Winter had held Arkansas in an icy grip for several months, but with February came warmer weather and a dose of crappie fever.
"I hear the crappie are starting to move up shallow in Old Town Lake," my friend Lewis Peeler called to say. "How 'bout we meet over there this weekend and give 'em a try?"
So it was that Lewis, his son Shannon and I found ourselves on this scenic east Arkansas oxbow lake on a beautiful bluebird day in late winter. Some crappie were still in deeper water around mid-lake cypress trees. Others were in water so shallow we could hardly get the boat near them. But all seemed ravenous and readily nabbed the jigs and minnows we fished. As we moved from one fishing spot to another, we caught crappie after crappie after crappie. All weighed more than a pound, and about a third of the 40 fish we landed weighed between 2 and 3 pounds. That's a nice mess of crappie in anyone's book.
Fact is, many Arkansas lakes produce excellent crappie fishing like this year 'round. Old Town Lake in Phillips County is among the best in the state for heavyweight slabs, 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 1/2 pounds or more — are becoming increasingly common in waters statewide. That includes this lineup of lakes, where you'll find hot action throughout 2015.
OLD TOWN LAKE
Old Town Lake, southwest of West Helena, isn't as well known as many of Arkansas' top crappie lakes, but those who fish this big Mississippi River oxbow at Lakeview know its propensity for producing huge slabs. Unlike most east Arkansas oxbows, the lake is separated from the Father of Waters by a levee. Thus, water levels are generally stable, a definite advantage for crappie 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 take a 30-fish limit of crappie 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 in brush and treetops. Yo-yoing for crappie is popular there, with plenty of low-hanging cypress branches on which to tie these auto-fishing rigs.
Lake Hogue covers 280 acres just south of Weiner in east Arkansas' Poinsett County. This is a lake for the crappie anglers in search of trophy-sized fish. Pound-and-a-half crappie are fairly common, and 2- to 3-pounders frequently anchor the stringers of anglers who catch a limit.
Hogue was formed by constructing a horseshoe-shaped levee system around a low, marshy area adjacent Bayou de View. Woody cover is abundant, and fishing around snags, stumps and fallen logs is a surefire way to gather the makings for a fish fry. Boaters can reach prime fishing spots via boat lanes cut through the timber, while those preferring to keep their feet on solid ground can fish from the banks along the levee or from the fishing pier.
Hogue is extremely shallow, averaging only 4 feet. During winter and summer most crappie move to deeper water in the borrow ditches just inside the levees where dirt was dug to construct the levees.
Five-hundred-acre Lake Ashbaugh, 10 miles east of Pocahontas in Greene County, has long been a favorite with northeast Arkansas crappie anglers. The lake's long, three-sided levee is an excellent place to savor some laid-back bank-fishing. The shoreline is kept fairly clean, so there's unobstructed access for those who don't mind (or who prefer) fishing without a boat. Some of the deepest water is in borrow ditches adjacent the long levee, and that is prime territory for crappie. Bring a lawn chair for each angler and a bucket full of minnows, and you can experience crappie fishing at its finest without leaving shore. Cast a bait into the borrow ditch and then just sit and watch your bobber. Sooner or later, a "speckled perch" will bite.
If you prefer boating to bank fishing, that's fine too. There are concrete boat ramps on the northeast and southwest corners where you can launch to gain access to structure offshore. Crappie frequent brush and standing timber along the outer edge of the borrow ditches, woody cover along the old slough that traverses the lake bottom, and willows lining shallow-water islands. Most of the crappie the lake gives up weigh about a pound, but a fish up to 2 or 3 pounds is always a possibility.
Lake Ouachita, at normal power pool level, extends up the Ouachita River Valley west of Hot Springs for 30 miles and has a surface area of 40,000 acres. It's a mighty good place to go if you're looking for crappie, but it's an extremely clear lake, and anglers should remember that crappie tend to be found deeper than they are on many other Natural State waters. Outside the spawning season, crappie often suspend around cover such as brushpiles and standing timber, in 15 to 25 feet of water.
Crappie fans who prefer using long poles baited with minnows or jigs are out of their element here. The water clarity simply won't let you approach close enough to catch fish with those old Arkansas favorites. Lake Ouachita crappie fishing is almost exclusively a spinning or spincasting affair, with jigs the bait of choice. A 1/16-ounce jig is the largest size for consistent success, and a 1/32- or even 1/64-ounce jig is even better. The crappie you catch will average about a pound apiece, but prime hotspots often give up 2- to 3-pounders. Some of the best fishing areas include waters near the Mountain Harbor, 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.
This honeyhole on the Arkansas River spreads westward from Dardanelle Lock and Dam at Russellville to cover approximately 35,000 acres in Pope, Yell, Logan, Johnson and Franklin counties. It contains all sorts of crappie habitat and structure, including stands of timber and brush, coves, tributaries, rockpiles, shallows, flats, jetties and islands.
Two areas favored by local anglers are the Spadra Creek and Little Spadra Creek arms just south of I-40 at Clarksville. There you'll find 5- to 10-foot depths that jump up to 2- and 3-foot flats. Woody cover on those flats attracts lots of crappie ranging from 1/2-pound up to a pound or more. The Shoal Bay area near New Blaine on Highway 22 provides similar conditions, with loads of crappie-attracting stump flats near deeper creek channels in the middle of the bay.
Another good area to try, especially in late winter and early spring, is where Illinois Bayou runs in and crosses I-40 on the east end of the lake at Russellville. The dark, shale bottom around the interstate bridge conducts heat better, the water warms earlier, and that's a place where many anglers catch early crappie.
Yet another of Dardanelle's late winter/early spring honeyholes is on the north shore near the community of London. There, Arkansas Power and Light's nuclear electric generating plant, Nuclear One, towers over the valley. The plant uses water from the lake for cooling purposes, then the heated water is discharged back into the lake. Crappie are attracted to schools of shad that flourish in the warmer discharge area. Anglers fishing small spinners, jigs and minnows around woody cover in that locale take home some dandy stringers of jumbo slabs.
This 6,700-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake in Faulkner County serves up some of Arkansas' most consistent action for big crappie. Slabs weighing from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds are common, and during some recent national crappie tournaments, big-fish honors went to fish weighing 3 pounds plus.
Most summer and winter anglers use 4- to 8-pound line on jigging poles or ultralight spinning tackle, and fish live minnows or jigs along inundated creek channels and lakes. The Green's Lake and Adam's Lake areas on the east side are good bets. Flooded timber adjacent boat lanes at the Highway 89 bridge (just east of I-40 at the Mayflower exit) is especially good for pre-spawn fish.
The spring spawning season provides the year's top fishing action. In late March or April, crappie leave their deepwater haunts and move toward shore. As a general rule, the farther you go up the arms of the lake, the better your chances of finding spawning fish. This is true of all three of Conway's major creek arms: Palarm Creek on the northeast, Stone Dam Creek on the northwest, and Pierce Creek on the far southeast corner of the lake. Fishing piers are available for those without boats.
THE TWIN LAKES AREA
Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes, to the west and east of Mountain Home, provide some of north-central Arkansas' best crappie fishing. Many anglers catch their limits by fishing the reservoirs' 600-plus fish attractors. Those were sunk along a contour line that corresponds to the depth at which the thermocline usually forms (25 feet deep). On Bull Shoals, the target elevation is 630 feet above mean sea level (msl), and on Norfork, it's 525 feet above msl. Fishermen can figure out how deep the attractors are by visiting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Web site (www.swl-wc.usace.army.mil/pages/reports/remote/lakfcst.htm), getting the current lake levels and subtracting the above elevations.
All the Norfork and Bull Shoals fish attractors are marked with special buoys, and all attract astounding numbers of big crappie. Find a buoy, work a jig or minnow in the brushpile below, and a 15-fish limit of crappie is almost sure to follow. Remember, however, crappie less than 10 inches must be released.
This 29,200-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment near Ashdown in extreme southwest Arkansas maintains a reputation as one of the state's best crappie lakes, despite the fact it will be 50 years old next year. Anglers who learn how to fish it catch lots of heavyweight slabs.
In spring, when crappie move shallow to spawn, hardly anyone has trouble finding fish. Just drop a jig or minnow beside any visible cover in the shallows, and soon you'll be yanking 'em out left and right. Most weigh 1 to 1 1/2 pounds, but Millwood also harbors a healthy population of 2- to 3-pounders.
In late winter, prior to the spawn, and again during summer, fishing around cover along the Little River and Saline river channels is usually the best way to find good numbers of nice crappie. That's not to say catching them is easy. They're often suspended at 15 to 25 feet, a depth that many fishermen feel uncomfortable fishing.
Additional considerations are they may be scattered around so locating them can be challenging. And finally, they may be in a very narrow depth zone; lure placement must be extremely accurate to elicit strikes.
Pay close attention to channel bends and edges, timberlines and long points. Bends in the Little River channel between the 2- and 8-mile markers are good, as are the timbered areas along inundated lakes. The Bee Lake area is especially good.
There are, of course, scores of other superb crappie fishing waters in Arkansas. Some I recommend are Beaver Lake near Rogers, Mellwood Old River Lake in Phillips County, Lake Chicot at Lake Village, Felsenthal Reservoir in south-central 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 at least you live in Arkansas where you can choose from a wide variety of topnotch crappie waters.
Considering that, your crappie fishing trips this year should be highlighted with some first-rate fishing fun. After all, fun is what it's all about.