Photo by Ron Sinfelt
It’s January. Texas’ deer seasons are all but over and duck season is winding down. But there’s no need to get depressed (as a friend of mine does about this time each year): You can still go hunting — hunting for crappie, that is.
The crappie is one of the tastiest of game fish, and one of the easiest to catch, once you know where and how to fish for them. Read on and learn about both; by the time you’re done, you’ll have January crappie-catching down cold.
Wally Marshall is known as “Mr. Crappie,” and for good reason. Winner of dozens of crappie fishing tournaments, he’s also designed a complete and extensive line of crappie gear for Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, and Gander Mountain.
“It does not take a rocket scientist to catch crappie,” Marshall said with assurance. “There are DVDs on the market that show you how to locate crappie, how and when to fish. And you can get started with less than 75 dollars’ worth of equipment.”
Marshall offered one tip that you need to act on right now, or to remember the next time your favorite crappie lake drops to a low level. “A lot of our Texas lakes were built in the late 1950s and the 1960s,” he noted, “and the structure is depleted now. Go out when the water level is low and locate all the big stumps and roadbeds and dropoffs, and mark them on your GPS. The key to successful crappie fishing is knowing how to read your electronics and knowing what is under the water.”
When Marshall fishes a lake with which he’s unfamiliar, he uses a lake map to identify areas in which creek channels come in close to the bank. “Crappie use those creek channels as highways,” he said. “You can do your pre-fishing on a map before you ever get on the water. White crappie tend to stay in creek channels a lot in winter, whereas black crappie tend to stay in the deeper, clearer water.
“Lake Fork is a perfect example. White crappie will usually be around some kind of structure in winter, while the blacks will be in deeper water.”
Marshall is also a fan of fishing bridge pilings. “All bridge pilings will have crappie on them at one time or another,” he said. “They like that hard concrete structure. And many times while fishing bridges, I’ve had a crappie on and had a big bass take the crappie.”
Marshall numbers Lake O’ the Pines, Lake Lewisville and Cedar Creek among his go-to crappie lakes. Ernest Paty, who guides on Cedar Creek, echoes that endorsement.
“Cedar Creek has lots of black crappie,” Paty remarked. “They will be hanging out under docks and bridges and around open-water structure like humps, points, and dropoffs. You’ll catch lots of white crappie off points in about 20 feet of water.”
Paty too sees areas around bridge pilings as profitable crappie sites. He has observed that if the pilings have crossmembers, the tops of those are likely places in which to find crappie. In winter, both Marshall and Paty advise, fish deep-water points by slow-trolling crankbaits, moving the boat by means of the trolling motor at 1 1/2 to 2 miles per hour.
“The fish underutilized the most are open-water crappie,” Paty revealed. “Underwater humps and islands will almost always have fish on them — you just need to learn to use your graph to locate them.”
Paty and Lake Fork guide Roy Greer are electronics fanatics. “You can tell crappie from other kinds of fish because of the way they stack up on the graph,” Greer said, “and you can also tell larger crappie from little ones. Anybody can catch fish if they find them — that’s the single most important factor.
“A fish looks like an arch on the screen. Crappie are arched higher than bass, because their body is smaller on either end than in the middle. A short, curved arch is probably a crappie; a long arch is probably a bass. A tightly packed group of tiny arches is often mistaken for brush, but it’s probably baitfish. You’ll often see a ball of baitfish with an arch or two beneath it. That’s crappie following the baitfish.”
In January, 99 percent of the crappie that Greer catches at Lake Fork are on the bottom near the dam. “The shad go there to escape the colder water,” he stated, “and the crappie follow. I typically try to fish in the middle of the level where the shad are holding.”
On either side of the January timeframe during which crappie are down by the dam, Greer advised that you fish for crappie as they funnel through the bridges — and divulged a secret to catching migrating crappie. “My dad was a commercial fisher on Caddo Lake,” he said, “and we would catch crappie by the hundreds in traps set between a tree and the bank, but only at night. The fish come in at night and hold on bridge columns, and you can catch them from the first thing in the morning until about 10 a.m. — and then they are gone.”
While minnows are deemed by many as de rigueur crappie baits, Greer is of the opinion that you can catch more winter crappie on jigs. “I believe it is because you are actively fishing — aggressively moving the bait,” he suggested. “Plus minnows have only one color, and crappie are very color-selective. One day they will bite blue; the next day they want pearl or something else.”
Greer has designed a crappie jig called a Flash Fin, which he manufactures in models weighing from 1/32 ounce to 1/2 ounce. Featuring 3-D eyes, the Mylar leadheads imitate a 1-year-old threadfin shad. To purchase these, call (903) 765-2075, or visit www.thebassclinic.com.
Marshall offered some tips on the use of his favorite lures, the Blakemore Roadrunner and the Crappie Thunder. “A lot of people think because the Roadrunner has a blade, it has to turn,” he observed. “I want it to just wobble a little bit. I fish it vertically like any other lure, and I want the blade to just click against the head.
“The gold leaf willow blade is the key. A lot of Texas lakes are murky and stained, and gold really works. In the Crappie Thunder, my go-to Texas color is a chartreuse head with a blue and white body. My second choice is lime and chartreuse.”
Crappie are a blast on ultralight gear. Greer uses 12-pound fluorocarbon line with 10-pound monofilament leader. He attaches the jig with a loop knot, and his Flash Fin jigs are balanced so they will hang in the horizontal position from the loop. Drop t
he lure to the bottom, raise it one or two cranks, and slowly bounce it up and down. Bites will be very subtle, so watch for the slightest dip of the rod tip or movement of the line.
At lakes with lots of docks, like Cedar Creek, Marshall favors ultralight gear. “Shooting docks is awesome,” he said. “Use a 4-foot rod and get in close. Hold the lure with your thumb and index finger and shoot it back into spots you’d think you could never get a lure into.
“Beware if you are fishing Lake Fork this way: A big bass will slam a crappie on your line in a New York minute. I’ve landed several 10-pound bass on 6-pound test while shooting docks for crappie.”
Paty is such a strong believer in fishing docks on Cedar Creek that he routinely teaches the technique to clients. He uses high-visibility yellow line so that he can see any movement or change in depth of the line.
“A lot of times the line just goes dead rather than moves,” he noted. “The fish comes up behind the lure, takes it into its mouth, and just sits there. I’ve raised crappie in aquariums, and they are very curious fish. If you introduce something new into the tank, they will go over and take hold of it to see what it is. That’s why you will often catch more crappie with jigs than with minnows. They already know what a minnow is.”
THE CRAPPIE CONUNDRUM
Both black and white crappie are native to Texas, and constitute a very popular fishery, yet not many folks know more than little about them. Craig Bonds, a district fisheries biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has learned quite a bit about the fish through his telemetric studies of their movements. What he’s learned can help you target the times and places to fish for crappie.
Bonds has discovered that black crappie prefer clear water, and tend to associate with aquatic vegetation more than white crappie. White crappie seem to do better in turbid water, and around flooded timber or brush.
“That’s one reason you see black crappie dominate in East Texas, and see more white crappie in Central and West Texas,” he said. “During the day, white crappie associate with some kind of structure, usually brushpiles, docks, or timber. During the night they move around a lot.”
One of the puzzles about crappie is that a lake can be alive with them one year, and seemingly devoid of them a year or two later. Bonds uncovered some clues as to why this might be so. “In the northern United States, crappie tend to grow more slowly and live longer than they do in Texas,” he explained. “A crappie’s life span may be 4 to 6 years in Texas. It usually takes them 2 to 3 years to reach 10 inches, the minimum legal length on most Texas lakes.”
At lakes Fork and Toledo Bend and Lake O’ the Pines, no minimum length applies for crappie caught from Dec. 1 through the end of February, and all crappie caught must be kept, up to the daily bag limit, which is 25 at Fork and Lake O’ the Pines and 50 at Toledo Bend. This short lifespan means that a year of poor recruitment can have a significant impact on the number of legal-sized fish available.
“Crappie are very prolific fish, and when conditions are right, a mature female can produce 50,000 to 100,000 eggs,” Bonds explained. “The reason their population abundance is so erratic is many times related to environmental factors, especially reservoir hydrology, or the way water moves through a reservoir. The fluctuation in water levels, how quickly water moves through, and the timing of the movement has a significant impact on spawning success.
“On a mainstream reservoir, when there is a high flow-through in winter prior to the spawn, that’s often a predictor of a good spawn. But if you have a lot of water movement in summer after a spawn, you may have poor recruitment.”
Since many East Texas lakes function primarily as water-supply reservoirs and so tend to be drawn down in summer, crappie populations in those lakes may be adversely affected in some years. “Young crappie behave much differently from largemouth bass,” Bonds said. “When largemouth bass are about fingerling length, they are eating macroinvertebrates and are tight to cover. Once a young crappie starts moving off the nest, it goes to deeper water and feeds on zoöplankton. If the lake has lots of water moving through, nutrients are flushed out, and zoöplankton production is low.” And reduced zoöplankton production results in a degraded nutritional situation for young crappie.
“The general rule of thumb,” Bonds said in summation, “is you want high water and good inflows before the crappie spawn, and you want stable water levels and slowly moving water after the spawn.”
By analyzing the historical water level and flow regime of a reservoir (available from controlling authorities named in lake profiles at www.tpwd. state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/recreational/ lakes), you can predict which lakes should have had strong spawns during two or three prior years. Therefore, you should have sizeable populations of legal-sized crappie.
You can also contact the TPWD fisheries biologist in charge of a particular lake for information on the results of recent electrofishing and creel surveys. You can find the biologist for each lake at TPWD.State.TX.US/Business/About/Divisions/Inland_Fisheries/Offices/Index.PHTML#biologist.
COLD-WEATHER CRAPPIE HOTSPOTS
Now that you know how to catch crappie in winter months, here are some East Texas hotspots to try. The experts advise that if you don’t find crappie in a likely-looking spot, move. But recheck the place later. Move with the fish.
Lake Fork: This lake’s legendarily big largemouths have to eat to get big, and crappie are a mainstay of their diet. A bonus of winter crappie fishing at Lake Fork is that lethargic largemouths target schools of crappie for an easy meal, and you may find a lunker bass on your line instead of a crappie. That’s exactly what happened to Barry St. Clair on Jan. 24, 1992: The 18.18-pound bass eating the minnow that the angler intended for a slab is still the state record.
Look for crappie in the brushpile at the east end of the dam. Another hotspot: the Highway 154 bridge pilings. (That state-record bass was caught at the mouth of Little Caney Creek, so maybe lightning will strike twice in the same place — and maybe the next state record will have your name on it!) Winter crappie will generally be found on points and in coves in a triangular area demarcated by the 154 bridge, the west end of the dam, and Little Caney Point.
Lake Lewisville: Crappie holes are scattered all over this lake, and in winter you shouldn’t be bothered by the boaters and skiers who throng the lake in the summer. Try the Highway 720 bridge, the I-35 bridge, and the trees around Hackberry Point. The Lake Lewisville Fishing Barge is a good place when the weather’s raw.
The Highway 276 bridge crosses a narrow creek-fed cove; fish the bridge pilings and the edges of the creek channel.
Lake Bob Sandlin: Bridges are the key to winter crappie here, too. Fish the railroad bridge west of the dam and the FM 21 bridge.
Lake Monticello: The railroad bridge on the upper end of the lake, both ends of the FM 127 bridge, the west end of the dam and the power plant water intake all hold promise for seekers of cold-weather crappie.
Lake Cypress Springs: Deep water near the dam is the key to winter crappie fishing here. Fish the creek channel near the midpoint of the dam and the points on the south shore near the dam.
Lake Livingston: The Trinity River above the third bend upstream of the Highway 19 bridge is a worthwhile locale for slab action. Not far downstream is Bethy Creek Marina; try the river channel there, too. The creek channel at the east end of the Highway 190 bridge can also yield up some crappie.
Lake O’ the Pines: The river channel at midlake northwest of the dam is a known crappie hotspot, as is the flooded timber off Watts Island’s west side. The river channel due east of Watts Island is worth a look; if that doesn’t pan out, run west from Watts Island to the mouth of Big Creek.
Toledo Bend Reservoir: In keeping with its size, this huge lake offers numerous places at which to pursue crappie. Among them on the northern section of the lake are the San Miguel bridge, Siepe Bayou, the river channel north of Siepe Bayou, and oxbow bends in the river channel.
Farther south, try the Pendleton and FM 3121 bridge pilings, and the spots upstream of the Pendleton bridge along the river channel known as Crappie Bend, Crappie Tops, and Chicken Coop; look for the boats.