Photo by Paul Bradshaw.
February is a frustrating month for East Texas outdoorsmen. For hunters, virtually all regular seasons have closed, and for anglers it’s still too early to fish for bass in the shallows — the way God intended. But before you consign yourself to your recliner to eat Cheetos while watching A-Team reruns, take a look at some early-season crappie fishing for hot action on East Texas’ most prominent lakes.
That would be Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, naturally!
Trivia time: What was the original name of Sam Rayburn Reservoir? (No it’s not Sam Rayburn.)
OK, quit guessing — you’re embarrassing your kids. In 1955, when Congress authorized the damming of the Angelina River to build a reservoir designed to provide electricity, flood control, and recreational opportunities for the residents of East Texas, “Big Sam” was originally named the McGee Bend Dam and Reservoir, as it was located just upstream from the McGee Bend in the river.
It wasn’t until 1963, when the dam was close to completion, that Congress passed a special resolution renaming the lake after the Speaker of the House of Representatives, then recently deceased, Mr. Sam Rayburn.
It’s safe to say that Congress had no idea how large a recreational impact this new body of water would make on East Texans, but in the years since Big Sam reached full pool, it has staked a claim as one of the premier bass fisheries in the South. Countless club bass tournaments are held on the reservoir each year. And Sam Rayburn has been and remains a regular tournament location for the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society. With this much attention devoted to bass, it’s easy for the other fish swimming in these fertile waters to become overshadowed. Just in case you didn’t know, Sam Rayburn’s crappie fishery also is one of the best in the state.
That calls to mind an experience demonstrating just how good the crappie fishing at Big Sam can be.
“Are the crappie biting today?” my longtime friend and fishing partner Bryan Thomas called out to the older gentleman — known only as “J.D.” — who was trolling under the Highway 147 Bridge spanning Sam Rayburn.
The old man spat a stream of tobacco into the water and hollered back, “They’re biting every day.”
He would know: The old man and his black-and-white terrier are daily visitors to the Highway 147 bridge, where more often than not it takes them less than a half-day to pull in a limit of crappie. While we watched, the venerable angler nosed his aged aluminum boat up to a leg of the bridge and dropped down a jig. A few turns of the handle later, a keeper crappie put a bow in the light-action rod as the old man cranked him to the surface. With a flip of his wrist, J.D. tossed the fish into the perpetually propped-open livewell, and then thumbed the lever on the counter hanging around his neck.
“I asked him about that counter one time,” Bryan said as we moved up to our own bridge leg. “He only counts keepers, and late last year he showed me the total for the year to that point and it was around 7,500. I went home and did the math — and he was averaging more than 22 keepers per day. Every day.”
Over our shoulders we heard the terrier barking. “He must have caught a small one,” explained Bryan. “The dog only barks when he throws one back.”
Crappie are structure- and cover-oriented fish. Simply put, if you find cover (bridges, sunken brushtops, dead standing timber) along depth changes such as creek channels, then you’ll find crappie. The difference between a fresh fish dinner and picking up a burger on the way home is how you fish for the slabs. Most anglers pursuing crappie pull up to their preferred brushpile or bridge piling, anchor up, dunk a minnow and wait. This type of fishing is a very hit-or-miss proposition: Hit it right and you can put a lot of fish in the boat; hit it wrong and you’ll just be wasting money on minnows. The day Bryan and I hit the Highway 147 bridge, I had every intention of spending a lazy day drowning minnows, but he showed me a more aggressive method of jigging for crappie. It was so effective that I ended up giving away my live bait at the end of the day.
There are a few basic keys to the method we used. Attention to detail makes all the difference in the world. Starting with the rod and the reel, use a 6-foot light-action spinning rod matched with a standard spinning reel. Ultralight gear typically associated with panfishing will work, but the spool may not have the line capacity to fish water that can run over 30 feet deep.
Fill the spool with 6-pound monofilament instead of braided line. Although braided line is more sensitive and transmits even the lightest bite, it also does not stretch, which in untrained hands can lead to the jig being ripped out of the fish’s mouth.
Speaking of jigs: Use a 1/32-ounce unpainted roundhead jig. (Or smaller: Nothing larger seems to get many bites.) Tie the jig on using a loop knot, which allows the jig to sit horizontally in the water, thus more closely resembling a swimming minnow. A 1/32-ounce jig doesn’t sink very rapidly, so to get it into the strike zone in a hurry, attach a 1/4-ounce split shot 3 feet above the jig.
Once again, it’s attention to detail that puts fish in the boat, so when choosing a plastic jig body, don’t just grab the first package on the shelf. One of the most productive and life-like jig bodies (and the one Bryan uses under the bridge) is the Lit’l Fishie produced by Tyler-based Creme Lure Company. The body design seems to attract more fish than do others, and on our particular outing it not only outproduced all other jigs but also beat live minnows by a 2-to-1 margin for catching crappie, black and white bass, catfish and bream.
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of what to use and a general idea of the area to fish, let’s look deeper into specific locations and techniques. When you fish a brushpile, the depth at which the fish suspend is roughly limited to the zone between the lake bottom and the top of the brush. Crappie suspended next to bridge pilings and other vertical structure can be anywhere between the lake bottom and the surface. This makes determining their exact depth slightly more difficult.
A good-quality depthfinder is useful for marking fish, but not necessary.
The more or less sure-fire way to find biting crappie is to let your jig all the way to the bottom and then reel it up one turn of the handle. Leave the jig at that depth for 15 to 20 seconds; if you don’t get a strike, reel it up one more turn. Repeat those steps until you get a strike, counting the number of turns off the bottom to show where fish are located.
Once you’ve determined the depth of the fish, start moving more aggressively from one bridge leg to the next. Don’t spend more than a few minutes at each piling if you aren’t catching fish. Picking one or two fish off each leg as you go will fill the livewell in just a few hours.
J.D. knows all about this. “They’re seven turns off the bottom,” I recall the old man shouting as the terrier watched him pitch another keeper into the livewell and thumb his counter. (That dog has probably seen more crappie than have most anglers.) “You gotta fish the shady side of the piling or you won’t get bit.”
If vertical-jigging bridge legs doesn’t appeal to you, and you don’t have any brushpiles either planted or located, it’s still possible to catch slab crappie on Sam Rayburn. Remember that, as I said earlier, crappie are structure- and cover-oriented fish. That cover is not limited just to year-round semipermanent items made of wood and concrete, but also comes in the form of less rigid items, such as hydrilla.
Longtime Toledo Bend angler and guide Greg Crafts — Toledo Bend Guide Service & Lake Cottage, (936) 368-7151, toledobendguide.com, firstname.lastname@example.org — makes a living helping clients catch coldwater crappie. “My busy season starts up in October,” he stated recently, “and runs through into March.”
As his livelihood’s based on his ability to catch fish, Crafts has put together a pattern for Toledo Bend crappie that keeps him on top of the fish from the coldest part of the year right up until the spawn.
“During the late winter I fish brushpiles on ledges and shelves between 25 and 35 feet deep in the main river channel on the north end of the lake,” he said. “As the water gets warmer, the fish will move out of the main-lake channel and up the old creekbeds that lead to the spawning coves, and I’ll follow right along with them. If you have a small enough boat, you can follow the fish all the way to the back of the coves and up the small feeder creeks.”
While fishing vertically for crappie at depths over 30 feet, Crafts prefers to use a dark-colored 1/32-ounce hair jig on 10-pound braided line. The braided line allows him to feel the light bites, to pull big fish out of thick cover quickly, and to straighten the jig hooks when he hangs up in the brushtops.
As our buddy J.D. said, the fish “are biting every day.” You just have to know where and how to fish for them.
When the fish move shallow, he switches over to a 1/32-ounce jig with a blue and white plastic body, Road Runners, and Beetle Spins fished on 4-pound monofilament. Also, Crafts advised, as the fish move shallow they become harder to catch during the day. He experiences some of his best spawn-time crappie fishing during the night.
Another tip that Crafts passed along: where to plant brushpiles to attract the most crappie throughout the year. “I like to put brush in the feeder creeks at the mouths of spawning coves. When the crappie move from deeper water, they will stop and stage in the brush before moving up to spawn. Then, again, after the spawn, the crappie will stop at the brushpiles before moving out into the deeper water for the summer.”
A lot of East Texas anglers spend most of their time chasing bass with an occasional crappie trip in the spring to fill their freezers with filets. The only problem with that approach is that they’re missing out on some of the hottest coldwater action of the year. As our buddy J.D. said, the fish “are biting every day.” You just have to know where and how to fish for them.