By Don Wirth
With its sagging walkway and rotten support pilings, the old dock was in a sad state of disrepair. Yet to Tennessee guide Jim Duckworth, it was a thing of beauty. "Pitch that tube jig so it lands near the inside corner, right in the shadows," he instructed. I did, and as soon as it hit the water, a 2-pound crappie rushed out from beneath the dock and inhaled the lure. I made more pitches, and within minutes a second slab crappie, then a third and a fourth, were flopping in the livewell.
I'd never fished boat docks for crappie prior to that outing. But with results like this, you can bet I'll fish them in the future!
"Most crappie anglers ignore docks," Duckworth said. "They associate crappie only with brushpiles and stake beds, or maybe they've watched those pro bass fishermen on TV fish docks and don't connect these man-made structures with crappie. But docks can deliver some awesome stringers of slabs -- if you fish 'em smart, that is."
Background on Docks
"Many docks have all the right ingredients to produce big crappie," veteran Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason told Bass Pro's OutdoorSite. "They provide shade, which allows crappie to conceal themselves from their prey. Shade is especially important in a clear lake, where cover may be sparse and it'd difficult for crappie to keep a low profile. Docks attract tons of minnows -- dock pilings develop a slick coating of algae, which provides food for baitfish and immature gamefish. Insects, too, are abundant around docks. Most docks are lighted, and insects swarm around the lights at night in hot weather, setting up a food chain scenario that includes crappie. And, docks provide a tremendous ambush point for crappie. They can lurk beneath the dock hidden from view, then rush out into the open to grab a quick meal."
"Most docks aren't year-around crappie cover," said Tom Moody, another seasoned Kentucky Lake guide. "Early in the year, docks on most reservoirs may not have enough water around them to hold crappie since the lake may be drawn down to winter pool. I've found that a dock normally needs to be in at least 2 to 3 feet of water to hold crappie, and you may not get that much water around some docks 'til spring rains fill the lake. Once the lake fills to summer pool, docks that were virtually high and dry may have 6 to 8 feet of water surrounding them, and crappie will move in big-time. They'll stay there through summer and early fall, then gradually pull away from the shallower docks as the lake level drops."
Docks are tremendous staging areas for prespawn crappie, Moody added. "The period before the spawn is a tricky time to fish these structures, 'cause you have to ignore the shallow docks and key on the deeper ones, especially those adjacent to creek channels. Crappie will migrate from the main lake toward their shallow spawning grounds in bays and tributaries via these channels and will gang up around docks in large numbers to wait for the water temperature to get right before going on bed."
Not every dock has potential as good crappie habitat, our experts agree. Here are some important factors to look for when evaluating docks:
Bank slope -- "Docks situated on sloping banks are by far my favorites for crappie," said legendary Nashville guide Harold Morgan. "They'll hold fish most of the year, whereas docks on flat banks tend to be more seasonal in attracting fish. A dock on a 45-degree bank may be in 7 or 8 feet of water close to shore, 15 feet or more at the end, so there's no reason for crappie to ever leave it. On the other hand, most docks on flatter banks hold crappie only in late spring through early fall."
Subtle structure -- "I always look for any structural element that might enhance a particular dock," Garry Mason said. "A prime example is a ditch or trench -- these are commonly dug around shallow docks to make it easier for their owners to get their boats in and out. Often the ditch is only a foot or two deeper than the surrounding water, but that's usually all it takes to draw crappie. Always scope out the area around shallow docks with a graph to locate these depressions."
Dock construction -- Docks can be made of wood, metal, even plastic, and may rest either on pilings or on top of some sort of flotation device (floating docks are prevalent on lakes that undergo major fluctuations in water level). Most of our experts indicated a strong preference for wood docks with wood pilings, the older the better. "The submerged parts of an old wood dock are usually thoroughly slimed with algae, and the vertical pilings provide increased cover for suspending crappie and therefore more vantage points from which to ambush prey," Jim Duckworth noted. Harold Morgan expressed a preference for docks resting on Styrofoam blocks instead of pilings: "Ever see a big piece of Styrofoam on the bank and notice how green it looks? That's from algae clinging to it, and algae attracts minnows." How about metal docks? "We're seeing more and more docks being built with metal pilings or with aluminum flotation pontoons beneath them, because metal doesn't rot like wood or bust up like Styrofoam," noted Garry Mason. "Metal docks provide just as much shade as wood docks, but not as much algae coverage, so you usually won't find as many minnows around them." Plastic flotation is used to support some docks; Tom Moody has caught plenty of nice slabs around this synthetic material, and notes, "These docks don't look as fishy as those old wood docks, but algae adheres well to the plastic, which attracts plenty of minnows."
Covered vs. open -- "A covered dock or boathouse provides nearly 100% shade; I like to fish these on a hot summer day," Tom Moody said. "However, open docks are a lot easier to fish because you can make lure or bait presentations without having that roof impeding your casts."
Wood cover -- "Many dock owners sink brush or tree limbs, or construct stake beds, around their docks for crappie cover," Harold Morgan pointed out. "You can usually tell the docks with submerged cover around them simply by noting which ones have fishing poles stacked up on them, or rod holders attached to them. Likewise, a dock used to tie up a fishing boat is more likely to have cover around it than a dock with a jet ski or a runabout. Use your graph to reveal the exact location of the cover." Morgan quickly bypasses docks utilizing Christmas trees for cover, noting, "As Christmas trees decompose, they give off an odor that repels crappie."
Weed cover -- "Junk weeds like milfoil and hydrilla attract tons of crappie, but these grasses may grow so thick that they hamper boat traffic, so dock owners or the lake's homeowners association usually sprays them," Jim Duckworth pointed out. "Many dock owners like the natural look of emergent grasses such as cattails and maidencane, and these plants will attract insects that crappie feed upon."
Size -- "Big docks provide more of everything: shade, ambush opportunity and forage," Harold Morgan said. "However, a dock's size is less important than its proximity to deep water and cover. The biggest docks are usually those associated with marinas; often the fishing is poor around these because there's little cover around them."
Proximity to other docks -- "Here, the concept of isolated cover comes into play," said Tom Moody. "Often you'll see a whole row of docks along a shoreline or in the back of a cove; the one dock that's farthest from the rest will sometimes hold the most or the biggest crappie."
Our experts fish docks with a variety of artificial lure and live bait presentations. Easily the most unorthodox of these is known as "dock shooting" -- a version of the classic bow and arrow cast. Jim Duckworth describes how it's done: "I use B 'n' M's new Sharpshooter rods for this application -- these are ultralight spinning rods in 4 1/2-, 5- and 5 1/2-foot lengths designed specifically for this application. Using a small lure like a tube jig or Charlie Brewer Slider Grub, hold the rod parallel to the water with the tip pointed directly at your target. Then flip the reel bail and pinch the line above the reel between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Carefully pinch the lure between the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, then pull it back toward you until the rod is completely loaded up. Finally, release both the line and the lure at the same time, and the jig will shoot where you point it -- very handy for reaching spots inside, under and around docks that are impossible to hit with an overhand cast. For safety's sake, I highly recommend practicing this presentation with a lure that has the hook snipped off! Once you've got it down, you should be able to shoot a jig through a knothole."
A less extreme, but still highly effective, dock presentation is pitching. "Since docks provide such great overhead cover, you can usually get close to them without spooking crappie lurking beneath them, and an underhand pitch cast will let you swing your lure beneath the overhang so it drops 'way back in the shadows where the fish are most likely to be," Garry Mason noted. "Since most fish suspend beneath docks, I like to use the lightest jighead I can get away with so the lure drops nice and slow."
"A dock is the perfect place for a minnow-and-bobber rig," Tom Moody indicated. "Unlike a lure, you can let this rig sit around a dock indefinitely until a fish decides to eat the bait. This is my number one presentation in cold front conditions, when you have to really tempt crappie into biting."
Harold Morgan fishes deeper docks with his old favorite, the Kentucky rig: heavy sinker on the bottom, two short leader lines baited with minnows stacked a foot apart above the sinker. "This rig is ideal for thick cover around docks since it's fished vertically and won't hang up as bad as a horizontal presentation," the guide commented. "Position your boat directly over the cover, lower the sinker all the way to the bottom, then just reel it up slowly -- often two fish will load onto the rig at once."
"Swimming a grub is a great presentation when crappie are actively feeding around docks," said Garry Mason. "Shoot or pitch the lure as far under the dock as possible, then reel it steadily at a medium clip back to you. Use your rod to steer the lure close to pilings and shadows were crappie are likely to be holding."
MORE DOCK FISHING TIPS