More Crappie Hotspots in Hoosierland

It's getting closer to the season's best papermouth action, especially at Hovey Lake, Brookville Reservoir and other top picks. Is there a top crappie water near you?

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Phil Potter

Come spring, few fish are more pursued than crappies. For years, many anglers thought crappies were only caught in numbers during late winter and early spring. As angling techniques refined, it was discovered that these slab-sided panfish would bite eagerly all year long. The main trick in catching them is finding the depths they're holding at and fishing slightly above that level.

Wait a minute! Catching crappies can't be that academic, can it? The answer is yes if you remember this adage: "Spring and fall, summer and winter - fish them alike in the right times of weather." No, this isn't one of Nostradamus' mystic quatrains; it's common sense angling advice.

Spring water temperatures mimic those found in the fall, and crappies are found in shallow water during these months. In the heat of the summer and the cold of winter, papermouths will descend deeper to find their comfort zones.

Crappie movements are so tied to the seasons that veteran crappie catchers watch for natural signs that signal when this species will be most active. Many old-timers swear when dogwood buds are bigger than a mouse's ear, it's time to start catching crappies. By the time dogwoods are in full bloom, the major crappie spawn has peaked. They also say that by the time dogwood blossoms have dropped from the tree, big crappies have spawned and gone.

After the rigors of spawning, crappies need to replace lost fat reserves. During this transition period, crappies will slowly move to deep edges of weedlines to feed and then head for deeper ledges as summer's heat bears down. By the time the cicadas (locusts) are singing, crappies are regrouping in 10 to 30 feet of water, depending on the size and overall depth of the impoundment.

But finding them is only half the work. The hard part is making them bite. You'll do a lot better at deciding what baits to use if you know the predominant species in your favorite fishing hole. Each crappie species has its own weakness in terms of food preferences. Both prefer minnows most of the time, but sometimes "crappies snub them minners" in favor of insects.

Black crappies tend to be insectivorous more so than white crappies do. Often they are caught on crickets, bee moths or fly rod poppers during late spring/early summer when flying insects begin to fly about. White crappies usually stick to a straight minnow diet, but occasionally they will inhale spent cicadas and errant grasshoppers.

Sometimes, they just keep their mouths shut and anglers will go into a tizzy swearing crappies have now switched their minnow species preference. This brings about debate in tackle shops because anglers are divided as to whether chubs or shiners work best. Often it's not the bait species, but the size of the minnow that triggers the bite.

Crappies are eating machines and the biological fact that both species are switch eaters usually makes them unsuitable for stocking in small lakes and ponds. They quickly skew the balance by out-muscling bluegills and bass fry in the race for zooplankton, which all immature fish need to bulk up. When they mature, they seek the same minnow sources as other predator species and insects of fellow panfish. Even if the crappie population becomes stunted, it will still produce prodigious spawns. In short, crappies can wreck a lake if left unchecked.

While biologists red flag crappies for stocking in small ponds and lakes, they sometimes fail to factor what impact crappies can have on large impoundments. Lake Monroe, Indiana's biggest manmade lake, is recovering from this problem. In its early years of impoundment, Monroe was a crappie catcher's paradise, but suddenly their numbers skyrocketed, while their size declined. It was a Monroe axiom that during the late 1970s and early '80s, anglers had to go through at least six-dozen minnows to catch five decent fish. Fortunately, anglers started removing tons of smallish crappies, resulting in a dramatic turnaround.

Crappies are cyclic and need to be fished reasonably hard; but big fish don't grow up by being stupid. They've learned that shorelines mean lunch invitations with a hook in them, so bigger crappies stay deep much of the year. They even spawn in deeper water than their shorter brethren, making it appear the lake has lost its big fish. To find a batch of bragging-size slabs usually entails fishing far from shore.

Nowhere is this more evident than Brookville Reservoir where angling pressure is heavy, visible cover has all but vanished and crappies aren't the primary fish in the lake. This isn't a place where successful anglers can stay put and drown minnows like their grandpappies did.

Brookville has evolved into a "run-and-gun" lake, which means covering lots of water to find good fishing. There is perhaps no better method to locate and catch Brookville's crappies than "spider-rigging." If you've never heard of or seen this method, it means slow-trolling a two-man limit of six poles (three per angler). Each rod is rigged with small crankbaits, weighted minnow rigs or plastic and hair jigs. Southern crappie tournament anglers recently introduced this type of angling to Hoosier waters.

The idea is to situate the six rigs in the front of the boat to allow each angler to concentrate on the three rods on their side of the boat. The trolling motor is mounted in the center of the bow and one angler slowly maneuvers the boat over and near crappie structure. They never stop even when landing a fish. This way they can cover acres of water and follow crappies as they follow their wide-ranging food search.

Spider-rigging got its name because the jutting rods resemble a spider's legs. The most common setup includes two long rods, which are placed straight off the bow, with the next two slightly shorter rods being set at angles. The last two rods protrude from each corner of the bow.

Spider-riggers sometimes set rods on one side deeper than those on the opposite side. This serves two purposes: It helps locate at what depth the crappies are feeding, while allowing the anglers to fish both the shallow and deep sides of creek banks simultaneously. Once fish begin to hit, the trolling motor operator attempts to maneuver all crappie offerings through underwater brush, trees and rocks without getting hung up. Yes, they do lose a lot of terminal gear using this method, but they usually catch the lion's share of the fish.

If you say spider-rigging is too much like fishing a moving trotline, then target lakes with standing timber and do some one-on-one crappie dipping. Dipping is best done with a cut-down fl

y rod or 8-foot crappie stick made of graphite to help maintain the feel of the jig or bait. Dippers will ease in close to targeted cover, then let a minnow or jig tumble down the sides of standing timber. Some anglers will only target the shady side of the trunk, but many dippers prefer to work their offerings on all sides before moving to another target.

Dippers are unanimous in voting Dogwood Lake at Glendale Fish and Wildlife Area near Washington and Hovey Lake near Mt. Vernon as their favorites. The drawbacks to dipping are terminal rig loss due to ultralight line and the need to stay on the move to find optimum crappie hotspots.

Traditionalists swear the only way to fish for crappies is to cast a minnow set under a cork into likely looking areas and let nature do the rest. Arguably, there is no greater joy than watching a crappie bobber twitch, then slowly sink from sight; but catching crappies any way at anytime has a special satisfaction.

That's why both dippers and traditionalists catch fish at Dogwood and Hovey lakes. Perhaps Hovey is the best for both because this ancient ox-bow lake is fairly shallow and filled with many areas of standing cypress trees, buckbrush and lily pads.

Expect to find mostly white crappies at Hovey, but poking near the lilies does turn up an occasional batch of the black crappies as well. At Dogwood, the species ratio is about the opposite: There are more black crappies than white ones.

Those who prefer catching slab-sided black crappies should head for the strip pits in Greene County where legions of these big bruisers lurk. Usually, anglers who use jigs tied under bobbers and twitched all the way back to the boat will catch the most fish here. Crappies are often taken as an incidental catch by bluegill anglers using crickets.

White crappies dominate the big lakes at Bluegrass Fish and Wildlife Area just off Interstate 164 near Evansville. While little visible cover is still standing, the top deep-water rig of choice is the double-drop minnow rig.

These rigs have two hooks with one set on heavy side dropper line and the other tied to the end of the line. A 1- ounce egg sinker is tied between the hooks to quickly probe into deeper crappie spots. This rig allows minnows to be suspended vertically and fished fairly stationary in deep water inside sunken brushpiles. They're durable enough to be pulled free from most underwater obstructions when they become hung up.

The Salamonie and Mississinewa reservoirs are two northern impoundments where these rigs are often used. Both of these waters have crappies in fair numbers, but size differences and catch rates dictate trying all manners of fishing methods. Anglers on these two reservoirs, or any major lake in the state, can catch decent numbers of fish over 1 pound if they contact the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Map Division and get topographical layouts of their favorite waters. Use topographical maps to home in on shelves, ledges and submerged creekbeds. Remember, bigger fish spend most of their lives in deeper water and you can't tell where that is by looking at the surface.

Anglers who don't have boats can catch crappies from the bank by either fishing with traditional offerings or casting for them using scaled-down bass lures or jigs. The perimeter lakes around Gibson County's PSI generating station are great places to fish in early spring. Don't forget to register at the guard shack before venturing onto any of their properties to ask which areas are currently open to angling.

Good crappie angling is closer to your neighborhood than you may think. There are hundreds of crappie holes begging to be fished along state and federal highways. Most are privately owned and posted, but a little snooping can lead you to the owners, many of who will readily grant permission. Remember, too, that gravel and stone quarries often provide good papermouth fishing.

Don't overlook creeks draining into rivers. While bank access to these may be posted, all of Indiana's major creeks are legal areas to try when fishing from a boat. Check out Oil, Deer and Millstone creeks near Cannelton for some of the best spring and fall crappie action anywhere in the state. Here, adjustable bobber and minnow rigs fished just on the outside of creek bends near standing timber will often yield limits of 1- to 2-pound-plus crappies.

The trick to fishing Ohio River feeder creeks is to catch the river rising and then seek out the color line. That's where muddy river water stops and mingles with clear water. Find this condition and fish just inside the murky water. Crappies lurk there and dash out to take befuddled minnows seeking shelter. You'll find both white and black crappies in all these creeks, but white crappies will be the predominant species.

You'd never know Indiana has two distinct crappie species by reading state fishing records, because there is no difference made. According to the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame Record Book, Indiana's crappie record is a 4-pound, 11-ounce slab. The unidentified kind of crappie was taken from a private lake by Willis Holcomb on April 11, 1994.

While this is a mammoth panfish, it's an also-ran to the biggest ever caught. According to the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, the record black crappie weighed slightly over 6 pounds. That particular one came from the Westwego Canal in Louisiana. It was taken on a cane pole and the big fish was almost cleaned and eaten before being verified as a state and world record.

The biggest white crappie was a 5- pound, 3-ounce fish taken behind Mississippi's Enid Dam on July 31, 1957. Both records may hold for many years, as the era of really big crappies seems to be a thing of the past. But records are made to be broken and somewhere in Hoosier waters there may dwell a genetic giant whose demise will possibly rewrite all the records.

For those of you who wonder how to tell what species of crappie you've taken, check these things. White crappies have longer, upshot bulldog jaws and vertical lines of black scales. Black crappies have more delicate mouths and each scale is tipped in black giving them an all over darker coloration. White crappie males tend to have a darker color during the spawn, but black males have black heads, jaws and constant black coloration.

Since black and white crappies are difficult to distinguish from one another, all potential record fish now get a DNA test before decisions are made as to what species it truly is. So why work yourself into a dither trying to discern what crappie species you've landed here in Indiana? If it tops 5 or 6 pounds and is a potential state or world record, get your local state fish biologist involved. Whether you have a wallhanger or just a great batch of filets, remember that deep-fried papermouths are a delight on any dinner table.

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