Armed with his weapon of choice, the sportsman cautiously approached a tangled mass of wood, which created an ideal hiding spot that might conceal his quarry.
Preparing to shoot, he looked through a slight opening in the cover. The sportsmen fired through the hole just inches across, hitting his target squarely.
“I got him good, but I may need help with this one,” the sportsman shouted moments later. “It’s a monster and he’s putting up a good fight. Get the net!”
No, the sportsman didn’t chase a bear or bobcat into a thicket. He fished docks for slab crappie. On almost any lake, a multitude of docks, fishing piers, boathouses and other manmade structures jut from shorelines. These wood, steel, concrete and plastic objects create excellent places for big fish to hide. With multiple pilings that brace decks, these overhead structures conceal fish from roving ospreys, cormorants and other birds looking to snatch a meal.
Countless people fish from their docks. Yet they may actually stand barely inches away from the best fishing spots, but can never reach them.
So much entangling cover around docks can intimidate some anglers. Many people troll or cast baits around dock edges or fish nearby brush piles, but few think of tempting crappie hunkered down deep in seemingly inaccessible cover.
In their protective lairs way back under the dock, big slabs may never see lures or baits as they grow fat slurping any hapless baitfish that swims too close. To catch slabs that few others dare even tempt, try “shoot the docks.”
“I love shooting docks,” explained Wally “Mr. Crappie” Marshall, a professional crappie angler and lure designer (www.mrcrappie.com) from Anna, Texas. “It’s a lot of fun. Sometimes, I catch three or four crappie from under one dock. Sometimes, I catch more than 50 from under one dock. Anybody can do it. It’s mainly a light presentation.”
When shooting into a space between the bottom of the dock and the water, bend the rod parallel to the water surface and shoot horizontally. If done correctly, the bait skips over the surface like a flat rock. When targeting openings between vertical objects, such as pilings or a boat tied to the dock, hold the rod vertically.
“Load the rod up like a bow and arrow,” Marshall recommended. “Keep the line parallel with the water, depending upon how much room is under the dock. It might be only three or four inches of space between the bottom of the dock and the surface of the water. Release the jig and catapult it under the dock as far as possible. It might go 25 to 30 feet. I like baits with solid bodies because they skip well. A bait like that will skip farther than a person can actually shoot it.”
Good docks can hold big crappies all year long, but they traditionally offer the best fishing action from spring through early fall. As sunshine warms the waters, crappies move up under cool, shady docks.
In hot weather, crappies might stay under shady docks through early fall, especially those in, or near, deeper water that gives fish depth choices. Frequently, anglers find the biggest fish in the darkest shadows.
“Shade is the number one structure for any kind of game fish, especially crappie,” Marshall said. “When I’m shooting docks, I look for the darkest shadiest spots. I don’t like a dock with a lot of sunlight penetrating to the water. I like docks with big sundecks low to the water. Crappie hide back in the shade and ambush schools of shad that move through the area.”
Older docks, those with crusty pilings, typically offer the best fishing because they’ve been in the water so long. An opening covered by an intact spider web indicates that no one has fished that spot for a while. Docks close to deeper water, such as those near a creek channel or tributary ditch, provide fish easy opportunities to drop into the depths or hunt in the shallows.
“I like docks near main channels where the depth drops off into deeper water,” Marshall recommended. “My favorite depth is about 10 to 15 feet deep in front of the dock. Not all lakes have water that deep, but crappie adjust to getting into shallow water. In the summer, the best oxygen is often under the shady docks. That’s where the fish will move. I’ve caught crappie in two feet of water under a dock when the air temperature was 108 degrees and the water temperature was 92 degrees.”
Also, look for secondary cover, such as brush piles. Many dock owners establish brush piles within casting range of their piers. They drop Christmas trees, yard debris, branches or other material near their docks to create fish habitat. These artificial reefs attract minnows, shad and small sunfish, all excellent food sources for a hungry crappie.
“Brush near a dock helps,” said Randy Pope, a two-time Crappie USA national champion.
“When fishing brush piles, we swim jigs over the top of them. We don’t try to put a jig down into the pile. The ideal dock would be a floater in 20 feet of water with brush on it and some shade.”
Any dock with rod holders attached to the rails, and lights positioned to shine over the water probably faces a good brush pile or two. In addition, dock owners frequently toss leftover bait, fish carcasses or food scraps into the water. These morsels attract sunfish, shiners, shad and other forage fish, which could attract a big crappie looking for a meal.
“There is no particular universal pattern,” Pope said. “Some docks look good with everything a crappie needs, but they don’t hold fish. Some docks hold fish all year long, regardless of conditions. Crappies can be anywhere around a dock at any particular time. Just search the dock to see where the fish want to bite. A few days later, they might hold at an entirely different spot.”
Don’t overlook boats tied to docks or boathouses. Sometimes, moored boats sit unused for long periods. Algae may grow on the hulls, lines, trim tabs and lower units. That growth feeds minnows, attracting more crappies, but few people fish under moored boats.
“I like to fish around pontoon boats,” Marshall stated. “One time, I caught 18 crappie in 18 casts under a pontoon boat that had been sitting a long time. I like to shoot around the motor and under the pontoon boat. When shooting under docks, try to hit the flotation devices. That’s like ringing a dinner bell to a crappie.”
While most anglers shoot docks, boathouses and other manmade structure, this technique can sometimes work around natural objects, such as trees or overhanging rocks. A fallen tree barely touching the water can provide an incredible place to fish—one few people even try. Use the same methods. Select an opening and let the bait sail.
For shooting docks and other structures, many people fling 1/64- to 1/8-ounce jigheads tipped with plastic trailers. Some anglers use Road Runner jighead spinners or other lures. A few use tiny flies. Just about any type of crappie enticement might work.
After launching a bait into the sweet spot, anglers can work it several ways. In cold water, use tiny, slow-sinking, subtle baits. On warm days, crappie may prefer more dynamic action. Sometimes, fish hit on the fall. Sometimes, crappies like baits hopped along the bottom. Sometimes, the biggest fish hover on the cover edges or bury themselves in the thickest cover they can find. Throw assorted baits from different angles and experiment with various retrieves to determine the best patterns each day.
Anglers can master this technique with a little practice. Of course, the best practice comes on the water. However, short of fishing, anglers can set up a table and chairs to practice shooting through the legs at short ranges. Once they master the short shots, they can set up specific targets under the chairs at longer distances and try to hit the desired spots.
—story by John N. Felsher