by Larry Woody
You’d think it would be a no-brainer: what do “fish attractors” attract?
Renowned Kentucky Lake guide Stave McCadams with a stake bed crappie.
But it’s surprising how many crappie fishermen putter past the distinctive white plastic poles with the green Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) logo without pausing to dunk a jig or minnow.
“Maybe it’s because we tend to be skeptical of advertising,” says Bob Sherborne, host of the fishing website hookemnow.com, “but in the case of fish attractors, there’s truth in advertising — they really do attract fish.”
Especially crappie. The man-made attractors not only provide cover, but once algae-slimed, they attract tiny aquatic life which in turn attracts minnows — which lures in crappie.
“Fish attractors are especially effective in older lakes where much of the natural wood has rotted away over the years,” says Steve McCadams, a nationally-renowned crappie guide on Kentucky Lake.
This crappie was lurking in a stake bed marked by the white TWRA plastic pole in the background.
Steve builds his own private fish attractors but there are plenty others that are installed by the TWRA. There are approximately 165 TWRA fish attractors on Nashville suburban Percy Priest Lake alone, for example.
They are easy to find — just look for the white PVC poles that jut 3-5 feet above the surface, generally in coves or along channel drop-offs. The poles mark the location of wooden stakes and other submerged cover, such as old cedar trees, in depths ranging from a couple of feet to 20 feet or more.
“We want people to be able to find them and fish them,” says TWRA Chief of Fisheries Bobby Wilson. “Our fish attractors are intended to bring the fish and the fishermen together.”
The TWRA began installing fish attractors decades ago. Some of those early markers are still in use — red-and-white buoys bearing a fish silhouette and fish-hook logo and stamped “Fish Attractor.” In more recent years the Agency has used the white PVC pipes to mark the sunken cover.
Building fish attractors is not easy. During the winter draw-down when water levels are low, TWRA personnel wade out and hammer wooden stakes into the lake bottom. In deeper water they stand in a boat and use metal pile-drivers to pound the stakes into place. The wooden stake beds range in size from a few feet to several feet in circumference.
Sometimes additional material is intermingled with the wooden stakes, from the afore-mentioned cedar trees to old wooden mallets and tires.
The drawback to such clearly-marked stake beds is that they may be hard-fished, particularly during the peak spring season when flotillas of crappie fishermen take to the lakes. But with so many fish attractors to choose from, the pressure generally is not too bad. Also, fish tend to quickly return to a stake bed that has been fished once it has a chance to “cool” a bit.
McCadams constructs his private stake beds without any above-surface marker. He charts their approximate location on a GPS system that allows him to zero in on it later with the aid of electronics. Steve is not being selfish — he freely dispenses info to anyone who asks — but he says his first obligation is to his paying customers, and he makes sure they always catch crappie.
(On some waters, including Corps of Engineers lakes, it is prohibited to install fish attractors or other underwater structures without first obtaining a permit. Fishermen should check with officials at individual lakes to see what restrictions may apply, before installing their own attractors.)
There are special techniques involved in fishing fish attractors. For starters, don’t go roaring up to the attractor maker, throw an anchor overboard, and expect to immediately start hauling in slabs.
“Move in slowly and quietly,” advises guide Jim Duckworth. “I don’t even use a trolling motor when I get close because the propeller’s underwater swirl can scare off fish that are holding in such a relatively-tight and often-shallow area. I cut the motor some distance away and either drift on up or use a paddle to position the boat. And when you use an anchor or power pole, lower it carefully and quietly.
A shot of a stake bed during low water reveals why crappie would be attracted to it.
“Also, don’t be banging and thumping around in the boat once you ease into position. The crappie will definitely pick up on the noise and vibrations.”
How close should you get to the marker? A good rule of thumb is to be able to reach it — or close to it — with a standard crappie pole. Whether using a minnow or jig, the key is to drop the bait or lure down in and around the stakes, and that usually necessitates vertical fishing; casting and retrieving through the bristle of submerged stakes will lead to snags, and the fuss will spook the fish.
Even vertical fishing will sometimes result in a snag, either in the wooden stakes or in the cedars or other material around the structure. Wire hooks may not straighten when using 4- or 6-pound-test line, and if not, it’s better to simply break off and re-tie than to do a lot of thrashing and splashing.
Not all the crappie hang in the stakes; sometimes a school will fan out several yards away. Sherborne likes to begin by working those outlying areas where there is less chance of snagging, and less chance of spooking fish that lie closer to the stakes. From there he works inward. He catches fish from as far as 15-20 feet from the marker, right up to bumping his bobber against the plastic pipe.
As for minnow vs. jig, it’s a matter of personal preference. Sherborne prefers to fish a minnow below a bobber. He can adjust the bobber so the minnow is wriggling around the tops of the stakes.
McCadams, on the other hand, usually goes with a small hand-tied hair jig. If the bite is slow he will enhance the jig with a small minnow or commercial crappie niblet.
If the approach of the boat is cautious and quiet, crappie holding in or around the fish attractor usually are not timid. They hit as soon as the bait or lure drops down.
However, if there has been some disturbance in maneuvering into position, it may take awhile for things to settle down. Or, if the stake bed has been worked recently, the crappie may be depleted or have moved out. Sherborne usually works a fish attractor for 10-15 minutes and if there’s no action he moves on to another.
“One morning on Old Hickory Lake I fished two or three fish attractors before I caught my first crappie,” he says. “I worked several other attractors and picked up a fish here and there. A couple of hours later I went back and worked some of the attractors I’d tried earlier, and immediately began catching fish.
“I don’t know if the crappie moved in after I left, or if they were there earlier and just didn’t bite for whatever reason. But on the second pass, I hit the jackpot.”
The fish attractors were attracting, just as advertised.