What’s Up Dock?
By John N. Felsher
On many waters, a multitude of docks, fishing piers, boathouses or other manmade objects protrude from the shoreline. These docks create the dominant, most visible structure and often offer excellent fishing.
“People can catch crappie under docks all year long.,” explained Steve Brown, a semi-pro crappie angler from Millbrook, Ala. “Sometimes, I’ve seen 2.25- to 2.75-pound crappie stacked under docks.”
Older docks with crusty pilings typically offer the best fishing since they’ve been in the water so long. Docks close to deeper water provide fish easy opportunities to drop into the depths or hunt in the shallows. The best docks provide good shade and overhead cover from predators like ospreys.
“I look for a big dock with a lot of shade and good water depth under it,” Brown advised. “I like to see at least 12 feet of water under a dock. I also like a dock close to a creek channel or main river channel ledge.”
On major rivers, many people build floating docks that rise and fall with frequent water level fluctuations. Usually, dock builders put down metal or wooden posts and slip these through holes in buoyant decking material like wood or plastic. Some use pontoons to keep docks floating. Floating docks offer fish excellent shade.
“Shade is the key,” Brown said. “It’s probably the biggest factor for why docks attract crappie. Floating docks provide a lot more shade for fish. A dock that sits too high off the water allows too much sunlight to enter the water and might not hold any fish. I’ll always go to the dock with the most shade. I’ll hit a spot six to eight times. If nothing bites, I’ll move to another spot.”
Also on rivers, anglers need to consider current. A little flow can bring fresh bait, but crappie don’t like to fight powerful currents all day. In rivers with swift currents, people might not build as many docks on the main channels, but some tributaries could offer outstanding dock fishing.
“If the current is too powerful, crappie can’t suspend under the docks,” Brown remarked. “When fishing rivers, I look for any docks that create some type of current breaks. In a tournament, that would be a money spot that would hold a lot of fish. Sometimes, people put a dock next to a sandbar, ledge or some other underwater obstruction that keeps water from ripping under that dock.”
Most people fish slack spots downstream of current breaks. However, anglers cannot always reach those eddies easily. In such a situation, start upstream and drift baits to the sweet spot. Dangle live minnows or even jigs from small floats and let the flow carry the temptation under the dock. Without a float, use jigs heavy enough to sink, but light enough for the current to carry it. Experiment with different weights. With the right weight, the bait slowly descends as the current sweeps it along. Once the jig hits bottom, pop it up again and let it drift some more.
Whether fishing a swift river or placid reservoir, also look for secondary cover. Many dock owners establish brush piles within casting range of their properties. Don’t overlook boats tied to docks. Sometimes, boats sit moored for long periods. Algae may grow on the hulls, lines, tabs and lower units. That growth feeds minnows and other small fish.
A pontoon boat tied to a dock creates abundant shade, but some very tight places that make bait presentation challenging. Many people ping lures off boat transoms or pontoons, but monster crappie lurking way back under cover may never see baits. An opening covered by an intact spider web indicates that no one fished that spot for a while. To reach places where few others even dare to fish, try “shooting” baits.
For shooting baits, use a light flexible spinning rod about five to seven feet long. Open the reel bail and grab the lure by the head. Bend the rod tip to build up energy as if preparing to launch an arrow. The bending rod acts like a slingshot. When released, that energy from the unbending rod propels small lures under or between cover that few other anglers attempt to fish.
“Pontoon boats are great spots to shoot jigs,” commented Jonathan Phillips, a crappie pro and guide with Team Phillips Guide Service (334-391-9735 or Team Phillips Guide Service on Facebook) in Wetumpka, Ala. “Shooting docks can be a really fun way to fish and highly productive. I use 4-pound test high visibility line so I can see the bites.”
A skilled dock shooter can hurl a small bait way under cover with remarkable accuracy. Sometimes, a bait hits the surface and skips farther back under cover. For shooting docks and other structures, people can use just about any type of bait, but many people fling 1/64- to 1/8-ounce jigs. Some anglers use Road Runner jighead spinners or other lures. A few use tiny flies.
“When I’m fishing a lake, I usually shoot 1/32-ounce jigs around docks,” Brown revealed. “On a river with a little current, I’ll probably switch to a 1/16-ounce jig to keep the current from washing it out too fast without giving it time to fall. Probably 99 percent of the time, crappie hit a jig as it falls. Quite often, anglers never feel the bite. They might just see a little twitch on the line.”
After launching baits into sweet spots, anglers can work them several ways. Frequently, the biggest fish hover along the edges and suck down baits that slowly sink past them. Throw assorted baits from different angles and experiment with various retrieves to determine what works each day.
“I want to shoot the jig as far under the dock as I can into the darkest spot I can find,” Brown said. “Sometimes, fish nail the bait as soon as the jig hits the water. If not, let the jig fall and watch the line. If the line pops or starts swimming off, set the hook. When the jig falls, I always count and keep track of when fish hit to determine patterns and how deep fish are in the water column. If I catch a couple fish when I reach ‘one-thousand 4’ that’s how deep I’ll fish each cast so the jig stays in the same water where I found fish.”
While people usually “shoot the docks,” anglers can fish around such structures with many other techniques. Many people vertically jig around the pilings with single poles or pitch floats holding minnows to support structures. Some even nose spider rigs into extra wide boat slips.
After landing a few fish under a dock, crappie may stop biting. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they moved or the angler caught them all. Try changing bait colors or perhaps use a different size. After thoroughly working over a dock and catching several fish, leave it alone for a while. Go look for something similar and then return to fish the original dock again a few hours later.
With any fishing method, pay attention to what works. Keep trying different methods to see what fish want that day and where they want it. Then, just repeat what works best.