Renowned fishing guide Brad Whitehead has never considered himself one of the crowd.
He loves and lives to crappie fish, yet he’s not a tournament angler.
He’s a firm believer in using multiple rods to troll for crappie, but he doesn’t spider rig.
While the crowd pushes forward, bent over an array of rods, Whitehead leans back, one arm draped casually across the gunnel. You might even describe him as a little bit sideways, using a trolling motor that’s mounted to the side, rather than the front of his boat.
Whitehead acquired his sideways slant from another legendary crappie angler, long-time Pickwick Lake guide Roger Gant. Early in his guiding career, Whitehead started out spider-rigging with the crowd, but soon switched sides, so to speak, after several long discussions with Gant. As a fellow War Eagle Boats and BnM pro-staff member, Gant showed Whitehead the error of his ways and taught him a method of catching crappie called side-pulling.
“Like Roger, when I guide a party, I want everyone to be comfortable,” said Whitehead. “This side-pulling method is fishable for anglers from ages 8 to 80. It gives everybody a fair chance to catch fish. You’re not fishing behind me, you’re fishing beside me. If you’re an unskilled fisherman or just getting into it, I’m able to talk to you and show you things, how to see bites that you might not otherwise see. When the wind gets up, your boat tries to get sideways anyway. We’re already sideways so it’s a little bit easier to keep control.”
As fall begins to fade into winter, Whitehead said side-pulling really shines as both a method of locating crappie and a means of catching them at Pickwick Lake. Its advantages are covering lots of water and finding fish that are willing to bite.
“In side-pulling, you are targeting active fish,” he said. “That’s a big deal, active fish. You’re not targeting a brush pile and you’re not targeting a specific area, you are moving and trying to catch active fish.”
Whitehead touts the mid to late fall season as prime time to catch Pickwick crappie because the fish have moved to stable environments where the primary goal is to spend most of the day feeding and putting on winter weight. It’s a time when baitfish move from roaming the surface to hugging structure on the bottom with crappie holding right with them.
“You’ve got all these bait fish that are trying to get off the top of the water and get down lower in the water column,” he said. “What that does is actually push crappie closer to the bottom. On Pickwick Lake, when this happens, 99 percent of the crappie are going to be between 2 and 4 feet of the bottom.”
Catching bottom-hugging fish is what made Pickwick Lake famous across the country. Unlike spring, when crappie have spawning on their minds, in the fall it’s all about eating.
“Crappie are down there feeding up for the winter and you’ve got to move around to catch numbers of them,” said Whitehead. “When they go to feed up, you’re going to get a harder strike and a harder fight because they know winter’s coming and they’re full of energy. When you find them in the fall, you’ll hit those days that you’re catching 30, 40, even 50 fish a day, and nice ones, which is absolutely wonderful.”
At the business end of his tackle, Whitehead goes old school. Rather than running strictly live bait or some flashy new crankbait, he’s using a combination of handmade hair jigs and plastic, the same combination that has worked on Pickwick for years.
“We’re going to be fishing hair jigs with Southern Pro grubs on the back of them,” he said. “Once the water temperature gets below 70, the hair jigs and the grubs make an absolutely great combination.”
With the water levels closing in on winter pool, Whitehead expects to find both vast acreage of stump fields and roaming schools of crappie in the mid-water depths.
“If I catch a few fish in 18 feet of water, I’m going to stay in 18 feet of water,” he said. “If I make a pull in 18 to 25 feet of water and I catch six or eight in 25 feet of water then I’m going to stay in 25 feet of water. With side-pulling, you can find that depth pretty quick and just stay in it all day.”
By covering a lot of water and providing a number of baits at varying depths, Whitehead’s side-pulling boat cuts a wide swathe across the lake floor. It’s a time-tested method that Whitehead, Gant, and a host of local anglers regularly use to catch numbers of fall crappie.
“I’ve normally got 18 to 20 baits in the water and I’ve got them stacked from shallow to deep,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for several years now and I pretty much tell people, ‘if the fish ain’t biting, we’ll know it pretty quick’ because we’ll have crappie staged at all depths and it’s just a matter of pulling one of those baits beside an active fish and it’s on.”
For pulling fall crappie out of Pickwick, Gant, who operates Super Pro Guide Service from Pickwick Store, a bait and tackle shop just across the state line in Counce, Tenn., also targets natural structure on flats along break lines. The guide said that when Pickwick was cleared before impoundment, the trees were cleared by hand using crosscut saws. The result is a lot of leftover stumps that hold plenty of crappie.
“I want to get that jig down on the bottom and pull it just across the tops of those stumps,” Gant said. “I discovered years ago that crappie use depth as cover nearly as much as they use structure. If I can find the right depth the fish want on a given day, I can target that specific depth and catch a lot of fish.”
From late Fall into early winter, the Super Pro guide will be targeting three of the main creeks that feed the Mississippi side of Pickwick. Gant looks for crappie to be staging along break lines moving from deeper water to shallow in Bear Creek, Indian Creek, and the connector to the Tenn-Tom waterway, Yellow Creek. Gant provided a rundown on where he typically finds crappie as the month progresses.
“In Yellow Creek, we’ll find crappie in around 20 feet of water moving from the area around the Elks Club down to Goat Island,” Gant said. “Fish will stay there through the winter and by the end of the winter they’ll be on the other side of Goat Island working up into shallow waters for the spawn.
“For Bear Creek, the fish will stack up real good in Mill Creek. Then as the winter progresses and the water warms up into spring, they will be all over the shallows in Mill Creek all the way up to the railroad bridge. Indian Creek is the smaller of the three and we’ll find crappie about midway back as the month begins and then they’ll work back out toward the mouth from there, then reverse and go to the other end in the spring.”
The guide offers that Pickwick is not normally a muddy water lake but if they get a lot of rainfall, he will move down the lake to fish some of the tributaries closer to the dam that get more mountain stream water which he claims does not muddy up as bad as creeks that collect a lot of farmland runoff.
How to Get There
Pickwick Lake is located on the Tennessee River and forms the border for a portion of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. The lake’s headwaters originate behind Lake Wilson dam near Muscle Shoals, Ala., and runs 48 miles to the Pickwick Dam near Counce, Tenn.
The best access area to reach the recommended fishing sites is the ramp on the northern end of Yellow Creek. The State Line Boat Launch is located on the north shore of Yellow Creek near the Highway 57 bridge. From Highway 57, take Magnolia Lane to the launch site, which offers a 2-lane concrete ramp and paved parking area.
Cooks Landing is located at the mouth of Indian Creek in the J.P. Coleman State Park. To get there from Coleman Park Road, turn right on County Roadd 321 and follow the signs.
Early in the month both Brad Whitehead and Roger Gant will side pull double jig rigs along major break lines and deep-water flats to catch crappie. Side pulling is a specialized practice and both Gant and Whitehead employ a specially designed boat to achieve success. Side pulling is a sideways controlled drift method that puts baits near the bottom for an entire trolling or drifting run. Side troll with the wind and pull off line until you have a good feel for the bottom but stay off the bottom.
When the water starts to cool off, Whitehead will side drift across medium depth flats in the 18– to 24-feet depths to catch crappie holding on submerged stump flats. He drifts/trolls the corks at least 40 feet behind the boat to keep the boat shadow from spooking fish.
Favorite venues for winter crappie fishing include Yellow Creek, Indian Creek, Bear Creek and smaller sloughs off the main Tennessee River and the upper end of Yellow Creek. Look for fish to be on break lines in 18-24 feet of water early in the month and moving up to shallow flats on sunny days.
More Information/ Fishing Guides
Brad Whitehead, (256) 381-7231 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roger and Bill Gant, Super Pro Guide Service at Pickwick Store, 6630 Hwy 57, Counce, TN (731) 689-5666
BnM Poles, 1-800-647-6363, www.bnmpoles.com
War Eagle Boats, (870) 367-1554, www.wareagleboats.com
Accommodations and Lodging
Info at www.pickwicklake.net
Delorme Mississippi Atlas & Gazetteer, 1 (800) 561-5105 www.delorme.com
Fishing Hot Spots, 1-800-ALL-MAPS, www.fishinghotspots.com
Navionics Electronic Charts, 1-800-848-5896 www.navionics.com