The brightly colored floats dipped and bobbed in the bright winter sun, but gave no indication of the scene that was unfolding below the surface of the water.

Twelve feet below, female crappie, laden with eggs and hormones, lurked among the maze of old stumps that littered the lake floor. Though the water was still too cold to put the old gals in the mood for spawning, the bright sunshine made the stump flat adjacent to the creek channel a good place to warm up and feed on passing shad schools.

Tethered 8 feet below the corks, a tandem rig of 1/16-ounce crappie jigs eased along the tops of the stump row at fish-eye level. The tempting baits were too much for one of the slabs as she gently inhaled a lure and then ducked for cover when resistance was felt.

Topside, veteran Pickwick crappie guide Brad Whitehead intently watched his flotilla of eight corks, and was not surprised when one of them simply disappeared. He had been monitoring the bottom structure, and knew the area to hold fish.

The missing cork was assigned to a 13-year-old young man in Whitehead's guide party who also noticed the disappearance and responded in kind with a long sweeping hook set that bent the 9-foot ultra-light rod double. After a brief struggle culminating in a netted crappie and a splash of the livewell, the cork rig was reset to resume the hunt.

 

Sidewinding

Whitehead hails from the town of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and spends an inordinate amount of time plying the waters of Lake Pickwick, which is situated on the borders of Tennesse, Alabama and Mississippi. This time of year, Whitehead spends most of his time in the Magnolia State waters, where the majority of tributaries that feed Pickwick and the Tennessee River connect. One of the easiest ways to spot Whitehead is to look for a boat that's traveling sideways.

"I spent 15 years fishing this lake using conventional tightline tactics," said Whitehead, whose primary guide focus is for crappie on 43,000-acre Pickwick. "Tightlining works great for a number of different lakes and probably wins more tournaments across the country than any other tactic, but it's a lot of work wrangling all those long rods. Since I'm a guide, I needed a tactic that was simple, easy to do and catches a lot of fish. That's why I started side-pulling."

Side-pulling is a tactic that was designed by Roger Gant, a now legendary crappie guide on Pickwick, for snatching crappie off the tops of underwater stumps that the lake is famous for. The guide reasoned that if you could cover water by drifting, you could cover twice as much water by drifting sideways. Eventually Gant modified his tactic by mounting a trolling motor to the side of the boat where he could provide a controlled sideways drift by maneuvering the motor from his seat at the back. His designs and specifications for side-pulling have taken hold in the crappie-fishing industry as evidenced by a boat package manufactured by War Eagle Boats and a specific side-pulling rod manufactured by B'n'M.

"When the TVA made this lake back in the late 1930s, there was no modern equipment that you see today to clear land," said Gant, who operates Super Pro Guide Service from the Pickwick Store in Counce, Tenn., a couple miles east of the Pickwick Landing Dam. "They sent two men out with a cross-cut saw. When those two men came to a tree, they bent over about halfway and start sawing. That's why every stump that's on the bottom of this lake comes up about 3 feet off the bottom. You couldn't design a better place to hold a mess of big crappie than one of those old cross cut stump fields."

Gant said that crappie at Pickwick typically don't move up and down in the water column like they do on some lakes. Pickwick fish are more bottom-oriented, and will migrate in and out according to the depth of the water.

"They use depth as a type of structure," Gant said. "This means the fish travel in and out a lot more than they do up and down. That's why side-pulling works so well - it covers a lot of water while allowing you to fish right off the bottom in a controlled drift."

 

Put a cork in it

For Whitehead, the appeal of sideways crappie fishing has a lot more applications than simply drifting with jigs trailing behind the boat. The guide admits that he catches plenty of big crappie in the conventional sense with side-pulling, but it doesn't end there.

"Pickwick isn't a muddy lake like some of the other big-name lakes across Mississippi," he said. "In February during late winter, we can get some really gin-clear water, and that makes it hard to fish shallow water, really anything less than 20 feet deep, on a sunny day without worrying about the boat shadow spooking fish.

"That's when I started experimenting with some of the stuff that Lindy Fishing Tackle sent me to try out, and I hit on the idea of side-pulling corks so that I could get lines further out away from the boat while working shallow water."

Whitehead offers that as the month progresses, crappie begin to seek sunny spots that warm up quicker than the rest of the lake. These areas are often located in water less than 15 feet deep, but with deep-water access, such as a creek or river channel, nearby. When crappie move up into 10 to 15 feet of water to sun, he can still put jigs right in their faces without having to position his boat directly overhead.

"I use a Thill slip cork and tie a bobber stop about 8 feet up the line," said Whitehead. "The average depth of the good stump flats at winter pool is about 12 feet. That puts my bottom jig right at the top of the stump and the top jig a foot or so above that. I like two 1/16- or two 1/8-ounce jigs, so I have to have the right size cork to float them.

"I fan cast the cork rigs, space the rods out across the side of the boat and start easing across the flat sideways with the corks 50 to 60 feet behind the boat. Once the boat passes, the jigs may not get to that spot for several minutes, and that's plenty of time to get a fish to bite."

Whitehead is constantly monitoring his sonar unit to make sure he is positioning the baits over the primary bottom structure. He likes to arrange the corks, usually eight or nine of them if he's fishing with a party of two anglers, in a wide arc, while gently bumping the boat along over the flat. If the bite is slow, he may even halt the progress of the boat and let the cork rigs sit, dancing right in front of the fish's nose in order to tempt a bite.

 

Best spots

Both Whitehead and Gant are big fans of Yellow Creek, the headwaters of the Tenn-Tom waterway, for early season crappie fishing. A second favorite would be Indian Creek, located due east of Yellow Creek, and their third choice is split between Bear Creek, which lies on the Mississippi/Alabama border, and Sandy Creek, a secondary creek on the northwest side of Yellow Creek.

Gant indicated most of the crappie in February will be on the upper end of Goat Island, while Indian Creek is much smaller and may be a better starting point for side-pulling since the entire creek can be covered in a day. The first of the month will find both guides side-pulling in water that exceeds 20 feet usually at the upper end of these main tributaries.

Whitehead often gets a jump on the crowd by fishing small pockets and cuts off the main Tennessee River channel or off the big water in Yellow Creek.

"We call them sloughs," he said. "There's a lot of brush as well as stump flats in and around these sloughs, plus they drop off into deeper water, so it's a great place to catch fish sunning late in the day before they drop back to deeper water."

Whitehead will start his corking runs in the backs of these sloughs and pull out to the main creek. He may position his boat only 10 to 15 feet off the bank with the whole expanse of the main lake to his opposite side.

"These sloughs are not deep, but fish will move up into the shallow water as it's warming up," he said. "Usually I find the best bite to be from about 2 p.m. until dark."