Rod King had six rods spread in a semi-circle at his boat's bow as he drifted across a big flat in Falls of Neuse Lake's Little Lick Creek last March.

"The water's only three or four feet deep right where we're at, and it's only one to two feet in the back on this creek," he said.

After starting in eight feet of water, King hadn't had much luck. Leaving the Ledge Rock ramp at dawn and crossing the main body of the lake, he trolled for 45 minutes with nary a nibble, although the rosy pink sky hinted at a beautiful day to come.

"I like to get out here early," he said. "Don't have many other people to contend with, and the fish often seem to bite better this time of day."

About then, one of his crappie poles dipped, and King snatched it. The water boiled and his 14-foot B'n'M rod bent deeply.

"Don't know about this one," he said, pulling a struggling crappie toward the gunwale.

Soon, King lifted a wriggling 1-pound black crappie close and scooped it into the boat with his net. Just as quickly, he shook the jig loose from fish's mouth and dropped it back into the cool waters of the lake.

"Don't worry," he said. "That one was too little. We'll get some bigger ones."

When King promises crappie, he's like E.F. Hutton: worth listening to. Before the day's trip was finished, he'd caught two dozen crappie, some pushing two pounds.

The Durham resident could change his name to Rod "Crappie" King, and no one who competes against him on the Piedmont Crappie Classic or Crappie USA tournament trails would argue.

When it comes to catching trophy sizes and numbers of slabs at Jordan and Falls lakes, he has few, if any, equals.

"About 10 years ago, I'd won 40 or so (crappie) tournaments," King said. "Since then I think the number is up to 80 or 100."

He isn't bragging; in fact, he's modest when it comes to reviewing his fishing exploits, but there's no denying the truth.

King said he met Phil McCarson, director of the Piedmont Crappie Classics, at Kerr Lake at one of his first tournaments in 1987.

"Now, I've got a bunch of Phil's little trophies at my home, but I haven't done it alone," King said. "My usual partner is my nephew, Drew Smith, my sister's boy. He's been fishing with me since he was a toddler, and now he's 25."

King's biggest crappie weighed tipped the scales at 2 pounds, 15 ounces, while his largest 10-fish stringer weighed 19.3 pounds, just shy of a 2-pound average.

Falls of the Neuse Lake, a 12,000-acre impoundment that stretches from Granville County southeast through Durham County and into Wake County, is one of King's favorite crappie playgrounds. He knows the lake so well he probably could navigate it in his sleep. More importantly, he understands where big crappie are likely to be in the spring when the spawning season begins.

Ask him when and where he'd prefer to fish for spring crappie, and the answers come quickly.

"The best fishing occurs in February in Ledge Creek because the water's dark and it heats up quicker (from sunlight)," he said.

Crappie in a prespawn mode are always looking for water that's a few degrees warmer.

So why is Ledge Creek, which is on the upper end of the lake, a good spot?

"Most people don't know this, but Ledge Creek is fed by the Creedmoor city lake, Lake Rogers, and its water is warmer than the rest of the lake in early spring," King said. "That warmth also attracts baitfish, and the crappie follow them into the shallows, getting ready for the spawn."

Water temperature also is the key to fishing two other creeks on Falls Lake. King picks his sports according to the sun's angle.

"March is a good time to fish for crappie, but it all depends on the weather and how much water we've had, because rain or snow can muddy up the waters and lower the temperature," King said. "Best water temperatures that time of year are 50 to 55 degrees. If the water's in that range, the big females will be in the shallow bays in water as shallow as 1½ feet. A lot of shad come into the bays then, too, and the females come in to eat those shad."

Big Lick and Little Lick creeks, both on the lake's southwestern side where they enjoy a lot of sunlight, have expansive bays and flats.

"I like Big Lick and Little Lick creeks, too, along with Ledge Creek," King said, "especially up in the morning after the sun's had a chance to get up a little."

Big Lick and Little Lick creeks are on the southwestern side of the lake, directly across the main body from the mouth of Ledge Creek. They receive the first sunlight of the day and warm up quicker than coves and creeks on the east side of the lake.

"The biggest crappie ever weighed in at one of Phil McCarson's tournaments came from Little Lick Creek," King said. "It was a 3-pound, 8-ounce white crappie that Tommy McDonald caught while fishing with Henry Ward in April 2009 in three feet of water."

Big Lick and Little Lick creeks also have extensive shallow-water grass and stump flats where crappie come to stage in late February and spawn during March and April.

"You don't have to fish deep to find big female crappie during the prespawn and spawn," King said, "but sometimes they'll be hanging in 10 to 15 feet of water (outside the bays) before they move up into the flats, so you might have to troll your baits a little deeper than when you're actually up in the flats."

King doesn't have a specially-built crappie boat, but instead has made two alterations to his Ranger bass boat. He has a pair of 15-gallon bait tanks on the fore and aft decks - within easy reach of fishermen - for ease of holding baitfish, usually small minnows. And he uses an auto-pilot trolling motor that allows him to sit at the bow and control speed and where the boat goes.

"Speed" is probably a misnomer.

"Especially in the early spring when the water's coolest, you want to move as slowly as possible," King said. "I call it 'oozing.'"

The technique, moving at .5 to .7 mph, is identical to the fishing method used by Maynard Edwards, the High Rock Lake crappie guide, who calls it "strolling."

"Big crappie are really sluggish in the early spring, and you have to drag a bait right past their noses," King said. "I think the sound of the trolling motor spooks 'em, so that's why I try to use as low power as possible. I like it, too, when there's a little ripple on the water that can push the boat without the trolling motor. I think (a light wind) also makes it harder for crappie to see you, because they're usually shallow this time of year."

Being quiet in the boat also is a key. Banging about, stumbling and slamming livewell lids may produce sounds that frighten crappie.

King's B'n'M rods are so long - 14 and 16 feet - their ends almost touch the water, but that's necessary to get them away from boat and trolling motor sounds.

His terminal tackle is pretty standard for crappie fishing, including 4-pound monofilament and Shimano spinning reels.

King will use two types of eighth-ounce jigs: a model made by Cabelas and some special, homemade jigs he calls "Rod King's Bigeye Crappie Jigs."

"The Cabelas (round-head) jigs are light and barbless (he pinches down the barbs), and I like to use black, pink and orange when it's cloudy or before the sun comes up," he said. "When the sun rises, I change to chartreuse."

He also tips his jigs with crappie minnows.

"I usually buy 12 dozen or so minnows for a typical trip," he said.

King's biggest secret might be the tandem rig he fishes in deeper water, a technique that not many anglers try when fish are staging before the spawn.

"I use a Bigeye Crappie jig in tandem with a Cabelas jig," King said. "But you can't use (the tandem rig) in shallow water."

He ties on the Bigeye jig, which has a rattle in the head, then ties on a Cabelas jig about a foot below the Bigeye jig. Both are tipped with live minnows.

"The minnow attached to the Bigeye jig will shake, and that'll make the rattle give off noise," he said. "It's a pretty good way to attract fish."

In shallow water, he only uses one jig, which prevents hang-ups.

Another key is to make sure, especially when fishing water eight to 12 feet deep, that the jigs-and-minnow combos are above the fish.

"Crappie sit in the water at an angle with their heads higher than their tails, so they won't see baits that are below them," King said. "So no matter whether you're fishing shallow or deeper, you've got to troll your baits so they're above the crappie in the water column."