By Ray Harper
When weather cooperates, early-season anglers can expect to pull crappies from deep-water hangouts on the waters of the Hoosier State. Mother Nature needs to do two things to help: stifle winds that will blow you off deep-water dropoffs and send some sunshine to warm chilly water.
The rest is up to you. The most important thing you need to do is to put yourself on a lake where you know there is an abundance of those big papermouth slabs. That’s relatively easy. The Hoosier State boasts hundreds of fishing holes with good populations of crappies. Small ponds may be the best bets because they are among the first bodies of water to warm up in early spring. However, many of those lakes are on private property. The next best bet may be large reservoirs with good water flow and deep cover. Then, count on smaller reservoirs with a good history of crappie production.
Patoka and Monroe reservoirs fit in that middle category and Cagles Mill Reservoir fits in the latter category. Hovey Lake is in a category by itself. The Posey County lake was a 300-acre oxbow lake of the Ohio River until Uniontown Dam was constructed in 1975, backing water into Hovey and increasing its size to 1,400 acres. Here is the lowdown on early-season crappie fishing on these prime waters:
Dan Carnahan, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources District 7 fisheries biologist, says crappie fishing is improving at Patoka. While crappie populations have suffered from a lack of forage sources at Patoka, “crappies have really been coming on in recent years,” Carnahan says. Surveys of the crappie population in 2002 and 2003 have shown an increase in size and numbers of fish.
Patoka Lake fishing guide Tim Gibson of Paoli points to the presence of gizzard shad in the fishery as the reason for larger crappies. “Because of the introduction of shad as a baitfish at Patoka,” Gibson says, “both white and black crappies are reproducing and growing like crazy.” Gibson says the average length of crappies he and his clients are catching is 10 inches. “Some monsters are reaching 17 inches,” Gibson says.
The improvement of the Patoka crappie fishery is evident in five years of records from Crappiethon USA, a national crappie tournament organization. In 1999, the winning 10-fish limit at Patoka weighed 8.48 pounds, with the biggest fish weighing 1.48 pounds. In 2000, the winning stringer of 10 fish weighed 11.02 pounds, with the largest fish of the tournament weighing 1.87 pounds. In 2001, the winning weight for 10 fish was 14.92 pounds, with the biggest fish weighing 2.47 pounds.
In 2003, the best 10 crappies in the tournament weighed just 12.22 pounds. However, the crappies brought to the weigh-in included a number of fish weighing more than 2 pounds. Winner of the big-fish award was the team of Doug Laake of Ferdinand and Ryan Rohl of Birdseye with a 2.8-pound crappie.
“We just want everyone to know that big fish like this are not rare in Patoka Lake,” Laake told the weigh-in audience at the April tournament. “You don’t have to go south for big crappies. We’ve got them right here in Indiana’s Patoka Lake.”
In February, however, you do have to go deep – to the edge of the old Patoka River channel. Try fishing 3.5 miles upriver where the submerged Painter Creek meets the submerged Patoka channel at a depth of nearly 35 feet. The spot is marked with a fish attractor. Two other fish attractors and a house foundation mark another prime spot some 500 yards to the south where the 35-foot channel quickly rises to 25 feet. A third deep-water crappie hangout is due east of the Newton-Stewart boat ramp where a bridge crosses the river channel and roadbeds form a “T” in the midst of house foundations. The 35-foot river channel rises quickly to the road intersection at 25 feet.
Even though crappies were by far the No. 1 harvested fish (bluegills were next with 21 percent of the harvest by number and 9 percent by weight), more anglers were targeting largemouth bass as their preferred species. Only 15 percent of the anglers surveyed were targeting crappies. In other words, a relatively small number of anglers caught and kept a large number of crappies.
In crappie tournaments at the lake since 1999, the largest crappies averaged around 2 pounds. The winning 10-fish stringers have varied from 15.15 pounds in 1999 to 10.07 pounds in 2002. No trend appears evident in the tournament statistics. In two tournaments in 2000, top 10-fish stringers were 11.02 pounds in an April tourney and 14.94 pounds in a June match.
Look for early-season crappies in water along the Salt Creek causeway under the Indiana Highway 446 bridge. The channel near the bridge is 40 feet deep, but rises quickly to a 20-foot flat. The flat is fishable from the causeway shoreline. However, a boat gives you a wider area of coverage. The popular Cutright boat ramp is just southeast of the causeway.
Also, late-winter crappies can be found in flooded timber on the main lake southeast of the mouth of Ramp Creek. The 30-foot creek channel rises to 20 feet as you head toward the south-facing bank. Best access is from the Allens Creek ramp southeast of Ramp Creek. Another good early-season crappie spot is the west bank of Moore Creek just north of the boat ramp where creek channel hugs the ban
k and rises quickly from 30 feet to 10 feet.
In the creel survey, crappies were the most abundant species harvested by number (52 percent) and second by weight (25 percent). In 1996, crappies ranked second by number harvested at 25 percent An estimated 19,461 crappies that weighed 5,790 pounds were harvested during the seven-month 2001 creel survey. Crappies ranged in length from 4.5 inches to 13.5 inches and averaged 8.5 inches.
“Crappie populations tend to be very cyclic, which means they have distinct peaks and lows in their numbers,” Keller says. “These peaks and valleys in the crappie population are primarily due to variability in spawning success from year to year. It appears the crappie population in Cagle’s Mill Reservoir in 2001 was at its midpoint in the cycle (harvest of more than 19,000). The crappie population was likely at its peak in 1993 when nearly 30,000 were harvested.” The harvest of approximately 9,000 in 1996 is likely a low point in the population, Keller says. If Keller’s theory is correct, the crappie population should be peaking again within the next couple of years.
Deep cover, especially timber, is hard to find at Cagle’s Mill. However, any manmade structures should be holding crappies.
When water goes over the structure in the drain, fishing isn’t necessarily bad. But when floodwaters clear the drain by 3 or 4 feet, the lake is too high and muddy for good crappie fishing. Late-winter crappies will come from Hovey’s deepest water, which is 7.5 feet. The lake was scheduled to close for fishing on Nov. 16 (during the waterfowl season) and was to reopen on Feb. 1.
Fisheries surveys by biologist Carnahan in 2001 and 2002 and a creel survey showed an abundance of crappies in the lake and few anglers, he says. “There are a lot of crappies in Hovey, but there don’t seem to be many people catching them,” Carnahan says.
In 2002, Carnahan netted 2,212 crappies weighing a total of 766.58 pounds. They ranged in length from 2.6 inches to 14.2 inches and averaged 6.6 inches. The previous year, Carnahan netted 1,985 crappies with a total weight of 1,114.44 pounds. They ranged in length from 3.1 inches to 15 inches with an average of 9.5 inches. By tagging and releasing crappies in the 2001 survey, Carnahan could calculate survival and mortality rates from the 2002 survey. He found a survival rate of 79 percent and a mortality rate of 21 percent. The former was extremely high and the latter was extremely low, Carnahan says. These rates show that fishing pressure is very low. Angler days were determined to be 600. About 30 percent of the anglers surveyed said they were targeting crappies.
The fisheries survey and creel study were initiated partly because local anglers were complaining that crappie fishing has declined at Hovey since the concrete structure was constructed in the drain to prevent continuous flow of river water into the lake. However, Carnahan found the crappie population was healthy and thriving. He found crappies distributed throughout Hovey’s 1,400 acres, by netting and electrofishing on both the east and west sides of the lake.
Bald cypress trees stand in a large portion of the lake, as well as line the shoreline, providing perfect habitat for crappies. Carnahan says some of the heaviest concentrations of crappies were found in the trees on the west shoreline just north of the boat ramp and down the steep bank from the fish and wildlife area’s headquarters.
One of the objectives of the survey work, Carnahan says, was to evaluate the crappie population to determine if a special crappie regulation would improve fishing. “Hovey Lake would be a good candidate for a crappie minimum size limit if angler harvest was the limiting factor,” Carnahan says. “Currently, angler harvest is low compared to the size of the crappie population.” The presence of a fast-growing large population of quality-size crappies precludes the necessity of a crappie size limit, he says.
The combination of a large population of crappies and low fishing pressure makes this Posey County lake one of the state’s best bets for a stringer full of slabs.
Workers at Hovey say early-bird anglers do well in February. The best tactics for Hovey Lake crappies vary some from other lakes during cold weather. The slip-bobber rig, familiar to many crappie anglers as a spawning crappie tactic, works best at Hovey year ’round because of the submerged cypress knees. Heavy-weight line is needed (30-pound to 40-pound-test) along with a 12-foot-long stout pole. (Reels are optional but will do little more than hold your line.) Both small jigs and minnows work well. However, casting a jig will just get you hung in the cover.
Wind and weather will dictate the success of your late-winter crappie efforts. Make no mistake, however. The crappies are present in abundance. And, if you don’t get them in February, you are only six to eight weeks away from the peak of the crappie spawn when fish are shallow, easy to find and easy to catch.
But, why take the easy way out? The crappie spawn occurs at the same time the tom turkeys are gobbling. It’s hard to keep your mind on watching that slip-bobber when you hear that gobbling in the Hoosier hills and hollers. You can get your crappie filets in the freezer on a sunny winter day – before time to bag your big longbeard.
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