February 15, 2017
On a recent visit to Lake Greeson, near Kirby, three friends and I caught crappie after crappie after crappie. All 50 of the fish we kept weighed more than a pound, and about a fourth weighed between 2 and 3 pounds. That's a nice mess of crappie.
Fact is, Arkansas crappie fishing can be excellent year 'round. Greeson ranks among the best for producing trophy-sized crappie, but scores of Natural State waters produce loads of 1- to 2-pounders for savvy anglers.
And it seems those big "barn doors" — crappie weighing 2 pounds or more — are becoming more common in waters statewide, including some of the following lakes where you should find hot action throughout 2017.
Drop a minnow or jig in just about any body of water in this region and you can expect a crappie to nab it. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lakes such as Charles, Ashbaugh, Poinsett and Hogue are great fishing spots, as are the Mississippi oxbow lakes near West Memphis, including Dacus, Island 40 Chute and Horseshoe, and small state park lakes like Walcott, Austell and Dunn.
Horseshoe Lake in Crittenden County deserves mention if only because of its 50-crappie daily limit. No other Arkansas lake outside the Mississippi River levee allows anglers to take as many, and few have as many crappie to give up. The statewide daily limit is 30 black crappie and white crappie combined.
Situated near Hughes, 2,500-acre Horseshoe is accessible via Arkansas Highway 147 heading south off Interstate 40 just west of West Memphis. A visit in spring is an unforgettable experience. Numerous crappie anglers fish among cypress trees skirting the shore. Cane poles bristle from windows of cars and campers. There are boats everywhere.
In the morning, each of the lake's pay-to-launch accesses is jammed with trucks, trailers and boats. But within a few hours, the huge lake has swallowed them up.
Crappie fishing is fast and furious. Anglers working the bases of shallow cypress trees often are first to reach their limit. Others who dab jigs or minnows around boat docks, downed timber and underwater brushpiles have little trouble catching an ice chest full of filleting-sized crappie.
Toward evening, boat after boat returns with limit or near-limit catches. As the long stringers are lugged ashore, one begins to wonder if Horseshoe's crappie are threatened by overharvest. But by returning the next day and the next, that question is shrugged off as bordering on the ridiculous. One soon learns that Horseshoe's crappie population is enormous. Few fish are what anglers consider slabs, but as far as numbers of crappie, Horseshoe has as many as any lake its size. Fishing is best in spring, but expect better-than-average fishing action no matter when you visit — spring, summer, fall or winter.
I like to call this region "The Land of the Barn-Door Crappie." Quality crappie lakes are numerous, including such well-known waters as Lake Chicot, Paradise, Belcoe, Grand, Grampus, Wilson Brake, Felsenthal and Enterprise. My three favorite lakes there are Midway, Whitehall and Old Town — all oxbows of the Mississippi River, and all brimming with slabs that sometimes exceed 2 pounds.
If you don't mind sacrificing size for numbers when considering crappie, the oxbow lakes in east Arkansas's White River National Wildlife Refuge are worthy of your attention as well. The refuge encompasses more than 300 natural lakes. The crappie in them seldom reach barn-door size, but they'll keep you busy ... and happy.
White River NWR covers more than 160,000 acres of floodplain real estate along the lower White River south of Clarendon. These delta bottoms are extremely fertile, and the oxbows produce tremendous fish crops. Crappie from 1/2 to 1 pound are common, and it's not unusual to catch more than 100 that size on a good fishing day. Good lakes to try include Frazier, Escronges, Moon, Columbus, H, Frank's and Price's. But don't limit your selection. With literally hundreds of lakes from which to choose, you can find one, or several, where you can enjoy scenic fishing beneath galleries of ancient cypress trees.
Most of these oxbows maintain a connection to the White River during high water periods. When the river rises (usually during winter and spring), it spills over into the bottoms and swallows up the lakes. When the river falls, lake levels also fall. Changing water conditions dramatically affect fishing, and anglers must monitor water levels closely to pick the most productive days.
Crappie are caught under all conditions, but as a general rule, they quit feeding when water is on a fast rise. Fishing runout areas — the cuts connecting oxbows and rivers — can sometimes be outstanding during a fast fall, but the best fishing on these oxbows typically is when the water level is steady or slowly rising or falling. During these periods, jigs or minnows fished in buckbrush, around downed timber or around the bases of cypress trees often yield heavy stringers of eating-sized crappie.
A few lakes on White River Refuge are open for year-round fishing. But on most, fishing is allowed only March 1 through Nov. 30. For more info: fws.gov/refuge/white_river/.
Dozens of smaller lakes serve up fast-paced crappie fishing for anglers in the know, including Fayetteville, Sequoyah, Elmdale and Bob Kidd. For the best crappie fishing, however, get out on big waters, specifically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments in this region such as Beaver, Bull Shoals and Norfork.
When it comes to trophy-sized slabs, Beaver Lake stands head and shoulders above other northwest Arkansas lakes. At times, it's tough to find them in this 30,000-acre impoundment, but when you do, you're in for good fishing. There were a lot of 1 1/2- to 2-pound crappie caught last year, and many anglers brought in limits day after day.
Spring anglers do well fishing twistertail jigs around stickups and cedar trees. The Coose Creek area is one excellent crappie hot spot, and there's also excellent fishing in Esculapia Hollow, around the Ventris Recreation Area and in the Pine Creek Area.
Summer crappie fishing is mostly a nighttime affair, with anglers working jigs and minnows in schools of small baitfish attracted to lanterns. During this season, crappie concentrate around fast-breaking underwater structure like bluff edges and creek channel dropoffs.
Autumn's coolness draws Beaver crappie shoreward again, and many are caught on jigs fished in shoreline brush. In winter, savvy Beaver crappie anglers use sonar to pinpoint fish in cover along creek channel drops.
A COE project, Beaver Lake is situated in the picturesque Ozark Mountains. Access is from several state and federal highways branching out from Rogers, Eureka Springs and Springdale.
Topnotch crappie lakes in this region include lakes Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita near Hot Springs, DeGray Lake near Arkadelphia, Millwood Lake near Ashdown and White Oak Lake near Camden.
My top pick in the region is Lake Greeson, a COE impoundment west of Hot Springs near Kirby. Most natural cover there has rotted away, and the best fishing is around the hundreds of bamboo fish attractors placed in the lake by local guides and the by Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Signs on shore mark the general locale of many attractors, and it's usually not hard to catch a 30-fish limit of slabs any season, if you target those in depths where sonar indicates crappie schools.
Few folks target Greeson crappie before the April spawning season, but one of the best times to visit is in February and March when fishing can be truly extraordinary. During this time of year, you'll see few boats, few people and no personal watercraft. And the lake's slab crappie seem hungrier this season, making them easy to catch if you can find the compact late-winter schools.
Many Greeson anglers catch crappie on slip-bobber rigs baited with live minnows. The bobbers are set so the bait just bumps the tops of Lake Greeson's many manmade fish attractors. This time of year, most fish are caught in fairly deep water, up to 25 or 30 feet deep. On warmer days, some move to shallower haunts. As might be expected, jigs also are excellent enticements.
In the cold water, fish usually bite lightly, so it helps to use lightweight, sensitive equipment. Use an ultralight spinning outfit or graphite jigging pole with a soft, sensitive tip. This allows you to lift slightly and watch for a slight bend in the tip that indicates a fish is on. If luck is with you, it's usually not hard to catch a limit of slabs by moving from one fish attractor to another.
Maumelle, Overcup, Willow Beach, Dardanelle, Conway, Pickthorne — these are just a few of the many superb crappie lakes in Arkansas' midsection. Lakes Nimrod and Conway also are hot, and among Arkansas crappie fans, both reservoirs are legendary. These two cover-laden bodies of water produce huge stringers of barn-door crappie, fish that commonly weigh 1 1/2 to 3 pounds.
One of most productive central Arkansas lakes in recent years has been Harris Brake near Perryville in Perry County, and it looks like the fishing could get even better since the minimum length limit on crappie recently was raised from 9 to 10 inches.
According to area biologists, Harris Brake's crappie population is characterized by moderately high total annual mortality (60 percent) with the majority of the mortality due to angler harvest (29 to 48 percent). This combined with fast growth (crappie reach 12 inches at age 2) is an ideal situation for a minimum length limit regulation.
Modeling predicts that increasing the length limit from 9 inches to 10 inches should increase the average weight of crappie by 17 percent, from 0.86 pounds to 1.01 pounds. In addition, the percent of 10-inch and 12-inch crappie in the population should increase by almost one third. In contrast, the number of harvested crappie should decrease by about 9 percent — a good tradeoff, many anglers think.
Harris Brake's best crappie fishing begins when surface water temperatures are between 60 and 65 degrees. This is when crappie move to shallow, brushy areas. Prime months for shallow-water crappie action — when 30-fish limits are common — are February through May. Peak fishing usually comes in April. Minnows and 1/32- to 1/16-ounce green, yellow or white jigs tipped with minnows are deadly.
Most spring crappie are taken in 1 to 5 feet of water, virtually anywhere there's standing timber or shoreline brush. Brushpiles placed at the ends of the lake's handicapped-accessible fishing piers often produce limit catches. Sunken logs in boat lanes are hotspots, and the waters around Big Island also hold good numbers of crappie during the spawn.
Full-service marinas on the lake provide everything an angler might need, including bait, boats, motors and tackle. For more information, including a lake map, visit agfc.com.
SLAB HOLE: OLD TOWN LAKE
Those who fish this big Mississippi River oxbow in Phillips County know its propensity for producing huge slabs. Unlike most east Arkansas oxbows, the lake is separated from the Mississippi River by a levee. Thus, water levels generally are stable, a definite advantage for visiting anglers.
Old Town offers excellent fishing year 'round, but fishing during the spawn is extraordinary. As the water warms in March and April, crappie fishing gets hot. It's not uncommon to catch a 30-fish limit that weighs 40 pounds or more. The lake is extremely shallow, less than 6 feet throughout, and most fish are taken on minnows and jigs around the bases of big cypress trees and from brush and treetops. Yo-yoing for crappie is popular here, with plenty of low-hanging cypress branches on which to tie these auto-fishing rigs.