Story & photos by John N. Felsher
From where the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers merge to form the Alabama River near Wetumpka, Alabama, the stream flows 318 miles until it joins the Tombigbee River near Mount Vernon, to form the Mobile River. Between Wetumpka and Mount Vernon, dams divide the Alabama into three sections. The entire system can produce excellent crappie numbers and many big fish.
“The Alabama system is a river, but it’s also a series of lakes with a lot of different tributaries and backwaters,” explained Gerald Overstreet, Jr., with Overstreet’s Guide Service (251-589-3225) in Gainestown, AL. “The entire Alabama River system is full of shad and other bait, so crappie don’t have to go far to eat.”
Although often overshadowed by other famed nearby crappie waters, some of the best action on the Alabama River occurs in William “Bill” Dannelly Reservoir, better known as Millers Ferry Lake. The second and largest of the three major pools, the Millers Ferry section runs about 105 miles between the Millers Ferry Lock and Dam near Camden and the Claiborne Dam in Monroe County.
“Millers Ferry Lake is one of the best crappie fishing destinations in southern Alabama,” proclaimed Dave Armstrong, an Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources biologist. “The lake generally produces good numbers per angler trip. In surveys we’ve done, about 15 percent of the crappie we collect are 12 inches long or longer with some in the 15- to 16-inch range.”
The long and skinny impoundment retains much of its riverine characteristics. Many creek mouths, brush piles, standing timber, drop-offs, fallen trees, stump fields and more than 500 shoreline miles provide outstanding crappie habitat throughout the lake.
“Millers Ferry is a good crappie lake,” advised Joe Dunn of Dunn’s Sports (334-636-0850) in Thomasville, AL. “We catch some 1.5- to 2-pound crappie just about every time we go. Occasionally people catch some 3-pounders.”
With any capricious river system, fishing success depends upon water levels and conditions. Generally, rivers reach their lowest and clearest levels in the fall and stay that way until the spring floods arrive. With stable water, comes excellent fishing. Anglers frequently catch the biggest crappie during the coldest months.
“Starting in October and all the way until late February, crappie stay in the main river channel,” Dunn detailed. “During cooler weather, the better fishing typically occurs along the rock walls and ledges from the Millers Ferry Marina to Mill Creek. The Rock Wall by Alligator Slough in the Cotton House area is always a good place to fish.”
When temperatures drop, crappie commonly congregate in deeper holes and stay there until the spring. Anglers who find a hot winter honey hole might pull large fish from it for weeks. Some holes in the old river channel drop to more than 70 feet deep. Since water must move faster outside a turn than inside to cover more space in the same time, powerful currents scour holes in river bends. These currents might also wash logs, branches and other objects into these holes, creating additional excellent crappie cover.
“Electronics plays a big part in finding crappie in cold water,” Dunn said. “People need to find structure and get down in it. We catch some of the biggest crappie by bottom bouncing structure. I like to fish submerged tops about 16 to 25 feet deep. I just idle down a bank using my depth finder to look for stuff before I even start fishing. When I find something, I throw out a buoy. If we bounce in structure two or three times and don’t get a bite, we move elsewhere.”
Drop a bait all the way down, but big crappie don’t always hover right near the bottom. Experiment with different depths. If nothing bites at the bottom, crank the reel handle two or three times to try a different depth. Keep trying different depths to locate actively feeding fish. Also, don’t add much action to jigs when fishing for lethargic fish that might want more subtle movement. Just the natural rocking of the boat might provide enough tantalizing enticement to make a fish bite a jig.
When water flows through the dam, it creates current. At those times, look for any visible or submerged structures that break the current, like standing timber or trees that fall off the banks into the river. In chilly water, crappie typically hold tight to such structures and face into the current to ambush any bait that flows toward them.
“Big trees that fall into the river can make great places to find crappie,” Overstreet recommended. “On Millers Ferry Lake, Mill Creek is always a good place to fish. It has some shallow, mid-depth and deeper water with some standing timber in it. Foster’s Creek is another good creek.”
To probe these crappie lairs, many anglers prefer to use a single pole technique, or perhaps one in each hand. When using a single pole with a lone jig, anglers can drop a temptation down through the cover with better accuracy and less snagging. Drop the jig as close to cover as possible. Always work a bait completely around and through the trees, brush or other cover to find fish. For whatever reason, crappie might stack up on one side or the other.
“If a tree is still really bushy, the fish are tight to the cover or the cover is really thick, we use a single pole with a jig tipped with a plastic trailer,” Overstreet described. “We’ll single pole jig around thick cover because we can get the bait all the way down into the cover better. We can work a single bait through really thick stuff and also pull hooked fish out easier. The head weight depends upon the current. For jigging, I like a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce weedless crappie jig so I can get it down where the fish are without snagging. If the current is really strong, I go up to a 1/4-ounce jig to hold the bait down in the strike zone.”
In cold water, many people also use either live bait or jigs sweetened with live minnows. Tie a 1-ounce sinker at the bottom of the line. About 18 inches up from the sinker, tie a jig or Number 2 Aberdeen hook. Some people tie a second hook or jig on a loop coming off the main line about 18 inches higher than the bottom hook. When fishing for finicky, fish, many anglers add a little extra enticement by attaching scent pellets to their hooks.
“I like to use both jigs and minnows,” Dunn said. “Color helps too. I play around with different colors to see what fish want, but I like blue with some chartreuse or electric chicken when the water is clear. Popsicle is another hot color. It’s a bluish purple with some pink.”
Crappie in frosty waters tend to bite very softly. Anglers might not even feel the strike, just a little heaviness on the line. If in doubt, set the hook!
Since the Alabama River and its associated streams, lakes and creeks drain 63 percent of the land acreage in the Cotton State, most Alabama anglers should find a good place to fish close to home. Visitors can make inquiries and should have no problem finding fishable water. In the right spot, anglers could find some hot action on cold days.