Joe Giles is an expert bass angler and crappie angler who has spent a lifetime fishing Okatibbee Lake. Though he fishes for bass during most of the year, he concentrates on catching the succulent slabs from late February during pre-spawn, into April and through the spawn.

"Okatibbee Lake can be one of the hardest lakes to catch fish in due to its flood-control nature," said Giles. "It's kind of like fishing the river in that you have to know where to go on a moment's notice as the water is subject to drastic fluctuations from day to day and week to week.

"I've fished the lake all my life and have learned different areas that hold crappie during different weather conditions and varying water levels."

 

7:00 a.m. - I meet Giles, of Collinsville, at the Collinsville Boat Ramp, and load my gear into his Ranger boat. The Ranger was made for bass fishing, but it's amazing how much more comfortable it is to crappie fish in a large sturdy boat instead of a small aluminum boat. I load my gear, two jig poles and a few spinning reels in anticipation of any style crappie fishing we might do.

 

7:15 a.m. - Giles launches the boat and starts motoring toward open water.

"About seven to nine days ago, we had a big rain that really raised the water level in the lake and put a lot of water in the bushes," Giles says. "Earlier in the week, they started dropping the water level. It's rapidly receding from the bushes, and that's not good for spawning crappie.

"They're wanting to go to the banks, but the water's dropping and they just don't know what to do. We've got to find out if they've backed off to the first drops and ditches, or if they're still in shallow water."

 

7:20 a.m. - We make the short run south toward the dam, and Giles turns his boat to the east and then back north as we enter the Bales Creek Area that is home to the Pine Springs Minnow Pond dams. The area used to be home to Covington's Minnow Farms, but was inundated with water when the lake was impounded.

"The resulting dams were submerged and serve as staging areas for bass and crappie," said Giles. "A few years ago, we had a drought and the area was out of the water about two years, and willow trees and grass grew on top of the dams. The results are spawning grounds galore."

And sure enough, the area is chock full of brush with no danger of the water receding fast and leaving the fish stranded.

Giles eyes a patch of willow bushes on the east side of the cove about 100 yards off a bank, and directs me to get out the jig poles. He pulls out a Wally Marshall jig pole, and starts working the brush.

"There he is," Giles says, as he sets the hook and hoists our first crappie of the day into the boat. "Sometimes you'll find a school of crappie in a small isolated patch of willows or grass like this.

"You need to work a spot thoroughly as you may find a bunch of them, and never know it when they're buried up in the brush."

 

7:23 a.m. - I drop my Bass Pro Shops black/chartreuse Crappie Ringer into a willow bush, and feel the tell-tale thump of a succulent crappie. Setting the hook, I jerk the fish out of the brush and swing him into the boat. For the next 30 minutes, we continue probing the willows in the small clump of brush, and catch several crappie. In fact, the crappie area is hitting pretty well, and we draw strikes with regularity, though we are not able to pull all of them through the thick brush.

"There's plenty more areas like this all around the lake," Giles says. "We've just got to hit a lot of them and find similar spots like this.

"They're either going to be in the pre-spawn or spawning modes. These fish are basically here to spawn, and they're in 4 to 5 feet of water buried up in the brush."

 

8:05 a.m. - We move further north into the flooded brush-filled minnow ponds and start working another similar location. Seconds after we stop, I nail another fish next to a willow bush.

Giles drops his jig into every opening he can fit the jig, and one nails his jig also. A few minutes later, I follow up with yet another crappie.

For the next hour we work the area over by combing and jigging in and around every bush we can get to. As a result, the white perch just keep hitting our jigs and providing us with hot action.

"They aren't real aggressive today, but if you drop that jig on their head, they're usually going to suck it in and try to eat it," said Giles. "We'll just keep putting that jig by enough bushes, and I'm confident that we'll have enough for a large fish fry by the end of the day."

 

9:15: a.m. - After working a couple small areas of brush that hold concentrations of crappie, Giles decides to move across to the eastern side of the cove where there's another area that has small clumps of brush that may hold crappie also.

"When the conditions are right, the majority of the crappie will move into shallow water all around the lake," said Giles. "However, when conditions are not quite right for spawning, you have to find out where they are staging, and once you do, just translate that into similar areas of the lake."

Giles continues working the brush with a black/chartreuse Bass Pro Shops Crappie Ringer.

Though we're catching crappie scattered in the bushes, he wants to find bigger concentrations so we move on to an area that is similar to our prior hotspots.

 

9:25: a.m. - Although we are in a cove that's sheltered from the rough water in the main lake, the wind is so brisk, gusting to 20 mph, it's getting increasingly hard to keep the boat steady without staying hung up in the brush. I finally catch a crappie at this spot without ever knowing it had bit until I start to move the jig to another spot.

"The key here is to drop that jig straight down into the small holes right at the base of the bush," Giles said. "And that's hard due to the wind, but that's where the crappie are right now."

To facilitate our fishing efforts, Giles drops an anchor and starts working the area all around the boat.

 

9:30 a.m. - Giles nails another crappie. After taking him off the hook and putting him in the "supper well," he's back fishing again. Wham, another crappie strikes in the exact same spot. I follow up with a perch of my own, and we continue catching and missing crappie in this area. Giles catches several more before we up the anchor and move a few feet to new territory.

 

9:45 a.m. - I drop a jig into the brush, and another crappie nails it. In short order, we alternate catching or missing crappie for the next 15 minutes or so. The crappie are in the 3- to 5-foot depth range and scattered throughout the willow brush. Though it's very windy and hard to fish, they're biting and we're catching them with regularity. Giles catches a few more, and we've finally covered this small clump of brush.

 

10:00 a.m. - With the winds gusting so much stronger now, Giles decides to try a different area. We pull up anchor and move back southwest across the Pine Springs cove and target a stretch of the shallow creek run just off of Bales Creek.

"The crappie relate to these ditches that pour into the creek while they're in pre-spawn mode, and will also use it as a travel route to and from the shallow-water spawning areas," Giles said. "And when we get a cold front that drops the temperature back down like we have now, some of them will pull back into these submerged ditches and relate to the edges and along any stumps that are in there."

 

10:15 a.m. - Giles surveys the bottom and drops a couple of buoys marking the creek run, and we start working the area. Giles uses a jig-and-spinner combo with a black/chartreuse jig on top and a black/chartreuse spinner on the bottom. He continues fishing the ditch and targets the unseen stumps in hopes of locating another school of fish. After working the area along the creek thoroughly without a bite, Giles decides to move.

"I wanted to try this area and see if there were still any fish out on the creek, but they've moved from this area," he said.

 

10:45 a.m. - We head back across the lake to the west-bank side of the dam, and enter the Marina Cove.

"This is a spawning cove, and tends to warm up quicker than many others," said Giles. "We caught a few fish in here a couple days ago in the stick ups, but the water was falling fast.

"The water temperature is getting right, but the water's falling, so we'll try it anyway, though I have my doubts."

After working the area over, Giles determines the water level has fallen about a foot, and the fish have left with the water receding.

 

11:00 a.m. - Since the lake is whitecapping and it's too rough to fish the open water, Giles heads to Twiltley Branch Landing cove.

"This is another shallow spawning cove that has a channel running up into it allowing for easy access to their spawning grounds," Giles said. "There's protection from the wind and a few willows and buck brush, if there's enough water."

We head for the rear of the cove near the boat ramp and work a stretch of brush. Though the water is calm and has decent depth, it's probably too shallow for the crappie this early. After working the cove over and only catching a couple fish over the next 30 minutes, Giles makes a decision to go back across the lake to the Pine Springs area since he knows the fish are there.

 

11:30 a.m. - We move back up into the flooded minnow ponds and try a new area.

"The wind is pretty tough and makes the fishing hard, but the fish are here so I think we need to stay with it," said Giles.

In keeping with his earlier pattern, Giles heads toward an area that has scattered clumps of brush and bushes, and starts working the jig again. By keeping the boat on the downwind side of the brush, he's able to work all of the brush thoroughly without getting the boat up into the bushes and spooking them.

 

11:35 a.m. - A few minutes after stopping, Giles nails a crappie, and our fishing picks up again. A few minutes later, I follow up with another crappie, and we continue working the brush by deliberately targeting each bush within reach before moving. After catching a few fish in this clump of brush, we move to the next clump of brush, and repeat the process.

 

12:00 p.m. - Giles continues working the brush with his Crappie Ringer, and dissects the cover like a surgeon with a scalpel. Dropping the jig into every nook and cranny, he occasionally snaps his jig pole straight up, and out pops a crappie. After swinging him into the boat and disposing of him in the supper well, he's back at it. By now it's easy to see that it takes a skilled angler to maneuver in and around the brush without staying hung up.

"I like to drop that jig straight down real slow," Giles said. "If I don't get a bite, I'll jig it up and down once, and then pick it straight up and out and put it into another hole.

"The key is to bring it straight out of the hole. If you move it sideways, you'll almost always get it hung up."

For the next hour, the skilled angler continues dissecting cover and catching crappie.

 

1:00 p.m. - Spotting a row of brush on a submerged dam, Giles decides to give it a try. The brush line is perhaps 100 yards long. After working about 30 yards with no luck, Giles nails one. A few seconds later, I catch one as well. For the next 20 minutes or so, we continue working the cover in this small area, and catch several more crappie.

"It's funny how you can work a line of bushes without catching anything, and then suddenly find a wad of them," he said. "It's kind of like hunting: You've got to hunt for them and then be ready to load the boat when you find them."

And find a wad of them we did! After working them over pretty good, we move on to the next row of bushes, and we continue catching crappie, in spite of ferocious winds.

 

1:45 p.m. - By now, most of the boats that were on the lake have called it a day due in part to the howling winds and lack of a consistent crappie bite. While I saw quite a few boats in the area, not too many even caught a fish while near us.

"Since we're catching fish, we're going to stay in this area and target new areas of brush," Giles said. "We're going to keep our jigs in the water and cover new territory - that's the key to catching a lot of perch right now."

And for the next hour, we continued catching fish. While they were barely hitting the jig, they were holding on tight after we set the hook. Getting them out of the brush was another matter, however. On several occasions, I set the hook and got hung up. Upon running my rod tip down to the jig and pushing down, I was able to free the jig and fish that was still attached.

 

2:45 p.m. - After a hard day of fishing the lake under tough conditions, we finally call it a day, satisfied with our excellent results. We never went very long without getting a bite or catching a fish, and Giles had surely shown his knowledge of the lake and knack for catching springtime crappie. After a final tally, we'd boated 51 keeper crappie.