Statewide Slabs

Statewide Slabs

If you want to fill your stringer with crappie this month, check out this selection of great crappie-catching lakes across our state.

By Mike Innis

It's getting to be that time of the year: The redbud trees are just starting to come out, the weather is beginning to moderate, and the temperatures of lake waters all over Texas are slowly creeping upward.

With all those factors coming into play, the Texas angler's thoughts will be turning to fishing for the black and white crappie that found in almost every impoundment within our borders. The new year looks to be a fantastic one for this fine game fish.

So let's take a careful look at the fish themselves, rigs to catch them on, and tips and techniques that can help you fill your stringers. And then let's tour some of the lakes with the best reputations in the entire state for producing solid catches of crappie.

THE FISH
There are two subspecies of the common crappie: the black crappie, which gets its name from its slightly darkish coloration, and the white crappie. The black crappie, usually white or gray with dark gray or black spots covering most of its sides, has seven or eight dorsal spines on the top of its back. The white crappie often has distinct vertical bars of gray extending down its sides; it has five or six dorsal spines. Both of the sub-species have nearly the same feeding patterns and spawning time, and both make excellent table fare.

RIGS FOR CRAPPIE
Crappie, not very particular about what they devour, eat most types of insects, worms, small crayfish and minnows - a variety of forage that makes choosing baits for crappie fairly simple. Just about every angler has a favorite bait that he swears will outfish any other, and that's not a bad thing, because having confidence in your bait is almost as important as selecting a favorite one through years of experience on the water. Fish your favorite; if the fish are hitting it, keep right on using it until they quit. But when the fish seem to lose interest, it's time to dig through your tackle box.

Most baits will catch fish, provided they're presented to the fish in the right way at the right time. Although minnows and worms are often very effective for catching crappie, you should consider the cost and the hassle associated with replacing them and keeping them fresh on your rig. From time to time a natural bait is all the fish will hit, but artificial lures will generally work year 'round. The three types of artificials most commonly used around the lakes in Texas are as follows.

Photo by Keith Sutton

Marabou Jigs
These are the small jigs that have small, furry bodies and puffy, feathery tails. They come in many sizes and a rainbow of colors, are very durable, and are fairly inexpensive (watch for sales at the big chain stores, where you can get them for 25 cents for a four-pack). They can even be made at home with some yarn and pipe cleaners.

Whether you buy them or roll your own, coating them with clear fingernail polish will extend their lives. Adding a dash of glitter material to them before the fingernail polish dries will give them some extra flash. Those seeking picky crappie will find these jigs to be perfect for finesse fishing, vertical-jigging over structure, or suspending under a bobber. They are available in 1/8-, 1/16-, or 1/32-ounce weights. Check with local anglers to see what the fish's favorite color happens to be at the lake you're fishing.

Curlytail Grubs
These soft-plastic baits with curly tails on the back can produce a lot of action when jigged or retrieved steadily; they come in many sizes, but the favorite seems to be a 1 1/2-inch to 2 1/2-inch grub. Rig them with a 1/8- to 1/64-ounce jighead, depending on conditions and your personal preference.

Spinners
Allowance made for the type of cover you're working for crappie, spinners can be deadly effective. They are very versatile and easy to cast, and many are fairly weedless. The spinner has great appeal to a large cross-section of fish. When you toss one out with crappie on your mind, don't be surprised if a bass, catfish, or pugnacious little bluegill grabs it and runs. While the smaller spinners seem to produce best (a 1/16-ounce Beetle Spin really attracts them), you should remember to have a range of options to offer the crappie to ensure your success. Make sure you have both the gold-bladed and the silver-bladed spinners in your arsenal.

TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
Crappie are fairly active year 'round, but fall and spring see the hottest fishing. Crappie spawn when the water temperature reaches somewhere in the 52- to 60-degree range, and just prior to the beginning of the spawn (when the water gets 48 to 51 degrees), they move into shallower water and feed aggressively. Accordingly, warming spring water temperatures cause their feeding activity to increase dramatically.

Most crappie move into shoreline cover, such as fallen trees, and shallow coves during that time. The females will lay their eggs and move to slightly deeper water while the males stay in the shallows and guard the nest. If you catch several smaller fish in shallow water, move to the nearest dropoff, and you may find the larger females.

Crappie love structure, so key on areas with prominent cover. Rockpiles, shallow coves, stumps, points, fallen trees, and submerged brush are all classic crappie hideouts. Many anglers sink old bushes, tires, and even wooden palettes to create habitat for big fish.

Vertical-jigging is a logical method for fishing submerged cover. A 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jig dropped into brush and twitched will bring up many fish if conditions are right. Try swimming a small spinner through stumpfields or along fallen trees to locate the slabs. When you identify the depth at which most of the fish are holding, try suspending a jig or minnow there under a small bobber.

THE STATE OUTLOOK
Texas anglers are blessed with numerous bodies of water holding very nice populations of crappie. Many of the impoundments are within easy driving distance of large, metropolitan areas.

Toledo Bend is an enormous 185,000-acre lake in the northeast corner of the state. While somewhat overpowering for the first-time visitor, it's well worth getting acquainted with: The state-record black crappie was caught there, for example. If you're going out for crappie without a guide, spend some time talking to the local fishing equipment retailers and bait shop operators. While they're obviously unlikely to direct you straight to their personal honeyholes, they can provide general areas

worth focusing on.

Invest in a good map, and then select an area close to the marina or boat ramp and work it thoroughly, keeping in mind that the crappie look for debris to hang around in. If you catch them in the spawn, you can follow almost any old creekbed up as far as you can get your boat and work the stickups there.

If you'd like some professional guidance, give Bob Houser a call at (409) 579-3385. Another contact point is the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce; they'll have a list of guide services to share with you.

No coverage of any type of Texas freshwater fishing would be complete without a mention of Lake Fork. This large impoundment has been known as a world-class bass fishery for years, but the crappie fishing is excellent as well. Many times, anglers who can't convince the bucketmouths to hit limit out on papermouths!

To track down the schools of crappie in Lake Fork, probe the areas around the bridge pilings and any of the creeks that empty into the lake; push your way as far into the creeks as you can during the spawn. A guide with solid knowledge of the locality is Wally Marshall. He can be reached at (972) 272-4016.

Another huge lake, 114,000-acre Sam Rayburn is a true crappie hotspot. First-timers are well advised to cash in on all the local knowledge they can acquire at the tackle and bait shops, as well as from the motel operators and café staff! Just about everyone who lives around "Big Sam" catches a hat full of crappie each year. The folks at Big Sam's Tackle, (409) 384-1311, and Rayburn Tackle, (409) 698-8343, are always willing to share the latest-breaking information on where the slabs are hanging out.

At this time of the year, the upper end of the lake is the best bet. Work the mouths of the creeks first; then, make your way back up the creeks as far as you can safely take your boat. Fish all the stickups and brushpiles you can locate.

Lake Cooper, a fairly new and (in comparison to some of its neighbors) relatively small lake has been producing strong numbers of crappie each year. Catch numbers are on the increase as the lake enters its 10th year.

There's lots of brush in this 23,000-acre waterhole, so it can relieve you of a lot of your tackle - but that's where the crappie hang out, so learn to drop your rigs straight down into the piles and work them vertically. Leave your spinnerbaits in the box!

Terry Garner is a good person to call if you'd like some guidance on identifying the hottest crappie-producing areas on Cooper. You can reach him at (817) 453-8500.

Moving the search for papermouths to the southeast part of the Lone Star State, crappie anglers will be impressed with the variety available to them. Lake Livingston, which lies almost within the shadows cast by the Houston skyscrapers, is a heavily fished body of water that seems to hold up quite well under all the angling pressure. The crappie population is a big one, and the fishermen don't seem to make a dent in it.

The enormous amount of flooded timber in Livingston provides the crappie with the type of cover they really seem to like: both horizontal and vertical in the water column. The heavy vegetative growth in the lake creates a wonderful baitfish and juvenile game fish nursery.

A list of guides can be obtained from the Polk County Chamber of Commerce at (409) 327-4929.

Choke Canyon, down south of San Antonio, also provides some excellent cover for slabs. The Chamber of Commerce at Three Rivers will help you locate a guide if you're new to the impoundment; call (512) 786-4330. And a local with a good reputation for putting folks on fish is Jerry Dunn; you can reach him at (512) 786-4509. The fluctuating water level in Choke might cause a bit of a problem, but a call ahead to either the C. of C. or Jerry will let you know what the current level is and how long it's been there.

The finest fishing for papermouths in Choke is in the upriver area. Launch your boat at the U.S. 90 bridge and begin working your way up. There's a lot of standing brush and timber: perfect habitat for crappie. During the spawn, check out the many creeks that dump into the lake from all directions.

Back north, less than 50 miles from Houston, is Lake Conroe. Twenty-five years ago, this lake was rather remote, but now it's quite heavily trafficked on by folks who live in Conroe and make the brutal commute to Houston to earn their daily bread. Especially in the spring, the lake can give up regular limits of crappie.

As in all crappie fishing, finding the brush and timber and points and ledges is the key to limiting out quickly. A good map, a good guide, and/or some local intelligence can put you on the fish much more quickly. The Chamber of Commerce in Conroe will be glad to help; call (409) 756-6644.

Moving west along the I-35 corridor and westward from there, the number of high-yield crappie lakes diminishes but does not disappear. Granger Lake, just north and east of Austin, is a phenomenal little crappie fishery. While worthy year 'round, Granger sees its absolutely top time to fish between April and October.

Guide Tommy Tidwell, (512) 365-7761, says that the really interesting thing about Granger is that it will surrender crappie even during the hottest part of the summer, when the water's the temperature of a bath!

If you're going out without benefit of a guide, the place you want to fish is the southeast arm of the lake. There are plenty of easy-to-find stumps and other stickups for you to investigate, and the crappie hang around them all year long. Out in the main body of the lake, local fishermen have sunk numerous brushpiles; find one, and you're in for some fine fishing.

O.H. Ivie, a jewel in the arid West Texas plains area, is a 19,000-acre lake that supports a very large population of crappie. Kevin Burleson, (915) 365-5333, can put you on the fish, and a call to the Ballinger Chamber of Commerce office at (915) 365-5611 can supply you with several contacts.

The crappie fishing in the springtime is particularly good, most notably so if you run up either the Concho or the Colorado river arms that dump into the lake. The islands out in the main lake can also provide good crappie fishing, and, of course, the bridge pilings are always dependable.

Another "surprise" lake in the western area of Texas is E.V. Spence. Spence is a bit more of a challenge to fish if you don't have local knowledge, because there aren't a lot of blatant indicators as to where submerged brushpiles may be. Working with your fish finder and your map, though, you can track down the underwater cover and spend some very productive hours filling the ice chests with slabs. The people at the San Angelo Chamber of Commerce will gladly supply you with names of fishing guides who are members. The chamber can be reached at (915) 655-4136. And any of the tackle store operators in San Angelo will be glad to help you get your limit.

Drop farther south to t

he Texas-Mexico border, and you'll discover a couple of large impoundments that are well worth the trip. Falcon Reservoir has provided high-grade crappie fishing in the past and, with good spring and fall rains, can continue to be a major player for the serious crappie angler.

Obviously, the ongoing drought of the last several years has wreaked havoc on our "far-south" lakes, but a return to near-normal precipitation will cause Falcon to realize its full potential as a crappie fishery. If you'd like to sample what Falcon has to offer, call the Zapata Chamber of Commerce at (956) 765-4871 before you go for the latest in lake level, fishing outlook and a list of guides who can put you on the fish.

Amistad Reservoir, also on the border, is another good bet for crappie anglers living south and west of San Antonio. This impoundment is dotted with all kinds of interesting coves and inlets that can be explored. Most of them have quite a bit of mesquite left over from the initial filling of the impoundment, and that creates ideal crappie habitat. The people at the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce are very angler-friendly and will do everything they can to supply you with the information you need to fish The Big A successfully. Give them a call at (830) 775-3551.

* * *
There are literally hundreds of other lakes, large and small, that support fishable levels of crappie. This report has given you just a taste of what's out there for your fishing pleasure. So while you're out running around hunting for a place to fish for black bass, ask your guide or someone in the tackle shop where you can load up your cooler with slabs.

Who knows? You may already have floated your boat right over some of the best crappie habitat in the state! (And by the way: Crappie are a lot better eating than Old Mr. Largemouth!)



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