Docks offer outstanding crappie fishing throughout the winter. Learn how to fish docks effectively.
“Dock fishing is a lot like ice fishing,” Jeff Samsel said as he took a few steps and lowered his Bobby Garland Live Roam’R into another corner of the boat slip off the walkway. “And I’ve moved to a new hole.”
Both his comment and a gust of north wind got my attention, so I thought more about the comparison as I returned to tending my own line. It certainly seemed cold enough for ice fishing on this early and windy winter morning, but instead we stood alongside a few others bundled up in pursuit of crappie at the day-pay access area at Belle Star Marina docks on Oklahoma’s Lake Eufaula. Jeff and I have been on a lot of trips together over three decades of friendship and work interaction, with many this time of year having taken place on a dock somewhere.
We found the bite slow but with enough catches to keep spirits and anticipation high. Our conversations with like-minded strangers added to the fun and ranged from the crazy weather to surprise catches of big bass and catfish on tiny crappie jigs. Watching the others also provided a continuous real-time fishing report as to productive colors, depths and locations for success. To me, it was dock fishing at its best – great companionship, a variety of fishing styles, a comfortable environment and plenty of action.
Wintertime Dock Fishing Advantages
Most large reservoirs in the lower half of the United States remain ice free and therefore provide crappie anglers experiencing cabin fever with a realistic escape for some fish-catching relief. Searching the Internet or communicating on forum sites like Crappie.com will provide dock fishing results throughout the region. Many are at marinas, like Eufaula’s Belle Star, that remain in winter months for maintenance upkeep. Typically, a day-use fee or a monthly membership is required for access.
For those who know friends with docks, or who are not shy about doing some door knocking, asking for permission to fish while offering to provide crappie-attracting structure in return can result in access. Another option is rent a boat slip just to use for crappie fishing. There’s no doubt winter dock fishing has its advantages.
- Easy Access – Docks open in winter usually have good access and parking
- Weather Friendly – Fishing areas with self-pay stations often allow 24-hour access through all weather
- Line/Lure Control – There is no better way for managing small diameter lines, tiny jigs and super-light bites than having feet on a firm surface
- Crappie Resorts – Pay-fishing docks cater to anglers, so there’s usually an abundance of fish-attracting structure in place
- Limited Competition – Inclement weather limits participation, so if you have the desire and the attire go and venture out on nasty days and you might have it all to yourself
Crappie Winter Habits
As do ice fishermen, dock anglers now also have access to a variety of fish-locating electronics. If you don’t want to make that investment, at the very least you can learn from those using forward-facing technology. A YouTube search of that topic will deliver a wealth of valuable resources from which you can benefit from the knowledge. With the on-the-water education comes reinforcement of many crappie beliefs, including that crappie will move in large schools in winter, roam as single fish in open water and concentrate in big numbers under docks. Keep these thoughts in mind:
Schools – Crappie in open-water schools will move in and out of docks, and especially around the deeper waters of marina docks. If you’ve dock fished much, you’ve likely experienced this happening. All at once it seems like everyone is catching crappie at the same time. Then when the fast action quits, it’s done. Such school movements are often tied to outgoing or incoming hours of darkness but can also be triggered by shifts in storm fronts, bait schools, shadows and wind direction.
Roamers – Crappie that seemingly swim alone and suspended in open water have been dubbed “roamers” by the forward-facing sonar group who enjoy “chasing” them. These seem to generally be bigger crappie and ones having their own individual rules about how they react and eat. The good news for dock anglers is that these fish are also moving through the docks. Watch and learn from the forward-facing guys.
Residents – For whatever reasons, some docks just always hold crappie – the residents. Live sonar provides the real-time look as to where they are at any given time. These fish can move from one end of the docks to the other, hide dead center under the greatest amount of surface coverage, or suspend motionless in a channel. They’re always nearby, though, so the trick is to locate them when accessible and feeding.
Hang-outers – Some crappie just like to hangout around cover. Again, electronics have shown that even the smallest and most isolated pieces of cover tend to attract and hold at least a crappie or two, and especially so under docks with depth in winter. Cover underneath and docks overhead, in combination, seem to offer a special magic in providing a comfort zone of sorts. It’s not uncommon to find such a spot that will continuously replenish as an occupant is caught or otherwise moves on.
My Game Plan
I’ve improved my dock fishing success over the years by always closely watching and learning from the anglers who have the most success, but also by working hard to develop my own skills, tactics and knowledge for repeatable success. Like most game plans, it’s subject to change, but always provides a starting point.
Keep it Simple
I go with only a few bait options and techniques per outing but change that selection each different outing. It makes me fish with the tools in hand, instead of distracting me to keep trying other options. For example, I’ll go only with:
- One 7-foot spinning rod and reel, spooled with 4-pound test monofilament line
- One small utility tacklebox with just a few extra bodies and jigheads of each
- Six different soft-plastic lure profiles and (colors): 2.25” Mayfly (Neon Nymph), 2” Baby Shad (Monkey Milk), 1.75” Live Roam’R (Threadfin Shad), 1.25” Itty Bit Slab Hunt’R (Bone White / Chartreuse), 1.25” Itty Bit Swim’R (Mayfly) and 1.25” Itty Bit Slab Slay’R (Black / Hot Pink)
- 3 sizes of jigheads: Crappie Pro Mo’ Glo Jigheads 1/16- and 1/24-ounce, and Bobby Garland Itty Bits Jighead 1/48-ounce
- For the three largest baits, I use the 1/16- or 1/24-ounce jigheads, white or chartreuse.
- For the tree smallest lures, I rig on a 1/48-ounce Itty Bits Jighead (unpainted), with one #5 split shot clamped 12 inches above the jig
- I’ll only fish one jig at a time, tied directly to my line (no clip or swivel)
Approaching the Dock
- Study everything: shady side, wind direction, water color. If there are other anglers, I note where they are positioned according to depth, light and slip types
- Look for areas with largest surface coverings: swim platforms, extensions, jet ski decks, etc.
- Pay attention to type of boat lifts: solid, any openings, ones with biggest boats, etc.
Where & How to Start
- Go with one of the larger-sized baits first
- Start in the darkest corner of a dock with at least 15 feet of water depth
- With rod raised high, feed out enough line to equal the rod length (approximately 7 feet). Begin slowly lowering the bait with your rod while maintaining control and feel. When rod tip nears water surface, stop and hold the bait for a few seconds. If I move it, it’s only slowly and horizontally
- Open bail to “measure out” another 7 feet of line by raising rod tip but not the bait. I’ll lower the bait 7 more feet, paying close attention for any strikes or subtle bumps. Any fish-caused bait movement without feeling a strike, is good reason for me to downsize to any Itty Bit soon.
- I repeat the line payout in 7-foot increments and the lowering until the lure reaches the bottom. I then raise my tip about a foot above the water surface, elevating the bait to a foot off the bottom. I hold it still for several seconds without movement. Then I’ll shake my rod tip fairly aggressively, then hold it dead still again.
- Repeat the entire process a few times, changing among the larger bait profiles as desired. If any cover is detected during the lure’s descent, I’ll note the depth and try my jig first around the top of the cover. Then I’l meticulously work all levels of the cover.
- Before abandoning a spot, retrieve the bait to the top by reeling only at a painfully slow pace
- Noting the depth of a strike is critical to winter fishing success. It can change often, so adjust accordingly. Once a bite depth is determined, keep lure at or slightly above that depth.
- As a general rule, little or no angler-enticed lure motion other than a steady, vertical descent and retrieve is best in cold water. Any other movements should be horizontal.
- Try other similar areas at around the same depth of water, and then begin moving to deeper water and doing the same thing over and over
- When a pattern is discovered, repeat it in as many as similar locations as you can find. Don’t be afraid to return often to spots where success was had.
4 Top Winter Crappie Tips
- Identify spots around docks that most anglers overlook, such as the tight openings between a houseboat and the side of the dock in a slip, or perhaps a dock cut-out around a vertical support pole, or maybe a cluster of cables descending into the depths. These can be magical for putting more crappie in basket. Mum’s the word when you find one!
- Use the smallest jighead (size and weight) that you can get by with for the conditions, such as wind and depth. Trust me, the #8 hook on the Itty Bits Jighead is big enough and strong enough!
- Some boat lifts feature a molded plastic float with openings all the way through them. If you find one with a boat on it in a productive area, try lowering your line through the opening or use a Thill slip-cork to catch suspended crappie underneath
- The Live Roam’R can be rigged: a) flat or “dead rigged;” b) upright or “live rigged,” or, c) if a laminate color, live rigged and flipped so that the belly color becomes on top instead of underneath