Midstate Papermouths

It's crappie-catching time at these central Oklahoma reservoirs -- time to get in on some of the hottest action of the year.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Mike Lambeth

In Oklahoma, several ages-old indicators signal the passage from winter's dormancy to the new life of spring. Brown vegetation revives and arrays itself in green. Songbirds returned from their wintering homes converge on their previous haunts. Turkeys strut as the melody of their raucous gobbles fills the air. And spring itself delivers its own message to ardent Sooner anglers: It's crappie time!

Oklahoma waters are blessed with both species of crappie: Pomoxis annularis, commonly known as the white crappie, and Pomoxis nigromaculatus, or the black crappie. These hearty species, found statewide, invade shallow waters to spawn each spring when water temperatures approach 60 to 65 degrees. This ordinarily occurs in April for most Oklahoma waters.

When crappie - also called "specks," "slabs," "calico bass," "sac-à-lait" or "papermouths" - begin their spring spawning run, diehard anglers rush to their favorite fishing holes to sack up a mess of the tasty delicacies. When spawning is at its peak, crappie can be caught on a variety of artificial lures as well as on small minnows. The action is generally fast-paced, and it's tailor-made for introducing new anglers to the sport.

METRO HOTSPOTS
As numerous waters across our state contain crappie, Sooner anglers can generally find good fishing close to home. While most area lakes have huge populations of crappie, so do many farm ponds, watershed lakes and rivers. In fact, I return to many of the ponds that I hunt ducks on during the fall and winter months to fill my creel with crappie in the spring.

Here, I'll list some of my favorite crappie waters close to Oklahoma City, as well as a few others elsewhere in the state that are worth the drive.

LAKE HEFNER
Lake Hefner is one of the most neglected lakes in central Oklahoma. The small 2,500-acre water supply lake is tucked away in the heart of Oklahoma City. Used heavily during the spring and summer months by sailboaters, Hefner receives very little fishing pressure.

The lake is between Wilshire and Hefner Road, and between Hefner Parkway and MacArthur. The lake is situated next to a 36-hole golf course bearing the same name.

Carl Jones is the owner of Hefner Bait & Tackle, 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, who rates the lake as a solid fishery -"The crappie fishing at Hefner now is better than ever," he said - has a particular tactic for its crappie: slip-corking. This he accomplishes by using his 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. (His hand-tied Lightning Strike Jigs attracted so much admiring notice that he now retails them on his Web page: carljonesfamousjigs.com.) He prefers casting his jigs parallel to the rocky area near the dam and then slowly retrieving them. His feeling is that his long rod enables him to make a longer cast, which allows him to keep his jigs in areas where the crappie like to spawn.

Newcomers to Hefner should try casting jigs from the rocky areas near the dam and from the east side of the lake near the lighthouse, Jones recommends. The jetty on the southwest side of the lake is a good spot also. Minnow fishermen will do well virtually anywhere on the lake.

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 something. Anglers can expect to take crappie in the 3/4- to 1-pound range when conditions are right.

Hefner Lake requires a $2 daily fishing permit. The daily limit is 37 fish. Covered fishing docks are available.

ARCADIA LAKE
This 1,820-acre lake - built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a water-supply lake - can be accessed by taking I-35 north from Oklahoma City and exiting east on either the 15th Street exit, or the Edmond Road exit. It's 15 miles north of Oklahoma City near Edmond.

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation fisheries biologist Kurt Kuklinski says that while anglers should find above-average numbers of crappie in Arcadia, but their catch would probably be below average size-wise, measuring 6 to 7 inches.

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."

Edmond resident Norman Miller, a regular on Arcadia Lake, chooses to fish the rocky riprap near the 15th Street boat ramp and regularly takes slabs there during April and May. Miller's favorite tactic involves trolling jigs and small crankbaits parallel to the rocks near the boat ramp and off the long, rocky points nearby.

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 slip-cork can help anglers cast the lightweight jigs more efficiently and control the depth of lure presentation. Though the fishing can be good all day, the best fishing times are generally the first few hours of daylight and the last few hours before dark.

I've achieved success by fishing from the boat docks in the springtime. A few springs back, my friend Stuart Crow and I caught crappie by casting white Road Runner jigs near the dam.

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, but usually well worth the outstanding fishing found there. The daily limit is 37 crappie.

LAKE THUNDERBIRD
Lying 30 minutes south of Oklahoma City near Norman 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." Though celebrated in the 1970s as a lunker bass factory, Thunderbird also is well known for its healthy population of crappie. However, the average crappie at T-Bird runs between 6

and 7 inches.

"Most of the fish in the lake are stunted, and as a result many never reach trophy potential," said Jeff Boxrucker, the ODWC's senior biologist at the lake. "To remedy the problem, we introduced saugeyes into the lake to eat the smallest crappie, and as a result, the average-sized crappie is now getting bigger."

An expert on Lake Thunderbird, Boxrucker offered some savvy advice based on his biological findings: "Most crappie in Thunderbird spawn in 2 to 3 feet of water due to the prevalent muddy or turbid water, and 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."

Boxrucker suggests that anglers key on Thunderbird in mid to late April, when spawning activity normally peaks, and give the area west of the C boat ramp, near the water tower, a try, as it's a longstanding spawning area. This site can be reached by taking Alameda Street east from I-35 until it dead-ends at the lake. He also speaks highly of Snake Pit Cove, Clear Bay, Duck Blind Cove, and Old River Range Cove, located in the Hog Creek arm of the lake.

T-Bird regular Russ Horton is partial to the south dam area and Calypso Cove; he notes that the action around boat docks is also very worthwhile, but 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 two experts agree 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 is one I learned from Rick Chancellor. The method involves using a float tube to access the stickup areas in the south end of the lake. The water here is shallow, usually ranging from 2 to 3 feet, so, using a long rod, you simply swim a bucktail jig around each stickup. The results can be phenomenal: I watched Chancellor catch several 2 1/2-pound crappie while I splashed about in the muddy water trying to imitate his technique. Brown jigs seem to work best.

The daily limit: 37 crappie.

LAKE EUFAULA
Though Eufaula's not centrally located - two hours' drive east of Oklahoma City on I-40 - it's hard to talk about crappie fishing in Oklahoma without mentioning this impoundment often called the "Gentle Giant." Featuring water both turbid or murky and exceptionally clear, its 102,200 surface-acres give it the largest area of any lake in the state.

I cut my teeth on Eufaula's slab-crappie action years ago, and it remains my favorite place to fish today, as the crappie fishing is generally solid year 'round. I still remember one spring night of fishing under the bridge at the Highway 9 landing. With the aid of lanterns and several dozen minnows, we hauled in a literal boatload of crappie, catching them as fast as we could lower our lines into the water; once our limits were reached, we caught and released papermouths until we ran out of bait and called it quits. The slabs, averaging 12 to 14 inches, provided my friends and me with several hours of entertainment.

Most of the boat docks at the lake have weighted cedar trees tied to them, the object being to attract fish. The fishing around those docks can be outstanding; recommended are small minnows, marabou jigs, and Road Runners.

When water temperatures warm, spawning crappie head to the brushy shallows that surround much of the lake. Minnows and artificials will fool even the most discriminating slabs.

FORT COBB LAKE
This 4,100-acre lake near the town of Fort Cobb, 70 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, attracted a lot of attention in the 1960s and '70s, thanks to the huge numbers of crows that were setting up roosts in the area, which some dubbed "the crow capital of the world." So many were the squatting corvids, in fact, that their gatherings were reminiscent of those in the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds. Hunters finally ran some of the pesky crows out of the county, and the lake attained celebrity for a more logical reason: its fantastic fishing opportunities. And the fishery has since been improved by the addition of habitat to the lake.

When water temperatures approach 60 degrees, crappie congregate in the shallow, brushy areas to be found in several of the coves at Fort Cobb. As at the previously mentioned lakes, minnows, jigs and small plastic baits will lure the hard-fighting crappie.

The top fishing spots on the lake are brushy points and the rocky area near the dam.

WISTER LAKE
Last but not least in the list of midstate crappie holes is Wister Lake. Oddly, the words "midstate" and "Wister" don't exactly fit together, as the lake's nearly a three-hour drive east of Oklahoma City. It's close to the town of Poteau, which is near the Arkansas border in Southeastern Oklahoma.

Wister regulars Joe Spears and Denny Rohrer rate the lake as their favorite crappie spot in the state. "Denny and I have fished several lakes," Spears told me, "but I would have to rate Wister as the best crappie lake in the state, due to the tremendous success we have had while fishing there." In fact, Spears makes the long drive from his home in Edmond several times a month when the crappie action heats up. An ordained minister heavily involved in prison ministries, he works a hectic schedule, and has learned to get in fishing time when he can.

"The best crappie areas on Wister are Fanny Creek, Wart's Landing, and Quarry Island," said Rohrer.

"The area below the dam also attracts a lot of crappie fishermen," Spears added.

The two usually fish from a boat, and have a fondness for targeting areas 4 feet deep that feature buckbrush. They usually rely on small minnows rigged on a blue jighead, but they also cast blue and white jigs.

Rohrer has caught several crappie weighing more than 3 pounds; Spears says that catching a string of 2-pound slab-sized crappie is usually easy in April.

Anglers new to the area can get up-to-the-minute information by talking to Carl Stacy at Lake Wister Bait and Grocery Store in Wister.

BEST BAITS
Crappie and ultralight tackle just go hand in hand. Though most tackle will work for crappie, battling a feisty slab on light line is exhilarating.

Small jigs ranging in size from 1/64 ounce to 1/8 ounce seem to work best for crappie. Jigs with both marabou and plastic tails, sometimes with spinners for added flash, are a longtime favorite of mine. Tube jigs, curlytail grubs and even minnow-shaped plastic baits will be eagerly devoured by hungry papermouths.

Shad and minnows are the staple of a crappie's diet, so sh

ad colors work, but I often opt for bright colors like chartreuse or fluorescent pink. However, day in and day out, white or pearl-colored artificials are hard to beat.

For bait-fishing I like to use a crappie rig, as the setup allows me to use two minnows; many times I catch crappie two at a time. For added attraction, I use a colorful 1/8-ounce jig on the bottom of my rig instead of a sinker - a setup that's very effective when I'm night-fishing or fishing around boat docks.

LAST CAST
Crappie are a delicacy when prepared right - and there's actually no wrong way to prepare this tasty treat. My favorite method: Take the boneless filets and season them with salt, pepper and just a hint of cayenne pepper. I moisten the filets with milk and then generously coat with cornmeal before deep-frying them in hot grease. When the filets float to the top, they're done. An alternative method: Use one of the pre-packaged seasoning mixes that can be purchased at your grocer or local sporting goods store. My favorite pre-mix is the Cajun spice.

Any way you prepare them, crappie are such fabulous table fare that your guests will be begging for more.

Just keep in mind that whether you're catching crappie or eating them, you'll get hooked on them - just as legions of other Oklahomans have over the years.



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