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Catching Lone Star Crappie
April's arrival means that it's crappie-catching time in just about every part of Texas. Here's how the fishing is shaping up at some of our best crappie holes.
The longer we live and the older we get, the more we begin to understand that a few of the things we took on faith early in life actually have a basis in common sense. For instance: Although every fisherman has a different way of doing things, and though we might attack a problem with a variety of artificial lures or live baits, the result desired is the same for us all - the idea is to catch fish. And after the fish are caught? Some of us look forward to the day's catch sizzling in a frying pan. But others among us go to great lengths to make sure that fish are returned to the water in good health.
The idea of catch-and-release is solidly grounded in ecology - particularly as more fishermen equipped with better gear take to the waters - and we have no argument with the prudence in returning certain species to the water. But the whole idea goes down the drain with yesterday's coffee when the quarry is crappie.
Bass fishermen look for size in individual fish, and that's a quality that, while rooted in genetics, proper nutrition and healthy surroundings, has longevity as its basis. In other words: In order to have larger bass, the fish must be allowed a longer growing time. The same wisdom can be applied to crappie - but when their silvery bodies are viewed rather as flaky filets, there is hardly a fisherman who would rather pass up the eating for the idea of larger fish in the future.
The sport is sometimes referred to as "perch jerkin'," although the crappie is no perch, nor is it wise to jerk it from the water. Actually, crappie are members of the sunfish family, along with the more common bluegills, longears and others. However, the crappie has connecting its lips a very thin and delicate membrane (hence the nickname "papermouth") that is prone to tear readily if undue pressure is exerted too quickly through a heavy hookset. Therefore, more crappie can be landed by the angler who uses a moderate hookset and brings the fish to net or boat with a steady, gentle pull.
Like other members of the sunfish family, crappie are nest builders. They also have a high reproductive potential, leading to overpopulation and stunting problems in small lakes and ponds. At one time this was thought to be the reason that crappie numbers and sizes seem to have declined in recent years, but fisheries biologists now blame overfishing.
Crappie nest in the spring, generally when water temperatures reach 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, although spawning has been observed at temperatures as low as 56. Fry hatch in about three to five days, but remain attached to the nest by egg matter for a few more days. Although the fry do not seem to school together, schooling begins when the fish reach fingerling size and continues throughout their lifetimes. Typically, crappie reach about 3 to 5 inches in their first year, and 7 to 8 by the second year. Maturity is usually reached in two to three years.
Crappie are found in most Texas streams and impoundments, as they are throughout the contiguous United States. At one time "black" crappie were generally found east of Waco, while "white" crappie were found in the west. Today the two subspecies are present statewide, although white crappie vastly outnumber their black counterparts in most waters. There are no appreciable differences between the two fish.
Adult crappie feed on small fish and insects. While most anglers believe that a properly rigged live minnow is the best crappie bait, a smaller number of fishermen have equal success with a variety of small lures, notably feathered jigs and extremely small spinnerbaits. However, just as important as what to use for crappie bait is how and where to fish for them.
As mentioned, crappie generally nest in the spring, and April is a prime month to look for them. Since the fish are usually found in schools around heavy cover, find a crappie "bed" and you may be able to catch them for hours on end. However, you've got to be prepared to lose a lot of terminal tackle in order to get your offering to the fish.
Red Johnson, a Texan with whom I've often fished, believes that the best crappie holes are those in which you have a hangup for every fish you catch. Red would maneuver into the tightest spots of a submerged tree root system or other brushy obstacles to drop his minnow directly over the side of the boat. Even when it took him several minutes to arrange the boat to his liking, he would quit fishing after about 10 or 15 minutes and find a new spot if he hadn't caught a fish.
"Crappie are pretty sociable and curious," he maintained. "If they're in a particular area and if you're fishing at the proper depth, you should catch one within a few minutes. If not, move to a new area and try it again. Sometimes you've got to move several times before you can really get down to catching."
As he believed that crappie are curious fish, noise and brush-thrashing never seemed to be something that my old buddy worried about. While maneuvering into the limbs of a half-submerged mesquite or oak tree, Red would break limbs, thrash the water, cuss and fuss until you would swear that even the bravest crappie would have long taken to quieter surroundings. However, if the crappie were indeed in the hole he intended to fish, Red would begin catching them on the first or second baiting.
Where to catch crappie in Texas isn't much of a problem, as most Lone Star State waters harbor the popular scrappers in some numbers. Although some impoundments might be better than others, the following is a good list of Texas' tried-and-true crappie hideouts.
Fishing guide Glen McGonagill - (830) 775-6720 - said the lake has gained a substantial amount of water through the last spring and summer, and while still at a considerable distance from the conservation pool, the fishing is great.
"Like most of the West Texas reservoirs, our crappie tend to be fairly small according to the standards in some other parts of the state, but there are plenty of fish for those who know where to find them," he said. "This month I'd try the warmer waters around Good Enough Springs and the submerged brush up the Rio Grande."
"When the water is high enough to flood some of the remaining greenery, crappie can be caught in good numbers," he said. Also, try the public fishing pier and flooded timber in the arms of the reservoir.
"April is usually a good month to try the travel channels underneath the Concho River Bridge and upstream at river bends," he said.
Guide Jerry Dunn - (361) 786-4509 - specializes in largemouth bass, but like others of his ilk will not turn down the offer of a crappie trip. Jerry has pulled his share of slabs from various holes around the lake, but prefers the upstream brush if water conditions allow navigation.
"Our best crappie periods are from December through May, so this month is just about optimal to pick up a good stringer," he said.
Brownwood has many small coves, bays and creeks with a variety of habitat. Primarily lined by rocky structure and boat docks, the upper end of the Jim Ned and Pecan Bayou arms have standing timber, black willow trees and buttonbush to hold crappie nests. Water willow and bulrush are scattered throughout the lake, but water willow is most abundant in Sowell Creek.
Longtime fishing guide David Davis - (915) 643-4361 - of Brownwood advises anglers this month to "use live minnows and keep moving until you find the schools."
"We usually plan our trips around stripers, but I'll never turn down the chance to tie into a mess of crappie," Dale said. "Usually I fish for them right off my dock, but a lot of times I'll head nearly anyplace on the lake if I hear about a good hole."
Depending upon the water level, dependable crappie fishing can be found along the steep banks of the Colorado River from Fall Creek to as far upstream as the river is navigable.
Stephenville guide Jerry Martin (254-965-6626) said that crappie anglers at this time of year would do better fishing more up the creeks and rivers than trying to find holes in the main lake.
"Use jigs in brush and along edges," he said. "These include rocky dams and brush next to the shore in 2 or 3 feet of water."
In accordance with that advice, newcomers to Sam Rayburn should pick one small part of the lake and concentrate on it rather than take the lake's complete size into consideration. Crappie fishing is excellent year 'round with jigs and minnows. During the spring spawn, anglers are wise to target shallow areas around vegetation. This means to first obtain a good map of the lake, then pick a target within close proximity to where you will be staying (whether at a campground or a motel), then find a boat ramp in the same area and plot out a few holes within a logical traveling distance.
Toledo Bend has long been a staple fishing ground for East Texas anglers, whether the prey be bass, crappie or another of the dozen or so species that frequent its waters in abundance. In other words, even though some small impoundments within the area might offer better fishing for a particular species, lakeshore inhabitants remain comfortable with their waters and wouldn't think of trailering their boats anywhere else.
* * *Owing to its simplicity, crappie fishing doesn't require a great deal of expertise or special equipment. For that reason it becomes easy to introduce youngsters to the joys of fishing for crappie, which often becomes a lifelong pursuit and a healthy pastime for many boys and girls. The next time you're readying your fishing gear for a crappie trip, think about a son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter, or maybe just a neighborhood kid you might ask along. You'll be glad you did - and so will the kid!
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