The Bayou's Best For Spring Crappie

The Bayou's Best For Spring Crappie

Spring is the season for those in pursuit of some serious slabs. (March 2007)

Photo by Tom Berg

Crappie, sac-à-lait, white perch: all names for the species that, many years ago, the Louisiana legislature designated the official fish of the state.

And for good reason: Bayou State waters are home to some of the largest crappie populations in the South, which makes for unsurpassed fishing everywhere from the slow-moving bayous below Interstate 10 all the way up to the Arkansas border. Some sections of the state are still recovering from the hurricanes of 2005, but the good news for anglers in those areas is that crappie rebound quickly.

"Crappie are quite prolific and come back quickly after a drought or fish kill," said Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Bobby Reed. "They have a very fast growth rate and respond well to positive changes in their environment."

So far, areas like Lacassine Pool and the Calcasieu River have continued to produce crappie, although the fishing hasn't been as good as pre-storm years'. But by this year, the fishing should, by most accounts, have improved dramatically.

A few reports have been heard of decent crappie action in the Calcasieu area last year between Lake Charles and Deridder. Spring fishing around the cypress stumps in the bayous produced crappie up to 13 inches on live shiners fished under a cork and on small yellow/black crappie jigs "doodlesocked" around the stumps. If you see fish smacking the water, late in the evenings and early in the mornings in this area, there's a good chance that they're crappie. When the fish are up and feeding like this, try a 1/8-ounce Beetle Spin or a tiny silver spoon fished with a fast retrieve.

The Sabine River has been producing some large crappie from Nibblett's Bluff north toward Starks. That area has lots of good habitat and is often more lightly fished than are other stretches of the river.

"Concentrate your efforts around oxbows in the spring if there isn't a lot of flooding of the bottomlands," said Jerrell Huff of Starks, a veteran Sabine River crappie angler. "The fishing was good last year, with a lot of fish in the 2-pound range. The fish in that part of the river don't run really big, but you'll get a lot of solid average-sized fish."

If flood conditions prevail, Huff advised, head for the backwaters, taking the small sloughs back into the woods and then fishing open mayhaw and oak flats. "There can be a lot of crappie in those areas," he said. "The best way to catch them is to fish around the stumps with a big potbelly minnow. Shiners work well too, but the potbelly minnows that you can catch in the ditches work a whole lot better. Fishing in the backwaters is tough -- you run into a lot of snakes and stinging insects -- but it is one of the best spots to catch big crappie in that area."

Toledo Bend, nearly 100 miles upstream, is probably the most consistent crappie producer in the state. The 181,600-acre lake is full of big slab-sized crappie, which is due in no small part to an abundance of prime habitat. At press time, water levels were rising back to normal levels after more than a year of low and dangerous navigational conditions. This spring should bode well for crappie, as there was very little pressure on them last year.

Toledo's spring crappie will be along the shorelines in shallow water usually ranging from 1 to 3 feet deep. In early spring they'll be up in the buckbrush in the back of the creeks.

The top bait for crappie in these parts is a live shiner rigged on a thin single hook. Long-shanked hooks are a good choice because they allow easier releases for undersize fish.

Just because minnows are the preferred fare, don't get the idea that crappie at "the Bend" won't accept plastic. They will if you're careful with your presentation. It's all in boat positioning and stealth. If you get right above a prime spot and vertically work a jig, you can absolutely hammer crappie. An angler armed with 1/32- and 1/16-ounce tube jigs can catch as many fish as the live bait guys do any day of the week. You just have to pay attention to detail.

As summer arrives, anglers should change their focus to the humps and ridges on the north end of the lake. Shad often bunch up around these spots and draw good numbers of bass.

A couple of years ago I fished those very spots with guide Mike Wheatley. "The shad will bunch up around these humps and ridges, which a lot of times are just basically hills that rise up from the bottom of a reservoir," he said.

The predators are attracted by the baitfish that gather there, and many times in the evenings, crappie and bass will school up and attack the shad.

Anglers hoping to get in on some of the intense crappie fishing action that can occur on Toledo Bend reservoir over the next few months should be wary of a special regulation for that body of water: Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28, anglers fishing for crappie on the Texas side of Toledo Bend are required to keep the first 50 crappie they catch regardless of the size. Length limits are waived during this period.

This regulation was put into place several years ago to help reduce the overall mortality of crappie in the lake. Many times the crappie on Toledo Bend are caught in deep water, and they are damaged from being brought to the surface so quickly. Many of these fish will die even if released immediately.

An angler catching crappie in 40 feet of water could catch as many as 100 crappie, cull out 25 or so, and leave many to die. Anglers ought to enjoy this regulation, since it's doubtful that many other rules that they'll ever be bound by will require them to keep fish. Bear in mind that this regulation is enforceable on Louisiana anglers venturing in Texas territory.

Prospects for Lake D'Arbonne, a major crappie producer in the northern part of the state, are good for 2007. To catch D'Arbonne's big first-quality crappie, the best place to look is in the creek channels from April through mid-June. When looking for creeks at this venue, don't fool with small, shallow ones -- look for creeks with 10 to 15 feet of water, because the fish will stay in these deeper creeks until the water temperature reaches the high 80s. During the summer, the crappie there stage in the deep, cool thermocline of these creeks and then leave to go feeding on shad which is their No. 1 prey item.

When temperatures start getting into summer highs, the crappie will migrate out of the creeks into the main lake. This calls for a change in tactics. Main-lake points and deeper areas where creeks enter the main body of

the lake will at that time become the important areas to fish.

Locating the thermocline in a reservoir is a great way to find big crappie. All reservoirs stratify to some extent in the summer, and it isn't unusual to find crappie schooling shallow over the deepest parts of the lake, usually near a main river channel. A good rule of thumb is to fish halfway down the water column. If you're fishing in 40 feet of water, position the bait in about 20 feet of water. Many a time, that's where the shad will be concentrated -- and the crappie won't be far behind.

Red River was a good crappie producer last year -- particularly at locks 3 and 5. That the waters here can be swift presents a different sort of challenge to the sac-à-lait angler. Smaller baitfish such as shad have a difficult time negotiating current-laden water, so they often seek refuge in eddies that form in the river. Crappie take advantage of these stationary "pockets" of baitfish.

Targeting eddies is fairly easy: It simply requires that you be able to hold position over one long enough without running into it and disturbing any fish that might be there. Crappie aren't particularly spooky fish, but in my experience, it seems as if the fish shut off whenever I get too close to an eddy.

Try throwing a white/pink Roadrunner in first to see if you get any aggressive response. Make casts right against the bank and work from there. Many of the fish in these eddies seem to want to hold tight to the banks and feed from there.

Down in plantation country, prospects are mixed, but for the most part, the fishing should be solid. Probably the best bet for anglers is Spanish Lake, which is an excellent spot for catching slab-sized crappie. For a while the lake was on average producing the largest crappie in the state, but that's slowed down a bit, according to state officials. Still, the fishing there can be excellent, particularly on the brushpiles.

Spanish Lake has plenty of grass too, and anglers can't go wrong with a 1/8-ounce H&H spinner worked through the grass. When the crappie are on the outside of the grass, they'll dart in and out of holes in the greenery. If you can locate these holes on the graph and fish there, it shouldn't take long to get hooked up.

Crappie are a shining example of a species that, if left alone, can do well, but when treated in such a way that conservation can take hold will thrive at high levels. The species is susceptible to drought, storm-related fish kills and other factors, but they bounce back quickly.

For a species dubbed the "official fish of Louisiana" that makes perfect sense as those in the Bayou State have shown the ability to improvise, adapt and overcome no matter the obstacles.

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