Setting aside his crappie rod for a few minutes, veteran Rend Lake guide Todd Gessner lit up a cigarette and began to talk about his favorite subject, Rend Lake crappie fishing. Gessner has guided on the lake for over 20 years and has seen boom-and-bust days.
“This lake is really producing some monster crappies,” Todd said. “I have clients who have taken 2-pound fish and have heard of others who have taken fish up to 3 pounds.”
Although reserved, the smile on Gessner’s face betrayed the exuberance he has for the crappie fishing future of the lake.
Pressed further, Gessner states that his largest fish taken by a client during last year was 2 pounds, 9 ounces. He began to find fish over 2 pounds in 2007, and the sizes are getting larger. Todd explains that the average fish falls in the 1/2-pound range because many crappies smaller than that are also taken. He credits the size limits on the lake for the improvement of the fishery. According to him, it is possible to get a limit of fish over 10 inches in length on most any given day.
Rend Lake is an 18,800-acre impoundment located in Franklin and Jefferson counties just off Interstate 57 near Benton. The 162 miles of lake’s shoreline are composed of a combination of buckbrush and riprap. Although crappies can be found throughout the lake, the most popular areas for fishermen are north of state Route (SR) 154 and a few hundred yards south of it. Another popular area is Gun Creek in the northeast part of the lake near SR 37.
Although Rend Lake is owned by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages the fishery under a cooperative agreement.
Numerous stakebeds and fish attractors can be found throughout the lake. Some fish locators were made of Christmas trees and placed in the lake by the Corps of Engineers to help disperse the papermouth population. These attractors are marked with white buoys. The purpose of the Christmas tree cribs is to enhance the lake habitat and help apportion the competition for the lake forage.
Supplementing the fish attractors are probably close to 200 stakebeds composed of wood salvaged from lumber mills and placed in the lake by private parties. Their location is a closely kept secret, but they can be located with some good electronics or by watching where the regulars fish.
The crappie spawn begins in May and early June, dependent upon the water temperature and clarity. The fish will be found in 2 to 12 feet of water. Local fishermen will use a variety of crappie fishing tackle when the spawn is on. Long poles are popular, as lures can be dipped back into the brush in search of spawning crappies.
A 10-foot crappie pole or fly rods are popular choices. Jigs tipped with small minnows on 2- to 4-pound-test line are the perfect combination. Small floats provide strike indicators and are helpful. Pink jigs of 1/8- to 1/32-ounce are effective offerings. Virtually any type of gear and bait or lure will produce a bite during this period.
Rend Lake began experiencing heavy fishing pressure ever since John Hampton of Christopher entered his 4-pound, 8-ounce black crappie in the state fishing records. The record still stands to this day.
In the early days of the impoundment, black crappies formed the bulk of the fish taken. However, beginning in 1980, white crappies began to exceed the number of black crappies found in the lake. Today, according to Gessner, black crappies are making a comeback.
In the years that followed the lack of creel limits, the publicity from Hampton’s catch led to anglers taking coolers full of crappies for the table. Everyone assumed that the great crappie fishing would go on indefinitely. But the size of papermouths in the lake declined. There was a lack of forage of sufficient quality to generate good growth rates.
On April 1, 2002, a creel limit of 25 crappies with no more than five being over 10 inches was imposed. Then the stuff hit the fan. Local anglers were furious. But by October of the same year, the surveys done by DNR District 19 fisheries managers found that the number of fish over 10 inches in length had more than doubled. By the next year, the number of crappies over 12 inches had more than tripled.
In April 2004, the regulation was modified to a creel limit of 25 with 10 fish over 10 inches and that is where it remains. Today, those furious anglers are believers as they see the significant improvement in the fishery. By 2007, angler reports of fish over 2 pounds began to come in with some regularity.
Gessner forecasts that the fishing action on this lake, although continuing to improve, is going to change angler tactics. He sees fewer fish back in the brush where he used to drive his boat in so far as to scratch its sides. As a result, Gessner is looking to find the fish elsewhere. He maintains that the lake is clearing up and aquatic vegetation is growing in 5 to 6 feet of water. Water depth does not appear to be as important as the quality of the cover. Water that is too clear for crappies will force them out of the brush.
Sudden changes in air temperature will affect fish patterns. Any water temperature below 61 degrees does not yield crappies. The fish move out from the shallow water to find an area where they are more comfortable. Although suspending crappies are predictable, they are tough to catch.
Crappies will stay suspended until the water warms and then move back into the shallow water to complete the spawn. A tip is to look for water where the carp have spawned. The carp muddy up the water, and the crappies will move in and spawn in the same areas as opposed to spawning in the clean water.
Managing the crappie fishery on 18,000-plus acres cannot be an exact science. There are too many variables that are uncontrollable. But it is apparent that the work done in recent years on Rend Lake has produced excellent opportunities for Prairie State anglers.