A growing thunderhead to the west belched a loud rumble, causing Don Lauderdale of Camden to momentarily take his attention off his cork and assess the threat.
Seconds later, a second clap of thunder rolled across Millers Ferry and a turkey let out a hearty gobble.
Suddenly, Lauderdale’s cork disappeared and he hooked into a nice crappie, bulging with roe.
“This is why I love spring so much,” Lauderdale said. “The turkeys are gobbling and the crappie are biting.”
Finding time to do both is Lauderdale’s only problem. On our trip to the lake recently, both of us turkey hunted that morning (to no avail, I might add) and then met at Bridgeport Landing for an afternoon of crappie fishing on the 17,200-acre reservoir on the Alabama River impounded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1969.
Although the official name of this impoundment is William (Bill) Dannelly Reservoir, none of the locals call it that. It’s Millers Ferry and it provides outstanding fishing at times for both white crappie and black crappie, not to mention largemouth and spotted bass, as well as channel, blue and yellow catfish.
Historically, the crappie fishing is best in late winter and early spring with plenty of action in the creeks – Foster, Pine Barren, Chilatchee, Alligator, and Bogue Chitto – and the connected sloughs.
“They go to the banks,” Lauderdale said of the spawning action when the water temperature creeps into the 60s. “They’re on the banks right now and they’ll stay, depending on the weather and water temperature, for about a month. Then they’ll move out to 10-12 feet late in the spring and early summer.
“They could be in six inches of water on out. I’ve caught them with the cork six inches from the minnow or we’ve been catching right now between 16 inches and 2 feet. It’s pretty much like everywhere else. They go to the bank and you can catch them. Then they disappear for a while and then they’ll show back up in deeper water.
When we were on the water a week ago, it was apparent the fish had just started to show back up on the banks. They had been there one time before this spring and cold weather moved them back out. With the return of the warm spring weather, the crappie are back on the shoreline.
“The roe tells me they’re not quite ready yet,” Lauderdale said. “It’s not really yellow. It’s kind of milky looking. The actual spawning may not be too long off, though. It depends mainly on the water temperature.”
Even if the females lay their eggs, the male crappie will hang around for a while to guard the eggs. And seldom can a crappie resist a tasty minnow or glittery jig.
“Everybody fishes right now,” Lauderdale said. “This is when everybody gets ‘em. You just go along the banks, find a bush and put a minnow in it and one will usually get it.”
Lauderdale eased into a slough off the mouth of Pine Barren Creek and dropped a minnow in a top. It didn’t take long to add another crappie to the afternoon’s catch, which eventually totaled 36 keepers.
“I really don’t think crappie move into one top and stay there, waiting to ambush a minnow,” Lauderdale said. “I think they move in and out. I know we’ve caught fish in tops where I didn’t get a bite yesterday. But there are some tops that are definitely in the right spot and you can catch a fish or two just about every time you go by it.”
When the spring spawning bonanza ends for crappie fishermen at the Ferry, Lauderdale says the fish don’t move far.
“When they start backing out after the spawn, you find a treetop, a log or a hump anywhere from 12 feet to six feet deep, preferably a treetop in about 8 feet of water,” he said. “And you fish about six feet deep. They’ll stay at that depth until the water temperature gets too hot for them to stay. Then they’ll move back out on the river. Then they’ll be in 18 to 30 feet on the drop-off ledges where you’d normally bass fish. I leave them alone in the summer. But when they get out in the deep water in the winter, I get after them.
“In the fall they’ll come back shallow, but they won’t go all the way to the bank. They’ll come back to that six- to eight-foot range when the water temperature cools off in the late fall. Water temperature is what determines where they go. When it gets cold, they go back to 20-30 feet and that’s when I start drop-shotting. I use a minnow most all the time. A lot of people use jigs, but I don’t have enough patience to use jigs. If you use a 1/8th-ounce jig, you’ve got to wait for it to sink 20 feet. I don’t have the patience to do that. But people who fish with jigs say you can catch more on jigs than you can minnows. This past winter was especially good. We didn’t come home without 30 any day we went this past winter. We kept 85 one day with four of us in the boat.”
Although crappie fishing is usually good on Millers Ferry, the lake is known for its bass fishing. The Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce hopes to elevate the lake’s crappie fishing reputation by holding the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce Crappie Tournament on April 19 and the related Jackpot Derby from April 19 to May 18.
The one-day event is a big fish tournament with hourly prizes awarded from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The largest fish of the day is worth $1,000 with $500 for second place and $250 for third. Hourly weigh-ins will be held at Roland Cooper State Park and Millers Ferry Marina, which will also host the final weigh-in at 3 p.m.
For the Jackpot Derby, 105 crappie will be tagged and released into the lake from Millers Ferry Dam. The tags will be worth anywhere from $100 to $25,000. Visit www.wilcoxareachamber.org for a complete list of rules and regulations and more information.
For those looking for overnight accommodations at the lake, Roland Cooper State Park offers camping and cabins. Camping facilities are also available at Corps of Engineers public use areas at East Bank, Six Mile, and Chilatchee Creek. Lodging, restaurants and fishing tackle are available only a few miles away in Camden.
PHOTO: Although the majority of crappie were caught on minnows, this white crappie swallowed an 1/8th-ounce jig tipped with a white grub.