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Crappies & Panfish Fishing Great Plains

Crappie Hotspots

September 30th, 2010 0

Now is the time to get out there and catch crappie in Nebraska. (May 2010)


Nebraska offers great crappie fishing in May. Get out to one of the many hotspots and catch a nice slab.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Find that extra minnow bucket, pick up a few more corks and paint up some extra jigs because Nebraska lakes and reservoirs are prime for some outstanding crappie fishing this year. Ideally, the best action might be a year or two down the line, but anglers should find plenty of specks for the fryer this spring.

A prolonged drought in the Midwest had many reservoirs and lakes drawn down to historic low levels. With a limited amount of surface area and access to spawning habitat, Nebraska crappie numbers were somewhat stagnate for many years. There were fish, but limited recruitment resulted in only fair fishing. But several successive wet years have revitalized Nebraska lakes and reservoirs and crappie populations have responded accordingly.

“Higher water levels have set the stage for an explosion in crappie numbers,” stated Daryl Bauer, Fisheries Outreach Program Manager with the NGPC. “Many bodies of water were at extremely low levels for a number of years all across Nebraska. This wet period that we’ve experienced has things looking a lot better across the board. There’s more water than we’ve had in a least seven years.”

The good side of lower water levels is that vegetation has a chance to grow in the shallows of the lake or reservoir. As water levels rebound, this vegetation is again flooded providing ideal spawning habitat and cover for crappies.

Nebraska has been blessed with higher water levels for a couple of years now which has resulted in prime spawning conditions and a bumper crops of specks the last two springs. The majority of those fish might be a year or two away from showing up in the harvest, but the stage is set. Some of the bounty may be catchable size this year. In spite of what happens with water levels the next few years, there will be a bumper crop of slabs for anglers to catch the next few years.

The only downside is that more habitat may make the crappies more difficult to catch. “With all the habitat there is now, guys may find that even though there’s more crappies, they may be harder to find and catch.”

When I asked Daryl Bauer what kind of crappies anglers were likely to catch in Nebraska he chuckled, “It’s kind of a mixture.” Bauer explained that Nebraska kind of sits in the middle of the transitional zone between black crappie and white crappie. “To the north black crappies are going to be more common,” said Bauer. “If you go down to Kansas you’re likely to find more white crappie. ” Bauer said that white crappie have a preference for more turbid waters than black crappies so you’re more likely to find them in Nebraska’s reservoirs.

Even though there has been a general improvement in crappie numbers all across the state, there are several bodies of water that look to provide exceptional fishing this May. Daryl Bauer offered a few of his can’t-miss picks for 2010.

“Davis Creek Reservoir in the north-central part of the state has a lot of crappies,” claimed Bauer. “You may have to sort to find the good ones, but there’s no shortage of fish.” Davis Creek Reservoir covers 1,145 acres and is feed by Davis Creek, a tributary of the North Loop River and a canal off the river. The reservoir is located southeast of the town of North Loup. The reservoir is a myriad of coves, bays and point that offer ideal crappie habitat. Look for schools of pre-spawn specks to invade the backs of warmer, south-facing coves just after ice-out in preparation for spawning. The specks will hang out in these areas through May before warming waters force them to migrate towards deeper water and the dam.

During the most recent fisheries survey on Davis Creek Reservoir, researchers found fewer, but bigger crappies than in previous surveys. Crappies larger than 8 inches made up a fairly substantial portion of the survey and crappies greater than 10 inches were present. Previous surveys had not turned up any crappies that large. Because Davis Creek Reservoir is an irrigation reservoir it’s subject to seasonal drawdowns, but higher water levels generally coincide with primetime spring fishing. The addition of deep-water habitat structures to the reservoir should benefit overall crappie survival too.

Davis Creek Dam Campground offers campsites for visiting anglers. There’s a concrete ramp, which provides boating access. For more information on crappie opportunities on Davis Creek Reservoir contact the North-Central District Office of the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission at 402-684-2921.

Not far from Davis Creek Reservoir is another top-notch crappie destination — Sherman Reservoir. At 2,845-acres, Sherman is one of the premier trophy crappie waters in Nebraska and sports a special 10-inch minimum size length on crappies. “Sherman is typically one of the best crappie waters in the state year in and year out,” claimed South-Central District fisheries biologist Brad Eifert. “The numbers have been lower than normal there in recent years, but you’ll find crappies up to 13 inches.”

During the most recent year that data was available for Sherman Reservoir, the catch of crappie larger than 10 inches was similar to catch rates observed the previous three years and provided approximately 25% of the total catch. Although recruitment of crappies has not been good in Sherman in recent years, it remains one of the better destinations for larger specks in the Cornhusker State. A canal off of the Middle Loup River maintains Sherman Reservoir. It provides a consistent, constant source of water, something most Nebraska crappies waters can’t depend on.

Two arms, the Dead Horse Creek Arm and the Moon Creek Arm, extend off the east side of Sherman Reservoir. Both are good places to begin your search for May crappies. The arms contain many shallow coves, cuts and bays that soak up the spring sunlight and attract spawning specks. There are campgrounds and boat launches on each of the arms. There are several other campgrounds scattered around the lake and another boat launch on the south end near the dam.

Harlan County Reservoir is another up-and-coming crappie fishery that bears watching. “Harlan County Reservoir was extremely low for a number of years,” stated South-Central District fisheries biologist Brad Eifert. “Now that the waters levels have come back up the crappies population has exploded. During our recent survey we found a lot of crappies 8 to 9 inches or less. ” Harlan should provide some decent fishing this year and great fishing in the future.

The higher water levels on Harlan in recent years allowed fish samplings to be conducted in the fall of 2008 for the first t
ime since 2003. The nets found a bumper crop of crappies from the 2007-year class that averaged 6 to 7 inches long. Those fish should be healthy 10 to 12 inchers this year. Combine that with consistent water levels and good spawning conditions and anglers may be enjoying some outstanding crappie action on Harlan Reservoir for years to come.

Preliminary results from the 2009 fall netting surveys show that Johnson Reservoir was the top fishery in the state in terms of crappie numbers. Part of the Tri-County Irrigation System that also includes Plum Creek (250 acres), Gallagher (240 acres), and the Midway (700 acres) chain, 2,189-acre Johnson Reservoir produced phenomenal crappie year classes in 2007 and 2008 that has set the stage for some great fishing. A large percentage of the fish captured in the 2009 sampling were less than five inches, but there are enough in the 8- to 12-inch range to keep anglers busy until those year classes mature. When they do, look out.

Fisheries biologist Brad Eifert said that stable water levels help maintain a consistent fishery on Johnson and the other reservoirs in the system.

Contact the Nebraska G&P South-Central District office at 308-865-5310 for more information.

Daryl Bauer tabbed Whitney Reservoir in northwest Nebraska as one of the reservoirs to watch for crappies in 2010.

“Whitney Reservoir not only has good number of crappies, it has a good size structure,” claimed fisheries biologist Al Hanson. 900-acre Whitney Reservoir is formed by a diversion off the White River. “Water levels have been a little better in recent years,” said Hanson. But because the reservoir is irrigation-dependant, water levels can fluctuate wildly and dramatically. Hanson said that normally the reservoir begins to refill in September, but in 2009 the reservoir didn’t begin to refill until December. A very shallow reservoir with few spots over 11 or 12 feet, you might be lucky to find 8 feet of water this spring. That should concentrate the spring crappies.

Hanson said that recent surveys have turned up crappies in excess of 12 inches on Whitney and the average speck is close to 11 inches. That’s a respectable fish anywhere! With a lack of structure and habitat the crappies can be hard to locate. “The reservoir really doesn’t have any structure, ” said Hanson. “It’s more like a bathtub. One thing that does concentrate fish is emergent mats of smartweed. Finding that emergent weed growth would be a good place to start in the spring.”

The water at Whitney can become very turbid in the spring and summer months. Ironically, it’s black crappies that thrive in the reservoir right now. White crappies usually do best in such environments. Hanson said that gizzard shad that were planted several years ago caused the size of the black crappies in the reservoir to triple. White crappies were planted just a couple years ago and Hanson is hoping that the whites find the food source and environment to their liking.

For more information on Whitney Reservoir crappies contact the Nebraska Game & Parks Alliance Northwest District office at 308-763-2940.

“There are really three bodies of water that stand out for crappies in southeast Nebraska,” stated fisheries biologist Mark Porath. “Branched Oak Reservoir has had a resurgence of sorts and has been producing some very large crappies in recent years. Pawnee Reservoir has a really good decent density of crappies in it right now and Stagecoach Reservoir is somewhere in between; the fish may not be as big as on Branched Oak or as many as in Pawnee, but it has good fishing for crappies.”

1,800-acre Branched Oak Lake is located within Branched Oak Lake State Recreation and State Wildlife Management areas and is northwest of Lincoln.

When asked about the rebound in big crappies numbers in Branched Oak, fisheries biologist Mark Porath responded, “water levels have been steady and flooded vegetation has provided good habitat. ” The flooded vegetation is important because it provides suitable spawning habitat, cover for young crappies and the dinner table for larger specks. “Most of the larger crappies are going to be feeding on young-of-the-year panfish that can be found in the flooded vegetation, but they have been utilizing the invertebrates that can be found in the vegetation too. ” Once crappies reach a certain size Porwath said, they become strictly minnow eaters. Branched Oak has a 10-inch minimum size limit on crappies. Porwath said you can expect to find plenty of specks in the 10- to 13-inch size range in the lake.

Prime locations in the early spring, according Porath, is where you find deep water and flooded timber in close proximity to spawning areas. Once the waters warm to the point where the specks start heading to the shallows, look to the north side bays that will warm first.

740-acre Pawnee Lake is one crappie lake to keep an eye on. “Pawnee has a really decent density of crappies in the 9- to 10-inch range, ” claimed Porath. Give those fish another year to grow and you’re going to have an outstanding fishery. Pawnee Lake is fed by the South Branch of Middle Creek.

One potential fly in the ointment on Pawnee is the proliferation of white perch, which is beginning to impact the crappie population and could have long-term effects. Currently, crappie numbers are more than holding their own and should produce exceptional fishing in 2010.

195-acre Stagecoach Lake in Lancaster County is not a big body of water, but it produces big numbers of crappies. Crappies are one of the most popular and most harvested species in the lake. The lake is home to both black and white crappie, offering anglers a unique mix. Anglers routinely take close to 10,000 crappies from the lake each year with May being prime time.

“Stagecoach is kind of an intermediate crappie fishery somewhere between Branched Oak and Pawnee,” said fisheries biologist Porath. “Stagecoach doesn’t have as many big crappies as Branched Oak and it doesn’t have the numbers of crappies that Pawnee has. It’s kind of in between.” That’s a happy medium that should suit crappie fans just fine. One advantage of being a smaller body of water is that Stagecoach warms quickly and specks can be found in the shallows much earlier than on other lakes. May is a can’t-miss month on Stagecoach.

For more details on southeast Nebraska area crappie waters contact the NG&P Lincoln District office at 402-471-7647.

700-acre Willow Creek Lake in Pierce County is due. Most lakes have strong years classes of crappies every three years or so, but Willow Creek’s population seems to follow a little different schedule. It’s often six or eight years between good year classes, but biologists found good number of yearling crappies in 2006 and 2007 that should contribute significantly to improved crappie fishing in 2010. Willow Creek specks do exhibit good growth rates so it should produce some respectable specks in short order. In the meantime, the crappies that remain in Willow Creek are good size and a persistent angler should be able to keep his rod bent.

Willow Creek is kind of in the middle of nowhere, two miles southw
est of Pierce in the southern portion of the county. Fans of the fishery like it that way.

The stage is set for some of the best crappie fishing the Cornhusker State has experienced in years. Hook up the boat, grab some rods and check out these waters this spring.

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