Excellent papermouth angling is on tap right now throughout Hoosierland, especially on the five reservoir waters highlighted here. (March 2006)
Spring is the best time to pursue extra-large crappies, or "slab-sides," like the pair shown here. Photo by Tom Berg.
Nothing could shake my concentration. I watched as the bright red and yellow float trembled for an instant, and then it slowly started moving down and to the right like a slow-moving submarine. It didn't bob up and down several times and it didn't plunge down from a ferocious strike. It was the unmistakable sign that a crappie had just inhaled my minnow and was nonchalantly swimming off with its prey. It was exactly what I was hoping for.
I wanted to rear back and set the hook as soon as I saw the bobber move, but I knew better. Crappies will often manipulate a minnow and turn it around in their mouths as they swim away, and a premature hookset can easily result in a missed fish. "Patience," I told myself.
I waited until the float was completely submerged before I struck, and I wasn't disappointed. My hookset was met with a solid weight at the other end of the line. It was obvious that I had connected with another slab-sized crappie. The fish came to the surface as I reeled him in, his silvery sides flashing in the morning sunlight. I lifted it into the boat and placed another 12-inch papermouth into the livewell.
Spring crappie fishing can be intense, and there are certainly plenty of lakes and reservoirs in our great state to try your luck. To help you narrow down the list of choices, Indiana Game & Fish has identified five fishing lakes where you have an excellent chance of catching a limit of crappies this spring. They include Sullivan, Dogwood, Hovey, Patoka and Jones lakes.
Sullivan Lake in southwest Indiana is just outside of the town of Sullivan. This relatively small reservoir (461 acres) has a maximum depth of 25 feet and an average depth of around 10 feet. The main fish species present are white crappies, bluegills, largemouth bass, saugeyes (walleye-sauger hybrids) and gizzard shad.
According to Dave Kittaka, the District 6 fisheries biologist for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Sullivan Lake is a great place to fish for crappies.
"Traditionally, this lake has provided excellent crappie fishing opportunities," he said. "As a matter of fact, most anglers who fish this lake target crappies in particular."
A creel survey was performed here in 2003, and fishermen exclusively targeting crappies accounted for an impressive 46.3 percent of all anglers surveyed. If you include those fishing for crappies in combination with bluegills, the number goes up to 58 percent. By the end of the creel survey (Oct. 31, 2003), an estimated total of 75,176 crappies were harvested from Sullivan Lake.
Dave Kittaka and Kevin Hoffman, the DNR's assistant fish research biologists, both keep an eye on the lakes in their district. "Hoffman collected numerous white crappies in isolated locations throughout Sullivan Lake in March of 2005," Kittaka said.
"The strongest year-class was age 3, and those fish were in the 9- to 10- inch range." By this spring, those fish will be prime targets for fishermen. Look for them around the emerging aquatic vegetation in the shallows as the water temperatures rise.
One interesting fact that Kittaka mentioned concerned the diet of the resident crappies. Although there is a large population of gizzard shad in the lake, the crappies also prey on bugs. "Based on stomach content inspections," Kittaka continued, "Hoffman found that crappies collected in March were feeding heavily on caddis fly larvae."
Early-season anglers should keep that in mind when selecting their lures and live baits.
Sprawling Dogwood Lake in extreme southern Daviess County is a 1,400-acre impoundment located almost midway between the towns of Washington and Jasper. The lake sits nearly dead center in the Glendale Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA), and it gets plenty of use from campers and fishermen who trailer their boats to the property.
Unlike most of the other reservoirs in the southern half of the state, Dogwood Lake is home to black crappies rather than white crappies. In 1978, the fish population was completely eradicated to remove rough fish species. The lake was restocked with black crappies, largemouth bass, bluegills, redear sunfish, flathead catfish and channel catfish. The black crappies have been doing very well ever since.
Biologists Dave Kittaka and Kevin Hoffman agree that Dogwood is an excellent crappie lake. "Hoffman found plenty of fast-growing black crappies," Kittaka said. "Based on his data, crappies reached 12 inches here by age 4. A strong year-class of 3-year-old black crappies was found in the spring of 2005. Those fish were in the 10- to 11-inch size range, and it is likely that they will be in the 12-inch range by the spring of 2006."
According to the last creel survey at Dogwood in 2001, a total of 14,220 crappies were harvested between April and October. According to Kittaka, 8,287 of those fish were caught during the springtime in April. Although the creel report did not show it, March is also a popular time for crappie anglers at this lake.
The lake's crappie population is not only healthy where numbers are concerned, there are also some real trophies present. The creel survey found crappies ranging from 6 inches up to 16 inches in length. Since black crappies tend to be shorter and fatter than their white crappie cousins, a 16-inch black crappie is something to be proud of.
There is no shortage of good fishing spots on Dogwood, so even first-time visitors seem to have little trouble locating fish. Flooded timber is almost everywhere, and since crappies love to hug the timber in the springtime, find a likely spot and try your luck. If the fish are not active at the back of coves, move out to the timber on the edge of the channel. It shouldn't take too long to find some friendly fish.
Be aware that there is a 10-horsepower limit on motors in Dogwood Lake, and it is recommended that you travel very slowly until you learn where most of the underwater obstacles lie. Floating logs tend to move around, and there are many stumps and unmarked timber hiding just below the waterline. During years with low water, anglers should be extra cautious!
Hovey Lake is part of the 6,963-acre Hovey Lake FWA, which is in the extreme southwest tip of our state near the shores of the Ohio River. In fact, Hovey Lake is an old oxbow water that was formed by the Oh
io River years ago. Today, the lake covers approximately 1,400 acres, and shallow water and bald cypress trees characterize it.
District 7 fisheries biologist Dan Carnahan picks Hovey Lake as one of the top crappie lakes. "We did some crappie work down there in 2001 and 2002, and the lake has a lot of nice crappies in it," he said. "They are all white crappies and a good percentage of these fish are over 12 inches."
That is good news, especially to fishermen who are looking for some real slabs. The news gets even better, too. Besides big fish, few people are out there fishing for these crappies. "The fishing pressure is very low at this lake," Carnahan confirmed. Doubtlessly, Hovey Lake's isolated location south of Mt. Vernon and at the end of state Route 69 contributes to the lack of fishermen.
The DNR performed creel surveys and crappie population estimates here in 2001 and 2002, and the results were very interesting. White crappies ranged in length from 3 to 15 inches, and averaged as much as 11 inches (in 2002). In 2002, there was a large year-class of 1-year-old crappies compared with 2001. "That strong year-class should be 12-inch fish this year," Carnahan predicted.
Shore-fishing on Hovey Lake is restricted to the west side of the lake and along the lake drain. Boaters can trailer their own boats and use the boat ramp near the headquarters to launch their craft. Be advised that boat motors are limited to 10 horsepower or less. Boat rentals are also available.
Most fishermen will use live minnows when targeting crappies at this lake, either alone or in combination with a small jig. The simple minnow and bobber rig is the standard setup, but some anglers like to tight-line a jig/minnow around the timber and brushpiles, hopping the bait through the cover while searching for fish.
The lake is closed to fishing and boating during the winter, so please call the property at (812) 838-2927 for the spring opening date and any other questions you may have. Also, keep in mind that Hovey Lake is affected by flooding on the Ohio River, and during high water the lake may rise several feet. So keep a close eye on the unpredictable spring weather!
When it comes to huge lakes that are the home of giant crappies, Patoka Lake, just south of French Lick, is hard to beat. Patoka is the second-largest reservoir in the state, and at 8,800 acres, it really is huge. There are countless small coves and bays to explore, and an almost endless supply of flooded trees and timber to fish.
Patoka is a shad lake, and it is home to both white and black crappies. The white crappies are far more numerous than their cousins, however, and they are also the biggest crappies in the lake. They often reach lengths of 15, 16 or even 17 inches. When they reach that size, they can eat some pretty large gizzard shad!
District 7 biologist Carnahan said that there should be no surprises this year concerning Patoka's crappie fishery. "The work that we did out there in 2005 indicated that crappie fishing is going to be similar to previous years," he stated. That's good, because the fishing for most of 2005 was great.
Patoka Lake is so large that newcomers are often confused about where to start. There may be plenty of places to fish, but all spots are definitely not created equal. According to local angler and fishing guide Tim Gibson (812-936-3382), running upstream into the Patoka River can be a great plan. "The water in the river can be several degrees warmer than it is out on the main lake," he said. "That can make all the difference in the world in the early spring."
Gibson likes to get right up on the flooded timber at this time of year and fish close to the structure. "Fish the treetops, stumps and submerged logs," he said. "There is a great deal of cover for the crappies, even in very shallow water. The shallow timber near the old creek channel is often the best," he continued.
"One day last year in early March, my fishing partners and I caught more than 100 big crappies in 3 feet of water! Those fish weighed anywhere from 3/4 pound up to 2 pounds!"
Patoka Lake is an excellent crappie-fishing hotspot in the spring, but it is also a favorite destination for crappie anglers year "round. Last September, the 2005 Crappie USA Classic was held on Patoka. More than 400 anglers descended on the lake and competed in this popular crappie tournament. The first-place team (semi-pro division) won with a two-day total of 13.8 pounds, and the second-place team weighed in with 12.11 pounds. The winning team in the amateur division had a two-day total of 12.6 pounds.
Many large crappies were caught during the tournament, ranging in size from 1.5 to nearly 2 pounds. The Big Fish award went to an angler who successfully boated a crappie that weighed 2.03 pounds. That's a bragging-sized papermouth in anyone's book!
For more information about Patoka Lake or to find accommodations and boat rentals, contact Patoka Lake Marina & Lodging at (888) 819-6916. If you prefer, check out their Web site at www.patokalakemarina.net.
Jones Lake in Noble County's West Lakes Chain is located just west of Rome City and is part of the Elkhart River watershed. Although it only covers 114 acres and is not characterized by a good deal of flooded timber like some of the reservoirs in the southern half of the state, Jones Lake is nevertheless a very good crappie hole.
Boat access to the lake is via a navigable channel from neighboring Waldron Lake (also in the West Lakes Chain), where there is a boat ramp and public access at Dukes Bridge. Fishermen can then travel down the channel between Waldron and Jones and find a likely spot to fish in the upper lake. It is the shallowest lake in the chain, with a maximum depth of 28 feet and an average dept of 8.5 feet.
According to District 3 fisheries biologist Jed Pearson, Jones Lake is a good choice for early-season fishermen. "It has a history of being a good crappie lake," he said. "The shallower, weedier lakes seem to hold the most crappies in this region, and Jones Lake has a good deal of aquatic weeds. It also has stained (greenish) water, like you see in many good crappie lakes," he continued.
Both black and white crappies inhabit Jones Lake, but the black crappies are the most numerous species. In the last lake survey, black crappies ranked second in relative abundance (only bluegills were more abundant). Crappies up to nearly 12 inches were recorded, and their growth rates were comparable to fish from other lakes in the district.
As far as where to fish here, Pearson suggested fishing the shallow water along the north shore in the early spring. In lakes with dark muck bottoms (like Jones), the shallow water along the north shore will usually warm first in the springtime. Crappies are traditionally one of the first species to move into these warmer areas to begin feeding before their spawning run.
Although some angl
ers find it difficult to properly distinguish white crappies from black crappies, it's really quite simple. Don't try to identify them by color. In the spring, males of both species tend to turn very black. Instead, count the sharp spines on the dorsal fin (the fin on top of the back). If the fish has only five or six sharp dorsal spines, it is definitely a white crappie. If it has seven or eight sharp dorsal spines, it can only be a black crappie.
Don't worry too much about which kind of crappies you are catching, though. The daily bag limit is 25 fish, regardless of which type of crappies you catch. And once they hit the frying pan, you won't be able to tell the difference!