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.
PANHANDLE Located in the Texas Panhandle near Borger, Lake Meredith's 16,500 surface-acres produce good crappie fishing for those living in an area where any kind of fishing is at a premium. Lake water is generally clear, deep and cold, except for several weeks during the summer. Look for good crappie fishing off steep banks, particularly in the lake's upper end.
WEST "Big Friendly" - a takeoff on the lake's Spanish name (amistad means "friendship") - continues as a favorite among fishermen out after both a variety of game fish and a measure of solitude. The huge 67,000 surface-acre reservoir dams the Rio Grande between the United States and Mexico, just upstream from Del Rio and within a short drive of San Antonio.
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."
Lake Allen Henry Impounded in 1993, the 2,880 acres of Allen Henry certainly don't make a major lake, but those who have taken the dusty trail the four miles from Justiceburg to the lake usually report good crappie catches. West Texas outdoor writer and inveterate fisherman Russell Smith said the little lake is highly susceptible to drought conditions, but is absolutely teeming with crappie when conditions are right.
"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.
O.C. Fisher Located within the city limits of San Angelo, this 1,900-acre West Texas impoundment survives under drought conditions that have been plaguing the dry countryside for several years. However, the area caught some decent rain this past summer, "owing O.C. Fisher to again provide good crappie fishing. Smith said good catches of stabs have been taken in recent times around the lake's main island on minnows and small jigs.
Lake O.H. Ivie As one of Texas' newest reservoirs of size, O.H. Ivie's 19,200 acres of mostly flooded brush continue to produce great fishing for a variety of game fish, not the least of which consists of a good population of sizable crappie. Local fisherman Sam Keel said the lake continues to produce good crappie fishing on both the Concho and Elm Creek arms, plus around the major creek mouths.
"April is usually a good month to try the travel channels underneath the Concho River Bridge and upstream at river bends," he said.
SOUTH Long a favorite of South Texas bass and crappie anglers, the 26,000 acres of Choke Canyon continue to produce great crappie fishing. Although the lake has suffered water shortages several times throughout its 20-odd years, those who frequent its clear waters know that April is the time to begin snaking good slabs from the thick brush of the Frio River.
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.
CENTRAL Impounding Pecan Bayou and Jim Ned Creek about 10 miles north of Brownwood, the 7,300 acres of Lake Brownwood have served Central Texas anglers well from its 1933 birth date. Although siltation has taken its toll through the years, Lake Brownwood continues to produce crappie in good numbers and weights from its many coves and creek mouths.
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."
Lake Buchanan As the first and largest of the Colorado River's chain of seven impoundments through the Texas Highlands, the 23,200 acres of Lake Buchanan are particularly susceptible to rapidly fluctuating water conditions. However, retired mail carrier and lakeshore resident Dale Anderson and his wife, Lois, often interrupt their striped bass trips in favor of schooling crappie.
"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.
Lake Proctor For fishermen looking for "out of the way" places, this 4,000-acre reservoir located in rolling farmland about 80 miles east of Abilene offers great crappie fishing and some of the nicest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds to be found in Texas. Even during the weekends, Lake Proctor's location doesn't lend itself to throngs of people, catering mostly to those who have found the lake before and kept the find to themselves.
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."
EAST Located on the Angelina River, the dam is in Jasper County approximately 15 miles north of Jasper. With a whopping 114,500 acres under its boundaries, "Big Sam" will probably intimidate most fishermen after the lowly crappie. However, like the advice given to the first-time moose hunter, the idea is to "shoot at only one small part of the animal; don't try to shoot the whole thing."
Sam Rayburn Reservoir
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 Reservoir The same advice given to reduce size intimidation for Sam Rayburn applies to Toledo Bend. At 185,000 surface-acres, the reservoir could cause a fisherman to spend his entire lifetime just trying to fish the whole reservoir. The idea here is to first obtain a good map, figure out the approximate area that suits you, and then go in and talk with a few of the locals at tackle shops and bait stands about methods, quarry and tackle. Texans are amicable and friendly toward newcomers, particularly if you don't utter the hated words, "We didn't do it that way up North," or, "Yeah, we know, everything is bigger in Texas."
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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