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Texas Sportsman
East Texas' Biggest Crappie Lakes

Crappie are structure- and cover-oriented fish. Simply put, if you find cover (bridges, sunken brushtops, dead standing timber) along depth changes such as creek channels, then you'll find crappie. The difference between a fresh fish dinner and picking up a burger on the way home is how you fish for the slabs. Most anglers pursuing crappie pull up to their preferred brushpile or bridge piling, anchor up, dunk a minnow and wait. This type of fishing is a very hit-or-miss proposition: Hit it right and you can put a lot of fish in the boat; hit it wrong and you'll just be wasting money on minnows. The day Bryan and I hit the Highway 147 bridge, I had every intention of spending a lazy day drowning minnows, but he showed me a more aggressive method of jigging for crappie. It was so effective that I ended up giving away my live bait at the end of the day.

There are a few basic keys to the method we used. Attention to detail makes all the difference in the world. Starting with the rod and the reel, use a 6-foot light-action spinning rod matched with a standard spinning reel. Ultralight gear typically associated with panfishing will work, but the spool may not have the line capacity to fish water that can run over 30 feet deep.

Fill the spool with 6-pound monofilament instead of braided line. Although braided line is more sensitive and transmits even the lightest bite, it also does not stretch, which in untrained hands can lead to the jig being ripped out of the fish's mouth.

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Speaking of jigs: Use a 1/32-ounce unpainted roundhead jig. (Or smaller: Nothing larger seems to get many bites.) Tie the jig on using a loop knot, which allows the jig to sit horizontally in the water, thus more closely resembling a swimming minnow. A 1/32-ounce jig doesn't sink very rapidly, so to get it into the strike zone in a hurry, attach a 1/4-ounce split shot 3 feet above the jig.

Once again, it's attention to detail that puts fish in the boat, so when choosing a plastic jig body, don't just grab the first package on the shelf. One of the most productive and life-like jig bodies (and the one Bryan uses under the bridge) is the Lit'l Fishie produced by Tyler-based Creme Lure Company. The body design seems to attract more fish than do others, and on our particular outing it not only outproduced all other jigs but also beat live minnows by a 2-to-1 margin for catching crappie, black and white bass, catfish and bream.

Now that you're armed with the knowledge of what to use and a general idea of the area to fish, let's look deeper into specific locations and techniques. When you fish a brushpile, the depth at which the fish suspend is roughly limited to the zone between the lake bottom and the top of the brush. Crappie suspended next to bridge pilings and other vertical structure can be anywhere between the lake bottom and the surface. This makes determining their exact depth slightly more difficult.

A good-quality depthfinder is useful for marking fish, but not necessary. The more or less sure-fire way to find biting crappie is to let your jig all the way to the bottom and then reel it up one turn of the handle. Leave the jig at that depth for 15 to 20 seconds; if you don't get a strike, reel it up one more turn. Repeat those steps until you get a strike, counting the number of turns off the bottom to show where fish are located.

Once you've determined the depth of the fish, start moving more aggressively from one bridge leg to the next. Don't spend more than a few minutes at each piling if you aren't catching fish. Picking one or two fish off each leg as you go will fill the livewell in just a few hours.

J.D. knows all about this. "They're seven turns off the bottom," I recall the old man shouting as the terrier watched him pitch another keeper into the livewell and thumb his counter. (That dog has probably seen more crappie than have most anglers.) "You gotta fish the shady side of the piling or you won't get bit."

If vertical-jigging bridge legs doesn't appeal to you, and you don't have any brushpiles either planted or located, it's still possible to catch slab crappie on Sam Rayburn. Remember that, as I said earlier, crappie are structure- and cover-oriented fish. That cover is not limited just to year-round semipermanent items made of wood and concrete, but also comes in the form of less rigid items, such as hydrilla.

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