By Bryan Brasher | Scripps Howard News Service
WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. -- When Kerry Smith made his first trip crappie fishing to Horseshoe Lake a couple of years ago, he was planning to experiment with a technique he knew little about called "dock shooting."
He'd been practicing a little at home.
So he simply held the spinning rod-and-reel in his left hand with the bail clicked on the reel and pointed it toward a dock with a front-side opening about the size of a cereal box. He grabbed the lure in his right hand, pulled the tip of the rod toward the water until the tension was just right and then released it.
The sling-shot motion sent the crappie jig sailing several feet under the dock where it could no longer be seen. Then as Smith allowed the bait to fall in the water under the dock, he felt a soft peck on the end of his line and set the hook on a crappie that weighed 1.25 pounds.
"Doesn't get much easier than that," Smith said. "I wish every fish could be that easy."
The thousands of docks that decorate lakes were built for bankside leisure. But to crappie swimming in the lakes, they're just another type of structure -- and for fishermen during spring and fall who know anything about dock shooting, they are prime fishing locales.
Dock shooting allows anglers to reach crappie hiding far under piers, docks and even moored boats that would otherwise never be caught by anglers making traditional casts. That's why the act of dock shooting is catching on with anglers like Smith.
"I just never would have imagined getting a bait up under a pontoon boat or up under a pier to places you can't even see from a boat," said Smith, a Bartlett, Tenn., resident and avid outdoorsman. "This little method allows you to fish water that you could have never fished the standard way. Just imagine, on a lot of lakes, there are hungry crappie sitting in that water that have never seen a jig. They're just waiting for something to bite."
Dock shooting has also become so common on the national tournament circuit that companies like B-n-M Poles in West Point, Miss., have developed several models especially for dock shooters.
B-n-M has dock-shooting models that measure 4.5 feet, 5.5 feet and 6.5 feet. Pro-staffer Russ Bailey of St. Marys, Ohio, recommends the 5.5-foot "Sharp Shooter" model -- and he urges anglers to practice in their kitchens before hitting the lakes.
"Just find you a kitchen chair to shoot under," Bailey said. "Once you can get a jig under that kitchen chair, you're ready for the lake. It takes all of about 10 minutes to learn how."
When he heads to the water, Bailey arms his 5.5-foot B-n-M Sharp Shooter with 6-pound-test, high-viz Viscious line and Southern Pro Stinger Shad lures. He also uses a tear-drop-shaped float sometimes to target fish that are suspended under deep piers.
"A lot of times if you're not using a cork, you may get bites from crappie that you never feel," Bailey said. "Even when you're using that cork, they may not take it under. They may just lay it on its side just enough to let you know you're getting a bite. But that's a fish you wouldn't have gotten without the cork."
As for choosing the best dock, many anglers have different techniques.
The avid tournament angler known as "Mr. Crappie" has been quoted as saying "any dock with at least 4 feet of water around it will have crappie." Others believe finding a dock that will hold crappie is purely a process of elimination.
Bailey looks for certain visual clues.
"I like an old dock over a new one," Bailey said. "I like a dock that's built into the ground -- one with pilings -- over a floating dock, and it's always nice if the dock has some other kind of cover around it like brush tops or rods and reels laying on top of it. That means the people who own the dock are fishermen."
Then there's the best kind of shot.
"If you pull up to a boat dock that has everything I just mentioned, plus a pontoon boat with a little bit of algae growing on it, I'll probably fish the pontoon boat first," Bailey said. "Algae is always going to draw bait fish, and those bait fish are going to draw big fish."
Spiderwebs around the pontoon boat are always a good sign.
"That's the kicker," Bailey said. "Spiderwebs mean the boat hasn't been moved or fished in a long time. That tells me I definitely need to fish under that boat."
Perhaps the most important thing about dock shooting for crappie is forgetting everything you've learned in years of fishing for them in more traditional ways.
"I know a lot of people who are used to catching them around tree tops with minnows and floats probably can't imagine catching a big crappie from underneath a pontoon boat," Bailey said. "But to the crappie, it's just another form of cover. There's definitely no need for us to ignore it."