Scores O' Slabs

Scores O' Slabs

That's just what you could be catching this spring at hot crappie lakes all over the Lone Star State. Check out this guide to some of our best spots. (April 2006)

For years, I've listed the big glamour species at the top of my annual list of Texas piscatorial pursuits: lunker largemouths on Lake Fork in the spring, the smashing strike of striped bass on Lake Texoma, the serious bend in my fly rod put there by a Lower Laguna Madre redfish.

These days, however, I'm mightily tempted to put another fish at the top of my yearly angling to-do list: the crappie.

Why's that? For three reasons I was reminded of a year ago: the smiles, the laughter, and the sizzle. The smile comes courtesy of my middle son Zach, a 9-year-old fish-catching machine who couldn't stop grinning on a crappie outing we took last spring with his Uncle Larry. The laughs? They came from Casey Ingold and David Brackett as we fished Bonham City Lake, catching scores of crappie in between our jokes, fishing stories, and enjoyment of the Creator's springtime outdoor world.

And the sizzle? Well, if you've ever sampled crappie filets fried in peanut oil, I think you certainly understand that one.

Whatever the reason behind your enjoyment of crappie fishing, plenty of opportunity is available this year for anglers all across Texas to catch scores of slabs.

"Overall, I'd have to give a thumbs-up for crappie anglers across the state," said Bill Provine, the chief of research and management for the inland fisheries branch of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Asked to rate the upcoming crappie fishing, he added, "I would think that it would be an A or a B this year,"

That enthusiastic outlook is due in great part to the fact that in many areas of the Lone Star State, water conditions were generally fair to good as of press time; in some parts of the state, they were actually great. In fact, only in portions of North Texas were water conditions much lower than normal.

"I think that we have good water levels in most of our East Texas lakes where crappie are a highly sought-after species," Provine offered. "Our populations are fairly consistent, especially in good water years, and I think this year will be the same."

In other words: If you've caught a good mess of crappie at a favored honeyhole in years gone by, there's a good chance that you'll be able to do the same again this spring. And keep in mind that even if the lake or lakes that you like for sacking up the slabs has gone through some lean years recently, it usually doesn't take too long for the crappie fishing glass to go from half-empty to half-full.

Speaking of crappie lakes' capacity for getting healthy fast, Provine said, "A lot of them cycle in and out on good crappie populations, especially medium-sized to smaller-sized lakes. While one year may not be so good, the next year may be very good in some of these lakes. I wouldn't mark any of them off the list just because they weren't really good for fishing last year."

With all this in mind, here's a more detailed look at how some of the crappie waters across various regions of the Lone Star State will stack up this year.

EAST TEXAS

Even as it lords it over the rest of the state when it comes to lunker largemouths, East Texas may likewise be king of the realm of crappie fishing.

In fact, the same trio of bass-lake monarchs that the region is well known for -- Lake Fork, Sam Rayburn, and Toledo Bend -- should all fish well for sac-à-lait this spring. "I would expect that they will be consistent in their production of good crappie stringers," asserted Provine.

Lake Fork, widely known as the best bass lake in Texas (if not the entire country), annually makes a strong claim to the status of Texas' preeminent crappie lake, thanks to the one-two punch of water fertility and abundant woody cover.

In fact, in one of the more ironic angling twists of Texas freshwater fishing lore, the state's top-dog largemouth -- Barry St. Clair's 18.18-pound Lake Fork lunker -- was actually caught in January 1992 as St. Clair was fishing for crappie!

"Fork, it's one of the better crappie lakes in the state," Provine said. "High numbers of fish come out of Fork, and some really large fish come out of Fork -- larger crappie than some of the other Texas lakes."

What should crappie anglers look forward to from Fork this year? More of the same! "I would expect it to be an A this year," Provine stated.

Not to be outdone is sprawling Sam Rayburn Reservoir. "Big Sam" may take a backseat to Fork -- just barely -- in terms of total numbers of lunker largemouths caught each year, but excellent water quality and submerged woody cover help Rayburn make its own strong claim for the state's crappie fishing throne.

"It's more of a numbers lake than a trophy lake, but some big fish are going to come out of there," Provine said. "A whole lot of crappie come out of Sam Rayburn. Like Fork, I would expect it to be an A this year."

This now leads us to Toledo Bend, the sprawling Pineywoods reservoir that straddles the Texas/Louisiana state line.

"The earlier years of Toledo Bend were very, very good," Provine offered. "Then it went through a period where it seemed like it was on the downside. But I think it has come back in both the largemouth bass and crappie fishing.

"In terms of crappie, it's more of a numbers lake, similar to Sam Rayburn. Some big fish will come out of it, but there is just a tremendous amount of crappie harvest in that lake, and the more harvest you have, the fewer really older (trophy-sized) individuals you will find."

Provine's grade for Toledo Bend this spring is -- you guessed it -- another high mark. "I'd probably give it another A," he said.

Keep in mind that plenty of other noteworthy crappie lakes -- Caddo Lake, Lake Livingston, Lake O' The Pines, and Wright Patman Lake are four that come to mind -- lie in East Texas. And if water levels are fair to good this spring, then -- as the title of this piece indicates -- anglers can anticipate a reasonable chance of catching "scores of slabs" in those locations.

Finally, don't overlook some of the smaller East Texas crappie waters like Lake Athens and Lone Star Lake -- even smaller municipal water supply lakes. While the crappie fishing on such waters can fluctuate in response to a variety of factors such as water level and fishing pressure, such aquatic resources can a

lso provide secret troves of slab-fishing treasure for anglers eager and willing to do their homework.

CENTRAL TEXAS

Known for some of our state's most beautiful lakes, reservoirs and streams, Central Texas probably enjoys more of a reputation for white bass, Guadalupe bass, and largemouth bass than for crappie. But that doesn't mean that fair to good slab fishing can't occasionally be found in the region at such bodies of water as Brady Creek Reservoir, Gibbons Creek Reservoir, Lake Gonzalez, Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, Lake Somerville, Lake Waco, and Lake Wood.

Some map readers might argue that it's more of a North Texas reservoir than a Central Texas one, but there's one bona fide crappie hotspot lying within the triangle created by San Antonio and Houston on the south and the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex on the north: sprawling Richland-Chambers Reservoir, whose crappie fishing can be rated as nothing short of excellent.

"Overall, I'd have to give a thumbs-up for crappie anglers across the state." --Bill Provine, TPWD

"It's a good crappie lake," Provine said. "I think it's kind of both a numbers lake and a trophy lake. It's right up there with Fork and Sam Rayburn, and is a place where you have not only a good chance at a limit, but also some really big slabs too."

The only problem with Richland-Chambers was that, as of press time, it fell within the areas of north and northeast Texas plagued by drought during the last half of 2005. Because of that, R-C stood nearly 5 feet below normal as this was written. Provided that some decent early-spring rains will have bumped the reservoir's level back up, look for a solid year of slab fishing at this gargantuan slab factory near Corsicana.

NORTH TEXAS

When I think of North Texas crappie waters, there's certainly no shortage of candidates lying within easy driving distance of the D/FW Metroplex.

For starters, crappie-producing machines like Lake Lavon, Lake Lewisville, Lake Ray Roberts and Lake Texoma immediately come to mind. Other smaller, lesser-known waters like Lake Amon G. Carter, Lake Arlington, Eagle Mountain Lake, Lake Mineral Wells, Navarro Mills Lake, Lake Nocona, White Rock Lake, and Lake Worth also produce plenty of crappie for the fish fryer each spring. In fact, only one bona fide crappie star of the past -- Lake Bridgeport -- seems to have fallen off appreciably over the last few years.

"I think we'll have a good year in North Texas," said Bruce Hysmith, a regional TPWD inland fisheries biologist stationed at Lake Texoma. "If we get a lot of rain, it would be an A."

The only problem in this region, as of press time, was the severe drought gripping much of North Texas that had by the time this story was written, driven some of the area's reservoirs' water levels below normal. But, Hysmith noted, anglers ought to bear in mind that having low water levels isn't always a totally bad thing for a fishery.

"Look at it this way," he proposed. It's got to rain sometime. Sure, right now it's down. But these fish have enjoyed the fruits of low water last year."

Say what?

He continued: "The fact that these lakes went down, down, down all summer long -- well, it was kind of a gradual thing. So that concentrated the prey species with the predator species -- they could dine at will. That means that they should have gone into winter fat and sassy and come out fat and sassy this spring."

Following this logic, the crappie fishing could be decent this year in North Texas -- plus, the stage could be being set for some outstanding crappie fishing over the next several years.

Even as it lords it over the rest of the state when it comes to lunker largemouths, East Texas may likewise be king of the realm of crappie fishing.

"When we start getting rains again, these lakes that have been down 5 and 6 feet or more, they'll be like new reservoirs as the vegetation that has grown gets flooded," Hysmith said. "There will be an enrichment of nutrients and new habitat created, which could double the spawning areas. So if we get our spring rains and these reservoirs come up, we'll have an A-plus (in years to come)."

While this region can boast a plethora of admirable crappie waters, anglers might not want to overlook three small- to medium-sized waters found in Fannin County: Bonham City Lake, Coffee Mill Lake, and Davy Crockett Lake. The latter two lie within the Caddo National Grassland Wildlife Management Area near Bonham.

The most recent sampling data available, reported Hysmith, indicate that the average catch rate per night in the five nets that his crews set for their surveys was as follows: Bonham City Lake, 62 crappie per net per night, 31 percent of those of legal size or bigger; Coffee Mill Lake, 45, 32 percent; and Davy Crockett Lake, 40, 5 percent.

"Crockett has a reputation of having to catch 100 crappie to get one legal, but we had somewhere between 5 and 10 percent that were keeper size and bigger in our survey," Hysmith said. "Coffee Mill not only has a lot of crappie, but it also has some big crappie."

As for Bonham City Lake: Last spring, I wetted a line at that fishery for the first time, and found some of the most profitable fishing for crappie that I've ever experienced. In fact, on the trip I mentioned at the outset of this story with Casey Ingold and David Brackett, we lost count of the number of times that crappie wound up on the end of our hooks. True, it took a while to catch enough legal fish for the frying pan -- but that's the kind of work that I thoroughly enjoy!

WEST AND SOUTH TEXAS

While these two regions of the Lone Star State aren't typically thought of as crappie country, some lakes here can yield satisfactory results for anglers wanting to fry some filets in hot peanut oil.

"In general, if we have good water levels, we'll have good to excellent crappie fishing out here in many of our lakes," said Bob Farquhar, a TPWD inland fisheries biologist based out of San Angelo. "Since a lot of lakes out here are at levels that are better than they have been in some time, we're expecting a better year for crappie."

The TPWD biologist went on to make specific mention of Choke Canyon Reservoir, O.H. Ivie Lake, and Lake Proctor as solid crappie fishing choices for this year. But, in the process, he paused to remind anglers that the up-and-down fortunes of crappie populations would suggest that historically good and/or smaller waters in the region shouldn't be overlooked by West and South Texas anglers in 2006.

As for Bonham City Lake: Last spring, I wetted a line at that fishery for the first time, and found some of the most profitable fishing for crappie that I've ever experienced.

"Crappies are fairly cyclic in nature," Farquhar said. "You can have some good year-classes; then they'll decline somewhat. And then they'll come back. That's true even in

stable water levels -- but it's kind of accentuated out here.

"Some of our smaller lakes produce some good crappie fishing at times, although only the local anglers may know about it. For instance, one of our biologists here just sampled a small lake near Ballinger, where we have put in some adult fish after this particular lake had gone dry. He just sampled it and had some good results."

Overall, Farquhar gives a cautious thumbs-up to crappie fishing in these two regions this year. "Predicting's always dangerous," he cautioned, "and especially, of course, out here. But I'd probably put a B or a B-plus on it right now. We've had good conditions the last two years, good growth, and good age-classes, so I'd say we're in the passing category right now."

* * *

In fact, nearly all regions of Texas are in the passing-or-better category right now when it comes to crappie fishing. And that should mean that this spring -- as in most other springs of the past -- there should be scores of slabs waiting to be caught from one end of the Lone Star State to the other.

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