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Crappie on the Cool Side
Even in January, you can get in on some dandy crappie catching when you hit these Texas lakes just right.
By Bob Hood
It wasn't the usual cold January morning that convinced John Hasher and me to shove Hasher's 16-foot johnboat into an ice-rimmed cove on Lake Fork's east arm. From there, we used the boat's stern-mounted trolling motor to maneuver through the stumps and into the open water
Any day is a good day to go fishing - even a nasty, cold day. But when you hear some folks say that they've been sacking up crappie, you don't want to let any more water go under the bridge than time will allow.
In fact, timing is of the essence in crappie fishing, whether you're fishing Lake Fork or any of Texas' numerous other crappie hotspots from Ray Hubbard, smack in the middle of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, to as far southeast as Toledo Bend.
On this wet January morning, far down the lake and off a large point near the dam, several crappie anglers already had begun to gather, hoping to catch their limits. They were fishing in water as deep as 45 feet from what has become a community hotspot for crappie during the winter months.
But that sort of fishing was not for Hasher, a Lake Fork regular who prefers cold, rainy mornings to still, bright, less-chilling days. Such uninviting conditions also lead to less crowding on the lake, as fewer anglers venture out.
Light rain peppered this East Texas lake more famous for trophy largemouth bass than for the panfish we were after as Hasher started his 35hp outboard and turned his well-equipped johnboat toward a large creek far beyond the circle of boats gathered off the big point.
"They catch a lot of crappie off that point," Hasher said, pointing toward the boats. "And occasionally one of them will catch a big largemouth bass, too. In fact, that's where the state-record largemouth that weighed more than 18 pounds was caught by a crappie fisherman a few years back. That bass was about 42 feet down and went for a minnow the fisherman was using to catch crappie. If you ask me, that big ol' bass was there to eat crappie, and the minnow just came too close for it to pass up."
Passing the cluster of crappie anglers, Hasher poked at the panel of his GPS-equipped sonar unit mounted atop the bench seat beside him. The unit's screen blinked and then gave him the reading he was looking for - a heading that would bring him to a brushpile that he and a friend had submerged in a hidden location a year earlier and have continually added to with willow limbs cut and weighted by five-gallon buckets of cement.
"Some of the guys have put some brushpiles in the community hole and they catch a lot of crappie off them but I don't like crowds," Hasher said. "I've got 16 brushpiles on this lake and a lot more on some other lakes. They don't all produce crappie every time you go to them, but if you'll just go from one to another you'll eventually catch fish, especially when you know they are biting."
Neither of us knew, of course, if the crappie would be biting that day, but we staked our journey on hearsay - something, we've learned, that's one of the biggest keys to catching crappie regularly. Crappie go through cycles in not only their annual spawning efforts but also their willingness to bite. So if you hear of a good crappie story, and it's fresh, you'd better get there as soon as possible and hope to be able to join in on the action. Wait too long and the action becomes just another one of those stories of the you-should-have-been-here-yesterday variety.
At Fork, as at most other Texas lakes, the white crappie is the primary species that anglers catch. It, like the black crappie, has been given numerous other names: "white perch," "bachelor perch," "papermouth," "sac--lait," "speckled perch," "strawberry bass," "tin mouth" and "slab." Regardless of what you call it, the fish both provides great action on ultra-light tackle and is one of the best-tasting fish coming from our freshwater lakes.
Hasher's GPS led us to within feet of a brushpile anchored by concrete weights in about 35 feet of water. Other than several stumps that looked just about like any other stumps on Lake Fork, there were no visible markers to identify the brushpile's location.
Hasher feels that he knows these stumps as well as - and maybe even better than - he knows his own relatives. And he knows just which one to tie the bow of the boat to so that the wind pushes the stern around to rest against another stump and put us into position to drop our minnows into the top of the brushpile without being directly above the brush.
The first minnow never made it to the brushpile. Somewhere, perhaps 2 to 4 feet above the brush that was more than 30 feet below the boat, the minnow was taken on the fall by a 1-pound crappie. Seconds later, another crappie took a minnow that had only briefly been left swimming as freely as a 1/8-ounce split-shot weight would allow.
From that moment on, the crappie hit the minnows that were brought across only two areas of the 20-foot-wide pile of brush - between two stumps about 5 feet apart and beside a lone stump at one edge of the brushpile. Attempts to catch crappie elsewhere were fruitless.
By 2 p.m., we had boated 65 crappie up to 2 pounds, virtually all of which came from those two narrow areas over the brush.
"That's the secret to catching crappie just about anywhere in the winter and even in the summer," Hasher said. "They either congregate in very small places around the brush, or they have certain paths or trails that they follow. You may catch a dozen from one exact spot and then the action quits, but if you'll just keep putting your minnow or jig in there, they will come back through, and you'll start catching them again."
Hasher's ability to find, position and catch fish from the sunken brush reminded me of two other Lake Fork legends who helped pioneer this way of catching crappie on Lake Fork - L .C. Bridges and Ray Spencer.
Bridges and Spencer also have placed numerous brushpiles in Lake Fork's deep waters, using oaks and willows weighted by 60 pounds of concrete poured into plastic paint buckets. They often use jigs such as Fle-Flies or curly-tailed soft-plastic grubs but they will use minnows, too. They go for whatever it takes to catch the feisty papermouths.
Bridges is the former owner of Oakridge Marina, one of the first such facilities to be built on Lake Fork. Spencer is owner of Fisherman's Inn, which is located next door to Oakridge. Longtime friends, these two fishermen have perhaps caught more crappie out of Fork's dark waters than has anyone else.
"We don't position the boat over the brushpiles and fish straight up and down over them," Spencer said. "We catch a lot more fish by flipping the jigs out over the brush and working them back across the tops of the limbs."
Like Hasher, Spencer and Bridges prefer to fish their lures or minnows on tight line with only a split shot added to force the bait down slowly. Then it's just a matter of lifting the rod and reeling their spinning reels slowly, letting their baits "glide" across the tops of the brush on the retrieve.
Most of the time when a crappie takes the bait by means of this method, the only thing the angler feels is a slight increase in the line's weight. Occasionally there's a faint tap, but generally it's only that subtle increase indicating that a fish may be there.
There was a good reason Hasher had suggested we head to Fork this wet January morning. A friend had told him how good the action had been within the past week, and he knew that any hesitation on our part could put us there after the action was over.
"You've got to go when you hear they're biting, or you may have waited too late," Hasher said. "I really don't have a favorite crappie lake. They all can be good at times. I just go when I hear they are biting and keep my ears open all the time to find out when it's really getting good on Ray Hubbard or another lake I like to fish."
Indeed, Texas crappie anglers have many good lakes to choose from. Any one of them is capable of beating out the others with the best action at any given time, especially as the winter days grow closer to the spring spawning season.
As for now, the crappie are basically in deep water, generally from 30 to 50 feet, depending upon the particular lake. Some lakes just don't get much deeper than 35 feet. To catch their crappie, an angler needs to consider locations where the deepest water is close to shallow paths or avenues to creek channels, dropoffs and, of course, brushpiles.
In the D/FW Metroplex, some of the best crappie action can be found at lakes Ray Hubbard and Ray Roberts. Each has its own particular type of crappie-holding structure.
At Ray Hubbard, local anglers have placed brushpiles in areas similar to those at Fork, off the major points in 35 to 40 feet of water. True, the average angler may have trouble locating these piles of brush, but there are a lot of crappie to be caught in the timbered areas on the upper end of the lake, too, especially along the trees and stumps lining the main Trinity River channel above the Interstate 30 bridge.
Another area on Ray Hubbard that often has produced good catches of crappie in January and February is the Interstate 30 bridge and its pilings. Like at Lake Fork, the pilings and the shade they produce provide good structure for the crappie to hang around. The crappie caught around bridge pilings often aren't as large as those taken elsewhere, but the action can be great nevertheless.
Ray Roberts, on the other hand, has a lot of underwater brushpiles, too, but not all were sunk by local anglers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created many large piles of logs and brush with their bulldozers when they cleared the main lake during its construction. These logpiles are marked on several lake maps available to the public, and some anglers have since added their own willow and oak limbs to the piles to keep them "activated."
If you're a Metroplex angler whose time is limited - are there any whose isn't? - or if you just don't want to travel far to fish for crappie, one of the indoor fishing barges at lakes Weatherford, Benbrook and Whitney may be just what you're looking for. These indoor barges offer adequate protection from the wind and inclement weather, their waters generally are brushed or baited to attract crappie, and the expense required to fish in them is very low.
These barges can be found at Lake Weatherford Marina on Lake Weatherford, Rocky Creek Marina on Lake Benbrook, Lakeside Village and Juniper Cove on Lake Whitney.
Farther east of the Metroplex lie Lake O' The Pines, Caddo and Cooper, a trio well known for great wintertime crappie fishing.
Lake O' The Pines is relatively shallow on its upper reaches above the Highway 155 bridge (an area of fantastic fishing during late February and through March when the crappie are moving into their shallow spawning territories) but the midlake section between Johnson Creek and the Highway 155 bridge is the place to be at this time of the year.
Lake O' The Pines is full of stumps both above and just below the water surface, so exercise caution at all times when navigating through them. Look for the underwater ridges in the middle of the heaviest timber, and look for water that is at least 35 feet deep. Minnows fished as close as possible to the stumps generally work best, but some fish also are caught on black and blue jigs, chartreuse and red-black owing to the generally dark, acid-colored water.
Lake Cooper, near Sulphur Springs, is one of the newest reservoirs in the state, and thus has perhaps one of the best all-around populations of large white crappie. Heavy run-off turns the lake very muddy periodically, but when the lake has undergone a settling following a heavy rains, the crappie tend to go on a feeding spree in the heavily timbered upper end.
Minnows and jigs seem to work equally well when fished around Cooper's large trees in 25 to 35 feet of water. By and large, it's best to tie up to one of the largest trees you can find on the edge of the main river channel, fish it thoroughly and then move to the closest exceptionally large tree in the vicinity. Sooner or later, you'll find where the crappie are holding.
Farther to the southeast lie two lakes considered by serious crappie anglers to be among the best in Texas, yet virtually unknown to anglers who aren't used to traveling greater distances to catch fish. If you don't mind traveling and are looking for somewhere to take a family or group of friends for several days of fishing, you can't beat Toledo Bend or Sam Rayburn.
Both of these lakes can produce good catches of crappie in deep water along their main channels during the winter months, just as can most other reservoirs, but sunken brushpiles are the key, whether made months in advance or several days in advance.
Sam Rayburn is the home of professional bass angler and lure producer Lonnie Stanley, but Stanley's expertise isn't just in largemouth bass fishing. Stanley, like so many other anglers, enjoys catching fish, period. He's game for whatever's biting at the time, and if it's crappie, all the better.
Many of the deep-water structures enhanced by brushpiles on Rayburn were intended to increase the professional bass angler's catches, but many of those pros have since learned that the brushpiles also attract crappie year 'round. Anglers using a good sonar unit and searching for underwater structure at the sharp bends of creeks, off narrow dropoffs such as extended points, and at edges of flats dropping quickly off into deep water can usually locate a brushpile or two that will put them into action with crappie.
Indeed, D/FW anglers have many great crappie lakes from which to choose. January and February are two of the prime months to go after the fish, while they are schooled up in their deep-water holes awaiting the arrival of warmer weather and the spring spawning urge. Just about any one of them should be able to satisfy your hunger for action for this popular panfish on any given day.
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