Save Gas And Catch Crappie!

Save Gas And Catch Crappie!

That's just what the author does each time he fishes these slab producers near his Oklahoma City-area home. And you can too!

Veteran crappie angler and fishing guide Todd Huckabee hefts a pair of slabs -- one black crappie and one white -- from Lake Thunderbird. Photo by Jeff Samsel.

Spring in the Sooner State is generally punctuated by unpredictable weather. This month, the state's storm trackers hit the roads, keeping a watchful eye on ominous skies. You can bet that legions of turkey hunters will also take to the woods this month, in hopes of matching wits with a spring gobbler. But if fishing suits your fancy, this a great month to head to your favorite crappie hole to sack up a mess of some of the tastiest fillets God ever made.

It's true: We live in a time of economic uncertainty. Though we enjoyed low gasoline prices last fall, experts predict gasoline will again rise to the $4 range. Hunters and anglers must learn to economize so they can afford their recreational pastimes.

If you live near the Oklahoma City area as I do, there are several crappie venues within a short drive. That's right, you can save gas and catch crappie too! So, read on as I give you my picks of the best crappie spots.

LAKE THUNDERBIRD
Lying 30 minutes south of Oklahoma City near Norman, my top pick is Thunderbird Lake, a 6,070-acre impoundment that locals have nicknamed "T-Bird" and -- because its water is normally muddy year 'round -- "Dirty Bird." Thunderbird is well known for its healthy population of crappie, and according to Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Kurt Kuklinski, the crappie recently sampled are showing a marked difference in quality. "In past samplings, the average crappie at T-Bird ran between 6 and 7 inches, but now we are consistently seeing crappie over 12 inches," said the senior fisheries biologist.

Past samplings confirmed that most of the lake's crappie were stunted, and as a result, many never reach trophy potential. To remedy the problem, the ODWC introduced saugeyes into the lake to eat the smallest crappie, and as a result, the average-sized crappie is now getting bigger -- much bigger!

Working from the ODWC Fisheries Lab in Norman, Kuklinski spends a fair amount of time at nearby Lake Thunderbird, and offers some savvy advice based on his biological findings. "Thunderbird's crappie spawn in 2 to 3 feet of water due to the prevalent muddy or turbid water," he said. "Most crappie tend to move into shallow water and be more active at night. Male crappie are smaller and can usually be caught near the bank, while females, being larger on average, prefer slightly deeper water."

Kuklinski suggests that anglers key on Thunderbird in mid to late April, when spawning activity normally peaks, and give the South Dam a try where marked brushpiles can be accessed by bank-anglers. Another area the fish expert suggested is Sailboat Marina off Alameda Road where there's room for bank-anglers.

Traditional favorite crappie areas include Snake Pit Cove, Clear Bay, Duck Blind Cove and Old River Range Cove, located in the Hog Creek arm of the lake. Those are Kuklinski's picks for sacking up a limit of specks.

T-Bird regular Russ Horton is partial to the Calypso Cove area, and notes that the action around boat docks is very worthwhile. But he adds a warning that the many private boat docks may well allow no fishing within 100 feet. Anglers can also fish numerous brushpiles, which are marked by buoys.

The experts all agreed that small jigs and plastic baits in yellow, chartreuse, white and shad colors are the way to go; small minnows are the bait of choice for bait-anglers.

One of my favorite tactics for T-Bird crappie involves using a float tube to access the stickup areas in the south end of the lake. The water there is shallow, usually ranging from 2 to 3 feet, so you simply swim a jig around each stickup. The results can be phenomenal; I've caught several crappie using that technique.

As an added bonus, crappie anglers fishing the gravel piles near Clear Bay or fishing near the Little Axe swim beach will have an opportunity to catch saugeyes, which are very common and, according to Kuklinski, a tasty surprise!

LAKE HEFNER
Next on my list of crappie holes is Lake Hefner, one of the most neglected lakes in central Oklahoma. This small 2,500-acre water supply lake is contoured like a bowl, and tucked away in the heart of Oklahoma City. The lake is known as a great wintertime crappie lake, and Kuklinski says the crappie fishing there is good year 'round. Used heavily during the spring and summer months by sail boaters, Hefner receives very little fishing pressure at that time.

Between Wilshire and Hefner Road, and between Hefner Parkway and MacArthur, the lake lies next to a 36-hole golf course of the same name.

Carl Jones is the owner of Hefner Bait & Tackle (405/722-3443), a nearby store that stocks fishing baits. He gladly offers free advice to area anglers -- if you can find him in the store, that is. When the crappie are biting, Carl can be found fishing the riprap area just a stone's throw from his shop.

Jones rates the lake as a solid fishery that continues to impress him. "The crappie fishing at Hefner now is better than ever," he said.

He has a particular tactic he favors for taking the lake's crappie: slip-corking. He uses a handmade 14-foot rod to hurl a Styrofoam slip-cork and a pair of handmade jigs, one weighing 1/16 ounce, the other 1/64. He prefers casting his jigs parallel to the rocky area near the dam and then retrieving them slowly. His long rod enables him to make a long cast, which allows him to keep his jigs in areas where crappie like to spawn.

Jones recommends that newcomers to Hefner should try casting jigs from the rocky areas near the dam, and near the lighthouse on the east side of the lake. The jetty on the southwest side of the lake is a good spot to explore as well. Minnow fishermen can catch slabs virtually anywhere.

An open shoreline and the prevailing south wind can make the lake choppy at times. Nevertheless, the fishing can be superb; I've never fished Hefner without catching fish. Anglers can expect to take crappie in the 3/4- to 1-pound range, although Jones will grin and show you pictures of Hefner crappie weighing much more.

Hefner Lake requires anglers to purchase a daily $3 permit.

LAKE ARCADIA
Last but not least, and lying just 20 minutes north of Oklahoma City, is Arcadia Lake -- a phenomenal crappie fishery. This 1,820-acre lake built by the U.S. Army Corps

of Engineers as a water supply lake can be reached by taking I-35 north from Oklahoma City and exiting east at either the 15th Street exit or the Edmond Road exit.

Kuklinski says anglers should find above-average numbers of crappie in Arcadia, and like Thunderbird, the lake is producing good numbers of crappie over 12 inches. Lake employee Leon Mixer says he has witnessed some good stringers of crappie caught at the indoor fishing dock located beside the 15th Street boat ramp. "The place sure draws a crowd when the crappie are biting," mused Mixer.

Kuklinski advises anglers to focus on the long brushpiles, which are clearly marked by orange-and-white buoys. "These areas," he said, "are good staging areas for spawning crappie, which sometimes congregate there for weeks at a time."

I have always enjoyed success fishing the riprap near the 15th Street boat ramp, and regularly take slabs there during April and May.

Bank-fishermen can do equally well casting small jigs in the 1/64- to 1/8-ounce size range in bright fluorescent colors. The addition of a slipcork can help anglers cast the lightweight jigs more efficiently and control the depth of lure presentation. Although the fishing can be good all day, the best fishing times are generally the first few hours of daylight and the last hours before dark.

Another likely spot is the southeast side of the lake; heavily wooded, it's teeming with crappie. Care should be exercised when navigating through the thick vegetation.

The lake is a fee-use area with prices posted at the entrances. The access fees are pricey -- $6 on weekdays and $7 on weekends -- but well worth it for the outstanding fishing.

LAST CAST
If you want to economize even more, take a friend fishing and split the gas cost. If you like to dunk minnows, you could even split the cost on a couple of dozen as well. One thing's for sure: The crappie action is heating up, so pack up the panfishing gear, take a friend, and head to one of these local crappie holes. Later, when you savor some of the golden-brown filets, you'll be glad you did!

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