East Texas' Overlooked Slab Hotspots

East Texas' Overlooked Slab Hotspots

Believe it or not, there are some super spots for taking slab crappie that many local anglers would just as soon keep silent about. But we'll let you in on the secret. (March 2010)

The bump on the line was subtle. Even though I was using a light-action rod, had I not been watching the line I never would have noticed the bite.

A quick flip of the wrist sent the jig home and I started reeling in another slab crappie. You want to know the best part? The day was just then dawning, and I had not driven even 10 minutes to get to the lake. Small-water fisheries have their advantages at times, and the luxury of close proximity is one of them.

Holding a lot of fish is another!

We've all been there. You want to go fishing. Check that, you need to go fishing, but gas is expensive or you don't have a full day to devote to chasing crappie. And Sam Rayburn, Lake Fork, Caddo and Toledo Bend are all hours away from your doorstep. You don't feel like competing with other anglers or congested boat ramps and sometimes, heaven forbid, the fish aren't biting on those lakes.

Those of us living in the eastern part of the state are in luck in situations like that. Most likely there is a small reservoir located within 15 minutes of your house that has respectable, and sometimes remarkable, crappie fishing. You just have to know where to look and what to use.

Let's look at a few of those lakes and see what the local anglers use to put slabs in the boat right now.

Lake Gilmer hasn't been a lake very long. As a matter of fact, just over a decade ago I spent time tracking deer in the bottomland that now makes up the floor of the lake. There is a set of antlers in my living room from a buck taken in an area that is now 20 feet under water.

Today you won't find deer in the middle of this somewhat diminutive 1,000-acre impoundment, but what you will find are crappie, lots of crappie. The same brush that once attracted deer now serves as ideal habitat for fish. Because the lake is so young, it's difficult to find an angler with decades of experience on its waters. But those who do frequent it have learned quickly how to find crappie in the spring.

One such angler is Robert Howell, who spends a lot of time on Gilmer and many of the other small lakes in the region, not just fishing for, but catching a lot of crappie in waters most of us pass on the way to a real lake. As owner of Crazy Angler Tackle (crazyanglertackle.com), specializing in selling material to make your own jigs, Robert knows a thing or two about crappie fishing, especially on smaller bodies of water.

Sometimes, when researching an article, I come across something I've never tried or heard of; this was one of those times. According to Robert, one of the keys to finding crappie on a new lake is to find the old burn piles where the big stumps, brush and treetops were bulldozed into a mound and burned before the lake was filled. These areas tend to hold more crappie, as the burned stumps attract the small baitfish, feeding on who-knows-what, which in turn attracts more predators. The problem with locating these spots is that on a depthfinder it is impossible to tell the difference between a regular pile of brush set out by other anglers and a burned pile from before the lake was flooded.

To get around that, Robert has put together a small tool that will immediately tell him the difference between the two. When anchored over a suspected burn pile, Robert takes a small section of angle iron wrapped in nylon rope that has the ends frayed, ties it onto a length of rope and gently lowers it onto the pile. Don't just drop down like a cannonball or you'll scare off the fish. Rather, lower it as if it were glass.

If the frayed rope comes back up with just mud, then it is just a regular hump or brushpile, but if it comes up with black smudges, like that made from charcoal, then he's over a burn pile. A burn pile will out-produce a regular brushpile every time, but they're only good for a few years after the lake is flooded. You'll have to hit them early.

Once you've located the burn piles, start looking for schools of shad around them. If it's a cloudy day, the shad and crappie will roam farther from the brush. If it's a bright day, they tend to hang closer or stay completely buried up in cover. Find the shad and you'll find the crappie.

If you can't locate the burn piles, then there is plenty of standing timber still on Gilmer that you can hit. The problem is that you have to know which trees hold fish and which ones don't. That's where good electronic equipment pays for itself.

Troll over and around the timber and look for baitfish again, this time concentrating on bait that is between 5 and 8 feet off the bottom. Drop a jig down below, not above, the baitfish because that is where the crappie will be suspending. You've heard it for years, mostly because it tends to be true, but a crappie's eyes are on the top of its head, making it difficult for it to see below it. That's why they typically hang out below their food.

If you get into a school of severely undersized crappie, then move on to another school. Even if larger fish are hanging out with them, the smaller crappie will get to your jig first. If you are catching slightly undersized fish, then stay in the same area but go just a little deeper. Large crappie tend to hang beneath the small ones, eating the wounded shad left over.

Lake Tyler is an oddity in that it is actually two lakes but is commonly referred to as a single body of water. The East and West lakes (new and old, with new being a relative term since the newest lake was built over 40 years ago) are connected by a channel on their south ends. If you're from the Tyler area you're probably wondering why I'm mentioning them in an article about fishing when they are more commonly associated with other recreational uses such as skiing, sailing and riding personal watercraft. As a matter of fact, I'm wondering why I'm mentioning it as well, but that's just because I don't want a bunch of anglers finding my hotspots on this little-known honeyhole.

As mentioned earlier, Lake Tyler is more commonly considered a recreational lake for skiers and pleasure boaters, so you can't take the normal approach when going after crappie. The key to catching fish on Tyler is waiting and watching before deciding where you're going to fish. Even after that decision is made, you might have to switch to Plan B -- so have one ready. If you have a little patience, you can spend a lot more time catching and less time dodging other boaters.

Robert spends quite a bit of time on Lake Tyler as well, but a lot of it is without a hook in the water. You can't just run and gun on Tyler. Going to the same old

spots year after year, day after day and expecting to catch fish just doesn't work. That's due mainly to the volume of boat traffic on the lake, which will make some brushpiles virtually unfishable. A smart angler on Tyler will pattern the other boats before starting to pattern the fish. The more time you spend watching boaters, the more time you'll spend catching fish.

As Robert put it, "You wouldn't tolerate a bunch of boats driving through your living room and crappie on Tyler are the same way." They just will not tolerate a lot of boat traffic in one particular area before they move off to another. On Tyler, there are plenty of other places to go. Between the two lakes, Robert has more than 200 brushpiles marked on his depthfinder. With only around 5,000 surface-acres of water in the lake, that's a brushpile for every 25 acres. If a crappie doesn't like the brushpile it's sitting in, it's only a short swim to another. Sometimes the amount and location of other boaters on the water has just as big an effect as water temperature itself on the location of the fish.

Instead of jumping on the water and heading to your favorite brushpile, take the time to sit back and watch where the rest of the boat traffic is located. A ski boat running in the cove you want to fish means the crappie won't be there, and the ones that are will not be feeding. When you go to fish Tyler, make the first 15 to 20 minutes of your fishing trip a scouting expedition. Cruise slowly around noting where all the boat traffic is and then go elsewhere.

The crappie on Tyler tend to spawn earlier than on other larger lakes. Last year's spawn started in January, so anglers chasing crappie in early spring need to hit post-spawn areas. Early spawning crappie coming off the beds, and late spawners working their way up will stage on the first available structure they find at the mouths of coves, so concentrate on brush in those areas in 9 to 12 feet of water.

One of the biggest mistakes that anglers make while chasing crappie on Tyler is being too aggressive with their boat handling and spooking the fish. As mentioned earlier, crappie on Tyler will not tolerate a lot of boat traffic in a specific area. So don't motor right up to the brushpile, toss the anchor in the middle of the structure and expect to catch crappie.

"I've seen pontoon boats come in and drop five-gallon buckets of concrete off each end as anchors right on the brushpile," Robert told me. "Every crappie in that cove stopped biting right then."

That might be an extreme example, but instead of bull-rushing the crappie like those anglers did, follow Robert's lead and take a stealth mode for spring crappie on small waters. Don't motor over the brush with the big motor, but use the trolling motor to locate the pile -- which you should mark on your GPS beforehand if possible -- and cruise around it to see if there are any fish in or around it. Once you've decided you want to fish a particular spot, go upwind about 75 feet before dropping anchor. You'll need a minimum of 100 feet of anchor rope to do this, but start fishing well upwind of the brush and slowly work your way down to it. On cloudy days, the baitfish, and the crappie that follow them, can be well away from the structure, suspending in open water. If you get right on top of it, you might miss the entire school.

Slowly let out anchor line, fishing your way to the brush, and then stay over the brush for 10 to 15 minutes before letting out more anchor line to fish the downwind side as well. Done properly, you can fish the entire area around a brushpile thoroughly in about 25 minutes. That will give you a good idea if there are fish in the area and at what depth they are holding. Once you've established a pattern, you can hit other areas with similar cover and catch fish there too.

With all the big-name lakes in our state, it's easy to get drawn into thinking that you can't catch fish unless you are on a body of water named Fork, Rayburn or Toledo. However, sometimes the lakes known more for other recreational activities can provide some of the best catches -- provided you know where to go and what to throw.

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