Here are five close by to urban area papermouth picks that'll get you in the thick of great crappie fishing this spring. (March 2008).
Photo by Keith Sutton
Crappies are popular fish. According to a 2005 study conducted by the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and Purdue University, papermouths are the third most fished for species in Indiana, only slightly behind bluegills and largemouth bass.
Of the anglers responding to this survey, the average age was 48, with the age span ranging from 18 to 80. Even more interesting was although approximately four out of five anglers are male, over half of those who were married have spouses who fish. That means plenty of family-style fishing. And most of them live near a metropolitan area.
That's good news because there are plenty of good crappie waters in the Hoosier State within an easy drive of most cities. Let's take a close look at five top lakes in our state for papermouths.
Located in Miami, Wabash and Grant counties, this north-central Indiana U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment is one of the state's true crappie hotspots. It's only a short drive from Fort Wayne.
"Crappie populations tend to be cyclical in our area," said DWF District 4 biologist Ed Braun. "We've had good reports about Mississinewa for a couple of years now. I think it'll be real good in 2008."
By "real good," this professional fisheries manager means that Hoosier anglers can expect to catch a fair number of slabs between 10 and 12 inches long. True, they won't all be that big. Most of them will be around the traditional 8- to 9-inch length. But still, that's a pretty good day of fishing and will make for a fine supper.
The tough thing about fishing this impoundment is learning to deal with fluctuating water levels. At winter pool, its elevation is 712 feet above sea level. At that height, the lake covers 1,280 acres. At summer pool, that same measurement will be 737 feet and the lake will cover 3,180 acres. That's a 25-foot vertical increase in the water level and a nearly threefold increase in size.
All of this water movement makes for some unusual conditions. First, it affects the spawn. Crappies find it very difficult to lay eggs successfully under these conditions. Eggs dropped in 5 feet of water during ideal conditions may be covered with 15 feet of water -- and plenty of silt -- in only a day or two. In that context, Braun's comment about crappie fishing being cyclical takes on a new meaning.
Second, it can be hard to fish. At winter pool, most of the shoreline cover and structure will be exposed. Then, beginning in early spring, as the water rises, more of the exposed structure will be covered. This isn't a big deal if it's just a couple of feet, but 25 feet is a big deal. It completely changes the lake you're fishing.
Savvy local anglers know that crappies tend to follow the water up the bank in this impoundment as spring progresses and the waters rise. They pay attention to what's not covered today, knowing it will be covered by their next fishing trip. They pay careful attention to water depth and temperature, and almost never fish the same spot over and over.
A common, and successful, technique is flipping or pitching weightless minnows into the structure. Find a likely looking spot, toss your minnow out, and let it swim around, freestyle. If there's a crappie nearby, and it is in an eating mood, you'll know soon enough. Make sure you take along plenty of hooks and minnows. You'll lose many in the structure.
There are four improved ramps on Mississinewa along with several other unimproved ones. For immediate, up-to-the-minute conditions, contact the Corps of Engineers at (765) 473- 5946 or over the Internet at www.lrl.usace.army.mil/miss/
CAGLES MILL LAKE
"Picking a spot for next year is always difficult, but I'd have to say Cagles Mill Lake is probably the best bet in west-central Indiana," said Rhett Wisener, a District 5 fisheries biologist. "Back in 2004, the lake had a large population of small crappies, which should be thinned out by now."
That's polite language for the lake that was overrun four years ago with little fish. By 2008, most of them should have died off, been caught and eaten by humans, or been caught and eaten by bigger fish. With that in mind, Wisener theorizes that the population will be down substantially, but that those fish that did survive should be above average in length and weight.
Cagles Mill -- also called Cataract Lake because Cataract Falls is near its headwaters -- is a Corps of Engineers impoundment. As such, it's used primarily for flood control. That means fluctuating water levels, especially during wet years or during unusually heavy rains.
"They hold it below winter pool a lot and then in the spring, especially if we have a lot of rain, they'll fill it a long ways above summer pool," Wisener said. "It's also normally one of the last ones to be let down in the spring. That keeps the water high well into the warm weather months most years."
Savvy local anglers know
that crappies tend to follow
the water up the bank in this impoundment as spring
progresses and the waters rise.
Because of this pattern, the damage to the crappie spawn is not as severe as in most flood-control reservoirs. It often keeps the crappies in well-defined locations longer than in other waters. A well-defined location means offshore structure.
According to Wisener, most successful anglers will fish old creek channels with some woody cover adjacent to them. "The typical pattern is to move around over deeper spots until you find wood. That's usually a sunken pile of drift, trees or maybe a stumpfield," he said. "Sometimes it's a manmade brushpile."
The usual choice of lures/baits will work for most anglers -- minnows and jigs. But the water in Cagles Mill can be murky and so many times a little color will get the attention of papermouths. Try a bright, shiny gold or red hook, maybe with a fluorescent bead just above it. If all else fails, try hooking a minnow to a flashy jig and suspending it below a bobber. Anything that adds color is likely to be beneficial.
Of course, during the spawn -- most likely early May in a normal year or late April in an especially warm one -- the fish will follow the water up into the shallows. Usually, isolated big fish can be caught flipping or pitching
minnows or small plastics around flooded bushes. Here, too, a little color is a good thing.
Cages Mill is located in Putnam and Owen counties, just off I-70, a short hour west of Indianapolis and a long one east of Terre Haute. There are plenty of ramps located around this lake and a fair number of good shore spots. For current information, call District 5 at (765) 342-5527 or check the Corps Web site at www.lrl.usace.army.mil/cml/
LOON & OTTER PITS
Both of these old strip-mine pits are found within the Blue Grass Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA). Blue Grass FWA is a 2,532-acre reclaimed strip-mining project that has turned into one of the true gems of southwestern Indiana.
"I'd say the best areas in the southwestern part of the state are Loon Pit and Otter Pit," said Dan Carnahan, a biologist for District 7. "These waters aren't very big, but the crappie population is good and so is their size . . ."
Loon Pit is the more traditional water. It covers about 200 acres and fishes much like a small lake. This pit is deep, 70 feet in places, and the water level tends to be stable. As a consequence, there's a fair amount of weed growth throughout its waters to go with the woody debris, laydowns and stumps scattered about.
During most of the year, crappies can be found hiding in the wood or along the outside edges of the weeds. Traditional baits, such as minnows hung below a bobber or small plastics pulled through the water, are effective. If you're looking for a really big wallhanger, try a small safety-pin-style spinnerbait or a miniature crankbait.
As the spawn approaches in early May, crappies tend to move shallow. Schools of 100 or more fish are common. They'll bite almost anything when the spawn is on.
Otter Pit is really small at 90 acres and fishes very differently than Loon Pit. Nevertheless, it's a real honeyhole. "There's not much in Otter except water. It's clean as far as cover and structure are concerned. Most of the crappies are caught by guys who drift live bait over open water looking for suspended schools of crappies," Carnahan said.
By drifting over open water, he means just that. Anglers will launch their boats and let the wind, or their electric motors, move them over open, deep water. During this time, they'll continually adjust their depth and keep a sharp eye on their depthfinders. Once they find a school of papermouths, they'll hover over it until the bite slows. Then it's time to repeat the process over again.
There are several boat-launching ramps around both of these pits. A regulation change in January of 2007 now allows anglers to use their gas-powered motors on these waters as long as they do not exceed idle speed.
Recent samplings in Loon Pit showed over half the crappies at 10 inches or better. Otter Pit is believed to be similar. "I don't see any reason that Otter shouldn't be as good as Loon. They both have benefited from relatively light fishing pressure in the past. That may change, however. Since the new boat regulations (allowing gas motors) have been in effect, we've seen a lot more anglers on these waters," Carnahan said.
Both pits are only 10 minutes off I-64. For up-to-the-minute conditions, contact District 7 at (812) 789-2724.
Hardy Lake, once called Quick Creek Lake, is located in Scott and Jefferson counties, about six miles east of Austin. That's in the southeast corner of the state.
Though Hardy Lake is small at only 741 acres, don't let that fool you. It's full -- absolutely packed full -- of big, fat crappies. It's one of the best, if not the best, lake in the state for both numbers and size of its papermouths.
As far back as 2003, this body of water has been a producer. A creel survey taken during that year shows an amazing number of respectable size fish being harvested. From April 1 through Oct. 31, there were over 12,000 crappies caught on hook and line. Their average length was 9.3 inches, with a size range between 5.5 and 14.5 inches. In 2005, a 13-inch, 1.42-pound black was trap netted by the DFW.
This heavyweight population shows no signs of slowing down. DFW studies from 2007 follow the same pattern. In April and May, creel survey results establish a size range of harvested crappies from 5.5 to 14 inches with an average of 9.1. In June and July, the average size is 8.6 inches. And even in August and September, the average holds firm at 8.6 inches.
Those are solid numbers. The size drop as the summer wears along is normal. In fact, the size drop on Hardy is less than in most lakes. It speaks volumes about the high quality of this fishery.
As you might guess, there are thousands of brushpiles and other attractors in this crappie hotspot. These areas will hold most of the fish, except during the spawn. This pattern is fairly consistent across the seasons except during the spawn when, like all other crappies, they move shallow.
The brushpiles are easy enough to find with a depthfinder, or if you don't have one, watch the other boats and fish their spots after they leave. Hardy Lake crappies tend to turn on and off for reasons known only to them. Fishing behind another boat is rarely a problem.
Fishing for crappies is easy enough, too. By far the most popular technique is to dunk a minnow under a bobber. You don't need anything fancy. A hook, a minnow, a couple of split shots and a bobber will usually fill your stringer.
There are several improved launch ramps around the lake. They'll handle just about any fishing boat. For current information on Hardy, call District 8 at (812) 358-4110.
Just below Indianapolis, but on the far eastern side of the state, is Brookville Lake. At over 5,200 acres, Brookville is big. It's also an extraordinary fishery. Known primarily as a black bass, walleye and striped bass venue, Brookville's crappie fishing potential shouldn't be overlooked.
Crappies between 9 and 11 inches are common, with true slabs being realistic possibilities as well. The problem is, however, this body of water is hard to fish. The water is clear, much of the structure rock and the crappies -- the ones we want to catch anyway -- stay deep most of the time. That makes for tough fishing conditions. But tough is tough, not impossible.
Once they find a school of
papermouths, they'll hover
over it until the bite slows.
Then it's time to repeat the process over again.
Begin fishing Brookville with a sense of what clear water means to a fish -- danger. Approach each spot slowly, carefully and without making any noise, if possible. Watch the sun; keep your shadow off the water. If you can see it, so can the fish. And don't stand up in the boat. All that does is announce your presence.
Next, pick a line that's suitable to the task. For Brookville that usually means 6- or 8-pound-test fluorocarbon. Yes, it's expensive, but it's also invisible. That's what you need here, something that will handle the fish but not scare them off. Light fluorocarbon will do both of those things.
And never forget that crappies are sight feeders. They can see your bait from a long ways off in clear water. On most days, you won't need bright, flashy colors or attractors to get their attention. If they're hungry, they'll come soon enough.
You will, however, need to fish the right spots. That almost always means a foot or so above the fish and at a slight angle out in front of them whenever possible. You can tell which way they're facing by how they bite. If you present your minnow north of the school and the bite is slow, but south of the school, it's fast, then it's reasonable to think they're facing south.
And remember to always keep the bait above the fish. A crappie will move up to feed but not down. Presenting a bait or lure below its head is a waste of time.
During most of the year, Brookville crappies will be found between 10 and 20 feet deep, sometimes even deeper than that. Their favorite haunts on Brookville include the ends of long, sloping rock points and deep channel cuts. There are hundreds of such places on this lake and they all hold good crappie numbers from time to time.
Every now and then, however, especially early in the morning or just before dark, good white crappie fishing can be found around the marinas. Minnows on a slip rig will work best here.
For last-minute information on Brookville fishing conditions, contact District 5 at (765) 342-5527.
Any of these five lakes should produce good papermouth action this spring. Pick one near where you live and have at it. You never know how long the good fishing will last. Most times, it's intense fishing that burns out quickly. Don't miss out!