Your Guide To Little Rock Crappie

Lakes Conway and Maumelle are hardly secrets, but they're two great locations for catching summertime crappie in the Little Rock area. Follow our expert's advice for more slabs right now!

Photo by Tom Evans

By Jim Spencer

It doesn't matter whether you call them calico bass, sac-à-lait, speckled perch, white perch, or crappie, they're prolific, common and popular, and a favorite of Natural State anglers. But for most of us, crappie fishing is a springtime affair. By the time the dogwood blossoms are gone, the majority of central Arkansas crappie anglers are through with it. By the time the triple-digit days of summer arrive, crappie fishing is as far from their minds as ice-fishing.

The main reason for this state of affairs - aside from the oppressive heat of the average Arkansas summer - is that crappie are harder to find in summer. In spring, crappie move to shallow water for spawning, where they are both reachable and catchable to a degree that often gets less law-abiding anglers in trouble with the game warden.

But in summer, shallows get too warm and crappie go deeper, looking for cooler, better-oxygenated surroundings. They often gang up in big schools that number several hundred to several thousand fish. This accomplishes two things in the crappie's favor: It makes them harder to find, and puts them out of reach of most casual anglers. Out of reach of most bank-anglers, too, since deep-water crappie summer haunts are usually away from the shoreline.

These deeper fish can still be caught, though. Once you locate a school, you'll probably be surprised at how cooperative they are. Despite what many anglers think, crappie and other fish species don't feed less when the water gets warmer. To the contrary, they consume even more food during the warmwater months, because they're cold-blooded and their body temperature (and their metabolism) increase with the increase in water temperature. I wasn't able to find statistics for crappie, but one study for largemouth bass showed that a bass's metabolic rate in 80-degree water was 10 times higher than in 40-degree water. If a crappie's metabolic increase is even half that, it doesn't take a brainiac to figure out that it needs to eat more in July than in April.

But there's a catch: Crappie must eat more in warmer water, but they must also conserve as much energy as possible to keep from literally burning themselves up in hot weather. Therefore, an angler's lure or bait presentation should be right on target and slow-moving, so the fish won't have to expend any more energy than necessary to scarf up the offering.

The facts listed above translate this way: Finding summer crappie is the hardest part. Once they've been found, a savvy angler can usually manage to get them to bite - as long as he keeps his bait or lure moving very slowly, and as long as he puts it right on the crappie's nose.

When the editor of Arkansas Sportsman asked me to write this piece, he told me to focus on a single body of water that provides the "best bet" for central Arkansas crappie fishing. But since there are several good summer crappie fisheries in and near Little Rock, I couldn't for the life of me figure out which one to call the best. I doubt anybody else can, either. So what follows here, with apologies to the editor, are not one but two "best-bet" waters for summer crappie action in the middle part of the state:

Lake Conway: This venerable slab of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission water was the first of the AGFC's more than 60 public fishing lakes. Built in 1948, almost 20 years before the stretch of I-40 that runs along its western shore, Lake Conway also still holds the record as the largest lake (more than 6,700 acres) ever built by a state wildlife agency anywhere in the United States.

In addition to its size, Lake Conway is one of the state's most fertile and most actively-managed waters. This intensive management is necessary, because Conway receives a tremendous amount of fishing pressure. Periodic drawdowns, sampling, supplemental stocking and a nursery pond are all employed by fisheries biologists to keep the crappie population healthy and the crappie fishing good.

Ironically, though, it wasn't until the middle 1970s that Lake Conway started gaining a reputation as a crappie lake. Famous throughout the state and elsewhere in its early years as a bass, catfish and bluegill/redear lake, the original fish population of Conway had few if any crappie. But in the late 1960s, Jim Collins, then an AGFC district fisheries biologist, thought that the 20-plus-year-old lake had the makings of excellent crappie habitat, if only they could become well established with a large enough initial stocking. So Collins set about making it happen. In 1970, the AGFC released 2.5 million fingerling crappie into Lake Conway from its brand-new nursery pond on the north side of the lake. Releases of 50,000 1,000,000 and 500,000 fingerling crappie followed in 1971, 1972 and 1973 (all from the nursery pond) and the Lake Conway crappie fishery was born.

It's still there, and although the vast majority of the fishing pressure takes place in the cooler months, there are a few serious summer crappie anglers on Lake Conway. One of the most successful is Darron Eastwick, who turns his back on Lake Maumelle (only four miles from his driveway) in favor of the 45-mile run to Lake Conway. He says he fishes for crappie in Conway and other lakes year 'round, and though like other anglers he favors the shallow-water action of spring and fall, he stays with it right through the heat of summer.

"Yeah, it's hot, but there's no sense wasting a perfectly good fishing season," Eastwick remarked, his low-key philosophy showing. He says that there are two tricks to catching hot-weather crappie in a tannin-stained lake such as Lake Conway.

"First, use your head and stay off the water during the middle of the day. The best fishing time is from first light until about an hour after sunrise and from just before sunset until dark. A gray, rainy, drizzly summer day can keep the fish biting as long as the cloud cover holds, but those kinds of days don't come along very often in July. You can start looking for that kind of weather around the middle of August."

Eastwick says he knows a few anglers who do well on Lake Conway fishing at night under lanterns. "I don't care for it myself, though," he says. "Too many bugs to deal with."

The second thing Eastwick believes is critical to crappie fishing success on Lake Conway is water depth. Lake Conway is shallow, with quite a bit of the extreme upper end too shallow for boating after a half-century of siltation. The main body of the lake averages about 6 feet deep, but that's still too shallow to provide water cool enough for crappie.

"Use a depthfinder, and look for the creek chan

nels of Palarm Creek, Gold Creek and Pierce Creek," Eastwick says. "The water depth in these old creek beds drops off to 10, 12, even as much as 18 feet in a few places, and that's where the crappie will be in hot weather."

Eastwick and other knowledgeable Lake Conway crappie veterans concentrate their efforts along the edges of these submerged creek channels, mostly in the lower portion of the part of the lake west of Highway 89, fishing slowly with a combination of jigs and live minnows and looking especially for submerged brushpiles or logjams along the edge of the channel.

"If you can find some brush or logs on the outside of a sharp bend in the creek, you've got a potential hotspot," Eastwick says. "The water is deeper and the dropoff is sharper on the outside of a sharp bend, and the prime holding area for the fish is much more defined."

Eastwick sometimes uses tube jigs (his favorite colors on Lake Conway are chartreuse/black and blue/black), but he refers fishing live bait - small shiners or rosy reds no more than two inches long. He fishes them on a 10-foot telescoping pole, with a single split shot just big enough to get the bait down, clamped about 6 to 8 inches above a size 1 Aberdeen-style hook, with the minnow hooked through the back above the spine and behind the dorsal fin.

"I use the lightest line I think I can get away with," Eastwick says. "That's usually 4-pound-test, but sometimes I'll drop down to 2-pound if there's not a lot of brush where I'm fishing." Eastwick says the lighter line lets him keep in better contact with his bait or lure so he can do a better job of detecting the characteristic light strikes of summer crappie.

Safe boating is especially important on Lake Conway. There are no motor size restrictions on the lake, but whatever the size of your outboard, proceed with caution.

Lake Maumelle: While Darron Eastwick doesn't like to fish for crappie at night on Lake Conway, Billy Dean Miller has a different viewpoint about night-fishing on Lake Maumelle.

"The water in Lake Maumelle is a lot clearer than the water in Lake Conway," Miller explained as he readied his gear for a night-fishing trip. "That makes it harder to catch crappie in the daytime on Maumelle, but a little easier to catch 'em at night."

Miller would know. He regularly fishes the clearwater lakes of Arkansas for crappie, and from June through September, almost 100 percent of his crappie fishing is done at night. He says he prefers Bull Shoals above all other Arkansas impoundments, but since the Bull is nearly 200 miles from his central Arkansas home, he spends most of his free nights on Maumelle.

"There are plenty of crappie in Maumelle - it's just that you don't get as much of a grab-bag catch there as you do on Bull Shoals," Miller says. He's taken everything from stripers to walleyes to rainbow trout when night-fishing for crappie on Bull Shoals, but when he's fishing Maumelle it's mostly crappie, with an occasional Kentucky bass or channel catfish.

"Of course, there's nothing really wrong with that," Miller said. "After all, I'm out there crappie fishing."

Miller's tactics for finding fish are similar to the methods Eastwick uses on Lake Conway, except that Miller doesn't worry too much about staying in the channel. "There are probably some crappie in the channel, but it's easier for me to find underwater humps and points than to try to stay over a winding channel," he said. "What I look for in hot weather is a hump or point about 25 to 30 feet below the surface, preferably one with a little cover - brush or rocks - on it. There are humps and points like that all over the lake, but some of my favorite places are in the Chimney Rock part of the lake along the north shore. Once you find a good spot, it'll usually produce fish all summer."

Miller begins most of his night-fishing expeditions in late afternoon.

"I want to have time to find my spot, get set up and let things settle down a little while it's still daylight," he said. He says it's also easier to find a spot when it's still light, particularly after you're familiar with a lake, because you can use landmarks to triangulate and narrow down the search area. A few passes with the depth finder turned on will usually locate the spot.

Once he's in place, Miller drops both bow and stern anchors, sets them out a considerable distance from the boat and then snugs each anchor rope down until the boat is directly over the hump. "That's important, because it keeps the ropes out of the way of your fishing lines," he says.

After he's securely anchored, Miller relaxes until after sundown, using the time to ready his fishing equipment, eat a sandwich, and maybe even take a catnap. Sometimes he puts a hook overboard, and sometimes he doesn't. In the dim time between sunset and dark, he clips two submersible lights to his batteries and lowers them overboard to a depth of about 5 feet.

Miller prefers the submersible lights for several reasons. "One thing is they're not in your way in the boat. They're not glaring in your eyes, and they don't attract so many mosquitoes and other bugs. And it seems to me they just plain attract more fish than lanterns or floating lights."

Miller says the glow from the submerged lights provides enough diffused light above the surface to handle most chores like baiting hooks and removing fish, but for finer work like retying a hook, he carries a combination flashlight/lantern with a small fluorescent bulb.

His preferred rig is a medium-light 7- or 7 1/2-foot spinning rod with 4-pound line. He fishes live bait almost exclusively, usually small shiners. Like Darron Eastwick, Billy Dean Miller fishes tightline and uses as small a split shot as will keep the bait down, but his choice of hooks differs considerably.

"I'm a believer in Daiichi's Bleeding-Bait Circle Hooks," Miller said. "The manufacturer says the red hook looks like a gill flash and triggers strikes from predator fish like crappie, but I couldn't tell you one way or the other about that. But what I do know is that summer crappie strike so light you often can't feel them even when the line is tight, and with the circle hooks, you don't have to set the hook. The fish does it himself when it swims off, or you do it by accident when you raise the rod tip as you're jigging the bait up and down. Almost every fish is caught in the corner of the mouth, too, so it's easy to get the hook out and you can release the small fish without damaging them."

Miller prefers to hook his shiners through the lips. He starts fishing near the bottom, and moves his bait up about 2 feet every five minutes until it's within 10 feet of the surface. If he hasn't had a bite by that time, he drops the bait to the bottom and starts the process again. He says he usually finds the fish holding 5 to 10 feet off bottom.

"It almost always takes at least an hour, sometimes more, for things to start working under the lights," he said. "The process starts with microscopic plankton and insect larvae in the water

. These critters are attracted to the light, and that brings baitfish in to feed on them, and the crappie congregate to feed on the minnows."

Miller said that while good crappie fishing can continue until daylight, the best fishing is usually between two and four hours after dark. He says he usually quits around midnight or 1 a.m.

"There's no need to be a glutton about it," he says. "Crappie are better when you eat 'em fresh, and that gives me a good reason to come back next week."

With one phrase, Billy Joe Miller nailed one of the best reasons to fish for summer crappie: "better when you eat 'em fresh." And they're out there within easy reach of every angler in central Arkansas. Heat up the grease and go get some.

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