WEISS LAKE LIVES UP TO ITS BILLING, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE TEMPERATURES DROP AND THE WATER COOLS.
Mark Collins squints his eyes and looks at the boat a short distance away drifting atop Weiss Lake’s placid waters.
“What’s wrong with them this morning, Jim?” he shouts at the other angler fishing nearby.
“I don’t know,” the answer drifts across quietly but distinctly.
“They’re not biting like they were yesterday,” Collins replies.
After putting more than 60 of the silvery panfish in his live well the day before, the bite is slow in the early going. But that’s crappie fishing even on the lake known as the “Crappie Capital of the World.”
“Yesterday, every time you turned around, your rod tip was touching the water,” Collins says. “Today, it’s a very light bite.”
Not only are the fish hitting less frequently, when they do hit, they nibble tentatively. But a man who spends 250 days a year on the water working as a professional guide knows what to do.
“I started out the depth I caught them yesterday,” he says. “If that doesn’t work, I’ll vary my depth until I find out what works.”
Collins watches as the rod twitches ever so slightly. When it twitches again, he grabs it and pops the tip upward with a rapid snap of his wrist. The whippy 10-foot rod bows and Collins carefully brings the crappie to the surface, then swings it into the boat. After dropping it into a nifty measuring device to make sure it passes Weiss Lake’s 10-inch length minimum, he tosses it into the live well.
Constructed for flood control and power generation, Weiss Lake entered service in 1961. At 52 miles from end to end, it covers more than 30,000 acres with 15,000 acres of flood easement and 447 miles of shoreline.
“It’s the first lake (in Alabama) on the Coosa system,” says Dennis Trammell, team leader of Weiss Lake Shoreline Management for Alabama Power.
Abundant baitfish and deep-water cover create excellent crappie fishing in the lake.
“Before they built this lake, most of this was farmland,” Collins says. “The farmers left that buffer of trees along the river. When Alabama Power built this lake, they cut those trees down so you’ve got this line of stumps along the channel.”
The stumps were cut off about 2 feet from the bottom.
“We’re fishing live bait 2 to 3 feet from the bottom,” Collins says. “We’re targeting structure on the edge of the old Coosa River channel.”
Collins has spent hundreds of hours charting the cover on the bottom of Weiss Lake using a combination of a GPS system and a depth finder. When he finds new cover, he marks it with GPS waypoints.
On this day, he is fishing with a spider rig. He uses light, open-faced spinning reels spooled with 20-pound test Epoch braid along with limber
10-foot B’n’M rods. The light action rod is forgiving for clients who set the hook too hard.
At the end of the line he ties a Â¾-ounce bank sinker. Collins takes No. 1 or No. 2 Eagle Claw Aberdeen snell hooks pre-rigged with 12-pound test leader and attaches them to the bank sinker by passing the loop end of the leader through the hole in the bank sinker and then passing the hook through the loop at the end of the leader.
He baits the hook with a 2Â½- to 3-inch shiner minnow hooked through the eyes. He has rod holders attached all around his boat in groups of three set 2 feet off the water. State law limits anglers to three rods apiece on Weiss Lake. Collins puts three rods per person in the holders.
When he lowers the line, he touches the rod tip to the water, lets the sinker hit bottom and flips the bail. Then he turns the handle one-half turn and puts the rod in the holder. That places the bait about 3 feet above the bottom. The spider rig allows him to fish straight down in cover and he moves slowly or stays stationary.
When the weather gets colder and water temperature drops to 50 degrees or colder, crappie move out of cover and suspend in the water column in deep water over the main channel. To catch those fish, Collins uses a long-line trolling method.
Collins uses a 1/24-ounce jig on rods varying in length from 7 feet to 10 feet. He throws the jigs out behind the boat and places them in a fan shape in rod holders. He uses his trolling motor to propel the boat and varies his speed depending on how deep he wants the jigs to run. Faster makes the jigs run shallower while slower makes them run deeper.
People from all over the country come to Weiss Lake to fish in the spring.
“If you haven’t booked a room for March by January, you won’t get one,” Collins says. “Every bit of lodging around here is full.”
The spawn usually begins in mid-March and it runs through mid-April. Collins begins to see the fish moving toward the shallower water as it approaches. Cover has changed in the lake over the years. Where fish once spawned in 18 inches to 2 feet of water, they now spawn in areas as deep as 6 feet.
Crappie also like to spawn in areas with hard bottoms so silt doesn’t cover up their eggs. Crappie spawn in the area where they were born, he says.
During the spawn, Collins trolls. Other methods, such as casting spinners or jigs, work but trolling works best for him.
After the spawn, the fish move to the closest deep cover in their spawning ground, he says. There they feed and recover from the stress of spawning. Collins switches to spider rigs during this phase.
“You can do this all during the year,” he says, pointing to the spider rig. “But it really shines after the spawn.”
Fishing remains good throughout May as fish move from the recovery area to the deeper cover. But as hotter weather approaches, the fishing drops off. Summer algae blooms depress Weiss Lake’s oxygen levels and that makes the fish lethargic, Collins says.
“Cold weather months are better for crappie,” Collins says. “They slow down during the summer.”
Fishing improves as the weather cools. October and November are almost as good as the spring fishing, Collins says. He continues to use spider rigs during the fall.
Alabama Power draws the lake down 6 feet in winter for flood control. The drawdown starts at the beginning of September and the water usually reaches its lowest level by the end of December.
It begins its return to full pool in January, is full by May and stays there through the end of August.
Alabama Power, coordinating with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, works with local anglers during the spawn, Collins says. They let the company know when the spawn begins and the company holds the lake stable or allows it to rise slightly for two weeks. That helps ensure a healthy hatch of young fish, he says.
Crappie seem to bite best on overcast days. Bluebird days are the toughest as fish hold tight to the shady side of cover.
“I love to see snow,” Collins says with a grin. “Every time I’m out there and it’s snowing, the fish eat it up.”
Collins serves as president of the Weiss Lake Improvement Association, which is working to replace cover that is gradually lost as the lake ages. It has used Christmas trees in the past.
Lately, the association has used bamboo stuck into concrete blocks in a fan shape. It lasts and provides good cover, Collins says.
From Feb. 15 to April 30, the association holds the annual Weiss Lake Crappie Rodeo. Anglers pay $10 to enter. The association releases 1,000 tagged fish and the number on each tag corresponds to a prize. This year, 13 fish will be worth $10,000 apiece and the remaining 987 will have a total value of $50,000. Collins hopes that give anglers extra incentive to head out to the lake.
For many people, a live well full of crappie is enough incentive.
– ROBERT DEWITT