Our longest and largest body of water is home to many areas that produce hefty papermouths during the spring. Here are five to try this season! (April 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
The Ohio River is one of the most underrated crappie fisheries in the Midwest. Its countless creeks, inflows and small slews offer anglers everywhere in the Commonwealth a place to fish within an easy drive of their homes.
But river fishing isn't reservoir fishing. It's much more dependent upon the weather. A dry spell can drain water from prime areas, and a heavy rain can wash them out and make boating treacherous. Still, the river's a great place to spend the day fishing for a mess of slab crappies!
Even better, you don't need a lot of expensive tackle to do it. A simple entry-level rod-and-reel combo, some line, a bobber and a hook, along with a couple of split shots, are all you really need. Include a pail of small minnows along with a handful of jigs, and you're good to go.
With all that said, let's take a closer look at five of the better spots to fill your stringer along the Ohio River.
We'll start at the upper end and work our way down. The spots are identified by mile markers that correspond to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer charts. They begin at a point in Pittsburgh -- mile 0.0 -- and get larger as you go downstream toward Paducah.
About five miles upstream from Maysville, you'll find Cabin Creek (mile 403). The entrance is alongside the Dravo Corporation facility.
This creek winds its way back into the hills of northern Kentucky for several miles, depending upon river water levels. Cabin Creek generally runs south, so both banks tend to get a lot of sun early and late in the day. Because of this, the water will warm more quickly in the spring.
Depending upon the weather, crappie fishing usually begins around the end of February or the first part of March. On a good year, the action will last into May.
The first spot in the creek -- and arguably the best for high numbers of 8- and 9-inch papermouths -- is at the hard left-hand turn it makes about three-eighths of a mile from its mouth. On the right side of this turn, there's a deep washout that almost always attracts a lot of brush and drift. It also attracts a lot of crappie.
During low-water conditions, there'll only be 1 or 2 feet of water here. When the water's up, there may be 4 or 5 feet under your boat.
Either way, a good stringer of crappie can be had if you fish patiently and thoroughly. The crappie hold tight under the cover and won't move very far from it to feed.
To reach these fish, most anglers will dunk minnows on a tightline rig -- no bobber -- and let the minnows swim at will under the canopy of the debris. Usually, if the crappie are in a cooperative mood, they'll bite within a few minutes. Sometimes a small, flashy bead just above the hook will get their attention faster.
Another great technique here is to float a jig under a bobber with the current. Allow this rig to drift past the edge of any debris you can find. Let the bobber bump against the wood as it drifts along. This bobber's bumping will impart a subtle and lifelike early-season action to your lure.
Just 200 yards farther upstream on the left is a long row of stumps and overhanging brush. This is also a good place to fish. Again, tightlined minnows and small jigs are the ticket to success.
However, adventurous anglers may want to travel several miles to the very back of this creek. At the end, a small cut will allow you to enter an equally small slough. This area is well known for producing some big fish. Most local anglers will fish this slough with tiny in-line spinners or small twistertails on leadhead jigs.
Casting accuracy is a necessity here. The cover is thick, and the trees hang nearly to the water's surface.
KENTUCKY RIVER MOUTH (CARROLLTON)
The mouth of the Kentucky River is at mile 545.8.
This relatively small tributary, immediately below Carrollton, offers great early spring crappie fishing. Traditional late-March and early-April rains wash trees and bushes into its waters. Much of this debris collects along the bank.
The trees and brush attract bugs and insects. They, in turn, attract minnows. Crappie aren't far behind. And so, if you want to catch Kentucky River crappie, fish the trees and the brush along the bank.
Fishing this stuff isn't difficult, but it does take some experience and the right attitude.
First, not all trees and bushes are created equal. The newer ones, with a little greenery on them, are by far the best. The theory is that decaying greenery attracts bugs and insects, which in turn attract small baitfish. The small baitfish then attract the larger predator fish such as crappie.
Whether that's right or wrong is arguable. What isn't debatable is that crappie hide under this brush.
At times, the crappie seem to prefer outside bends where the water is deeper. But on other days, the shallow inside bends will produce the best. There's no rhyme or reason to this, so fish both areas until you find where they're hiding that particular day you are fishing.
Regardless of location, however, the best way to fish the woody structure is with minnows -- the smaller, the better. Most anglers use minnows under small quill-style floats. They'll toss the rig into a treetop's thickest parts and let the minnow swim around.
Other anglers prefer to tightline their offerings. Either way, the strategy is the same: Get your bait into the thickest part of the tree that you can and keep it there for as long as you can.
But getting papermouths to bite is only half the battle. You have to figure a way to get them out of that tangled mess and into your boat.
Heavy line will help some. Most of the time, the water's dark and dingy, so heavy line won't affect your bite. This is also a good place for some of the newer fluorocarbons.
Light thin-wire hooks are another option. If the fish does become hung up, you can often pull out the hook with moderate-sized line. True, you'll lose the fish, but at least you'll still have your rig.
No matter how you fish or with what, take along a bag of hooks, a lot of split shots and plenty of line and bobbers. You'll need them before the day is over.
McALPINE LOCK & DAM (LOUISVILLE)
The McAlpine Lock and Dam is at mile 606.8. That's right in the heart of Louisville -- and right in the heart of some really good crappie fishing. The best fishing extends for about a mile upstream to a long mile downstream from the main dam. Catches of 100 fish a day, or more in some cases, are common from late March through the first part of May.
There really aren't one or two good spots to highlight here. It's a patchwork of swirling water around scores of rockpiles, humps, old dam structures, drift piles and manmade structure in the area. Launch your boat at one of the nearby public or private ramps and look for fishy spots.
Traditional fishing methods produce best if you want to catch high numbers of fillet-sized fish. A minnow hung under a bobber and held down with a tiny split shot is about all it takes. Toss it out around the area you have chosen to fish and let it drift with the current.
If you're willing to settle for a handful of bigger crappie, try small jigs, twistertails or tiny in-line spinners. They'll all catch bigger fish. Bright, shad-imitating colors seem to work best.
The area is snag-infested, so if you plan to fish all day, take along many jigs and fish with heavy line.
Regardless of what you're looking for, however, keep in mind that these are river fish. They behave differently than their reservoir brethren. Forget that important fact and you'll likely go home empty-handed.
First -- and perhaps most importantly -- river crappie don't school by size. In fact, they really don't school at all.
They'll bunch up in certain places at certain times, but it's misnomer to call that "grouping" a school. They're more accurately described as individuals holding in favorable places under favorable conditions.
As such, it's likely that you'll catch a couple of good ones from a spot, and then the size will go to heck or the bite will drop off completely.
When that happens, move to another spot and come back later. The bite is likely to be better after you let the spot rest for a few minutes.
Why they do this remains a mystery known only to the fish. Maybe they turn off, or maybe they move in and out. Plenty of anglers will argue either possibility. Whatever the reason, a short rest is often an effective stringer-filling strategy.
Second, these crappie won't often be found in deep water. They hold shallow -- many times in water less than 6 inches deep -- and generally don't move, regardless of changes in the weather.
When the bite gets tough, it's not because the crappie have moved. It's because they aren't biting.
A word of caution is in order here. This is a place of swift and unforgiving currents that can change direction and intensity on a moment's notice. These currents can be deadly. Don't fish in this area if you are an inexperienced river boater. Remain vigilant at all times and never -- not for any reason -- remove your life jacket.
YELLOW BANK ISLAND (OWENSBORO)
Owensboro, at mile 757, offers a wealth of nontraditional crappie fishing opportunities. The place to start, if the water's up, is on the west side of Yellow Bank Island, directly across from the city. You can get in from either end if you boat slowly and carefully.
If the water's down, the upstream and downstream entrances often close, however. When that happens, you'll need to choose another spot.
The fish tend to be scattered here, so keep moving even if the bite is good. Most anglers choose minnows or brightly colored jigs hung under bobbers. This is a slack-water area, so you'll need to impart a little action to your offerings by pulling them gently with your rod tip -- not too fast, just enough to move them a bit.
And don't be afraid to change fishing depths, especially if the bite is slow. Sometimes just three or four inches can make a world of difference between fishing and catching.
Most anglers believe it's best to start shallow and work your way deeper until you find the hot depth.
Downstream at mile 762 is Little Hurricane Island. The back of this sizeable landmass -- the east side -- often produces some of the biggest crappie in the area. It can be difficult to fish, however, if you don't pay attention to the weather and to river conditions.
High-water levels and swift current flows will push plenty of brush and debris into the area. When that happens, the papermouths tend to scatter and are often fished most effectively by anglers who keep moving along, even when the bite is hot.
When the water level drops and consequently, the current drops to almost nothing, just the opposite occurs. The fish tend to bunch up under what little cover they can find. During these times, dropping an anchor and sitting on one spot is often the way to fill your stringer.
Another place worth some of your fishing time is the cut behind Ellis Island at mile 765.5. It's best with a moderate to slow current after a period of high water and swift current.
Here, minnows and jigs are the favored choices. Most locals will try to fish with the current, letting their minnow or jig flow naturally in the water. There isn't much water in this cut, so be quiet and move slowly from place to place. Too much noise or movement will put the fish down and ruin the bite for hours.
THE BAYOUS (PADUCAH)
The lower end of the Ohio, near Paducah is often referred to as "the Bayous," and for good reason. It's a wide, flat area full of shallow-water flats, ditches and cypress trees. There are hundreds of acres of this type habitat in the lower Smithland Pool, above the Smithland Locks and Dam at mile 918.5.
"I personally think it's the best river location in the state for big slab-size crappie," said Bobby Gentry, long-time area resident and professional guide, whom you can reach at www.bobbygentry.com.
"It's got everything you need to grow big crappie and everything you need to pattern them and catch a bunch of them."
By "everything," he means that the fish are blessed with a long growing season, plenty of food and enough wood, grass and deep-water sanctuaries to hide from predators. There is plenty of water for anglers to fish and enough predictable patterns that will be successful.
If you're looking for numbers and food for the table, Gentry recommends fishing with minnows around the cypress trees and isolated stumps tha
t dot the area. There's nothing fancy about this technique -- just a minnow under a bobber. Keep moving and by the end of the day, you'll have enough for dinner . . . probably several dinners, as a matter of fact.
But if you're looking for a 15-, 16- or 17-inch trophy, fish the ditches.
"They (ditches) are everywhere," Gentry advised. "Most of them are only a couple of feet deeper than the surrounding water, but you can find them easy enough with your depthfinder. Look for the ones that twist and turn.
"The ones with grassflats along them are the very best. You won't catch very many crappies from those spots, but you'll catch the best ones."
His favorite technique is to cast a small safety-pin-style spinnerbait along the grass-lined edges of the ditches on the twists, turns and swings. His preference is for bright colors -- white, chartreuse, or fluorescent hues of yellow, green or pink -- in a 1/8-ounce size. Most days, a single Colorado blade is best. But occasionally, two small willow-leaf blades will draw the most action.
Regardless, however, he tries to fish the spinnerbait as close to the edge of the ditch as possible, right near the top where the weeds stop and the drop starts. "I just pull it along, straight and smooth, and try to tick the weeds," he said. "This is a reaction bite. I don't do anything fancy, just try to let them see it."
His second choice of lures is -- not surprisingly -- a jig. Small hair jigs in shad colors will trigger the same type of strike, especially if you pull them along in much the same manner: straight and smooth.
When fishing the ditches, depth is critical. Crappie will move up for food, but not down. Accordingly, Gentry always starts out shallow and works his way deeper until he finds the magic spot. He firmly believes that most anglers fish too deep for river crappie. "Start shallow, stay shallow" is his motto.
The Ohio River is a good crappie fishery. Give it a try this year!