Again
By DAVID RAINER
When the Crappie Masters tournament trail visited the Alabama River last year, conditions were ideal and the final leaderboard indicated such with numerous stringers with a two-pound per crappie average.
Those crappie anglers couldn’t heap enough praise on the central Alabama fishery. Fast forward a year and the same tournament series made a return visit to Millbrook. However, fishing conditions were much, much different. Would that praise continue faced with a high, muddy river with water temperatures hovering about 10 degrees below last year’s event?
After last weekend’s event, the answer is a resounding yes. Even with the less-than-ideal conditions, the tournament competitors had to work a little harder but still managed to find seven-fish stringers that are unrivaled anywhere else on the circuit.
Whitey Outlaw of South Carolina and Mike Parrott of North Carolina weighed in a whopping 15.71-pound stringer for a 30.12-pound total. The team of Randy Jenkins of Georgia and Duard Hulgan of Fort Payne couldn’t hold their opening-day lead and settled for second at 28.51.
Paul Alpers, Crappie Masters president, still had a hard time believing that many two-pound crappie live in the Alabama River.
“There’s no better crappie fishing than right here in Alabama,” Alpers said. “You can’t find a better average anywhere in the whole nation. And the hospitality is No. 1, too.”
For the most well-known crappie angler in the bunch, Wally “Mr. Crappie” Marshall of Texas, the week didn’t pan out as planned but he did have a large consolation. He finished 23rd in the Alabama event but he qualified for the year-end classic at Truman Lake in Missouri.
I spent a few hours on the water with Marshall during the practice fishing before the event, and this is definitely not the crappie fishing I experienced growing up.
“This is not the old cane pole with the bobber on it, that’s for sure,” Marshall said as he watched the sophisticated electronics display to determine where the fish were holding. “That old cane pole still works, but crappie fishing has come a long way since them.”
Marshall tried out several fishing methods including what he calls the “tight-line troll,” which is also called a spider rig because of the number of poles positioned around the bow of the boat looks like spider legs.
“You’re using two sets of rod holders,” Marshall explained. “In the tournaments, we can use eight poles per boat. Depending on the situation, the length of the pole depends on the clarity of the water and how far you want the baits away from the boat. When I’m trying to cover a lot of water, I’ll mix it up with 12-foot, 14-foot and 16-foot rods and have them staggered. I used 10-pound test line and the weight depends on the current and how fast the boat is moving. You may have a half-ounce weight all the way up to two ounces.
“It’s called a tight-line troll, but really it’s a stroll. You’re not going over a half-mile an hour most of the time. You ease along the break lines and catch the fish off the drops.”
Unlike last year, Marshall soon found out that the Alabama River crappie were really not in a biting mood with the current conditions.
“We’ve had one of the coldest winters we’ve had in a long time, and I don’t think it’s over, yet,” he said. “Last year, the water temperature was already 64 degrees and those fish were suspended two feet deep out over 20 feet of water. The first thing in the morning when it was low light conditions, you could ease along with your baits just barely hanging underneath the surface and you could start catching those fish left and right.
“What we’re doing now with the water temperature of 54 degrees, these fish are staging up off the shores and break lines in 15-20 feet of water. They’re biting real light, but it’s getting ready to bust loose.”
Another technique tournament anglers use is to pull long-line jigs behind the boat with rods staggered out the stern of the boat instead of the bow. The rig consists of two 1/32 ounce jigs or two 1/16 ounce jigs tied on each rod and they’re 35-40 feet behind the boat. Boat speed determines the depth the baits will run.
“Long-lining works real well in clear water where you can’t sit over the top of the fish or if the fish are scattered because you can cover a lot of water,” said Marshall, who has designed a variety of crappie fishing tackle for Bass Pro Shops. “In long-lining, instead of strolling, you’re trolling at close to a mile an hour and sometimes the crappie like the bait moving faster.”
“Pulling crankbaits for crappie is kind of like long-lining except the crankbaits dive down anywhere from six to 15 feet deep. You pull the crankbait about 75 to 100 feet behind the boat and you troll from 1.5 miles per hour to two miles per hour, depending on how the crappie like it. Pulling crankbaits is a lot of fun. You can do it from April through October.”
Marshall was unable to fish what he considers the most productive water – ledges on the Alabama River – because of the high water and swift current.
“I love pulling jigs and tight-line troll along the river ledges,” he said. “Those black crappie love to hang out on the river. If you find some slack water, you can wear out the crappie. The tight-liners go with the current and get the right speed. Going with the current is better than going against it on the river.”
Although the Alabama River and its connected creeks were conducive to multiple-pole fishing, there are some tournament venues where that rigging is not feasible.
“Where I’m from in Texas, we have so much brush and timber, it’s pretty much single pole year round, whether it’s shooting docks with a spinning rod or using a 9-foot rod on standing timber,” Marshall said. “I love to fish that standing timber.”
Marshall fished his first crappie tournament in 1987 when he said he “didn’t have enough money to go across town.” Since, he’s won 27 tournaments since 1987, including the Crappie Masters Classic in 2003 on Fort Gibson Lake in Oklahoma.
“I enjoy fishing crappie tournaments,” said Marshall, whose best career crappie weighed in at 3.25 pounds. “I like the competition. We were fishing back then for a $5,000 prize pot and now we’re fishing for $150,000 in cash and prizes in the Classic. The problem is that the price of eggs has gone up since then, too. It takes a lot of money to compete on the circuit.”
The one thing he’s sure of is that he’ll be back for any tournament that is held on the Alabama River.
“The Alabama River has some of the best crappie fishing in America,” Marshall said. “The locals don’t know about it. They go out and fish with one pole, catch their limit of fish and go back home. They don’t target the bigger fish. It’s not that you can’t catch big fish on a single pole, but with the multiple poles, you cover more water and give yourself a better opportunity to catch the bigger fish. This place is a diamond in the rough.”
Photos: (by David Rainer) The winning team of Whitey Outlaw of South Carolina, left, and Mike Parrott of North Carolina weighed in a whopping 15.71-pound stringer on the final day of the Crappie Masters’ Alabama State Championship for a 30.12-pound total. Wally Marshall shows off two of the big Alabama River crappie that allowed the Texas angler to qualify for the season-ending Classic. Marshall and former Atlanta Braves slugger Ryan Klesko team up to catch a nice crappie on a spider rig in Swift Creek during pre-tournament practice.