Mention the state of Texas in fishing circles across the country and several things come to mind. From the stellar lunker largemouth bass riches of East Texas to the prolific striped bass fishery at Lake Texoma to the Guadalupe bass roaming Hill Country streams to the redfish- and speckled trout-rich flats along the Gulf Coast, there is no shortage of great angling opportunity lying between the Red River and the Rio Grande.
That includes the crappie, a game fish that sometimes languishes in the shadows of its more famous piscatorial cousins even though some world-class fishing opportunities exist across Texas for papermouths, slabs, sac-a-laits or whatever else you want to call the tasty panfish.
For both the white crappie and black crappie varieties, the truth is that in many of the state’s hallowed slab fisheries, there rarely is a bad crappie-fishing season. And, in many spots, that once again appears to be true for the spring of 2019, a season that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries biologists are generally giving a thumbs-up forecast to.
“Crappie populations are cyclic in nature,” says Todd Driscoll, a TPWD biologist based out of Jasper. “We see that to some degree at both Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn, two of our better crappie fisheries. They still support tremendous crappie fisheries year after year, but some years are better than others.”
The same can be said for many other crappie hotspots across the state. But thanks to high-water conditions during much of 2015, combined with good water conditions in much of 2016 and 2017, the result has been superb habitat conditions for crappie and other game fish as they’ve gone through their springtime spawn cycles. And while water conditions have been more variable during portions of 2018, at least Lone Star State fisheries are nowhere near the low-water conditions found during the severe drought of several years ago.
“High water is good for spawning,” agrees Evan Cartabiano, a TPWD biologist out of Tyler. “Recruitment isn’t as easily understood, but for fisheries management in our reservoirs, so much of it is about good habitat, and high water helps most of the lakes that we have. We’ve already got a lot of good habitat in East Texas, so if you add high water from good rains, that tends to lend itself to great habitat. And essentially, that’s what we have almost every year down here.”
With that in mind, what will crappie fishing look like in East Texas this year?
“At Toledo Bend, I’d say it’ll be another year of status quo, more of the same,” says Driscoll. “The wintertime crappie fishery there is nationally recognized in the mid to upper portions of the lake in the ‘Chicken Coop’ area.”
Massive in size at 181,600 acres, the upper end of the lake tends to have plenty of old timber, brush, laydowns and creek channels that provide crappies with good habitat in water that tends to have more stain. Because of that, there tends to be more white crappies in the upper reaches of the reservoir that straddles the Texas/Louisiana border. The “Chicken Coop” area — where Driscoll says the main channel of the Sabine River runs along the bank for a good ways — has historically good fishing, particularly during the winter and spring months when crappies start moving from deep water to shallow in preparation for the spawn.
But don’t overlook the southern portion of T-Bend either, which tends to have a little less stained water and more black crappies.
“The southern half holds just as many crappie, it’s just that the fish tend to scatter more and get a little deeper, more away from folks out in the middle of the lake,” says Driscoll. “All in all, I’d say an A+ kind of [year] is coming up [at Toledo Bend].”
Further south at Sam Rayburn, Driscoll is expecting more good crappie fishing, although he does offer a bit of a qualifier.
“Rayburn is not much different than Toledo Bend in some ways, since it is similar in size, type of habitat, and large numbers of crappie that are there,” he says. “In general, what is true about crappie fishing at Toledo Bend is also true about Sam Rayburn.
“But there’s not a whole lot of wintertime crappie fishing on Sam Rayburn, or even a whole lot of springtime fishing since so many of the anglers that we have there are targeting bass in the spring,” he adds. “But from the post-spawn on into fall, it can be incredibly good, especially on planted brushpiles.”
And it’s the latter that really makes Big Sam shine.
“People flock to Toledo Bend and the ‘Chicken Coop’ area in the wintertime,” says Driscoll. “While the brushpiles are still in play at Toledo Bend in the summer months, it’s not near the deal that it is at Rayburn. Essentially, about one half of Rayburn doesn’t have timber, since much of it was cleared, whereas some 95 percent of Toledo Bend is timber. So, the bottom line is that Sam Rayburn is a superb brushpile fishery post-spawn through fall, and Toledo Bend is an excellent wintertime fishery on into the spring.”
Driscoll notes that, since Sam Rayburn is generally stained throughout, crappies are more evenly distributed throughout the entirety of its 114,500 acres. But, like its sprawling neighbor to the north, this East Texas fish factory tends to have more white crappies in its upper third and more black crappies in its lower third.
While keeping in mind that other East Texas water bodies like Caddo Lake, Cedar Creek Reservoir, Lake Livingston, Lake O’ the Pines, Lake Palestine and Wright Patman Lake offer good crappie fishing options most years, no look at the region’s fishing prospects can be complete without a look at Lake Fork. Known for its stellar trophy largemouth bass fishing, the 27,264-acre fishery near Quitman also shines for big crappies.
“We haven’t sampled them in the 2017-18 period, but we are looking at what people are catching through our creel surveys,” says Cartabiano, who is currently overseeing the reservoir after the retirement of longtime TPWD biologist Kevin Storey. “And they’re catching some [decent numbers of] 15- to 16-inch fish over the last creel survey period, both black and white crappie.”
All in all, the TPWD biologist says to expect another good spring of crappie fishing — especially for big white crappies — at Fork this year.
“I’ve got no reason to suspect that it will be a bad season at all,” he says. “I know some of the guides that crappie fish there, and they seem to be catching plenty of fish right now, and I think that will continue into spring.”
Cartabiano points out that there are plenty of other nearby crappie fisheries that should offer anglers good fishing opportunities this spring. Those include 5,940-acre Pat Mayse Lake near Paris, 19,305-acre Cooper Lake near Sulphur Springs, and 37,879-acre Lake Tawakoni near Point.
“Tawakoni continues to be a fish factory,” says Cartabiano. “It cranks out tons of game fish, although people may not think of it as a crappie fishery with the blue cats, the stripers, the hybrids and such. But some anglers do very well there, and the crappie fishing is very consistent year ’round. There are good bags there year ’round, but you do get more undersized fish at Tawakoni versus keeper-sized fish. Fork is nearby, but it is different in that there are more keeper-sized crappie versus undersized fish.”
DON’T OVERLOOK THE SMALL STUFF
Looking for a mess of slabs for a fish fry? Then remember, bigger isn’t always better when it comes to crappie fishing in Texas, especially on tiny lakes that tend to fly under the radar screens of many anglers.“In a number of these spots, there’s not a lot of fishing pressure,” says Evan Cartabiano, a TPWD inland fisheries biologist out of Tyler. “And oftentimes, you don’t have to go long distances to find fish on a fish finder [or near a fish attractor]. A lot of these fisheries are perfect for a smaller boat, or even a kayak, to get to the fish.”
City and county lakes are good small spots for anglers to check out — Mill Creek Reservoir near Canton, Lake Holbrook near Mineola, or Lake Quitman. Other good options include Gladewater City Lake, Lake Pinkston near Center, Lake Halbert near Corsicana, Lake Naconiche near Nacogdoches and Lake Gonzales.
Don’t let their small size lull you to sleep, though. Dan Bennett notes that even on diminutive water bodies like Davy Crockett Lake and Coffee Mill Lake near his Lake Texoma office, simply moving 200 or 300 yards, changing from live minnows to jigs, or even changing the color of your jig can sometimes make all of the difference in the world in terms of productivity.
CENTRAL, WEST & SOUTHERN OPTIONS
Looking toward the center of the state, down south and out west, locally good crappie fishing can be found in such spots as Lake Alan Henry, Brady Creek Reservoir, Choke Canyon Reservoir, Gibbons Creek Reservoir, Lake Bridgeport, Lake Brownwood, Lake Buchanan, Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, O.H. Ivie Lake, Proctor Lake, Lake Somerville and Lake Waco. Keep in mind that in some of these places, water has been much more scarce in recent years, including Choke Canyon and O.H. Ivie, which were sitting at 30.6 percent and 14.6 percent capacity respectively as this story was written. Because of that, expect crappie-fishing prospects to be much more variable in some of these spots during 2019.
As usual, sprawling central Texas fishery Richland Chambers Reservoir should be a bright spot, since the 41,356-acre water body near Corsicana offers excellent crappie fishing most years. At more than 91 percent capacity as this is written, recent years of good water and habitat conditions should mean plenty of crappies willing to bite around timber, brushpiles and bridges this spring.
What about up north near the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and on toward the Red River area? Dan Bennett, head man at TPWD’s Lake Texoma Fisheries Station, expects plenty of good regional crappie fishing this spring after several years of good water and excellent habitat. And that forecast starts at the 89,000-acre striped bass factory lying right outside his office door.
“Texoma is certainly more of a good crappie lake than many people think,” says Bennett. “Now, that depends on what part of the lake you’re fishing because some portions of Texoma have more crappie than others. But when you’re in the right part of the lake, the fishing is actually pretty good.”
Brandon Jennings Crappie Tip
After flooding rains sent Texoma to a record surge over the spillway in 2015, good water levels and excellent habitat conditions since then have most game fish populations primed for a year of exceptional fishing in 2019. That includes crappie fishing on Texoma around planted brushpiles, pockets of flooded brush and submerged timber, the Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge area in the Big Mineral Creek arm, and around the numerous boat docks found on the popular Texas/Oklahoma border lake.
“They [crappie] are certainly in high levels of abundance right now as compared to average,” says Bennett. “There are a pretty good number of big crappie in the lake [too], a good number pushing 15 or 16 inches on the ruler and 1 3/4 pounds to 2 pounds on the scale. For the spring of 2019 at Texoma, it ought to be some pretty good crappie fishing just about everywhere they are found on the lake since we have some solid age classes in the two- and three-year-old classes. That should provide a lot of harvest size and better crappie.”
But Texoma isn’t the only good North Texas crappie fishery that Bennett oversees, since 25,600-acre Lake Ray Roberts near Denton and 21,400-acre Lavon Lake near Wylie — both lakes lying on the northern edge of the sprawling DFW metropolitan area — offer good fishing for anglers seeking a limit of the tasty panfish each spring.
“Ray Roberts is probably one of the hottest fisheries that we have; it’s certainly one of the most popular,” says Bennett. “There is a lot of old, standing timber in the lake, of course, but there are also a number of brushpiles that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put in as the lake was being constructed. And it has several big major creeks that feed it, so the crappie run up into those and spawn successfully each spring.”
With Bennett expecting an “A” kind of season for Ray Roberts, he’s also expecting good fishing at Lavon, as long as anglers are in the right place on the lake.
“Yeah, in the springtime, you’ve got to be in the right spot at the right time there, but there are a few good locations where anglers do well,” says Bennett. “Since the timber is more sparse there, they’ll get on random trees and brushpiles at Lavon. But when you find them, the fish can really stack up [on those spots].”
Other crappie fisheries worth noting in Bennett’s area are 1,020-acre Bonham City Lake, along with 650-acre Coffee Mill Lake and 355-acre Davy Crockett Lake, the latter two water bodies being fishing gems on the Caddo National Grasslands near Bonham.
“[Those three water bodies] are [usually] better-than-average crappie fisheries where the fish are easier to find since these are not as big a body of water as some other lakes are in the region,” says Bennett. “Bonham has always been a consistent crappie factory over there, and I’m surprised that it can produce the number of fish that it does for the size of lake that it is and the number of fish that get caught [there]. But it just seems to keep putting them out.”
In reality, that last statement is actually a pretty good way to describe most crappie-fishing opportunities across Texas this spring where, in general, anglers can expect their favorite crappie holes to keep cranking out good numbers of the popular and tasty panfish species. With few exceptions, the spring of 2019 should be like most other spawning seasons for crappies, a run of shallow-water panfishing opportunity that is just about as good as it can get.