February Slabfest: Best Bets for Early Oklahoma Crappie

February Slabfest: Best Bets for Early Oklahoma Crappie

Oklahoma crappie
A few days of warm sunshine can have crappie moving up in the water column. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

You can expect to take your share of early Oklahoma crappie when you fish these Sooner slab locations.

I fired up my lead-melting pot a few days ago and poured several-dozen small jigs. It's an annual chore I don't mind at all. That's because those jigs will help me stock my freezer with a few bags of tasty crappie filets this winter and spring.

We can catch crappie all year long in Oklahoma, but late winter and early spring are my favorite times to target them at several large reservoirs. 


In February, most of the crappie are still found hanging around brushpiles in deeper water, or holding on dropoffs at the edges of submerged creek or river channels. That is, they hold in such places most of the time. I have seen mornings when we caught crappie only inches from the surface above brushpiles or structure that was several feet beneath them.


I don't know why the crappie sometimes rise above the cover or structure, or why they seem to sink down and return to it as the sun gets higher in the sky. But I've seen that happen on several occasions at Lake Eufaula, Grand Lake and a couple of other big lakes.

Brushpiles and structure, though, seem to be the keys to locating concentrations of Oklahoma crappie in the early weeks of the year.

As springtime approaches, though, crappie begin preparing to spawn. At most of Oklahoma's lakes, that means they move toward shallower water and the shorelines where they will seek nesting spots beneath overhanging trees, beneath the branches of emergent vegetation like buttonbush and willows, under fallen logs, or in similar spots.

It is unusual, but I have caught crappie "on the banks" as early as late February at Lake Eufaula. Usually, it is at least late March, and more often mid-April to mid-May, before the bulk of the crappie go through the spawning process.


February crappie fishing can be good pretty much anywhere in Oklahoma, but in lakes in the southern half of the state crappie often go into pre-spawn mode a bit earlier than those in the lakes in northern counties. At giant, 102,000-acre Lake Eufaula, I've often seen a difference of several days between crappie movement in the southern reaches of the lake compared to the northern reaches like the Deep Fork and North Canadian arms.

At this time of year, a crappie fisherman's best friend can be a handheld GPS receiver or a GPS feature on a sonar unit. GPS can help an angler quickly find brushpiles far below the surface. Before GPS became widely available, we used to spend a lot of time triangulating with objects on shore and guessing distances to brushpiles we had built dozens or hundreds of feet from shore. These days, though, an angler equipped with GPS can navigate to a point right on top of a brushpile without guesswork or zigging and zagging around while searching for the right spot.

In a few more weeks, when thousands of crappie move into the shallows to spawn, it will be easy to locate concentrations of fish without sonar or other aids, since they will be gathered around shoreline cover. But while they're still holding over or around deeper structure and objects, both sonar and GPS come in handy.

MINNOWS OR JIGS?

It's strictly personal preference. I like fishing with small jigs and believe I can catch just as many Sooner slabs using jigs. Most of the time, anyway. Nevertheless, there's no doubt minnows produce results if you can put them where the crappie are.

I've also had luck with some attractant scents, like Smelly Jelly and others. On many occasions while catching crappie on jigs and the bite slows down, adding a dab of attractant to the jig sometimes turns the crappie back on and the bite resumes.

Another trick I've used and seen used many times is to use crappie meat for bait. Crappie must be a little cannibalistic because crappie meat seems to be a very effective bait. I usually put just a small piece, about the size and shape of a piece of candy corn, on the hook of my jig when I use that bait.

It used to be illegal to use game fish for bait in Oklahoma, but the rules were changed several years ago at the request of striper fishing guides who liked to catch live trout in the Lower Illinois River and then use them to catch stripers. 

Tulsa County Game Warden Carlos Gomez told me recently that anglers can now use crappie meat for bait, as long as they caught the crappie legally by hook-and-line and the fish used is counted as part of the creel limit.

WHERE TO GO, WHAT TO DO

Most of Oklahoma's major reservoirs hold good populations of white crappie. A few of the eastern lakes with clear water also still have decent numbers of black crappie. Based on several lakes I have fished in the past 40 years in Oklahoma, I have seen that when a lake is first built, the black crappie population in the impounded streams flourish briefly in the lakes, but as the lakes age the white crappie become the dominant species.

Many smaller lakes, and quite a few Oklahoma creeks and small rivers, still produce good numbers of black crappie. The daily crappie limit is 37 and the total can be all white or all black or a mix of the two.

Effective crappie fishing techniques can vary considerably from lake to lake at this time of the year. At most Oklahoma lakes, with somewhat murky water, crappie tend to spend a lot of late winter time around structure and cover at 10 or 15 feet below the surface.

At a few lakes, like Broken Bow and Tenkiller, for example, where there is quite a bit of very deep water — 40 feet, 50 feet, or even deeper — crappie sometimes suspend far below the surface out in mid-lake, but may be holding over standing timber that is several feet deeper.

It's difficult to fish for those deep-suspending crappie unless you can anchor securely, and anchoring in very deep water is sometimes problematic, especially if it is a windy day. But sometimes you can swim jigs or drop baited hooks to the depths where the crappie are suspended. 

Crappie caught down below 30 feet will usually die, even if quickly released, after they are pulled to the surface, so it's probably best to keep deep-caught crappie, even if some are a little on the small side. The sudden change in atmospheric pressure when a crappie is pulled rapidly to the surface from far below can make the fish's air bladder expand so quickly that it bulges up into the throat and mouth and creates physical stress on the fish.

Crappie caught in shallower water can usually be released to swim again, unless they're seriously injured by handling or hook removal.

At most Oklahoma lakes, anglers rarely have to fish more than 20 feet down. At some lakes, especially in summer months, there may not even be enough oxygen to support fish life far below the surface.

What lakes are the best for crappie fishing? Well, that can change from year to year, depending on how successfully crappie reproduce. Many factors affect reproduction. Rapidly rising or falling water levels during the spawning season can sometimes negatively impact spawning success and result in fewer crappie being added to the population.

But even in problem years, most big Oklahoma lakes have good numbers of crappie.

EASTERN OKLAHOMA

In Eastern Oklahoma, my two favorite crappie lakes are Eufaula and Grand. Both of those lakes have many manmade brushpiles that can be great places to find crappie. Most are built by individual anglers and are unmarked, but some are built by fisheries crews from our Wildlife Department. Those usually are marked by floating "fish attractor" buoys that guide anglers to the brush. Fisheries workers also build marked brush shelters in many other state lakes as well.

Grand Lake also has hundreds of floating boat docks. At many of them, owners have anchored brushpiles beneath the docks or around the outer edges, to enhance fishing for people fishing from the floating structures. Anglers can also take advantage of the sunken cover. However, anglers should take care not to snag objects, boat upholstery, etc., with hooks or lures while fishing around private docks.

Both Eufaula and Grand have a few heated docks, located at marinas, where anglers can fish in comfort, dropping their lines into open fishing wells enclosed by the walls of the floating docks. Some such docks also have food concessions and other services that are available.

Kaw Lake, near Ponca City, and Keystone Lake, just west of Tulsa are good crappie lakes. Kerr and Webbers Falls lakes on the Arkansas River are two more good choices.

ELSEWHERE

In Southeastern Oklahoma, Wister, Broken Bow, Pine Creek and Hugo are topnotch crappie fisheries. 

Down in our southwest area, Waurika Lake produces good crappie fishing, as does Lake Lawtonka. And in northwestern Oklahoma, Canton Lake produces good stringers of slabs.

Two lakes that supply cooling water to big electrical power generation stations also supply good wintertime crappie fishing. Konawa Lake, between Ada and Seminole, and Sooner Lake, between Stillwater and Ponca City, are better known for hybrid white/striped bass fishing, but both are good crappie fisheries.

There also are numerous smaller lakes statewide, including many municipal water supply reservoirs, that offer good crappie action.

ODWC fisheries biologists usually recommend against stocking crappie in farm ponds and similar small impoundments. Crappie can reproduce rapidly, especially if there aren't some larger predator fish to keep the population in check, and crappie can become numerous but stunted, and so the pond is full of tiny crappie too small to have much meat on their bones.

But over the years I've seen many really large crappie come from really small ponds. I once caught a 4-pounder, my biggest crappie ever, from a pond not much bigger than a typical suburban front yard. Both of our state-record crappie came from farm ponds. The record black crappie, caught in an Ottawa County pond in 1974, weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces. The record white crappie, just an ounce short of 5 pounds at 4-15, came from a Kingfisher County pond in 1991.

For 15 years or so, while I was writing about hunting and fishing for a daily newspaper, lots of folks sent me photos of big crappie they caught. Most of the crappie bigger than 2 pounds almost always came from farm ponds.

Not every pond contains crappie, and not every pond that has crappie holds platter-sized specimens, but it never hurts to check out the crappie fishing if you have access to farm ponds anywhere in Oklahoma.

Many of our streams also hold lots of crappie. Crappie in streams tend to be relatively mobile. A spot that produces lots of crappie one day may not produce a single bite the next day, but if you're at the right spot at the right time, crappie fishing can be good. 

Along the Arkansas River, between Tulsa and Webbers Falls Lake, good crappie fishing can be found at the mouths of several small creeks that flow into the river. My friends and I have caught some good stringers in those places, fishing from canoes or from float tubes on warmer days.

You can do the same. So why not start your own February Slabfest at any of these great waters around our state!

SOCK A SLAB

As spring approaches in coming weeks, crappie fishing close to shorelines gets better and better.

Male crappie prepare nests and then guide willing females to them.Oklahoma crappie

Dangling a jig or minnow straight down from a rod tip and probing the water around tree trunks, laydowns, or similar cover can put a lot of crappie on the stringer — if your timing is right. 

Some call this technique "doodlesocking" or "dabbling." But whatever you call it, it is a good method to catch pre-spawn and spawning slabs.

An angler in a float tube, or just wading the shallows, often can catch limits in the shallows when the slabs are spawning. In some spots, anglers walking the banks and using long rods to probe the cover several feet from shore can do very well. 

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