Springtime: when a fisherman's fancy turns to crappie. We've got just the places for getting on the slabs. (February 2007)
Photo by Terry Madewell
When winter's gloom gives way to spring, water temperatures creep upward and blooming redbuds brighten shorelines across the Natural State. The minds of crappie turn toward their happy duty to produce the next generation, and many Arkansas sportsmen's thoughts turn toward coolers full of our state's tastiest fish.
To help you enjoy this spring crappie bonanza, we've divided Arkansas into northern, central and southern thirds and then profiled the top crappie lakes in each section. We even scouted other nearby lakes so you can escape crowds and still catch fish.
BULL SHOALS AND NORFORK
Many folks fishing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes immediately highlight artificial fish attractors on maps and beeline to the vivid blue signs that indicate submerged brushpiles nearby. Like all offers that sound too good to be true, this one also doesn't deserve your trust -- at least, not year 'round, according to Ken Shirley, an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission fisheries biologist from northwest Arkansas.
"When crappie are spawning, they won't be in the brushpiles," he said. "Fishing in them is best in the winter and summer, when fish are above or in the thermocline -- which is where we place the brushpiles at normal water levels.
"Crappie don't spawn everywhere," Shirley explained. "They'll be in shallow water, and they seem to spawn in the same coves year in and year out. I don't know whether they're returning to the areas where they were born, but I do know that you'll catch spawning fish in the same coves every year. And in some coves, you won't find any."
Shirley's advice for determining how deep crappie build nests represents a mix of science, clever thinking and the homegrown, mechanical ingenuity that seems to be the hallmark of veteran fisheries biologists.
"People talk about water temperatures, and that's important to crappie, but light is an important influence on crappie, too" Shirley said. "In the upper ends of the lake, where you have inflow from the (creek) arms, they'll be shallower than in clear water because there's some color in the water."
Where do males build nests? "In water clarity about 1 1/2 times the depth you can see something under water," Shirley said. "Drop a white ball on a string until you can't see it, and then fish at that depth plus one-half of that depth more. Of course," he said with a laugh, "that trick isn't necessarily true after they've set on the nest and the water level has changed." But if you're exploring new water this spring, this technique is worth a try, and far better than blindly casting at shorelines.
Bull Shoals fishing guide Phillip Stone puts most of his clients on bass, but crappie fishing has been so good recently that plenty of customers book him for papermouths, too.
Stone said, "The crappie fishing the last two years has just been excellent on Bull Shoals. On any day during the last week of March all the way into the middle of May, on average, we've been catching 30 to 40 crappie in the 12-inch to 14-inch range."
During the early spring, he routinely catches black crappie up to 3 pounds on minnows, inline spinners or small, shiny crankbaits.
OTHER NORTHERN HOTSPOTS
Beaver Lake in Carroll and Washington counties has a heavy crappie population this year, and if you visit Fayetteville for a Razorback basketball game in February, wet a hook at lakes Fayetteville, Sequoyah or Wilson. Lake Bob Kidd is another excellent Washington County crappie hole.
In northern Izard County, try Crown, Diamond and Pioneer lakes near Horseshoe Bend. In Greene County to the northeast, crappie teem in lakes Frierson and Ashbaugh, while locals favor Poinsett Lake in its namesake county.
GREERS FERRY TOPS
Greers Ferry, another link in the upper White River chain, features deep, clear water.
"For guys who are used to fishing for bass in shallow water along the shore, it can be hard to fish when the water is this deep and this clear," explained Roy Johnson, who works at Lacey's Narrows Marina and has lived most of his life on the lake. "In the spring, you're usually fishing 14 to 17 feet deep for crappie," he said.
Dozens of creeks and three forks of the Little Red River feed the upper section of the 40,000-acre reservoir, which stretches across parts of Van Buren and Cleburne counties. The lower lake lies entirely within Cleburne County, and the aptly-named Narrows area -- three miles of the original river channel -- divides it from the upper lake.
Johnson has explored the lake for years, and expertly navigates most of it, but he and his buddies focus on very specific areas for the makings of a springtime fish fry.
"We catch a lot of crappie in Brushy Creek and up Hill Creek," he revealed, citing two tributaries on the eastern end of the upper lake. "You really get the feeling of being in a canyon there-they've both got beautiful bluffs and great fishing," he said.
Submerged railroads tracks line much of Brushy Creek, where dropoffs on outside bends reach 60 to 80 feet deep. Farther east, Hill Creek is scenic and fishable thanks to shelf rock and standing timber. On the lower lake, Johnson favors the area all around Goat Island between Scout Island and the resort community of Eden Isle.
Although he recommends light tackle and line, Johnson's most valuable crappie tool is a detailed map for pinpointing superb habitat.
"When they flooded the lake, they left railroads, farmhouses, barns, roads -- everything you can think of," he explained. "There are even Indian burial grounds, and, of course, the original river channel and all the creek channels are important," Johnson explained. "And the AGFC and Corps of Engineers have built big brushpiles and marked them so anyone can find them."
Johnson entices papermouths with minnows and curlytail jigs with white tails. For more information, including the waterproof maps Johnson recommends, call Lacey's Narrows Marina at 1-800-401-0440.
ARKANSAS CRAPPIE HOLES
West of Little Rock along state Highway 10, Lake Maumelle surrenders a few barn-door crappies every spring. Lake Harris Brake in Perry County is even better. The eastern edge of this middle region features Crittenden County's Horseshoe Lake, where locals sweeten bl
ack and chartreuse and red and white jigs with minnows. At this time of year, crappie congregate among the cypress trees. Two privately owned ramps provide access off state Highway 147 near Hughes. As you read this, Lake Conway, a perennial crappie favorite, should still be drawn down four feet for maintenance; it will begin to refill from rainfall after Dec. 1.
The 65,000-acre Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in Ashley, Bradley and Union counties in deep south-central Arkansas includes 15,000-acre Lake Jack Lee (better known as "Grand Marais"). When it's flooded for duck hunting, it more than doubles to 36,000 acres and becomes the largest green-timber duck hunting reservoir on earth.
The original beds of creeks, sloughs, rivers, swamps and lakes now crisscross Lake Jack Lee, which sports timber and cypress that typify rich, swampy, bottomland hardwoods. Annual flooding refreshes fish populations, so when the AGFC lowers the reservoir in March and April, fish the brushy edges where crappie predictably seek cover.
For the tangled and tight quarters on some oxbows, where there's no room for casting and plenty of room for errors, pack a jigging pole for precision presentations. Expect to see schooling crappie gorging on baitfish near dropoffs in February and March, according to the AGFC. In open water, cast inline spinners, spoons and crankbaits or simply troll shad imitations as you work toward edges. Crappie cooperate most when the water is stable or slowly falling.
Accessible ramps are on the east side of the lake at the state Highway 82 bridge, within the Marais Saline campground to the west and at the Grand Marais campground near the dam, off state Highway 129. Minnows and jigs are standard baits here, as they are throughout Arkansas. For maps and fishing reports from NWR staff, call (870) 364-3167.
IN THE SOUTHERN TIER
One of southwest Arkansas's jewels is 30,000-acre Millwood Lake in Little River County. DeQueen Lake serves Sevier County, and in the middle of this third tier, you'll find lots of crappie in Lake Columbia's flooded timber. White Oak Lake northwest of Camden covers 2,667 acres and produces crappie year after year. Lake Chicot, one of the finest fishing lakes anywhere, is 5,500 acres, 20 miles long and 8 miles northeast of Lake Village in its namesake county.