Spoon-feed Kerr Lake’s fall slabs

(Photo by Dan Kibler)

Fall crappie at Kerr Lake like their metal utensils; here’s how one guide follows them, finds them and feeds them.

Jigging spoons have been the death of plenty of fish, from stripers to largemouth bass to walleye in freshwater and grouper, snapper and flounder in saltwater, but they seem to have been largely ignored by crappie fishermen.

Not Chris Bullock.

Bullock runs Kerr Crappie and Catfish Guide Service on Kerr Lake, aka Buggs Island, which runs along the North Carolina-Virginia border an hour or so north of the Raleigh-Durham area.

Bullock turns to spoons when crappie retreat to deeper water after the spring spawn. He said dropping a tiny jig down to them takes too long, whereas a spoon can get to them quickly (Photo by Dan Kibler)
Guide Chris Bullock paints one side of a Cotton Cordell slab spoon with fingernail polish, either white or yellow. (Photo by Dan Kibler)

He ties on a 3/8-ounce Cotton Cordell slab spoon when crappie move out on deep brush piles in the summer, and he keeps one close by on any trip he takes through December.

The main reason? They’ll catch fish, and he can get them down to fish holding in deeper water must faster than a tiny jig will get there.

“I start fishing a soon around June, when they’re not chasing baits real good, and I’ll use a spoon from the end of June through summer and into fall and winter,” said Bullock, who hails from Fountain, N.C. “They’ll bite a spoon when they won’t chase. I think it’s a reaction bite. It’s up and down in front of his face, and he can’t stand it. He’d rather bite it than let it hit him on his head.”

Bullock jigs the spoon vertically with a quick snap of his wrist, jerking the rod tip up and raising the spoon between 6 and 18 inches, then lowering the rod tip to keep slack out of the line so he can detect bites that often come on the fall.

“When you jerk it, you pause a second at the top and let it fall down on sort of a tight line,” he said. “If you just let it fall on slack line, the spoon will turn over and you can’t see the bite.

“I had one party; they caught 65 one day on a spoon. Their arms were so tired, their wrists so sore, the next day, they requested slip corks and live minnows. I got the pontoon boat set up, and after fishing three or four brush piles, they had caught one or two fish per brush. The next brush we came to, I got my spoon rod out, dropped a spoon down there, and caught three big ones right away.”

Setting the table

Bullock won’t fish a spoon with a treble hook dressed in mylar or feathers. He will swap out the factory hook and replace it with a No. 6 Gamakatsu treble. His other alteration is to paint one side of the spoon yellow or white with fingernail polish, leaving the original silver or gold on the other side.

Finding brush or a stump starts guide Chris Bullock’s search for crappie. He won’t fish unless he sees crappie on his sonar. (Photo by Dan Kibler)

“I’ll fish a spoon first on anything that’s 15 feet or deeper,” he said. “I can get that spoon down immediately; it’s more efficient.

“I will use a 2500 or 3000 class spinning reel with a bigger spool, because bigger spools mean less line memory than a reel with a small spool. I count the spoon down to the depth I want it, winding the reel backwards, about one turn per foot. If you’re not sure, put the spoon at the end of your rod, wind it backwards one turn, and measure the line to see what you’ve got.” 

Bullock stumbled onto the spoon bite by accident, or by mistake, depending on your point of view.

“I figured it out 15 years ago, because of a big mistake,” he said. “I was running around with my flasher on, marking bait, and I came over a big school. I dropped a spoon down to try and catch a largemouth bass, and the first time I dropped it down, I caught a 2-pound crappie. Then I dropped it down and caught another 2-pound crappie. Then I dropped it down again and got hung up, so I figured out that I had pulled up over a brush pile — not a big pile of shad.

“After about a year, I figured out the back-reeling part, and I got more precise with it.”

With the technique down pat, Bullock was able to make it work under summer and fall conditions, when crappie are mostly in deeper water, hanging out around brush and stumps, cover attached to the bottom.

The fall migration

Bullock said that in September, crappie begin to move out of the main-lake area on the upper end of Kerr Lake and head back in major tributary creeks. 

A tiny bucktail jig is often a productive alternative to a jighead dressed with a soft-plastic lure. (Photo by Dan Kibler)

“Small crappie will get back in the creek first, while big crappie are still out on the main lake,” he said. “And (the upper) end of the lake definitely fishes different from the other end. You might have bigger fish in the  upper end, but they’ll still be on the main lake until October, or in the first third of the creek back — when they’re back in the creeks down in Nutbush Creek. But down there, the creeks are so massive, there are crappie that live in the creeks year-round.”

Bullock finds crappie by following the movement of baitfish like shad, which head back into creeks as the water cools in the fall. They use creek channels and ditches as highways, so Bullock looks mostly around those places, especially where the end of a flat drops off into a channel. That’s where plenty of fishermen, bass and crappie alike, plant brush piles, Bullock among them.

“I will cut a tree, tie a cinder block to the bottom of it and a milk jug to the top to give it some flotation,” he said. “I’ve put ’em out one day and had fish on ’em the next day. As long as they have green leaves when you sink them, they’ll have bugs on ’em, and the fish will get on ’em. When the leaves turn brown, they’ll leave ’em.”

Bullock searches for brush in 10 to 16 feet of water, using his Humminbird Helix depth finder to pinpoint them. He uses the unit’s down-imaging feature and won’t pick up his rod until he sees what he believes to be crappie.

“If you down-image and see brush and no fish, there’s no need to stay there and fish,” he said. “If you ever mark a big school of fish on a brush pile and they don’t bite in the morning, go back in the afternoon and try them again.”

The depth he marks fish determines how he fishes.

“If they’re in less than 14 feet of water, I like to cast a jig or bucktail to them first,” he said. “If they’re 14 feet or deeper, it takes too long for the jig to get to the bottom — you have to wait too long before you star winding. On that deeper brush, I’ll start with a spoon. You’re much more efficient.”

Tackle set up for slabs

Bullock fishes a medium-light, 6-foot spinning rod and a reel spooled with 10-pound monofilament: hi-vis yellow when he’s fishing a jig; color isn’t as important when fishing a spoon. His jigs will be 1/8-ounce leadheads, dressed with either a tiny, soft-plastic bait like Bobby Garland’s 2- and 3-inch Baby Shad, Shad Slay’R or Stroll’R in electric chicken color, or hand-tied bucktails he buys at Bobcat’s Bait & Tackle in Clarksville, Va.

When he casts his jig toward the brush pile, he’ll close the bail when the bait hits and start counting it down — about one foot per second — until it gets to the depth he wants to fish. That’s where the hi-vis line comes into play. 

“I use the hi-vis line with a jig or a bucktail so I can watch the line as it falls,” he said. “A lot of times, I see the line jump before I ever feel the fish. You don’t need the yellow line when you fish a spoon as much as you do when you’re counting down a jig or bucktail.”

Bullock will usually start with a jig and soft-plastic combo when he’s fishing brush. If he finds crappie ganged up on a natural ledge, he’ll start with a bucktail because he wants it to fall straight down, whereas a jig will often flop or swim off to the side a little.

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — John H. Kerr Reservoir, aka Buggs Island Lake, runs approximately 38 miles from the outskirts of South Hill, Va., to just north of Henderson, N.C. The 49,500-acre is shared by Virginia and North Carolina. Good access is provided by I-85, US 58 and US 15. For a complete list of public boat ramps, visit https://www.kerrlakeguide.com/boat-ramps-camping-picnic-areas/

WHEN TO GO — Fall crappie fishing is excellent from October through December.

BEST TECHNIQUES — With fish relating to brush piles through the fall, multi-rod techniques give way to single-pole techniques, including fishing live minnows, mini-jigs and jigging spoons. Fish will be moving back into tributary creeks from the bigger, deeper areas where they spent the summer.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Chris Bullock, Kerr Crappie and Catfish Guide Service, 252-902-4039.www.kerrcrappieandcats.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

 ACCOMMODATIONS — Vance County Tourism Department, 866-438-4565, www.kerrlake-nc.com.

MAPS —  GMCO Map Co., 888-420-6277, www. gmcomaps.com; Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257, www.kfmaps.com.

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Dan Kibler
About Dan Kibler 847 Articles
Dan Kibler is managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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