By Tom Berg
Imagine for a moment that you have found a real hotspot in one of your favorite fishing holes. Since early morning, the crappies have been biting like crazy. You don’t need to worry about anyone else crowding in on your spot, though, because there is no one else around to see that you are catching fish one after another. As a matter of fact, you haven’t seen another person or another boat all morning! Is this just a dream? It’s no dream if you like to fish for crappies in Indiana!
Where can you fish for crappies in our great state and not see another fisherman all day? The simple answer is in our rivers and river systems. Indiana abounds with good places for papermouth anglers to pursue their favorite fish, and although many of our small ponds, natural lakes and huge reservoirs are excellent places to catch crappies, the rivers are the best places to “get away from it all” and get back to nature.
The fishing can be surprisingly good, too. As more and more anglers choose to look for crappies in the state’s rivers and small creeks, they find that in addition to less crowded waters, there are also literally miles of places to try their luck. If one creek or section of river is unproductive, there are plenty of others to choose from.
Fortunately, crappies are creatures of habit. Years ago, fishermen became adept at catching crappies in lakes and ponds when they discovered that these fish liked to hang around brush, logs and other woody structure. The same holds true in our rivers.
Make a point of looking for good crappie habitat. Logjams, brushy shorelines, blowdowns and root wads are all potential hotspots when it comes to river crappie fishing. Remember that one of the keys to catching river crappies is to fish for them specifically. Don’t just drop a minnow into the middle of the river and expect to catch a limit of crappies.
Although there are plenty of fish out there, not all of Indiana’s rivers provide fabulous crappie fishing. Even the waters that do hold good populations of white and black crappies are not productive along every stretch of the river. With that in mind, we’ve chosen several places where Hoosier fishermen can go and have an excellent chance of tangling with some scrappy papermouths this spring. They include: The Kankakee, Patoka, White and Ohio rivers, plus Oil and Bear creeks.
Instead, look for places where the river spills over into backwater areas and sloughs. The quieter water and abundance of timber attracts plenty of crappies. One of the best spots on the Kankakee to try is at LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) near the small town of Schneider.
According to Bob Robertson, the District 1 fisheries biologist for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), a creel study completed on the Kankakee during the 2002 season pointed to LaSalle FWA as a great place to fish. “While our creel clerk heard of crappie being caught at some of the other areas, with crappie up to 12 or 13 inches, it was really at LaSalle where the crappie appeared to be most abundant,” he said.
LaSalle is productive because it is made up of lots of small sloughs and bayous, many of which are always connected to the river. These shallow backwaters are full of sunken logs, brushy shorelines and trees that have fallen into the water, and they are home to large schools of young-of-the-year fish and minnows. It’s the small fish that attract crappies, and the crappies can be slab-sized.
“The creel survey found that most people were not targeting crappies, but those that did, caught crappies, particularly at LaSalle,” continued Robertson. “Most of the fish we recorded were in the 9-inch size range, but there were crappies up to 13 inches caught during the creel period, too.”
Crowley is not the only one who likes the Ohio, either. Tim Gibson from Paoli is another southern Indiana crappie fisherman who spends time on the Ohio. “The Ohio River itself has got some real good crappie fishing in it,” Gibson said, “in small eddies and pools out of the main current. You can find crappies wherever there are brush, logs and timber lying in the river.”
Gibson is a full-time crappie guide, so it’s his business to know where the papermouths hide. “When you find an island that has logs or timber lying on it, it is well worth hitting for crappies,” he said. Gibson likes fishing around the Ohio’s islands because logs and sticks bunch up on them from the force of the current. “Fish behind and around the logs and logjams,” he continued. “Pull your boat right up next to them, and use a jig or a minnow under a float.”
One of the things to remember when fishing out on the main river is that the current usually dictates where the fish will be holding. Find some structure and then fish in and around it. Crappies often hold tight to cover when the current is strong. If there is not a lot of current, they may be swimming anywhere around the logs and timber.
When the most recent dams were built across the Ohio River, the water was raised and it backed farther up into the feeder creek channels than ever before. It formed bays and small lakes, or as they are known locally, embayments.
Dan Carnahan, the DNR’s District 7 fisheries biologist, recently reported finding lots of crappies on the Ohio near Rocky Point. “We were electrofishing on the Ohio recently, and we saw a lot of nice crappies in the Millstone Creek embayment,” he said.
The Millstone Creek embayment can be reached by launching at Rocky Point and motoring a mile or so upstream of the marina. “It’s a much smaller embayment than some of the others like Oil Creek and Deer Creek, but it holds a lot of nice crappies.”
For more information about fishing on the Ohio River and local river access, call the Rocky Point Marina at (812) 547-7753
One of the residents of Derby is Phil Junker, a fisherman and newspaper man from way back. Junker lives only about two blocks from Oil Creek, and he fishes it regularly. “You’ll find that the creeks, like Oil Creek, for example, are filled with wood,” he said. “There are still trees, or what’s left of trees, rotted off at the water’s edge. When they raised the water level, they flooded the trees. Generally you’ll find the crappies around the trees and along the shoreline, particularly in April.”
As the creek gradually warms in the spring, the crappies move into shallower water. Junker reported that sometimes the crappies in Oil Creek move into 1 or 2 feet of water, and you can find them right up in the brush along the shoreline. “They are often somewhat scattered at those times,” Junker said. “Usually, you’ll find that if they are schooled up, they are in slightly deeper water.”
One of the nice things about Oil Creek is that it runs through sections of the Hoosier National Forest, so you feel isolated when you get upstream a bit. Timber and stumps are everywhere. The creekbed itself is in about 10 or 11 feet of water, so if you stay in the channel you won’t have to worry about hitting a stump with your motor. “It’s good fishing here,” said Junker, “But it’s not the place to go racing along in your boat. There are stumps just below the surface that you can’t see if you’re not careful.”
There always seems to be a brownish tint to the water in Oil Creek, but it is not from oil. It is most likely from all the rotting and decaying wood lying beneath the surface. Due to the murky water, many crappie fishermen prefer to use chartreuse jigs that show up better than neutral colors. Black and dark blue work well, too, since they contrast sharply with the stained water.
Tim Gibson said that Bear Creek is one of his favorite places to fish along the Ohio. “It’s a small creek, but it has good crappie fishing,” he stated. “Out of all of the creeks, I like Bear Creek the best for crappies. It’s a shallow creek going in, but in the spring I have really caught some nice crappies in there.”
Bear Creek actually forms a small lake upstream a bit, and as long as the water is up, you can get a boat back in there off the river. If the water is low, you can’t easily access it from the river. But there is a boat ramp on Bear Creek off the county road, so you can still get a boat to it and do some crappie fishing.
Phil Junker also fishes Bear Creek, and reports good action. “It has produced some awfully good crappie fishing for me in the spring,” he said. “Some days you go there and don’t catch as many, but other days you can catch your limit easily (25 crappies).”
Just below Patoka Lake, the Patoka River winds through Dubois County and heads toward Jasper. This section of the river is full of timber and logjams, and the crappie fishing is excellent. Tim Gibson reports that a recent float trip down this stretch of river was very productive. “We floated that section, from right behind the dam down almost to Jasper,” he said. “We caught crappie all the way down through there, vertical jigging. The river is narrow, and there are a lot of logjams and log piles. There was one spot where the logjam was all the way across the stream and we had to get out and pull the boat across it.”
West of Jasper the river meanders along until it enters the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and Management Area. Mark Crowley gave this spot the nod as a great place to fish for crappies, especially from a canoe. “There are lots of sloughs over there, and they are just full of crappies,” he said.
There are still some sections of the Patoka River that are like a wild river. It’s along those wild river sections that the fishing is best. “The section of the Patoka River inside the National Wildlife Refuge is wild,” said Crowley. “That’s why it’s such a crucial piece of property. It’s really one of the last sections of the Patoka that hasn’t been dredged. That’s also where you’re going to find the best crappie fishing.
“There are lots of sloughs and bayous off the Patoka,” continued Crowley. “Some of them belong to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and some are still in private ownership. There’s a big bayou right at Oakland City called Snaky Point.” Since the refuge boundaries are always changing as more land is purchased and added to the refuge, the best advice is to contact the refuge office to get a current map.
For more information about the Patoka River NWR and Management Area, call the refuge office at (812) 749-3199.
There is good crappie fishing on the White River, as long as you know where to look. Mark Crowley suggested the Williams Dam area on the East Fork of the White as a likely spot to fish. “It’s very good right there at Williams, which is a little west of Bedford,” Crowley said. “There again, you’re back to your traditional crappie habitat where you look for blowdowns, root wads and things like that.”
Farther upstream in the East Fork, near Columbus, there is good crappie fishing and good river access. According to Crowley, “It’s much narrower there, and the bottom has more rocks. There are access points from Columbus all the way down through Seymour,” he said. “There are crappies in that section of river, and it’s also a good area for smallmouth bass.”
Certain sections of the East Fork of the White River get fairly shallow, and during dry spells (usually later in the summer), you may have to get out and drag your boat across rock bars and sandbars to keep fishing. Keep that in mind when planning a trip.
There are certainly many other creeks and rivers around the state where Hoosiers can catch a limit of crappies. There are literally dozens of other feeder creeks just on the Ohio River alone. Do a little exploring on your own or try one of the waters mentioned here. Once you try the solitude of river crappie fishing (not to mention the hot action), you may never go back to the crowded lakes and reservoirs again!
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