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   November 19, 2003
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Texas Sportsman Magazine
Our 2003 Crappie Forecast
Crappie always rank high on the list of Texas anglers' favorite fish, and these lakes rank high among those anglers' favorite places to catch them.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By C.C. Risenhoover

Back in the good old days, when there was no limit on crappie in Texas, Charley Pack would on a regular basis catch 100 or more of the species from Lake Waco during a half day fishing trip. Charley, who lives in Waco, would fillet every one of those fish and, after several trips, would host a fish fry for 100-200 of his closest friends.

It's also no secret that Charley, an insurance agent, probably sold more policies in his big state-of-the-art bass boat than he did in his office or at the kitchen tables of potential clients. He would take a potential client fishing, and during the euphoria of catching one big slab after another, the guy would be more than ready to sign on the dotted line.


Crappie fishing for Charley, who now hosts a TV fishing show in Waco, was an industry unto itself. He even designed the type pole and rigging to use on Lake Waco, which practically everyone who fished the body of water started using because of his success. And that success was well documented in newspapers and magazines. There was one picture of Charley standing in the front seat of his bass boat, which was on its trailer, and he was hoisting a stringer of crappie that had to be 10 feet long.

Political correctness, angler etiquette, or possibly even alleged global warming, later caused the geniuses in charge of the game and fish laws to put a 25-a-day limit on crappie statewide (except for a few notable exceptions), though there is no evidence that Charley and others like him were making much of a dent in the crappie population. And with Charley we are talking Lake Waco here, which ranks way down on the list of "Best Crappie Lakes in Texas."

As much as anything, Charley's crappie fishing success on 7,270 surface-acre Lake Waco, better known for boating and water-skiing than for any type of angling, is indicative of the prolific nature of the species. Crappie just produce, produce and produce some more, so that practically every freshwater body of water in the state has an adequate to exceptional population of the species. Lakes that bass fishermen give up on are often great crappie producers - and lakes that bass fishermen love are also great crappie producers.

The aforementioned might cause one to reach the conclusion that the larger the lake the larger the population of crappie - and to some extent that is true. However, when one considers crappie population per acre, some of Texas' smaller fishing holes are primo. Just don't expect the anglers who fish these smaller ponds to share a lot of information about them.

Some of the "Best Crappie Lakes in Texas" are, of course, also among the best bass lakes in the state. But in order to cover the entire state, it's necessary to regionalize a bit.

The best of the best among the big boys are Toledo Bend and Rayburn, both in East Texas, but it's easy to find great crappie fishing on many lakes in the eastern part of the state. Start going west and up in the Panhandle and you will find crappie, but you will not get the size or numbers that are common in East Texas.

That brings up the exceptions mentioned above. For every lake in the state the minimum legal length is 10 inches. However, from Dec. 1 through the last day of February, all crappie caught by anglers - no matter what the length - must be retained when fishing Toledo Bend, Lake Fork and Lake O' the Pines. And two of the state's border lakes also have larger bag limits year 'round - Toledo Bend's is 50 and Texoma's 37.

The reason the state backed off the minimum legal length at Toledo Bend, Fork and the Pines during what is historically the coldest period of the year is because fish taken from very deep water during that time period died when released. That logic, obviously, should also be applied to other lakes in the state.

Texas had no choice but to raise bag limits at Toledo and Texoma because border states Louisiana and Oklahoma, respectively, have more lenient bag limits. If you wonder why such cooperation does not exist with the Mexican government for border lakes Amistad and Falcon, it's because Mexican game laws are practically nonexistent, or are not enforced.

As to whether there should even be a minimum length or bag limit for crappie is subject to debate, but the fact is that filets from 25 crappie that are 10 inches or longer make a hefty mess of fish.

The truth is that the 12 top crappie lakes in Texas are all in the eastern half of the state. But if you divide the state into four sections (the center being southwest of Mercury in McCulloch County) and take the best three lakes for crappie fishing from each section, it is possible to find good crappie fishing statewide.

Every angler who knows Texas' lakes, of course, will immediately see the problem with dividing the state in this way. Too many premiere lakes in the eastern half of the state do not make the cut. And since approximately 80 percent of the state's population lives along or east of Interstate 35, it is only fitting that 80 percent of Texas' best crappie lakes are in that region.

With that in mind, let's quarter the state and go with these lakes.

Toledo Bend
Most anglers who have had opportunity to fish throughout the state will tell you that if there is a better crappie lake than Toledo Bend, they haven't found it. That's because this 185,000 surface-acre reservoir is nothing short of a crappie factory. With cover and baitfish galore, great spawns are commonplace. And despite the fishing pressure on this water, primarily on weekends, there is never a problem finding a spot to drop your bait.

For years, anglers from every state in the U.S. have converged on Toledo Bend to fill their coolers with crappie filets. In fact, at certain times of the year you might find more crappie-fishing Missourians on the reservoir than Texans and Louisianans - and there are plenty of folks from Wisconsin and Minnesota that have discovered this wonderful fishing hole.

The folks operating the marinas and bait shops around Toledo Bend will be happy to put you on some crappie - tell you where and how to catch them. They are anxious to sell you minnows and anxious for the crappie to eat them so they can sell you some more.

Contact: Shelby County Chamber of Commerce, (409) 598-3682.

Sam Rayburn
Some anglers will tell you that Sam Rayburn Reservoir is only a step down from Toledo Bend, while others will tell you it is a step up. Regardless, there is not a lot of difference, if any, in the quality of the crappie fishing. And this one attracts a lot of out-of-state folks, too.

My dad, who lived in Jasper, never wanted to fish for crappie anywhere other than Big Sam and, much to my mother's chagrin, always fished the same identical holes no matter what the time of year. Despite his commitment to the same locations over and over again, my parents always caught crappie. My mother's complaint was that she would like to have fished other areas of the lake.

Though my dad passed a few years ago, my mother, now 86, continues to fish the lake regularly with a brother-in-law. Though they don't always "load the boat," they frequently catch excellent stringers of big slabs.

At 114,500 surface-acres, Rayburn offers ample elbowroom for anglers and, like most East Texas lakes, has an abundance of cover that ensures excellent crappie spawns.

Just follow the advice of marina operators and bait store owners and you'll have no problem catching fish.

Contact: Jasper Chamber of Commerce, (409) 384-2762.

Lake Fork
It is amazing that you can find the type of crappie fishing Lake Fork offers less than a two-hour drive from the outskirts of Dallas. That fact, of course, is not wasted on Dallas-area anglers.

It was Fork anglers taking slabs from the depths in cold weather that caused the state to re-evaluate the length limit on that particular 27,690 surface-acre lake for a specific time of year. But dedicated crappie anglers can catch the species at Fork year 'round. And bass anglers tossing spinnerbaits and crankbaits are often surprised by the strike of a big slab.

There are occasions on Fork where anglers run into schools of big crappie that have an affinity for a particular artificial bait, so they just take their limit before continuing their quest for bass.

Fork is probably as close to a perfect lake as you will find. Years of knowledge went into preparing for the gates on the dam to be closed. Ponds filled with big bass were inundated and the terrain is perfect for spawning and predator fish.

Contact: Greater Quitman Chamber of Commerce, (903) 763-4411.

Lake Livingston
This is one of the most fertile lakes in the state, but its proximity to Houston and the pressure put on it from anglers there tends to cause crappie fishermen in the northern part of the state to ignore it. Of course, there is also very little reason for anglers from other areas to travel all the way to Livingston to catch a limit of 25 crappie when there are plenty of the same fish out their back doors.

At 90,000 surface-acres, Livingston is a crappie factory that ranks right up there with Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn and Fork. Timber was not spared when the reservoir was inundated, so there is no shortage of cover. The lake also breeds heavy vegetation, which protects baitfish and game fish spawns, so finding a limit of crappie that each measure 10 inches or more is rarely a problem.

Contact: Polk County Chamber of Commerce, (409) 327-4929.

Lake Conroe
Despite a shortage of cover 21,000 surface-acre Lake Conroe provides excellent crappie fishing - and proves that the species does not need a lot of cover. This is no Lake Livingston, but it does have a good population of slabs that are fairly easy to catch in spring. The fishing gets a little tougher during the heat of summer and cold of winter, but knowledgeable anglers have no problem finding and catching fish.

While this lake is also close to Houston, a majority of anglers from this large metropolitan area seem to prefer fishing Livingston, Rayburn and Toledo Bend. But the city of Conroe has for all practical purposes become a suburb of Houston, so there are enough people within a 30-minute drive (or less) of Lake Conroe to keep ample pressure on the fish population.

As one might expect, the open water attracts skiers and people on watercraft who could care less about fishing, so there are some annoyances when warm weather arrives. Fishermen do best in early spring and winter when chilly weather keeps such annoyances by their fireplaces.

Contact: Lake Conroe Area Chamber of Commerce, (409) 756-6644.

Related Resources
  • Catching Lone Star Crappie
  • Tactics for Taking Texas Ducks
  • A Banner Year for Deer
  • Choke Canyon
    Knowing the terrain around 26,000 surface-acre Choke Canyon gives you a pretty good idea of what has been inundated. The lake, best known for its bass population, is rated good to excellent for crappie. There is ample cover and some very deep water, which is where you will find crappie in the heat of summer and cold of winter. In spring they cruise the shallows and jam up against cover.

    Known primarily as a bass lake, Choke Canyon is a real sleeper when it comes to crappie. It's definitely worth fishing - and you might consider a combination bass-crappie trip.

    Contact: Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce, (512) 786-4330.

    O.H. Ivie
    O.H. Ivie is definitely a hot lake for bass, but the 19,200 surface-acre reservoir also provides good crappie fishing - especially in the spring. The lake is getting its share of fishing pressure because of its reputation and the fact that there are not that many great fishing holes in the area. And this is a great fishing hole.

    While the area around the lake is sparsely populated, the uniqueness of the reservoir attracts people from such a wide area that it can be a bit crowded on weekends - but most of those folks are bass fishermen.

    Anyone can catch shallow-water crappie there in the spring. When the water heats up in summer, or gets cold in winter, look for deep water with brushy bottom.

    Contact: Ballinger Chamber of Commerce, (915) 365-5611.

    E.V. Spence
    An East Texas fisherman will find the open water and lack of cover (compared to an East Texas lake) bothersome at 14,950 surface-acre E.V. Spence Reservoir, but West Texas anglers have an ability to find hidden cover and fish where it might seem that none exist.

    Weeds and stickups along the shoreline are ample for good crappie fishing in the spring when the species seems to go crazy attacking baitfish. But when the fish move deeper you can find cover on the bottom and off the shoreline. There's a mean depth of 33 feet at E.V. Spence, so crappie have plenty of room to find their comfort level, no matter the weather.

    Contact: San Angelo Chamber of Commerce, (915) 655-4136.

    Few people think of 16,505 surface-acre Lake Meredith as a crappie pond. It is best known for smallmouth bass and even walleyes. But there is a decent population of crappie and they can be taken in coves and around visible stickups in the spring.

    If you are dabbling a minnow in these areas, do not be surprised if it is taken by a smallmouth or toothy walleye. At certain times of the year it will seem that these fish are running with the crappie. There is some brush on the bottom and off points that will hold crappie in summer and winter, but be prepared to have a crappie hook straightened.

    Contact: Borger Chamber of Commerce, (806) 274-2211.

    The words "deep" and "windy" characterize 67,000 surface-acre Amistad Reservoir, which is on the Texas/Mexico border. Waves on the open water often cause anglers in big bass and striper boats to seek sanctuary in one of the reservoir's many coves. And it is in those coves that you can often find good concentrations of crappie.

    In spring they will be along the shoreline clinging to visible stickups, but even later in the year they will be in the deeper water of a cove. This lake has a mean depth of 45 feet - and plenty of mesquite trees were inundated when the gates on the dam were closed.

    Though this lake is best known for bass, stripers and catfish, knowledgeable crappie fishermen here will be able to fill their ice chests with slabs year 'round.

    Contact: Del Rio Chamber of Commerce, (830) 775-3551.

    Also on the Texas/Mexico border is 78,300 surface-acre Falcon Reservoir. It also has a lot of open water that can be dangerous when it is windy. This big pond south of Amistad is so far removed from Texas' major population centers that it does not get much pressure, yet it is one of the finest fishing holes in the country.

    The reservoir is best known for bass, of course, but crappie are plentiful. There is decent cover for crappie and the mean depth of Falcon is 31 feet, much less than Amistad.

    Contact: Zapata Chamber of Commerce, (956) 765-4871.

    At 5,575 surface-acres, Medina Lake offers good crappie fishing throughout the year. Because of its proximity to San Antonio, it gets heavy pressure in the spring, but that tapers off when crappie go deep because of rising or falling temperatures. Of course, avid crappie anglers pay no attention to temperature.

    With a mean depth of 46 feet, there is no problem in crappie finding a comfort level. The bottom of the lake has brush and mesquite trees characteristic of the region, so there is cover.

    Medina is OK, but you won't find anglers coming from long distances to fish it - which is fine with locals.

    Contact: Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, (210) 229-2100.

    When you contact a Chamber of Commerce, be sure to ask for information on other good fishing lakes in the area. These people want to provide you information because they want you to visit the area.

    With Texas' many small-to-large reservoirs, there is absolutely no reason for crappie fishermen to venture far from their own locales to catch good stringers of fish - except for a change of scenery.

    Anglers living in the state's major metropolitan areas - Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio - have good fishing practically out their back doors, and certainly within easy driving distances.

    My personal favorites for crappie are: Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Fork, Livingston, Caddo, Ray Roberts, Cooper, Murvaul, Palestine and Lake O' The Pines.

    Because I live at Pecan Plantation, which has a marina on Lake Granbury, that is really as far as I have to go to catch a limit of slabs. Or I could drive to any number of lakes within an hour of my residence.

    And if you really want to get a kid hooked on fishing, just let him or her catch a few crappie!

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