'Show Me' Slabs: Early Season Crappie in Missouri

early season crappie

If you think February is too early to be chasing crappie, then you haven't been fishing these Missouri lakes.

By Ryan Miloshewski

Missouri is home to an excess of reservoirs that hold good crappie populations. Throughout the state, anglers have no issue catching a limit of crappie most times of the year.

However, as winter turns to spring in February and March, some of the best crappie fishing in the state ramps up.

Here's where to go and what to do at Missouri's top lakes this time of year.

LAKE OF THE OZARKS

Missouri's staple reservoir will again produce good crappie fishing early in 2018. Although water temperatures average from 40 to 50 degrees, the crappie are actively feeding in preparation for spring — and can be caught. Jack Uxa, of Jack's Guide Service on Lake of the Ozarks, expects a respectable population of keeper crappie next year. He is mostly excited for a strong population of 14- to 15-inch black crappie on the lake. He has been down on the Lake for 15 years and keeps his clients on fish the year 'round.

"I focus on two major patterns in February and March," Uxa said. "Shooting docks and vertical jigging in 35 feet of water." 

Uxa uses his side imaging to scan under docks on secondary points. A lone dock near a creek channel is his favorite dock to shoot. Once he finds a school, he targets them with a 1/16-ounce Johnson tube jig in white/blue on sunny days, or chartreuse/black on cloudy days, with a crappie niblet.

"One thing I always do is dab some superglue on my jig — especially when shooting docks," Uxa explained. "When you are catching fish and constantly grabbing on the jig, the last thing you want to do is constantly fix your tube jig."

Uxa focuses on the Gravois arm and the PV-2 area this time of year, while avoiding the Niangua and upper Osage arms. "The Niangua and Osage are just so pressured I avoid them almost altogether," he lamented. "Plus, you can catch quality fish in other areas," he explained. 

John Neporadny, Jr, a resident of Lake of the Ozarks and former guide on the reservoir, likes to focus on transition banks at this time of year. "Any brushpile where a bank goes from slab rock to chunk rock will hold fish," he said. "If we get two or three days of warmer weather, those fish will move up and you can catch them."

John likes to vertical jig a Bobby Garland Slab Slay'r in blue ice, bluegrass, and chartreuse on a 1/16 or 1/8-ounce jig near these brushpiles.

TRUMAN LAKE

The twin sister of Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Lake is quickly becoming the best lake to target crappie in Missouri. "Crappie fishing on Truman is good and getting better each year," said longtime fishing guide Jeff Faulkenberry of Faulkenbery's Endless Season Guide Service. The high water we had in 2017 is going to make 2018 a banner year. 

"Crappie were able to get in previously unreachable cover during the spawn, which limited fishing pressure and allowed excellent protection from predatory fish," he said. Anglers caught a lot of 9-inch fish in the summer of 2017, which means those fish should be 11 inches by the time February rolls around. 

During February and March, water temperatures average from 38 to 42 degrees and slowly climb as the calendar rolls on. The crappie are actively hitting, though, on jigs or minnows. 

"I've caught three fish over 3 pounds on Truman, and every one of them came in February in shallow water," Faulkenberry explained. 

Truman is home to black stumps in shallow water, and during the winter months they heat up on sunny days and warm the water around them. Pitching a jig or minnow near them can prove deadly for big slabs. The Tebow Arm of the lake and any creek channel out of the North wind is the best place to target. 

If that is not your cup of tea, a lot of crappie can be found in the creek channels near swings in the bank. Crappie can be found hanging around giant balls of shad in 15 to 18 feet of water. The crappie will be suspended in 6 to 8 feet of water around those shad. Vertical jigging a 1/16-ounce jig undoubtedly will put limits in the boat. Using a bone-white jig is Faulkenberry's favorite color and tactic all year 'round. 

Another popular tactic is to spider rig. Faulkenberry places eight rods on the front of his boat with a tandem rig of two 1/0 minnow hooks and a 3/8-ounce or 1/2-ounce sinker, depending on the wind. He trolls above suspended crappie in creek channels 6 to 8 feet down, targeting females and males gorging in preparation of the spawn. 

"Once you find a school, hold over the fish and drop your jig or minnow down to them," he suggested. "Let the fish tell you what they want. If you're smart enough to listen, you'll catch 'em here." 

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STOCKTON LAKE

Crappie fishing at Stockton should be good in early 2018. A healthy population of 11- to 12-inch fish populate the lake, with plenty of 9- to 10-inch fish as well. Although February and March can be slow for catching crappie on the lake, if you find the fish the action can be excellent. 

Rick Flint, former MDC employee and Stockton Lake resident, says the crappie start ganging up in the mouths of coves there in February. His favorite areas are the Big Sac arm, Turkey Creek around Aldrich, and Cedar Ridge.

One thing that separates Stockton Lake from the rest of Missouri's reservoirs is its depth at where crappie suspend. "I see crappie suspended in and around shad balls in 30 to 60 feet of water early in the year," Flint said. "The shad balls can be as big as your house, and the big ones (slab crappie) are sure to be around them." 

Flint likes to use a 1/8-ounce or 1/4-ounce jig with a chartreuse/brown or black body, as well as the popular "glo" colors from Bobby Garland. Flint always puts a crappie niblet on his jig, just to seal the deal. 

As February rolls into March, crappie start to stage in the mouths of creeks in the channel. They are not necessarily tied to any cover, but if shad are around, they will be there. 

For that transition, Flint likes to use a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce Blakemore Road Runner with a Tennessee shad or Bleeding Shad-colored body. He casts it out over suspended fish and slowly retrieves it back to the boat. 

"Focusing on the water temperature and moving farther back into the creek arms will keep you on fish," Flint stated. "We go from mid-40 to 50-degree water temps from early February to mid-March so keep moving back as it warms and you'll catch fish."

TABLE ROCK LAKE

Southwest Missouri's staple reservoir is home to a quality population of black and white crappie, and the best time to target them is February and March. Water temperature averages are much warmer in Table Rock, hovering around 50 or 55 degrees during those months. 

Shane Bush, the Missouri Department of Conservation's fisheries biologist for Table Rock, targets brushpiles in creek channels and river arm flats for big slabs. "If you can find a brushpile, you can bet there will be crappie in it," he said. 

The MDC recently placed 1,500 brushpiles in the lake and anglers can visit the MDC Web site to download a map to their smart phones that indicates where each brushy crappie attractor is located. The MO Fishing App also has every brushpile on Table Rock mapped. 

Bush and his colleagues recently completed their 2017 survey and shocked multiple crappie, black and white, 12 inches or larger. In fact, 30 percent of the fish shocked measured 12 inches. "There is a fair population of crappie here; they can be tough to catch, but there are some studs," he went on to say. 

The James River Arm, Long Creek, King Arm, and Cricket Creek is where Bush recommends anglers fish early in the year. "There are a lot of flats 6 to 12 feet in these areas and crappie actively chase shad on them from dawn 'til dusk if conditions are right," Bush stated. Per usual, with chop on the water and some cloud cover, you can really get into them. 

Docks near creek channels on a bluff bank are key this time of year as well. "A buddy and I were shooting docks last February in the Long Creek arm and were catching 14- to 15-inch black crappie regularly," Bush said. 

It's true that if you can find the right dock in the right arm of the lake, you are in business for collecting some serious slabs.

MARK TWAIN LAKE

Because of its northern location in the state, Mark Twain Lake can be a little tough for crappie fishing early in the year. However, there still are plenty of crappie to be caught if you are able to brave the colder weather and water. 

Mark Twain is home to a large population of white crappie, but the thriving gizzard shad population makes it hard for them to grow. "The shad are not small enough for the crappie to eat," said Ken Erb, longtime guide on Mark Twain. "We have a great algae bloom every year and the shad gorge on it and go from 2 inches to 4 inches in a year. Crappie cannot eat those 4-inch fish as easily as a 2-inch shad." 

Ross Dames, MDC fisheries biologist for Mark Twain, says the lake's crappie population fluctuates quite a bit year to year, but he expects a better than average year in 2018. "We shocked up a lot of 9-inch fish in the fall of 2016, and those fish should be 10 to 11 inches by February," Dames said. "Based on catching reports for this summer, we might be in for a good year in 2018." 

Water temperatures average 38 to 45 degrees in February and March, which is lower than the southern reservoirs. And with an average spawning date of May 1, crappie are fairly sluggish, but they will eat. 

"Any time you get a warm, windy day during this time of year on the upper end of the lake, you can catch 'em," Dames stated. 

Finding fish suspended in creek arms is the key, but these fish may be fairly deep. Using your sonar to find them and pitching any white or chartreuse/black tube jig to them is the ticket. Sometimes the crappie stay near the bottom over structure, and so using your graph is paramount to success at Mark Twain.

KEEPING UP TO DATE

Crappie fishing can be extremely variable in Missouri in February and March. MDC Fisheries Division Chief Brian Canaday encourages fishermen to stay up to date as much as possible. 

Anglers can download the MO Fishing App to their mobile phone or device for information about their favorite fishing areas in Missouri. This app is free from the app store. You can find more information about the MO Fishing app at: mdc.mo.gov/contact-engage/mobile-apps/mo-fishing. 

Signing up for the weekly fishing reports can help, too. They can be found at: fishing.mdc.mo.gov/newsletter.

Anglers should look for the 2018 Fishing Prospects at fishing.mdc.mo.gov/. The Fishing Prospects provides the reader with best bets for fishing based on our fisheries management biologists' sampling data. 

You can also find out who the biologist is for your favorite fishing area at the following link: mdc.mo.gov/regional-contacts?county=All

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