Everyone loves catching and eating crappies. You can get the main ingredient for a fish fry on these waters.
Photo by Tom Evans
By Walt Kronk
There is something special about big slab crappies. Maybe it's seeing a float pop twice and then go skittering across the surface toward the brush. Or perhaps it's the finesse required to ease a hefty papermouth toward the boat as it vehemently shakes it head "no," thus increasing chances of freedom with every twist and shake. Is it the thrill of pulling something big and silver out of water hardly deep enough to cover that broad back? Or could it be the thought of filets sizzling in hot oil?
Actually, it's all these things and more, with hundreds of places to chase this fish of many names in the Prairie State. Here's a look at some of the best waters to check out in the months ahead.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER POOL 13 Eisenhower was president the first time I discovered the wonders of crappie fishing at Potter's Marsh just outside of Thomson in Carroll County. The cane pole that was state-of-the-art back then is still effective today in backwaters here, with fishing better than it has ever been.
A major dredging project at Potter's years ago has resulted in greatly improved habitat, proving the adage "if you dredge it, they will come." A good launch facility provides access to the river beyond with dozens of places to seek out slabs between Fulton downstream and Bellevue, Iowa, some 20 miles and 30,000 surface acres north.
Another good boat launch at Miller's Lake across from the entrance to Palisades State Park north of Savanna is not more than a stone's throw from good fishin' a couple months from now - and a great place to fill a bucket at the late ice that is just around the corner.
Around Dead Lake, Sabula Slough, Brown's Lake, Lainsville and other places, just find wood with minnows around it and the crappies won't be far away.
Crappies seem to have an affinity for certain stumps and deadfalls. One of these is still standing in a backwater behind the Savanna Army Depot south of Hanover. And I'll bet the crappies will be stacked in there come May. This is the site of my only experience with child abuse when growing up. Dad let me row the leaky wooden boat a good mile against the wind to get here - after bailing water with an old coffee can for 20 minutes prior to launch. Dad's only job was remembering the old Falls City steel minnow bucket. And one time he forgot it, and I had to row all the way back to get it, and then row back to the special stump.
The only way to find catharsis from the brutal scars of this event is found in fishing Pool 13 on a regular basis. Don't forget the net. Or the minnows.
Contact: Big River Bait & Taxidermy, (815) 244-3155.
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE Crappie fishing in this generally shallow 6,965-acre lake south of Highway 13 in Williamson County is as good now as anybody can remember, according to Department of Natural Resources biologist Chris Bickers.
Although beaver huts and brushpiles are the obvious spots to find fish, don't overlook riprapped areas. And there is plenty of riprap on Crab. The area along Highway 148 that spans Crab Orchard near the east end is always good.
Be sure to stop at the National Wildlife Area Visitor Center when you go down this road. There is a wealth of virtually untapped crappie waters nearby, both on the refuge and in the Shawnee National Forest that covers much of the state south of here. When you're at the Visitor Center, take a rod out back and pitch a Chompers Salty Sinker Worm in watermelon color at Visitor Pond. Although there are crappies in this little gem, there are some whopping big largemouth bass that will make you forget all about your fishin' mission!
The west end of Crab Orchard holds plenty of slab crappies, too, especially on the riprap along the spillway, and particularly around the old pump house. If there isn't a boat sitting there already, check it out. You won't have to move.
Lots of folks use minnows, but savvy anglers tie a pair of Cottonmouth Lures' Hoop-I Head Jigs with Fuzz-E-Tail grubs about a foot apart with loop knots, open the livewell and then close the lid when they've caught enough.
Bickers says there are more black crappies than white crappies, with the dominant year-classes averaging 9 to 11 inches. There is no limit on crappies in Crab Orchard Lake.
Contact: Crab Orchard Refuge, (618) 997-3344; Pin Oak Pub & Motel; (618) 985-4834.
SANGCHRIS LAKE This 2,165-acre cooling lake straddling the Sangamon-Christian county line in central Illinois may be the best place in our state to get a "stringer mount" of crappies for your favorite taxidermist.
Local bait shop owner Dave Anker says he "regularly" sees 10-fish limits of crappies "weighing nearly 20 pounds." Besides the 10-fish limit, Sangchris has a 25-horsepower motor limit in place.
Although local angler Steve Neal has a bigger reputation as a bass angler, he also does quite well on Sangchris' slabs.
"Water temperature is important," Neal says. "Fish tend to be more mobile here than in other non-cooling lakes. Crappies in Sangchris also turn on much earlier in the spring, and you're liable to find 'em quite shallow."
The major key to catching crappies and other species here is power-plant operation. If smoke is coming out of the stack, the bite is on!
Contact: Sangchris Corner, (217) 623-5252.
SHABBONA LAKE Crappies thrive in the diverse structure of DeKalb County's 300-acre Shabbona Lake. Considerable habitat in the form of trees, roadbeds and buildings from an entire farm were left behind when the lake began to fill with water. Since that time, fish cribs, rockpiles and other "lunker structures" have been added and greatly increase the fish-carrying capacity.
Concessionaire Denny Sands and the late Jim Drury did a great deal of topographical work prior to the lake being filled, with a detailed map that has been enhanced and updated several times to become the most comprehensive map available for any Illinois water. This map and a good sonar are major keys in finding success on Shabbona's highly educated fish population.
Although the new Berkley Gulp Grubs are finding quiet favor with
some of the lake's more reputable crappie anglers, live bait and a natural presentation still shine as the best way to take a nice sack of crappies from these waters.
DNR fisheries biologist Alec Pulley says, "Shabbona has always had a good crappie population, with one or two year-classes always coming on strong." Illinois crappies grow in pretty much a five-year cycle. As we get into 2004, Pulley says the dominant year-class will be 9 to 11 inches, with another strong class of 7- to 9-inch fish in the system, and some larger papermouths as well.
Shabbona is home to a variety of species, with muskies, bass and walleye receiving a great deal of attention from anglers. Crappie fishers can anticipate a nice mixed bag of bluegills and a few perch mixed in with black crappies until waters begin to warm up.
Located in the middle of Shabbona Lake State Park, these waters have a good boat ramp, with boat rental and concessions readily available. A 10-horsepower motor limit is in place.
Contact: Shabbona's concession stand, (815) 824-2581; www.shabbonalake.com.
PIERCE LAKE Another northern Illinois state park lake that consistently produces good crappie catches is nestled in Rock Cut State Park on the northeast side of Rockford. With such close proximity to a major metro area and only about 150 acres in size, it is surprising that Pierce continues to crank out the crappies year after year.
Biologist Pulley says Pierce contains both black and white crappies, with whites definitely dominant at this time.
"The biggest year-class will be about 10 inches in 2004," he says, "with local anglers able to predict seasonal migration and location patterns without too much difficulty."
Right now these fish are suspended in the deepest part of the lake in the south bay located on the southwest corner by the dam. At ice-out they will migrate north to stage off in the middle of bays on either side of Hickory Hills Campground and along the south shore at the east end of the lake as spawning time approaches in early May.
Once serious summer arrives, many crappies move out into the main-lake basin where they cruise at the thermocline level about 12 to 15 feet down.
A good boat ramp is located next to the concession stand that is open during the summer months. A no-wake policy is working well here, allowing access to anglers with larger motors.
Contact: Curve Bait Shop, (815) 877-0637; One-Stop Tackle, (815) 624-2760.
REND LAKE The legacy of retired DNR biologist Harry Wight is paying huge dividends for crappie anglers on this large downstate impoundment, according to DNR biologist Mike Hooe.
A 25-crappie limit has been in place here the past two years, with anglers allowed only five fish of this bag over 10 inches. Subsequent surveys show over 60 percent of Rend's crappie population is now over 10 inches. As a result, Hooe plans on relaxing regulations this spring, allowing 10 fish of the total bag to exceed 10 inches.
"Our goal was to produce crappies over 12 inches," Hooe says. "The result has been far beyond our expectations. Catching 10 quality fish should be pretty easy for experienced crappie 'hooks' on Rend this spring."
Todd Gessner, head of the Rend Lake guide's association, has these fish dialed in better than anybody. Chances are he'll be on the water rather than home. Try his cell phone or email if you need a guide.
Contact: Todd Gessner, (618) 629-2507; cell phone, (618) 513-2507; email: email@example.com.
OTTER LAKE DNR biologist Jeff Pontnack keeps waiting for the crappie population of this 765-acre Macoupin County lake to bottom out. But it just keeps getting better, in spite of the fact that there are no harvest restrictions whatsoever here.
"Letting nature take its course seems to be paying off," Pontnack said. "There are a couple of dominant year-classes swimming in this power company co-op lake. Probably the biggest averages about 10 inches, but there is also a whopping big year-class of crappies in excess of 16 inches. I hesitate in using the term 'unbelievable,' but when you see a mess of those big slabs, the term sure fits!"
Oriented pretty much north-south, Otter has countless coves and fingers that hold crappies and many other species, with a good boat ramp located essentially at midlake on the east side of the Highway 12 bridge.
Otter has developed a considerable reputation as a trophy muskie fishery, with these "toothers" frequently dogging schools of crappies. You might consider putting a muskie rod with a Dragontail spinnerbait in the boat - just in case.
Contact: Concessionaire Jack Roberts, (217) 627-2416.
MAZONIA FISH & WILDLIFE AREA If lake aesthetics aren't important, the Mazonia FWA in Grundy County is a great place to fill a 10-fish limit with tasty slabs. Mazonia is divided into two management units, with no-wake rules applying in the southern unit and electric motors only permitted in the northern zone lakes.
Site superintendent Mark Meents says three lakes provide "exceptional" crappie action in this complex.
"Monster Lake is the best crappie water in the south unit," Meents says, "and it's a toss-up between Bullhead and Gar lakes at the north end of the project."
Since these strip-pit lakes are deep and generally clear, it takes awhile before they warm up enough for crappies to get active in the spring. Meents says the magic temperature is close to 55 degrees.
"We've constructed a number of artificial reefs in these lakes that the crappies like to relate to in the spring," Meents says. "Most of these are at about the 12-foot breakline. When the waters warm, all you have to do is soak a small minnow under a slip-bobber set at about 9 to 10 feet, and get ready to set the hook."
Contact: Mike Meents, (815) 237-0063.
LAKE OF EGYPT This coal-fired power-plant lake just down the road from Crab Orchard south of Marion won't see much attention from crappie anglers when the weather warms up, since the fishing on nearby Crab Orchard is beyond exceptional. But if the plant is generating power here, crappies of several solid year-classes will be on a rip just as they have been for years.
During winter months the fish tend to stack vertically over woody structure in deeper water, perhaps 20 feet down. Find the brush with electronics, toss a marker, and then back off and fish vertically with Fuzz-E-Tails or minnows.
As the water - and not necessarily the weather - warms, target the bays closest to the buoy line with a weighted cork and Fuzz-E-Tail set down about 4 feet. The 10-foot Crappie Commander rod is ideal for pitchin' corks. After making a long cast, slowly reel the cork back toward the boat, setting the hook with a long rod sweep upon feeling or seeing the slightest hesitation.
By April 1 the crappies of Egypt will be pretty close to shore and relating to grass beds. Fan-cast a white or chartreuse RoadRunner horsehead jig to find 'em.
Special lake rules and a daily user fee are in place on this 2,300-acre lake.
Contact: LakeTree Inn, (618) 995-1738; Fred Washburn, (618) 985-3310.
FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES Spring crappie fishing on the Fox Chain-O-Lakes in northeast Illinois is in a class by itself, with predictable spring crappie movements after ice-out triggered by high water working through the system.
"When the water level goes up, the fish go shallow," according to bait shop owner Greg Dickson. "Just about every lake on the chain has spots where the crappies move in the spring, with fishing getting steadily better until the spawn about mid-May."
Dickson's top spots on the chain include both Dunn's and Spring lakes, and "the backwater area between Channel and Marie, and the south end of Channel Lake into the northwest corner of Lake Marie are also areas that you've simply got to check out."
According to Dickson, the northwest end of Channel Lake in an area known locally as "Robbie's Channel" is always hot, as is Trevor Creek and the northeast end of Lake Catherine.
On Pistakee Lake, Dickson likes to work the edges of the "T" channel on the east side in Myers Bay, Jerilyn Lake and Lake Mathewson on the south side of Pistakee just east of Jerilyn. "Then there is Nippersink Creek, Ackerman's Channel and many other spots," he notes.
Minnows on small hair jigs fished close to cover is the bread-and-butter tactic that consistently takes crappies on the Fox Chain, with accurately placing bait under a pencil float the biggest key to success.
"So many anglers use fancy little hi-modulus graphite ultralight outfits," Dickson laments. "Accuracy is the most important component, and you can't get more accurate than plopping that float straight down close to cover with a cane pole or similar lengthy wand. You want to catch crappies? That is the way to catch crappies!"
Contact: Greg Dickson's Triangle Bait, (847) 395-0813.
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I bet you can almost taste those sizzling crappie filets right now!
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