Sweet spots for catching slab crappie abound throughout the Sunflower State. Here are some that you're sure to find especially sweet this spring. (March 2008).
Photo by keith sutton
If this were a weather forecast, you'd close this magazine after reading what follows and think, "Bluebird skies . . . in every direction!" The 2008 outlook for Kansas crappie is indeed good.
Lakes you've read about here for decades are included again because the Sunflower State offers a factory-like crappie fishery when it comes to production. Times are pretty good, and this current welcome situation can be attributed in large part to the rains that fell long and hard throughout the eastern half of the state during last year's late spring and early summer.
"Heading into the 2008 season, the overall health of our crappie fishery, statewide, is above average," said biologist Kyle Austin of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. As this was being written, Austin and biologists all over the state were still completing the annual population samples that give them the best idea of how things look. But from his office at KDWP headquarters in Pratt, Austin has been staying on the phone with biologists statewide.
"I'd like to have the data in front of me," he said, "but the anecdotal information I'm getting suggests what I believe the data will bear out -- that our crappie are in good shape in most waters around the state. The rains we had last year were really helpful in that regard."
As he talked, Austin touched on the edges of Kansas' crappie dynamics. It's a fascinating story that will help you understand why the lakes included in this story have been great destinations for crappie chasers, and why they are again this year.
Before getting into that, however, let's talk about the places you should be focusing on once again this season.
"Our best major reservoirs are going to be Toronto, Hillsdale and Perry," Austin said. "When it comes to white crappie, all of them have plenty of fish in the 7- to 8-inch range, and that bodes well for the long-term health of the fisheries." (Of course, those numbers don't mean much to anglers who prefer Hillsdale and Perry because of 10-inch-minimum lengths imposed there.)
"Fishermen have nothing to worry about," Austin continued. "They're going to find good numbers of 'keeper' crappie at those two lakes, and at Toronto. The minimum-length and creel-limit regulations we have on Hillsdale and Perry do a lot to provide good fishing opportunities to anglers who enjoy fishing those lakes."
After asking Austin a few more questions about those two spots and Kansas crappie in general, it quickly became apparent that no crappie angler should believe that the biggest plus of the regulations on Hillsdale and Perry is protection. It's not.
More than anything else, the restrictions help spread out harvest over the course of a full fishing season. After learning more about the biology of crappie in the Sunflower State, you'll see why I make that point.
"We know from many years of research that the life spans of our black and white crappie is 5 to 6 years," Austin said. "That's all you're going to get from them here in Kansas. Black bass, walleyes and catfish will live 10 to 12 years, but not our crappie. And it takes them four years, on average, to reach the 10-inch minimum length."
Think about that: It's tough to argue that the regulations are actually protecting crappie when the fish reaching the minimum length have only a couple of years to live. Instead, consider that the 20-crappie creel limits on Hillsdale and Perry are definitely permitting more anglers to share the bounty of slabsides during the time when these fish are at their prime.
"There are many times that we do consider regulations to protect certain species of fish on certain bodies of water," Austin said, "but the regulations on Hillsdale and Perry really don't do that for the crappie. The fish simply don't live long enough after reaching the length limit to truly benefit in a way that you could call the regulations protective."
Think about it another way: Perry and Hillsdale annually show up on the list of Kansas' best crappie reservoirs, but so does Toronto, where there are no length or daily-creel restrictions in place. This information suggests that Hillsdale and Perry, which definitely get more fishing pressure, benefit because more anglers have a chance to catch limits of fish on more outings. The regulations really do spread out the harvest more than they protect these lakes' crappie.
Austin even noted a situation in which a minimum-length limit had a negative impact on a Kansas crappie fishery -- the one at Cedar Bluff reservoir out west. "The 10-inch minimum-length limit did much more harm than good on Cedar Bluff because the crappie tended to stockpile in numbers below the minimum length," the biologist noted.
"In other words, they weren't growing fast enough for the length limit to have the impact we intended it to have. The fishing there actually improved when we removed the limit.
"We monitor crappie fisheries statewide on an ongoing basis," Austin added. "Because of that, it's possible for us to make changes in regulations quickly to respond to situations that might arise. We know that our anglers rate crappie at or near the top as their favorite species of game fish, and we focus on managing them to provide the best opportunities possible."
That includes managing smaller bodies of water, not just the large reservoirs. In 2008, there will be several community and state fishing lakes offering excellent crappie fishing. As has been the case with the large reservoirs, the list of smaller lakes looks familiar.
"Ottawa and Miami state fishing lakes will have good crappie fishing again this year," Austin said. "Marion County Lake will be another good spot. Wellington and Eureka city lakes also are going to be among the better small crappie lakes in Kansas this season."
All names sound very familiar, which they should. These waters represent a mix of structure, forage and water levels that combine in a recipe for crappie production that is hard to match just about anywhere in the country.
Austin said he might have been concerned about prospects for the 2008 season had it not been for the heavy rains that showed up in 2007. Not only did they refill -- and in some cases overfill -- lakes that had been lowered by drought for some time,
but they also mitigated fishing pressure on some of Kansas' best crappie lakes.
"Lakes like Hillsdale, Perry and Toronto had some angling pressure early last year," Austin explained, "but the heavy rains reduced that pressure significantly, not just for a few days, but for weeks. We all know that crappie in our most popular reservoirs get hammered pretty good throughout the year. But angling mortality was down across the board last year, and that's another good thing heading into the new season."
In other words, Kansas fishermen didn't harvest nearly the number of crappie they would have last year had the weather pattern been closer to average -- in other words, drier.
As a result, there were many more fish above, at or very near the 10-inch minimums on Hillsdale and Perry, for example, that didn't get caught and filleted. As a result, there are many more of them waiting for you as the new season opens.
Another thing the rain helped with was cover for young-of-the-year crappie. Higher lake levels flooded vegetation that gave the smallest of crappie many more underwater nooks and crannies to use in avoiding larger predators.
"The Corps of Engineers works with us as best they can to maintain water levels that will help our game fish like crappie," Austin said. "But their guidelines limit how much they can do on our major reservoirs because of the official priorities for these impoundments."
Practically every publication I've seen on Corps of Engineers projects throughout the Great Plains and surrounding states makes the emphatic point that flood control is the priority of most of these large impoundments. Recreation ranks lower, and so takes a back seat to flood control when it comes to the Corps' approach to managing lake levels.
That's important to all game fish, but especially crappie, in Kansas. "You know," Austin offered, "there's just no place for all those little fish to hide on a mudflat. But if the water comes up through the winter and spring (i.e., before the spawn) even a couple of feet -- and if we can keep that level into the summer -- we are going to see much improved recruitment in that year-class of crappie."
What a lot of Kansas lakes got last spring and early summer was much more than just a slight level rise, however. We're talking about major flooding in some areas, but Austin is not overly concerned about potential losses.
Last year, biologists believe, many tiny crappie were able to avoid predation thanks to the excellent cover provided by high water levels.
What he and others know, however, is that good crappie fishing brings people out. "We definitely see many more anglers on the water when crappie prospects are good, like they will be this year," Austin noted. "I'm sure there are some anglers who don't want to hear that, because they'd prefer to have those honeyholes to themselves.
"But the fact is that you don't need a lot of high-tech stuff to catch plenty of crappie," he continued. "You grab your favorite rod and reel and get some minnows, and you're on your way to enjoying some great fishing. We like to say that in years during which we have good crappie fishing, the anglers and the fish are coming together, which is good."
So, yes -- more people buy fishing licenses when the crappie fishing is going to be good. As a result, you're likely to see more folks trying to get on your favorite spots this season. On Hillsdale and Perry, that won't be quite so bad, because of the regulations. You should expect to find nice crappie there throughout the season, and most likely more of them than in recent seasons, given the impact the rains had on 2007 fishing pressure.
You also should think about trying your hand at some of the smaller lakes, like Ottawa and Miami state lakes. One advantage you'll gain at those spots is the access to manmade fish attractors and brushpiles from the shore. If you're not familiar with these spots, you don't even have to worry about taking your boat. Just plan to fish from shore.
As the new season unfolds, regardless of where you'll be fishing, you should start out this month looking for structure in deep water (15 to 25 feet) that is fairly close to the shallow spawning areas crappie use annually. If you're a regular, you know where those spawning banks are on your favorite waters. Just back off them far enough to locate the nearest deeper-water structure, and it's a good bet you'll find crappie this month already beginning to stage.
Minnow-tipped jigs are hard to beat for crappie now, although some anglers also enjoy fishing minnows under slip-bobbers when they can find crappie holding in 10 to 15 feet of water. Either way, the operative word is "minnows."
This truly is one of the best times of the year to fish for these great-tasting panfish in Kansas. And at Hillsdale and Perry, more "keeper" crappie are available now than you might expect. The other lakes mentioned here also have good numbers, which means good fishing.
No doubt: 2008 will be a good year for Sunflower State slabsides. So it's time to reflect on that earlier comparison to "bluebird skies in every direction," put this magazine down -- and head out for some crappie!