February 15, 2017
By D.H. Willis
Great Plains crappie fishing is expected to be good this year, with reports indicating strong populations of fish across the region's states.
Crappie fishing has traditionally been more popular and better the farther south ones goes. And there still are more crappie fishing lakes in Kansas than in states farther to the north.
But in the past decade, crappies have become more popular with anglers clear up to the Canadian border. Catches will be good as the spring spawning frenzy moves its way from south to north as the waters warm.
Crappie fishing here takes big swings. It goes from very good to pretty poor. And right now it's very good.
The really good news is that spawns several years ago were great, with good survival of the baby crappies. And those fish are now coming on strong.
Two of the best lakes are Pipestem Reservoir and Jamestown Reservoir. Anglers are catching 13-inch fish quite commonly, with some growing as big as 15 inches. Then there are the younger year-classes, starting at 6 inches. Those fish will create the future of fishing in these lakes.
This improved and long-lasting crappie fishing isn't an accident. It's part of an experiment by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to take a crappie fishing approach that is different than what is done in most other states.
The NDGFD reduced the usual massive daily crappie limit to a relatively low 10 daily catch limit. The idea behind it was to conserve the big fish and spread out the harvest over the years. That way the good fishing would last longer between the booms in reproduction. It worked.
According to B.J. Kratz, NDGFD southeast district fisheries superviser at Jamestown, the excellent crappie fishing has been prolonged for more than 10 years.
"We went to a 10-fish crappie limit to spread the wealth over the years," noted Kratz.
Pipestem was an early lake in this experiment. The crappies there usually have very good spawns. But the baby fish usually die in the winter. This far north the cold and length of the winter season is usually too much for this species. But occasionally a big year-class survives, and then the crappie fishing explodes several years later.
That's where the 10-fish daily limit has really worked to improve the fishery.
"That has sustained the crappie fishing the past six years," said Kratz. "We have favorable comments on it. At this point it is working out pretty well."
But now at more than 10 years of age, these big 13- to 15-inchers are reaching the end of their lives, whether they are caught by anglers or not. That's where the young six-inchers enter the picture. There are lots of them in Jamestown and Pipestem.
Of the two lakes, Jamestown tends to have more crappies in it, but they aren't quite as big as those in Pipestem. Fishing is good in both.
"Typically at this northern latitude you don't have the biggest growth rates," advised Kratz. "But we do have longevity."
That's why it's important for the crappies to survive for years — for the few successful year-classes to grow big and provide angling opportunity for an entire decade.
Good crappie fishing is expected this year in part of sprawling Oahe Reservoir coursing through South Dakota. In fact, some of the best fishing in the state will be there, and that's different from the past when this very big lake usually had a whole lot of water in between fish.
The best crappie fishing in the lake will be toward the upper end of Oahe, noted Kyle Potter, South Dakota Game Fish and Parks fish biologist in Pierre.
The upper reaches have slower murky prairie rivers entering the lake. With more mud flats and shallower water that habitat is more to the liking of crappie. Farther south in Oahe the lake turns into a deeper colder lake.
"On Lake Oahe we have a pretty good population right now," reported Potter. "There are a fair number between 12 and 16 inches."
Oahe has both black and white crappies, though in the past the black crappie have tended to be more prevalent in the clear waters.
"The best areas to fish in the spring and late summer on Oahe are the Moreau and Grand River regions," said Potter. "That is where our numbers are best, up in those regions. There are some by Oahe Dam, but for consistent bites they do better up there. The Pollock area is good off-and-on through the winter and early spring."
Biologists have been finding good numbers of small crappies in their test netting. It's unknown whether that will result in even better fishing in future years because Oahe can be a very tough place to live. It's filled with walleyes and northern pike with big teeth and rather nasty temperaments. And the small crappies often end up in a predator's stomach. Even a big crappie will be devoured by a northern pike.
So, they have to reproduce abundantly, which they have been doing.
"There are enough in Oahe to specifically fish for them," said Potter. "Our numbers have definitely increased on Oahe in the last few years. They are eating other fish and other shiners and that sort of thing. They started increasing before the (2011) flood, but they have also increased in abundance since then."
The crappies take care of themselves and are left to their own instincts to do that. It is helpful if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allows spring water levels to flood weeds and bushes along shoreline. That also helps other species, especially yellow perch.
"Crappie are self sustaining on their own," Potter noted.
They are schooling fish, so once one is caught it's best to assume there are more in the vicinity.
"They guys who fish them have to move around quite a bit," said Potter.
They fish jigs, minnows and even spinners.
"They try everything," said Potter. "I caught some in Pollock on nightcrawlers while fishing for walleyes. They were in the 14- to 15-inch range."
The traditional crappie lakes in the northeast remain good, but are down just a bit from the past. But fishermen will be catching fish in Reetz Lake, Enemy Swim, Pickerel, White Lake, Kampeska and Poinsett, advised Brian Blackwell, with SDGFP in Webster.
The seasons are warm enough and the habitat suited enough for most waters in Nebraska to be stocked with crappies. They take off and grow to abundance and are one of the most sought-after species in the state.
Anglers have their pick of lakes, some of which are not yet renowned for good fishing. But this spring those lakes will have good crappie populations.
"The best ones change," said Dave Tunink, fisheries management assistant administrator with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Sherman Reservoir and Branched Oak have 10-inch length limits, so there are big crappies in those lakes.
"Wanahoo has pretty consistent crappie in it," said Tunink. "There is a smattering in Wagon Train, Stage Coach, Johnson, Wildwood."
These are public lakes. Some are in the 2,000-acre range, and not as big and intimidating as some of the huge reservoir fishing.
Nebraska has both black and white crappies. Tunink said black crappie tend to predominate here.
The fishing starts to pick up in April as the water warms and the fish move into the shallows to spawn. That's when the best catches are made, and it's also the easiest time to fish for crappies.
"They come up into the shallows and feed in the warmer water for shad and stuff," said Tunink. "They put on the feed bag."
There are many to be caught this year in Nebraska.
"They just recycle every year," said Tunink. "They get hammered pretty fast, so if you have a strong year-class coming up they will replenish. They are there 3 to 5 years and then they are gone. Based on last year's survey they are looking good."
In spring, anglers catch crappies off of rocks and in flooded trees.
"They will flock along the fishing breakwaters, jetties and fishing piers and stuff like that," said Tunink.
Right now crappies are in most Nebraska lakes. They are stocked, but then after the initial stocking they take care of themselves and have good natural reproduction at least during some years.
"Black crappie don't overpopulate," said Tunink.
They commonly grow to 8 to 12 inches.
One of the best places to fish them is the Sandhills area of Nebraska. The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge has good fishing and is public. It's also one of the more unusual places to fish, compared to some of the more traditional crappie lakes.
"Perch are eating them, bass are eating them and northern pike are possibly eating them," noted Tunink. "They are big, and they are pretty. There are lots of nutrients and lots to eat."
Nebraska has also lowered its daily limit in order to create a quality crappie fishery with lots of big fish. And it is in conjunction with other panfish species as well. The daily combined bag limit for all panfish species is 15.
Crappies are very popular fish in Kansas, and lots of people fish for them. And they have lots of waters to choose from across the state.
This spring the best crappie populations will be at John Redmond, Toronto and Elk City reservoirs, said Jeff Koch, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism research biologist at Emporia.
"Redmond has been really good for crappie the last three years," advised Koch, "both in numbers and size. There are lots of 12-inch-plus fish. But fishing Redmond can be tough. If you find a place with rocks you will be good."
Koch said if fishing conservation groups were to put habitat structures in the lake, which would also create good places to fish.
Fishing Toronto Reservoir can also be challenging because water levels go up and down a lot. The shoreline and sides are steep.
"Toronto and Fall River are traditional hotspots in southeastern Kansas," said Koch. "There is a little more structure in those lakes. They will have good numbers of 12-inch- plus fish. That is right up there with Redmond with 12-inch-plus fish."
Elk City Lake sits at about 4,000 acres and is full of fish.
"The size structure is a little bit smaller," said Koch, "but fishing should be excellent. Since it is south it picks up earlier."
The water is often turbid and absorbs the spring sunlight, heating the water. Some of the earliest crappie fishing of the year begins in late March in this lake. Rocky hillsides rise from shore and grow lots of trees.
A notable white bass run also attracts fishermen to Elk City. The crappie fishing and the white bass run almost overlap. Both are excellent.
The three top lakes have mostly white crappies.
"Black crappies thrive in a little more clear water," said Koch.
Another good Kansas crappie lake will be Keith Sebelius/Norton Reservoir in the northwest. It does have black crappies.
"There are good numbers of 10-inch plus fish, with a few up to 12 inches," said Koch. "The biggest fish in the samples last year was a pound-and-a-half."
Another notable location to try this season is Coffey County Lake, a nuclear power plant cooling reservoir. The lake maintains a warm temperature and can be fished in winter or early spring when other waters are still cold.
Did You Know?
According to surveys of Kansas fishermen, crappies are the second most fished for species in the state, after channel cats. And crappies are the second most desired fish to catch, after largemouth bass. Before the large federal reservoirs were built decades ago, there weren't many crappies in the entire state.