Shooting Docks for More Panfish
April 26, 2018
It's all about that goliath 'gill living way up under a slimy mat of milfoil; that mega school of crappies holed up beneath the farthest, darkest reaches under the boat dock. You know they're there. An overhead security blanket removes every care in the panfish's world. But figure out a way to steer a lure into these hard-to-reach places and good things nearly always happen.
Where I live, boat docks enter and leave lakes on an annual basis, lest massive ice sheets erase them from existence. Elaborate boat houses built on lakes and reservoirs where water rarely freezes are a fascinating thing for a Yankee. An old friend of mine who lives on Oklahoma's Grand Lake of the Cherokees stores a small fleet of boats inside one of the coolest boathouses I've seen. Outfitted with a combination small kitchen-workshop-tackle room, it's also equipped with a big-screen satellite TV — viewable while fishing from one of four recliners. Each chair has its own rod, rod holder, and drink holder. An underwater camera plays constant fish video on the TV.
After dinner you can kick back in an armchair, watching a ball game, or fish below this substantial structure, catching crappies, catfish, and the occasional striper until well past midnight. A pile of submerged Christmas trees is strategically placed so you can drop jigs to crappies beneath your feet.
My friend would probably let you fish there after introductions or a polite knock on his door. Otherwise, reaching this seemingly permanent school of crappies would likely require a miracle cast, squeezing a jig in through a mouse-hole sized opening between the boat garage door and its frame.
For a dock-shooting specialist like Mr. Crappie Wally Marshall, the door's wide open. As one of the early dock shooters on Grand Lake, it's possible he's already fished under my friend's boathouse. You couldn't blame him for trying, for the elaborate wooden structure has everything going for it from a crappie's perspective.
Built on a big point where a deep creek channel swings close to shore, the boathouse sits on a complex network of wooden stilts, supporting a broad expanse of shade-producing walkways. The water is 17 feet deep at the end of the platform, which traverses and safeguards a swimming area. Beyond the generous area of shade and pile of old Scotch pines below, the array of submerged fishing lights don't detract from the spot's appeal. Nor does the occasional offering of fish entrails from the day's fishing.
Starting with springtime water temperatures in low 60s through summer's oppressive heat, some of the biggest bluegills and crappies find solace under boat docks shallow and deep, beneath dense mats of shallow vegetation and sunken wood, and even under the old pontoon boat that hasn't left its moorings for months. Hot days with high sun always collect more shade-loving crappies, sunfish, and rock bass, with the latter typically out-bullying the others for bites.
Marshall, who's likely caught crappies from more docks on more lakes than anyone alive, says the best part of any dock is the darkest and often most remote section. Good docks, he says, don't necessarily have to sit atop deep water, though it doesn't hurt. (He once caught over 50 crappies from a dock in a foot of water in 100-degree heat.)
"A dock's location is important," says Marshall. "Docks near points often are exceptional, as are docks near a creek channel swinging close to shore. It seems like one isolated dock in the right location is better than a long string of good docks almost anywhere else.
"It's all about the quantity of shade cast by wide planks and pontoon boats. Best of all are old wooden docks. And some of the best docks I've fished sit on a steep drop-off in at least 8 to 10 feet of water. I love to find a newer dock built right over the top of an old collapsed dock. Old docks and pontoons are also great because they house plankton that creates a localized food chain.
"You don't have to have brush or additional cover under a dock, but what does attract crappies are vertical posts and other support structures. I like standing docks with vertical cover much better than floating docks without it. And I always look for clues like minnow buckets in the water, as well as fishing lights and cleaning tables — all good signs," he says.
Earlier in the season, crappies suspend high, occasionally just a foot or so beneath the surface, Marshall explains. "That's why a lighter 1/32-ounce jig is best in colder water," he says. "I sometimes also go up to 8-pound test to slow the jig's rate of fall. Black crappies tend to suspend higher, while white crappies like to hang tighter to cover.
"The best thing to happen to dock fishermen in years is side-imaging. Out of 50 docks, crappies might only be under a few. I can run alongside docks with my Humminbird and within seconds see how many fish are there and where they're positioned. It's removed a lot of time and trial and error of fishing every dock to find fish."
Just because you know the fish are there doesn't mean reaching them is easy. Skipping jigs works beautifully for fishing under docks with generous openings and for gaining entry into dark, fish-rich environs. You can pull off some tricky stuff with a 7-foot light to medium-light spinning rod, 4-pound-test mono, and a 1/16-ounce jig. St. Croix's Avid AVS70MLF skips jigs with precision and distance. In early summer, beginning shortly after sunfish and crappies spawn, bouncing little tube jigs or other compact plastics way up under the broadest docks puts you in close contact with a lot of untouched fish.
The cast is more or less the same idea as skipping a flat stone across a calm surface. So windless days are best, or at least fishing on the calm side of the lake. Use the rod tip as an extension of your throwing arm. Holding the rod sideways and just a few degrees less than parallel to the water, tip pointed slightly down, swing the rod back and rapidly forward, releasing the lure close to the water. The lure should travel on a low, parallel path, making first contact a foot or less in front of the dock. This takes practice, but isn't difficult once you've developed confidence. Your first attempts ought to be away from private docks, perhaps over open water on a calm day, while aiming at targets on shore.
Done right, your lure should skip at least four or five times covering 20 to 30 feet before settling.
Most often, the best retrieve is almost no retrieve at all. Just let the jig sink while watching the line for premature stops or jumps. If no bite occurs after several seconds, give the lure a single twitch; or the "Wally Wiggle," as Mr. Crappie calls it. Make small, subtle moves, keeping the jig in the shady sweet spot for as long as possible, mostly just holding and hovering it in place.
Slick panfish skippers — which also shine for dock-shooting — include 1- and 2-inch tube jigs, minimalist minnow baits, shad tails, and spear tails. The tail section off a 3- or 4-inch Lunker City Slug-Go rigged on a 1/16-ounce Lunker City Pro Grip Lite or 1/16- or 1/32-ounce Gopher Mushroom Head Jig is a great bait. And the Bobby Garland Baby Shad and Slab Slay'R, and Strike King Shadpole, Tubes, and Joker, work everywhere. Garland Head Dockt'R Shooter jigs skip nicely and hold plastics tightly in place.
While skipping puts your lure into hard-to-reach places, it's the elementary version of an even more potent super-cast. Master the skip first. Then realize you can go even farther, and reach even more impossible places with the same jigs shot out of a canon.
Mr. Crappie recalls fondly a trip to Grand Lake with a group of outdoor writers years ago. "One of the local guides had everyone fishing deep brushpiles," he says. "We were catching a lot of small crappies. So I stopped at a promising-looking dock, shot it twice, and hooked two big slabs. I told the event organizer to pair me with a top writer the next day, because I knew what was in store. Sure enough, we caught 30 big crappies in two hours, shooting little jigs under a single pair of docks."
Shooting docks for crappies, he notes, began to catch on during the mid-1980s, perhaps first popular on Lake Wylie, North Carolina, before spreading to other reservoirs in Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas. "I always tell people, learn to shoot docks and it'll feed you for a lifetime," Marshall says.
Starting in April, he shoots docks on lakes like Cedar Creek, Texas, and the Coosa River in Alabama, all summer and into October. But even when you watch an expert like Marshall, or Lake of the Ozarks guide Terry Blankenship, or Weiss Lake, Alabama, guide Lee Pitts, shoot a dock, everyone's first question's is the same: Have you ever hooked your hand?
"Never," says Marshall. "If you hold the jighead between your thumb and index finger, with the hook pointed out and with your other three fingers made into a fist, you never get hooked." That makes sense, but I was still thankful when Bobby Garland introduced an ingenious shooting aid, the Dock Shoot'R Pull Tab. Slide the little tear-proof tab over any jighook. Pinch the tab and shoot the lure without any worries of getting stung. The Pull Tab even provides an extra measure of fish-attracting flash to your jig.
"Think of the rod and line like a bow, and the lure the arrow," he instructs. "Pinch the lure in your non-casting hand. Then open the bail and hook the line over the index finger on your casting hand. While gripping the jig, pull back and put a good bend in the rod, keeping both the rod blank and the line low and parallel to the water. Position the blank so it's pointing directly at your target. You may need to kneel or crouch down a bit to achieve the right angle. Release the lure a fraction of a second before releasing the line off your trigger finger.
"Once you've practiced and become comfortable and confident, you should eventually be able to shoot lures into very small spaces, making 20- and 30-foot casts," he says. "It might be a 1-inch gap between the dock and a wave-runner ramp, or in that tiny space between a pontoon float and motor. If you shoot it right, your lure should travel all the way to the front of pontoon boat and beyond.
"If I've marked crappies on side-imaging but I'm not connecting, I work all around the dock, shooting every hole and opening I see. Sometimes, it's all about the right angle, putting the jig on a fish's nose and moving it slightly in the other direction. Once I'm done shooting a dock, there's not a cobweb left."
Mr. Crappie also extols the importance of boat positioning. "In clear water, stay back from the dock. Start by working the shade in front, gradually working your way back. Try not to make noise or hit the dock or hollow pontoons with your lure. A lot of times, if I catch the first crappie way under a dock, more fish follow, trying to steal the lure from the hooked fish. If you're quiet and pay attention, you can draw the entire school to the front of the dock, and occasionally, right beneath your boat as you continue catching fish," he says.
Another trick Marshall has mastered is landing fish hooked on the wrong side of a piling, support beam, or other obstruction. "Stick your rod tip down into the water and reel the fish out from under the obstruction. If it gets hung up, deploy a long-handled dip net. Move in and scoop the fish up, letting line off your spool."
While most shooters like the lure control of short 5- to 6-foot spinning rods like the B'n'M Poles Sharp Shooter, Marshall prefers a 7-foot Lew's Wally Marshall Speed Shooter for extra distance and big-fish management. "The rod's medium-light in power with a fast tip," he says. He wields a Lew's WS75 reel loaded with 6-pound-test high-vis mono, such as yellow Lew's APT Speed Line. In clear water, he spools with 4-pound, and bumps up to 8 when crappies suspend high or to slow a jig's fall. "High-vis line is a must for seeing subtle takes," he says. "You never detect a lot of bites on your rod, and I've yet to see crappies turn shy of line color."
As fish move from wood, concrete, and steel to vegetation, potent presentations shift from horizontal to vertical. Where natural cover suffuses natural lakes and river backwaters, dipping small, heavy jigs into little hidden openings from above can be a money move. Just like panfish under docks, some of the biggest bluegills, redear sunfish, and crappies hole up under mats of hydrilla, lily pads, milfoil, and hyacinths, as well as within dense stands of bulrushes, reeds, or cattails.
You can't cast to these secluded schools, but you can attack them from above. Dipping goes back to simple cane-poling, wielding a 10- to 20-foot bamboo or fiberglass pole, sans reel, with a short length of line extending off the tip.
In southeastern waters, long-poling with live ghost (grass) shrimp remains a winning technique for big coppernose bluegills and redear sunfish. In northern waters, you can often have big fish all to yourself all season by employing similar methods. I've long preferred the convenience and versatility of a long graphite rod, like a 12-foot B'n'M Poles Crappie Rod or St. Croix Panfish Series rod, and spinning reel. These combos allow you to easily alter depth, make short pitches, and use the reel's drag to fight fish.
Also consider non-traditional jigs. Borrowed from the ice-fishing world, tiny tungsten jigs punch through and penetrate cover exceptionally well, sinking straight down and staying put. The petite tungsten 7-mm Fiskas Wolfram Jig has a #8 hook and weighs more than an 1/8 ounce — nearly double that of a similar-sized lead jig. On 4-pound braid, a tiny tungsten jig feels like a boulder, yielding several advantages: It sinks fast; doesn't wander side-to-side and snag into cover when you jig it; and punches through matted vegetation. Yet it lets you fish subtly and small for picky panfish, as well as presenting tiny livebaits or soft plastics with #12 to #8 hooks.
It's all about reaching out to untouched big crappies and sunfish, putting lures in places even the fish weren't expecting. You know they're there. Get a lure in there and good things are bound to happen.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.