By Bob Hood
At the yawn of dawn, a cold rush of January air already had begun to stiffen the shallows near Lake Weatherford Marina with thin sheets of ice when James Arnold stepped from his rusted, 1950s-model Ford truck and reached into its bed for his fishing gear.
Overhead, the brightness of a clear, star-filled sky began to fade with the light of a new day. Two spinning outfits rigged with 4-pound-test line were the first to hand, followed by a minnow bucket, a fish basket, a cigar box full of hooks, split shot and crappie jigs, and a small propane heater.
“I guess this is how I look when I’m ready,” Arnold joked to a friend who had been waiting in a truck nearby since about a half-hour before daybreak. “Sorry I’m a little late – but I don’t think it’s going to make any difference with the fish. We should be just about right for the best bite.”
It being such a wintry day, Arnold might have appeared to be surprisingly optimistic, but the place he and his friend had chosen to fish was a special place, one where cold weather and wind wouldn’t be a real threat to the action. They were heading for a “crappie house,” a floating building tied near the marina’s boat slips where veteran crappie anglers gather with friends to catch fish in the comfort of indoors fishing.
Inside the doors of the floating barge, Arnold and his friend took their usual starting positions: one at the corner of a rail that lines the rectangular opening in the barge’s floor, the other about midway down one side.
Submerged out of sight were brushpiles dropped into the “hole” to attract fish. Crappie, catfish, largemouth bass and sunfish are common visitors to the crappie house during most of the year, but during the winter, the action basically is for crappie.
The Lake Weatherford Marina crappie house is one of several indoors fishing facilities located within a short drive of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. These fishing hotspots provide good fishing for anglers who either don’t own boats or don’t care to challenge the harsh cold by making the chilling boat ride to some open area of the lake.
Most of them charge around $2.50 to $3 per person for a day’s fishing, and several have discounted prices for children and senior citizens. Each is located at a marina, where bait and tackle and other supplies are handy. Hot coffee, grilled foods, fishing supplies and bait, for example, are just a few yards away at the Lake Weatherford Marina’s store.
What’s made the Lake Weatherford Marina crappie house and others so popular within recent years is a decline in the overall numbers of these structures. Though they once dotted the map, many of them have been destroyed by floods and high winds, while some have simply faded away. One that used to be located off U.S. 377 at Lake Granbury has been transformed into an on-the-lake restaurant.
“I hope this one never goes away,” said Arnold, who has been fishing the Lake Weatherford facility for several years. “No, the fish don’t always bite, but I’ve seen times when you can catch a basketful of crappie in just a few hours. It’s a comfortable way to fish, and it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing outside. It can be raining, snowing or the wind blowing outside and you can still fish.”
Ronnie Day of Fort Worth agrees. A veteran Lake Benbrook angler, Day has fished perhaps every indoors fishing barge ever made available to Metroplex anglers. He ranks the Lake Weatherford Marina crappie house as one of the best.
“Brush is what it is all about,” Day said. “If the crappie house has been brushed, you will catch more fish there on the average than you will one that isn’t brushed.”
On some days, live minnows work best, Arnold says, but no crappie-house fisherman should ever go fishing without a good supply of small artificial crappie jigs. “I’ve seen them caught on just about any type of jig imaginable,” he noted, “but my favorite is a tube jig. Day in and day out, a red and black or chartreuse crappie jig will catch crappie, especially when the minnow action is slow.”
That theory is apparently well accepted by many other veteran crappie house anglers. Joseph “Jigging Joe” Sidensticker of Waco is adamant about it. “If you don’t have a tube jig when you fish the barge at Juniper Cove,” he insisted, “you might as well stay at home.”
Juniper Cove Marina lies on the east side of Lake Whitney just above the Katy Bridge near McCown Park. Its name is in the process of being changed to Lake Whitney Marina – new owners are expanding the marina’s facilities to include large boat moorings and a restaurant – but the fishing inside the barge, Sidensticker says, is good by any name.
One thing besides brush that helps improve the fishing at a crappie barge is the depth of the water, and that’s one factor that the Lake Whitney Marina fishing barge has over many others. “This isn’t just a good place to catch crappie during the winter,” Sidensticker said, “it’s good year ’round for lots of fish. It’s one of the best channel cat barges I have ever found, and I’m not talking about fishing inside the barge. You can catch them there, too, but you can cast off the walkway and catch a lot more fish during the late-spring and summer months.”
Even closer to Fort Worth is another fishing barge that many anglers gather at for both good fishing and camaraderie: the Rocky Creek Marina barge at Lake Benbrook.
“The Rocky Creek fishing barge is one of the best I’ve ever seen,” said Freddie Voyles of Fort Worth. “It’s protected (from the wind and waves) by a long rock retaining wall, and the marina owners have really done a lot of work to improve it. It’s really a nice facility. There’s always several vehicles parked beside it, and that tells you how good the fishing is.”
The Rocky Creek fishing barge is also well furnished with brush – a factor that helps improve the fishing action, especially at older reservoirs. Built in the early 1950s, Lake Benbrook has little natural habitat except for patches of tree trunks along the main Trinity River channel and coves. The brush placed inside the barge’s “hole” provides cover for baitfish, which in turn attract game fish such as crappie.
Largemouth bass as large as 8 pounds and yellow catfish as large as 30 pounds have been caught by anglers who come to the Rocky Creek barge with spinning and spincasting tackle rigged for crappie.
“January and February are the best months for crappie in just about any fishing barge that I know about,” James Arnold said. “And it’s a pretty laid-back type of fishing. Sure, there are some fishermen who have been around a long time who will catch more fish than anybody else, but even a novice fisherman can learn from them if he will watch what those old-timers are doing.”
Anglers who have fished the Lynn Creek Marina fishing barge on Joe Pool Lake, which is near Cedar Hill between Fort Worth and Dallas and just off Interstate 20, have found the wintertime crappie fishing to be best when they’re slow-fishing jigs and minnows.
“We have caught our best crappie while just letting a jig move naturally,” said Larry Birdville. “There’s always some type of current down there that’s going to cause the jig to move. But even when the water is really still, all you need to do is to raise your rod tip a few inches and then let the jig back down. You may only feel a slight tick when the crappie takes it, but you can feel it and you just lift up your rod to set the hook, not jerk on it.”
Anglers at Joe Pool Lake also have just about anything they might need right at hand. The marina is an on-the-water restaurant, store and fishing barge with a boat ramp nearby. The restaurant opens onto the lake on one side and provides lake visitors with a comfortable place to relax and enjoy good food when they’re not testing the crappie inside the fishing barge.
There are plenty of indoors fishing opportunities both close to home and just a short distance away at Joe Pool, Benbrook, Weatherford and Whitney. All provide good angling for those who just want to grab a few hours of fishing before or after work or for several hours on an off-day.
“If I were asked to give someone who has never fished in a fishing barge some advice,” Arnold said, “I’d just tell them to be prepared for a laid-back type of fishing where the action can be really good on some days but maybe just fair on others, but where you can have a good time out of the weather.
“And I’d tell them not to just try one barge. Try all of them, and you’ll probably discover that one of them really is attractive to you.”
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