February 20, 2018
By Keith Sutton
Here's where to fish and fill your stringer or livewell with Arkansas crappie.
Looking for a blue-ribbon Arkansas fishing locale where you can scratch your crappie fishing itch this spring? Fortunately, in our state, you won't have to look far.
Black crappie and white crappie swim in waters statewide, serving up fun-filled excitement for our most avid panfishermen, especially at this time of year when the fish spawn in shoreline shallows.
Some waters have justly deserved reputations for producing trophy-sized crappie.
Others provide faster action for smaller fish. You can choose the peaceful splendor of a tiny oxbow lake deep in the Arkansas bottoms, or try hooking a slab on a gigantic reservoir with a mountain backdrop.
Choice Arkansas crappie waters take many forms.
Here's the lowdown on what you can expect in the Natural State this spring, from topnotch locales for hooking slabs to waters you'll need to avoid because of ongoing renovations.
Often as not, when it's big crappie I want, I head straight for Lake Greeson, a 7,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment near Kirby in west-central Arkansas. The surrounding Ouachita Mountains create a scenic backdrop for a day on the water, the lake seldom has much boat traffic, and action for 15-inch-plus crappie — fish weighing 2 pounds or more — can be extraordinary.
One of the first things noticed when fishing Greeson is the lack of visible cover. Only rarely will anglers see stumps, treetops or other natural habitat that might be used by crappie. However, there are hundreds of manmade fish attractors beneath the water's surface, and the absence of natural cover means most crappie are apt to be gathered around these easy-to-find "crappie condos."
Use a fishfinder to pinpoint the brushpiles (there usually are several in each cove), or watch for the fish attractor signs on shore indicating a crappie condo is nearby. Dragging a jig or other lure through the water will help you locate those marked by signs if you don't have a sonar unit.
During the spring spawn, focus your fishing efforts on the condos in shallower water.
Use a trolling motor to circle near the fish attractors while you present a live minnow, jig or jig/minnow combo right up against the brush. A slip-bobber on the line allows you to position the bait at the proper depth.
On a good day in spring, you might catch a 30-fish limit of crappie in just an hour or two. The average fish is about 12 inches long and weighs around 1 pound, but most limit stringers will be anchored with several slabs weighing 1 1/2 to 2 pounds.
When the crappie are located and a pattern develops, it doesn't take long to catch enough for supper, and usually enough to share with friends and neighbors, too.
For guided fishing, contact Dustin Holmes or Vance Bolding at actionfishingtrips.com, or Darryl Morris at familyfishingtrips.com.
In spring, 40,000-acre Lake Ouachita is a mighty good place to go if you're looking for crappie. It's a clear lake, and crappie usually are found deeper than they are on many other Natural State waters.
Concentrate your search along brushy banks where the water gradually drops from shallow to deep, and in the backs of coves.
Crappie often are suspended 6 to 8 feet down in water that's usually not over 10 feet deep. You may find them considerably shallower than that early and late, or on cloudy days.
Many crappie fans prefer using long jigging poles baited with minnows or jigs, but these folks are out of their element at Ouachita. The water clarity simply won't let you approach close enough to catch the fish with these old Arkansas favorites.
Lake Ouachita crappie fishing is almost exclusively a spinning or spin-casting affair, and you'll often do better casting and retrieving small spinners or slip-cork minnow rigs than you will using other enticements.
Spring crappie are most often caught in the upper half of the lake, although there are some outstanding crappie-fishing areas nearer the dam. Still, the upper reaches seem to be more consistent.
There is a lot of good crappie fishing in the mid-lake area, too. Good bets include the Joplin, Tompkins Bend, Crystal Springs and Big Fir public-use areas on the south side, and Irons Fork, Avant and Buckville on the north shore.
Nimrod has long been one of the state's premier crappie hotspots. This 3,550-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment gives up lots of 1-pound crappie, quite a few 2-pounders, and some that are bigger still.
The way the lake is managed for flood control makes it good. The water usually is high in spring and low in fall, which is good for crappie. There's also plenty of excellent spawning and feeding cover.
Regulars who fish for Nimrod crappie have condensed their fishing strategy down to two primary rules.
If the water's not high, fish the old creek channels running into the river channel, usually 6 to 8 feet deep. If the water is up, fish in and along the buckbrush. Minnows and jigs are the tickets to success.
Nimrod lies south of Danville and Ola in Yell and Perry counties. The best crappie fishing usually is in late spring after the water has come out of the buckbrush, but savvy anglers can enjoy fast-paced action throughout the season if conditions are right.
When it comes to big crappie producers, we shouldn't overlook some of the waters in the Delta of eastern Arkansas, either.
One of the best is Midway Lake, a 1,000-acre oxbow of the Mississippi River straddling the Arkansas/Mississippi state line between West Memphis and Helena.
I've been fishing Midway for more than 45 years, and it's a rare day there when I don't catch a dozen or more 2-pound-plus slabs.
A fertile soil base and river overflows enrich the water with nutrients that produce a plentiful forage base of minnows, shad and other baitfish.
Woody cover is abundant, and crappie find ideal spawning grounds in the lake's shallow, brushy flats.
All this combines to produce the exceptionally large population of slab crappie that draws anglers from throughout the state.
Midway is shaped like a big horseshoe with one fat arm and one skinny arm. The lake's northeastern arm gouges a 4- or 5-mile channel through the Delta flatlands, but this section is extremely narrow with relatively few first-rate crappie-fishing areas.
The southeast arm, on the other hand, stretches about the same distance but is much broader with a greater variety of crappie habitat and structure. That is the part of the lake where most crappie anglers concentrate their efforts.
When you drive over the Mississippi River levee and first see the lake, this arm appears to be just another broad expanse of open water. But an on-the-water inspection proves otherwise.
On the east shore of this section are two large points, known locally as the Big Killdee and Little Killdee. Each is blanketed in a thick cover of button willows that provides first-rate crappie habitat.
The lower east side, especially the southeast corner, also provides excellent fishing with lots of willows, big cypress trees, fallen timber and other woody areas attractive to crappie.
Drop a jig or minnow in or near shallow cover in spring and chances are good you'll quickly get a hit from a feisty slab.
The best fishing is during periods when there are no overflows from the adjacent Mississippi River.
When overflows are present, as is common in spring, check the water level readings in local newspapers and try to fish during periods with little fluctuation.
If the lake is rising or falling fast, crappie probably won't bite. If you can, visit when water levels are stable for the best springtime action.
Grand Lake in Chicot County is another great crappie lake often overlooked by Arkansas' throngs of crappie-fishing enthusiasts. But the resulting peace and quiet, combined with the lake's natural beauty, makes this a first-rate destination for an early-season panfishing foray.
Crappie are abundant there, with occasional specimens up to 3 pounds anchoring limit stringers of 30 fish.
And because Grand is a few miles long with a surface acreage of 1,138 acres, it lends itself well to fishing from a small boat, a fact that draws many anglers who want to avoid the big-boat traffic common on many Natural State waters.
There's a handicapped-accessible fishing pier, too, on the lake's northern end, where drop-in visitors can cast a spinner or jig and expect to catch some nice slabs.
Like most oxbows along the Mississippi, Grand has broad expanses of open water with little cover and structure except along the shoreline.
During the spring spawn, crappie often are caught on jigs or minnows fished around stands of cypress trees along the east shore and in scattered pockets of buckbrush.
When fishing just prior to the spawn, however, fishing is likely to be better in deeper water along the high bank skirting the western shore. A good method for finding jumbo fish before they move to spawning cover along the banks is spider trolling through open water in that area using multiple jigs.
One blue-ribbon crappie lake you won't be able to fish this spring is Lake Poinsett near Harrisburg. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began an intensive renovation this past July, and the lake will be drained throughout the renovation, which is expected to last until 2020.
Poinsett was created in 1960 by damming Distress Creek, and like many reservoirs constructed from the 1930s to the 1970s, it shows many serious signs of aging.
Bank erosion, declining fish habitat and a deteriorating water control structure all plague the lake, which has long been popular with northeast Arkansas crappie anglers.
"It's really not unusual to see these sorts of issues," said Ben Batten, assistant chief of fisheries for the AGFC. "All water-control structures have a usable life span, and many of our lakes built in that era are reaching the end of that term."
The only way to replace the water-control structure and complete the necessary repairs involves completely draining the lake. However, the drawdown will enable biologists to make many improvements, and when Poinsett is refilled in 2020, crappie fishing should be better than ever.
There are, of course, scores of other superb crappie fishing waters in Arkansas. Some I recommend are Bull Shoals Lake near Mountain Home, Lake Hogue near Weiner, Mellwood Old River Lake in Phillips County, Lake Chicot at Lake Village, Felsenthal Reservoir in southcentral Arkansas, Blue Mountain Lake east of Booneville and Willow Beach Lake near Little Rock. Deciding which one to visit during your crappie-chasing forays won't be easy. But in Arkansas, you can choose from a wide variety of topnotch waters.
For additional information, including length limits, lake maps, up-to-date fishing reports and licensing information, visit the Fishing section of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Web site at agfc.com.
KEITH SUTTON'S CRAPPIE FISHING HANDBOOK
Want to learn more tips for catching crappie? "The Crappie Fishing Handbook" by Arkansas native Keith Sutton is an excellent source of information. Consider, for example, this helpful spring fishing tip from its pages:
"Topwater plugs and flies don't make good crappie lures most of the year, but slabs in skinny spawning waters can see these lures more easily than fish in deeper water. Sponge-rubber spiders, popping bugs and little plugs such as Rebel's Bumble Bug and Big Ant make little disturbance when cast to bedding areas and often draw reaction strikes from fat male crappie guarding their nests."
To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $19.45 (includes shipping) to C&C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card and PayPal orders, visit catfishsutton.com.