Spring Slabs In The Natural State

Southeast Arkansas' fertile lakes are crappie factories, and April is prime time for targeting them. Our experts sort the best from the rest. (April 2009)

Crappie in Arkansas' District 6 weathered the floods of 2008 well, which signals first-quality fishing in 2008 and beyond.

The lakes of southern and eastern Arkansas warm a bit earlier, frequently have beneficial high water in the spring, contain plenty of nutrients and grow more and bigger crappie than many lakes elsewhere in the state. When you combine these factors for good natural reproduction with savvy management decisions from Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologists, the result is usually good fishing for everyone's favorite springtime panfish.

Assistant fisheries management biologist Jeremy Risley said that few crappie live past age 3 in Arkansas, mostly because they're so tasty to predator fish and fishermen. When you latch onto a bona fide slab -- a thick fish of 2 or 3 pounds -- it's an old-timer. In his most recent population studies in southeastern Arkansas, Risley netted a mere handful of 4- and 5-year-olds, with one 6-year-old granddaddy.

While pressure for crappie remains high every year, biologists describe them as "boom-and-bust" fish, with strong reproductive years tied to prolonged high water in the spring, often followed by one or more years of low water and poor reproduction. High water hides crappie fry from predators in inundated vegetation, resulting in big year-classes of fish. The nutrients that wash into lakes feed plankton and other microorganisms, leading to exceptional shad and baitfish spawns too, according to AGFC black bass specialist Colton Dennis.

Late last year, we sweet-talked biologists from the agency's southern, southeastern and eastern fisheries districts into giving us the inside scoop on their top crappie fisheries for spring 2009. Here's what we learned:

THE SOUTH SHALL RISE AGAIN!

Fortunately, the crappie lakes in District 6, which covers Dallas, Ouachita, Calhoun, Columbia and Union counties, weathered last year's flooding with few long-term effects, according to Eric Brinkman, an AGFC biologist who works out of Camden.

At 3,000 acres, Lake Columbia can accommodate the anglers who flock there -- including many who travel there from Louisiana and Texas, according to the license plates you'll see -- at this time of year. "Columbia should be excellent," Brinkman predicted. "It tends to have bigger crappie, some of the largest crappie in this district."

This water-supply lake, owned by the AGFC, was built on Beech Creek in western Columbia County in 1986. It's about six miles northwest of Magnolia, with AGFC ramps available off state Route 344 or marked roads that run off the highway. Rather than choosing between jigs or minnows, combine the two for a pattern that tempted slabs there last year.

Tri-County Lake, a 280-acre AGFC reservoir in extreme northeast Calhoun County, is Brinkman's next choice. "It's a really good crappie lake and should be good, as usual," he said. "They (anglers) just pull in a lot of fish there. They're everywhere."

The standing timber that defined the lake in its early decades has fallen, but Tri-County remains productive. "It just seems to have all the right things that make a good crappie lake," Brinkman said. Boaters explore manmade structure off docks and points at this time of year. The lake averages 6 feet deep.

As a bonus for shore-bound anglers, Tri-County has excellent walking access -- look for prominent, finger-like projections on the north side of the lake. Start shallow near the shore, searching the water with a jig, and walk toward deeper water until you locate fish. Once you've found them, switch to minnows and make pinpoint presentations with a long rod. The lake is along state Route 205 just south of Fordyce in Dallas County.

The 1,645-acre section of lower White Oak Lake is another outstanding crappie destination. "It does really well in the spring, and there's a couple of places out of Starnes Landing (on the east shore) where people just line up for them," Brinkman said. "They can expect a lot of competition there, but everyone seems to catch plenty of fish."

The easiest pickings are often around manmade structure marked with vivid blue "Fish Attractor" signs. They most consist of unsold Christmas trees the AGFC has collected from businesses in the region with the White Oak Lake Citizens Advisory Committee, a group of local folks who work with the agency to improve conditions on the lake. To navigate safely, watch for the marked boat lanes. Access is off state Route 387 in northwestern Ouachita County, southwest of Chidester.

DOWN ON THE (SOUTHEAST) CORNER

Fisheries district 5 covers eight counties in the southeast quadrant of the state. Risley said some flood damage to a courtesy dock on Grand Lake was the only remaining storm damage in the district.

Lake Chicot is Risley's No. 1 choice. "We have a pretty good crappie population there," he said. "Last year, the fish were fairly young, but it was a strong year-class that's growing up and should be moving through."

Biologists have suggested in the past that stocking crappie sometimes has more public relations value than actual impact on some lakes, but crappie from Chicot's 14-acre nursery pond seem to make a real difference. "The last batch of crappie in 2006 was a good one," Risley recalled. "We shocked up broodfish in the spring and stocked 100 to 110 crappie in the pond in March. We stocked it with fathead minnows to feed them and let them go until October."

Crappie are usually 2 to 4 inches when they're stocked, but some of the 2006 crop, which will account for many of this year's biggest fish, were 6 inches when the nursery pond was emptied into the lake. "We expect their survival rates to be better than hatchery-raised fish," Risley explained. "These fish are more hardy and have to fend for themselves in the pond. They're not used to being fed on a schedule like hatchery fish."

Risley expects Chicot to surrender countless crappie that will average 11 to 12 inches long this year. "There are plenty of larger fish out there and plenty of smaller fish to back them up," he added. The most recent crappie population study on Chicot showed that 5 percent of the fish were 13 inches or longer -- quality fish by anyone's scale.

Severed from the Mississippi River centuries ago, Chicot is a 20-mile-long oxbow at Lake Village in Chicot County. U.S. Route 65/82 and state routes 144 and 159 run along the southern, western and northern shores of the C-shaped lake. Lake Chicot State Park on the north shore offers camping, boat rentals and other facilities. Call (870) 265-5480 for

more information. Chicot County Park is on the lower lake, and several ramps help to spread the fishing pressure.

Just south of Chicot lies another famous Mississippi River oxbow, Grand Lake, which has such a strong reputation for growing crappie that in 2002 the AGFC and a citizen committee defined Chicot's crappie management plan to match Grand's production of the tasty fish. Many anglers troll black, white or chartreuse jigs at various depths, then anchor when they get a bite. Minnows on yo-yos set near brushpiles also produce the makings of many a spring fish fry. A levee on the Mississippi protects Grand from seasonal flooding, so water levels are usually reliable at this time of year.

"Grand usually has good crappie recruitment," Risley said. "There should be plenty of keeper fish there (this) year. It's an extremely fertile oxbow." The healthy year-class of crappie from 2006 should fuel the fishery this year with "plenty of 10-inch-plus fish available," he added.

Grand Lake is in extreme southeastern Chicot County, three miles southeast of Eudora along state Route 8 (known locally as Grand Lake Loop). You can launch from a concrete AGFC ramp at the north end of the lake off U.S. Route 65.

Morgan Point Lake on the Arkansas River is an even smaller oxbow, but it's capable of growing crappie that weigh 2 pounds and up. After decades of unpredictable water levels, anglers have enjoyed years of stable water and good fishing in the lake thanks to extensive construction and water management projects on the old river channel known as Morgan Point Bendway.

The AGFC maintains the Buzzard Beach access in Jarvis Point Park on the north side of the lake near Wilbur D. Mills Dam. Facilities include 49 truck-and-trailer parking slots and a loading platform to put wheelchairs safely aboard boats. Morgan Point Lake is in northern Desha County, northeast of Dumas, off state Route 212.

Cane Creek Lake is yet another popular crappie fishery in his district, but Risley warned, "People who know how to fish it do well." He described the 1,675-acre lake as "shallow, stumpy" and "hard to get around for some people." The lake forms the eastern border of Cane Creek State Park, five miles east of Star City in Lincoln County, off state routes 11 and 293. Call the park at (870) 628-4714 for more information.

Finally, Risley noted that 1,520-acre Lake Monticello, the state's premier lunker bass fishery, is an outstanding winter crappie lake, attracting 100 to 150 boats in the cold, probably because trophy-seeking bass anglers overrun the lake in the spring. Monticello is off state Route 35, five miles northwest of Monticello in northwestern Drew County.

GO EAST, YOUNG MAN!

At press time, no one could predict spring water levels in eastern Arkansas, which suffered some of the heaviest flooding in multiple storm events last year. However, Brinkley-based fisheries biologist Jeff Farwick said it could be late spring before anglers can get into lower White River oxbow lakes for their legendary crappie fishing. Based on his observations, though, we can only say "go" as soon as you can!

"We should have two year-classes of fish that have been protected and scattered hither and yon by the flooding," Farwick explained. "If the water ever recedes (Bull Shoals Lake, which feeds the White, was 30 feet above normal during our interview), any of the oxbows along the White should be phenomenal. You're looking at thousands of fish receding back into those lakes."

The White River National Wildlife Refuge is divided into North and South units, which lie above and below state Route 1. Portions of the rambling refuge, which includes 90 miles of river in a three- to 10-mile-wide corridor, are in Arkansas, Desha, Monroe and Phillips counties. Some of the more accessible lakes in the North Unit include Crowfoot, Sandy Bayou, Brown Shanty and Willow; on the south side, check out Alligator, East Moon, Wolf, Fish, Burnt, Escronges and Bear.

The refuge visitor's center is on state Route 1 at St. Charles, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service encourages everyone who uses the refuge to stop by for maps, check water levels and current conditions, and get advice from the staff before proceeding into some of the wildest country remaining in North America. A free refuge user permit is required; you can pick them up at the visitor center or at five kiosks on main roads. For more information, call refuge manager Dennis Sharp at (870) 282-8200 or check out the refuge's excellent Web site at www.fws.gov/whiteriver.

Skinny 240-acre Burnt Cane Lake, Farwick's next crappie hotspot, has been "a phenomenal crappie lake the past two or three years and should be excellent," he said. It slithers like a snake between its dam on the St. Francis River and a ditch that diverts excess water from the river in central St. Francis County. With an average depth of 15 feet and holes to 25, expect to dangle your minnows and jigs a bit deeper than usual compared with the more shallow lakes that typify AGFC waters in this part of the state.

"It receives a lot of pressure, but it produces a lot of crappie," Farwick said. "I consider a 10-inch crappie a good fish, and it has a lot of fish that size and some over 10 inches." The AGFC's ramp is on the west end of the lake, south of Widener and off County Road 173.

Anglers on Horseshoe Lake, a Mississippi River oxbow, should find this year's crappie fishing a bit more challenging because "they turned on 10 wells, and heavy rains (last year) brought it back to full pool," Farwick said. In recent years, low water made launching difficult, but it also concentrated the fish, allowing prodigious catches. "Lots of people were getting tickets for (being) over the limit, and the crappie limit there is 50," he said.

"The average crappie there years ago was 8 inches, but that stunted population has somehow turned around," Farwick continued. "A lot of it seems to be that they get a spring rise and good recruitment, and it's always been a very rich system. Maybe the bass, gar and bowfin reduced the population when the water was low -- just like when we do a drawdown to let predators thin stunted fish." Regardless of the reasons, expect to catch good numbers of crappie in Horseshoe this year despite pressure from previous years.

Most of the structure on Horseshoe is manmade in the form of docks along the shore and the brush, Christmas trees or bamboo in buckets of concrete that owners sink off the docks. The three private ramps on Horseshoe Lake are off state Route 147 in southern Crittenden County.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The AGFC's Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, an $18 set of county maps, is a great -- albeit somewhat unwieldy -- desk reference, but we also like the agency's new online maps. Go to www.agfc.com, click on "Data, Facts & Maps," and then check out a variety of services, including a link to load Google Earth on your PC and interactive maps of Arkansas.

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