Think Small For Spawning Crappie

On Louisiana's spring crappie scene, one trend's obvious: Smaller is better. Tie on the tiniest bait you can find, and the action will be sure to follow. (April 2008)

Steve Danna admires a crappie that he caught at Lake D'Arbonne near Farmerville.
Photo by John N. Felsher.

In the spring, as crappie move into the shallows to spawn, anglers in the right place can often find some of the fastest fishing all year with some of the smallest baits imaginable.

"Crappie are much easier to catch during the spawn," said Jimmy Houston, a legendary professional angler and host of the long-running television show Jimmy Houston Outdoors. "That's also the time when people generally catch the biggest fish of the year."

In late winter, crappie move toward the shorelines or shallows to feed or to look for nesting areas. Highly prolific in nature, crappie begin spawning when water temperatures reach the mid-60s, usually in about February or March. Spawning more than once a season, a single female crappie can lay between 20,000 and 25,000 eggs a year. Black crappie prefer to spawn in quiet backwaters; white crappie usually spawn along riverbanks. In lakes, both species congregate near flooded brush and trees.

"Crappie are the rabbits of the fish world," said Bobby Reed, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist. "We do not recommend that people stock crappie in ponds less than 50 acres in size, because they can take over a small pond. In a good water body, they can grow to nine inches in one year."

SPOT THE SPAWN
On a big lake, the crappie spawn might stretch into June as fish begin nesting in areas that reach critical conditions at different times. Usually, the first spawns occur on flats in the backs of coves on the northern ends of lakes. Southerly breezes typically blow warmer water toward the northern parts of a lake. Likewise, northern shorelines tend to receive the warmest and most intense solar rays during late winter, because the sun hangs lower in the southern sky.

Moreover, as the sun sets in the west, eastern shorelines receive more intense afternoon sunshine than do shady western shorelines. Conse-quently, the northeast portion of a lake usually warms before other sections, followed respectively by the northwest, southeast and southwest portions of a lake.

When crappie move up into the shallows, anglers often tempt them with small jigs, flies or tubes dipped near flooded cypress trees, stumps, gnarled tree trunks, dock pilings and other objects in shallow water. Tiny hair jigs flicked into the water from long jigging poles or fly rods can often entice slab crappie.

To find spawning crappie near trees in the thickest portions of Louisiana's Lake D'Arbonne, Steve Danna prefers to dangle his own hand-tied 1/32-ounce Steve's Special hair jig, which is equipped with a No. 4 hook, from an 11-foot rod. He stealthily approaches trees growing in 2 to 5 feet of water and dips his jig next to any tree, log or stump that might hold fish. Using barely any line, he uses the long pole with pinpoint accuracy to place his creation as close to cover as possible. Frequently, fish subtly suck in the morsel as it falls. If not, Danna works his way around the tree trunk or brushpile, probing every likely spot before moving to another likely object.

Impounded in 1964, 15,000-acre Lake D'Arbonne in Union and Lincoln parishes near Farmerville produces excellent crappie catches each spring. Most fish average about 1.25 pounds, but some top 3 pounds. The lake averages about 8 feet deep, though some channels in Little Corney Creek or Little D'Arbonne Bayou drop to 30 feet deep. Several creek arms that feed the system pull water from a drainage covering 75 times as much acreage as the lake itself, but considerable portions of the lake resemble a shallow flooded cypress swamp.

"On Lake D'Arbonne, crappie don't always spawn at the same time," said Mike Wood, an LDWF district biologist in Monroe. "Crappie in Stowe Creek historically spawn first; then they start spawning at Four-Mile Creek. It cycles through the lake like that until it extends to the upper reaches of the lake where crappie spawn last. They don't like to spawn in the upper creeks until after they get the rush of water from the spring rains, so they spawn later there."

For tempting slabs in the clear, dark water, Danna favors flies, hair jigs or tubes in either a smoke coloration or combinations of smoke and chartreuse, black and chartreuse or red and chartreuse. He tips each morsel with a chartreuse Berkley Power Bait Crappie Nibble, which gives added flavor, color and substance.

Danna often pulls several fish off one tree trunk, but sometimes he'll only catch one fish before spooking the others. In the shallows, spawning fish must look out for a multitude of predators (including fishermen). For this reason, crappie anglers use long rods and remain as quiet as possible.

STEALTHY APPROACH
"Stealth is the key," Wood said. "If people bump a boat against a tree, they could spook the fish. Even if fish stay in the vicinity, they might not bite for a while. It's possible to catch a bunch of crappie off one tree. Some of the better anglers are very adept at hooking a fish and easing it off the tree and into deeper water, where they land it without spooking the others. Then they go back to the tree to hook another one."

Stealth also applies to presentation. Sometimes crappie are attracted by movement; at others, skittish fish don't want any movement. Danna often holds his fishing rod as still as possible and simply lets the wind or waves give his offering a slight movement or shimmy.

"It's not the jigging motion that people normally think of," he said. "I let the fish decide how they want the presentation, but I usually don't move the bait very fast. Often, we just hold the rod as still as possible. It's almost impossible to hold it completely still with the boat movement, but the wind and the waves can add just enough action to get the fish excited."

What works at Lake D'Arbonne could work in many other lakes and rivers across Louisiana. Anywhere that cypress trees grow in water 2 to 5 feet deep could produce good spring crappie action. Dead logs, brushpiles, stumps, dock pilings and other objects can also produce results. Anglers can also use this technique in places like Caney Lake, where the state has created artificial reefs made of plastic pallets to attract crappie.

SPRING HOTSPOTS
Northern Louisiana

Near Shreveport, anglers might visit Caddo Lake or Lake Bistineau, both of which resemble flooded swamps. Straddling the Louisiana-Texas state line, Caddo Lake stretches over 26,810 acres. It averages about 6 feet deep, but some holes in

the lake drop to about 20 feet deep and main channels can run 8 to 12 feet deep. Covering 17,200 acres, Lake Bistineau averages 8 feet deep, but holes in the old Bayou Dorcheat channel drop to more than 18 feet deep.

"Lake Bistineau is a good lake for spring crappie," said James Seales, an LDWF district fisheries biologist in Minden. "Crappie move into the shallow areas as the water starts to warm. The best months are March and April. In the spring, a good crappie fisherman can catch a limit on Lake Bistineau with some fish going up to 2 pounds."

Also in the northwest corner of Louisiana, Cross Lake and Grand Bayou Reservoir offer crappie opportunities. In these waters, anglers stand a decent chance at catching both black and white crappie weighing nearly 2 pounds. Grand Bayou produced the state record white crappie, a 3.38-pound fish caught by B.R. Shepherd in April 2002.

Central Louisiana
One of the best places in Louisiana for landing slab crappie remains the 8,000-acre Saline-Larto complex, near Pineville. About 2,492 acres in area, Lake Larto averages 12 to 16 feet deep, but a few holes drop to nearly 30 feet deep; Saline Lake covers about 1,971 surface-acres. Saline Bayou connects the two lakes. Anglers find many acres of cypress-lined channels and flooded timber between the two main lakes.

"The Saline-Larto area is a good area for crappie," said David Hickman, an LDWF fisheries biologist in Ferriday. "It's probably one of the best areas in the state for big crappie. It regularly produces many 2.5-pound fish with some well over 3 pounds. Fish have a tremendous amount of food (here) and are not overpopulated."

Weirs hold water at managed levels, but floods from the nearby Red or Black rivers or the Catahoula Lake Diversion Canal can cause water to back up in low areas of the Saline-Larto complex. High water can restock the lake with fish from the rivers, but the best fishing generally occurs during times of falling water.

"By late February, crappie start moving up into shallow areas," Hickman said. "By March, they are in full spawn. In the spring, anglers can catch crappie in the shallow parts of the bayou between the lakes and on the other side of Saline Lake at Big Creek. When the fish move shallow to spawn, people catch them around the shorelines."

Southern Atchafalaya Basin
At the southern end of the Atchafalaya Basin, Lake Verret, Lake Palourde and Grassy Lake near Morgan City also hold excellent potential for big crappie. The largest and northernmost of the three connected shallow natural systems -- Lake Verret -- spreads over 14,000 acres. Palourde, which skirts the northeast corner of Morgan City, covers about 11,500 acres, and Grassy Lake's area is about 1,024 acres. Each lake averages about 6 feet deep with long, gently sloping shorelines.

"Lake Verret is really a massive area together with Grassy Lake, Lake Palourde and all the canal systems between them," said Mike Walker, an LDWF district biologist in New Iberia. "They are all connected by big bayous and surrounded by a cypress-tupelo swamp. It's a very shallow system. Some holes in the lakes drop to about 8 feet deep. Some older canals average about 4 to 6 feet deep, and some newer canals drop to about 7 or 8 feet. There are some stumps and blown-down cypress trees and docks around the edges of the lakes, but the middle of the lakes have very little structure."

Known primarily for the quantity of fish caught here, the area can produce lunkers. Lake Verret put two fish in the state record book. In January 1998, Randy Lewis caught a 2.81-pound white crappie in Talbot Canal off Lake Verret. Six years later, on April 29, 2005, Donald W. Gaspard landed a 3.05-pound black crappie out of the same water.

"It's a good numbers area, but it also has a good average size," Walker said. "The Lake Verret area has lower numbers but produces larger fish than the Atchafalaya Basin. It consistently produces good catches of 8- to 13-inch fish with some (measuring) about 15 inches. It produces a lot of fish in the 1- to 1.5-pound range with the majority (being) about 8 inches. The majority of the fish are black crappie. People do catch some white crappie, but not in any great numbers. Usually, the white crappie are bigger than the black crappie."

Northern Atchafalaya Basin
At the northern end of the Atchafalaya Basin, Henderson Lake near Breaux Bridge has produced some good catches, including at least one crappie exceeding 4 pounds. James Long caught the 4.15-pound slab here in April 1991, and Floyd Meche caught a 3.47-pound black crappie in December 2003. Theophile Guillotte II pulled a 2.08-pound white crappie from Henderson Lake in April 2002.

More a flooded backwater of the Atchafalaya River than a lake, the 5,000-acre Henderson system contains many flats loaded with flooded cypress trees, old stumps and logs. Where much of the lake normally holds about 3 to 5 feet of water, some holes in lakes Pelba and Bigeaux drop to more than 15 feet deep. In some places, water plunges to nearly 30 feet deep. Oil companies have built several canals in this area to service wells, and the builders of Interstate 10 dug a deep canal through the swamp in order to bring in massive concrete bridge sections by barge.

"Lake Bigeaux gets to 15 to 20 feet deep in places," said Dan Thornton of M&M Fishing Center in Breaux Bridge. "Lake Pelba and Opelousas Bay also have some deep water. The Interstate Canal is about 20 feet deep. Some other canals run up to 12 feet deep. Henderson has a big shad base."

Toledo Bend Reservoir
Even in such a massive system as Toledo Bend, anglers can find many places where they can tempt crappie with tiny flies, hair jigs or tubes. Toledo Bend Reservoir runs about 65 miles along the Louisiana-Texas line. The massive reservoir sprawls over 186,000 acres and creates numerous creek arms and coves offering more than 1,265 miles of shoreline. Anglers can get into many coves, where they find flooded timber or stumps that hold spawning crappie.

"Crappie fishing on Toledo Bend is excellent," said Ricky Yeldell, an LDWF biologist. "The lake has both black and white crappie, but black crappie are more common. People can catch 50 to 80 crappie in a half-day. Most will (weigh) about 3/4 to 1 pound, but some will be in the 1.5- to 2-pound range. Occasionally, people catch some crappie over 3 pounds."

Jodie E. Crouch Jr. holds the state record for black crappie with a 3.55-pound slab he pulled from Toledo Bend on March 18, 2003. The lake's record black crappie actually weighed 3.69 pounds. Fritz Gowan landed the 17.75-inch lunker on Jan. 17, 1985, but weighed it in Texas where it holds that state title. Another Texan, Geneva Daniels, holds the white crappie lake record with a 17.25-inch fish that weighed 2.88 pounds. Each year, people catch potential record-book fish, but fail to weigh them officially.

Eastern Louisiana
In eastern Louisiana, the Manchac region near Lake Maurepas contains many acres of cypresses that could hold big crappie. Manchac means "back door" in the language of the Choctaws, for whom the area was exactly that with respect to the settlements at New Orleans and Baton Rouge and in the interior. Pass

Manchac connects Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas. The smaller North Pass also connects the lakes. Despite sitting between the two major metropolitan areas of Louisiana, Lake Maurepas remains largely undeveloped, with no roads touching its cypress-lined shorelines or boat ramps launching directly into the lake.

The same's not true for several major rivers feeding the system: The Blind, Amite and Tickfaw rivers empty directly into Lake Maurepas, and the Natalbany and Blood rivers empty into the Tickfaw River. Farther east, the Tchefuncte and Tangipahoa rivers feed into Lake Pontchartrain, while Bedico Creek flows into the Tangipahoa River. Several canals link the rivers. Anglers can find many places at which to dangle flies among the many cypress and gum trees growing throughout this area.

Many canals in the swamps near the Lac des Allemands system close to Thibodaux also hold big crappie. In fact, Lettie Robertson caught a 6-pound mixed crappie in the Westwego Canal just east of Lac des Allemands in 1969. An intricate network of bayous and canals connects Lac des Allemands, Lake Boeuf, Lake Salvador, Lake Cataouatche and the Bayou Segnette system southwest of New Orleans. This maze of cypress swamps, canals and bayous loaded with stumps, brushtops, fallen trees and grass mats offers anglers plenty of places to tempt slab crappie.

* * *This spring, anglers might need to think small to entice the biggest crappie -- and sometimes, just a little hair on a tiny hook works wonders.

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