March: prime time for crappie fishing all over the Bayou State. Which waterways are most likely to deliver the hottest action this spring? (March 2006)
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Mississippi River Delta, first flooded New Orleans and then demolishing parts of Mississippi and Alabama. Three weeks later it was the turn of Hurricane Rita, the biggest storm ever seen in the Gulf of Mexico. Weakened slightly before coming ashore south of Lake Charles but still packing plenty of wallop, the hurricane smashed through southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas.
Ironically, the hurricanes flooded much of southern Louisiana without breaking the drought that had long parched much of central and northern Louisiana. The two meteorological monsters caused at least some rain to fall over most of Louisiana, but the desiccated soil absorbed everything that the storms could unload, and after the hurricanes, many lakes, creeks and bayous still had extremely low water levels.
For instance, the water level at Toledo Bend Reservoir, which had broiled under the sweltering sun for most of 2005, had fallen to about 10 feet below normal pool stage of 172 feet above mean sea level before Hurricane Rita passed over the lake on Sept. 24, 2005. While the storm sent a 12-foot surge washing across much of Cameron Parish, anglers at many marinas on "the Bend," about 150 miles north, were still unable even to launch their boats.
"The dry conditions prior to the storm soaked up much of the rain, and run-off was minimal," said Joe Joslin, a Toledo Bend guide. "This caused our local lakes to go basically unchanged, as Toledo Bend went from 162.9 feet above mean sea level before the storm to 163.6 a week later, which is a rise of less than half a foot."
Despite drought conditions, Toledo Bend remains one of the best venues in Louisiana for landing large crappie, and plenty of them. About 65 miles long and covering 186,000 acres, the deep reservoir along the Sabine River bordering Texas can produce excellent catches of both black and white crappie.
"I would rate crappie fishing on Toledo Bend as excellent," said Ricky Yeldell, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist. "We have a good population in place. We have both species, but black crappie are more common than white crappie."
Two-person teams can often catch 50 to 100 crappie per day. Most specimens average about 1 pound, but some exceed 2 pounds, and a few approach or even break the 3-pound barrier. In March 2003, Jodie E. Crouch Jr. pulled a 3.55-pound black crappie from Toledo Bend to set the state record for the species. On Jan. 17, 1985, Fritz Gowan landed a 3.69-pound black crappie to set the lake record -- but he landed his fish in Texas. Geneva Daniels landed the white crappie lake record, a 2.88-pounder, on March 13, 1998 -- and weighed it in Texas as well.
The Louisiana-Texas line follows the old Sabine River channel down through the middle of Toledo Bend. Nearly 42 percent of the 186,000-acre reservoir sits in Texas, so anglers must comply with two sets of laws.
Anglers with either state license can fish anywhere in the sprawling reservoir, but in Louisiana waters, anglers can keep up to 50 crappie per day of any size, regardless of where they launch or which license they carry. In Texas waters, anglers may still keep 50 crappie per day in any combination of black and white crappie, but each must measure at least 10 inches long. People may legally catch a Louisiana limit of 9-inch fish, but they could get in trouble if stopped in Texas waters with undersize fish at the wrong time. And from Dec. 1 through the end of February each year, anglers in Texas waters must keep the first 50 crappie they catch, regardless of size.
This spring, anglers throughout Toledo Bend should find the fishing great, as several good spawning years have produced a lot of large fish. Crappie generally begin spawning when water temperatures reach about 65 degrees, but different parts of the lake warm at different rates, so the spawn might stretch across several months.
Historically, Toledo Bend crappie spawn in April, when water warms in shallow coves on the northern end of the lake. At the deep, clear southern end, crappie might spawn as late as June.
In a deep lake like Toledo Bend, crappie often gather in large schools in early spring. They suspend beneath baitfish along the edges of the old Sabine River channel and other major creeks. The Chicken Coop area, a deep channel along the Texas side of the channel just north of Pendleton Bridge, can often turn out excellent catches.
East of Toledo Bend lies the 8,000-acre Saline-Larto area. A complex of swamps, lakes and bayous between Lake Larto and Saline Lake near Pineville, it typically yields up some of the largest crappie in the state. Anglers often fill limits, with some slabs exceeding 3 pounds.
"The Saline-Larto area is a good area for crappie," reported David Hickman, an LDWF fisheries biologist in Ferriday. "It's probably one of the best areas in the state for big crappie. It regularly produces many 2 1/2-pound fish, with some well over 3 pounds.
"It's a healthy system. Crappie have unbelievable growth rates in that system -- one of the highest I've ever seen. Fish have a tremendous amount of food and are not overpopulated. The crappie had a good spawn in 2005, so it should be a good year in 2006 if we get some high water this spring."
Weirs throughout the system hold water at managed levels, but floods from the nearby Red or Black rivers or the Catahoula Lake Diversion Canal can cause water to back into low areas. High water can restock the lake with fish from the rivers, and high-quality angling often occurs as the water level falls.
"The complex gets its water from several bayous that drain into the system," Hickman said. "When the water rises above some weirs along the Diversion Canal between Catahoula Lake and Black River, some water can enter the system. It also gets some water when the Red River backs up.
"The system tends to have higher water levels in the spring and lower in the fall. We had low water in late summer and early fall in 2005. That allows a lot of the substrate to dry out, so fish have many places to spawn. It also creates a lot of cover in the spring, so fry have a better survival potential until they can fend for themselves."
Roughly 2,500 acres in area, Lake Larto averages 12 to 16 feet deep, but a few holes drop to nearly 30 feet. Saline Lake covers about 1,971 surface-acres. Saline Bayou connects the two lakes. People often fish drops in the bayou, or a deep hole where Saline Bayou hits Lake Larto. Other hotspots include Mu
ddy Bayou, Nolan Bayou, Powell's Point, Open Bayou, Cross Bayou and Shad Lake.
"People start catching crappie in November and continue through February," Hickman offered. "By late February, crappie start moving up into shallow areas. By March, they are in full spawn. In the spring, anglers can catch crappie in the shallow parts of the bayou between the lakes and on the other side of Saline Lake at Big Creek. In the main lake, people catch a lot of crappie by drifting. When the fish move shallow to spawn, people catch them around the shorelines."
On the other side of the state, 15,000-acre Lake D'Arbonne, in Union and Lincoln parishes, is responsible for outstanding spring crappie action. Impounded in 1964, it drains a watershed 75 times as large as the lake itself. Most of the lake averages about 8 feet deep, but parts of Little Corney Creek and Little D'Arbonne Bayou drop to more than 30 feet.
"The crappie population is doing extremely well in Lake D'Arbonne," said Mike Wood, the LDWF district fisheries biologist in Monroe. "People catch a good many large fish. Most crappie average about 1 1/4 pounds. Realistically, people can expect a 2-pound fish, but we see a lot of fish over 3 pounds."
Large portions of the lake still resemble a shallowly flooded cypress swamp. As crappie move shallow from late February through May, anglers dangle flies, tiny hair jigs or tube jigs from long poles around cypress trees and knees. "On Lake D'Arbonne, crappie don't always spawn at the same time," Wood said. "Crappie in Stowe Creek historically spawn first; then they start spawning at Four Mile Creek. It cycles through the lake like that until it extends to the upper reaches of the lake, where crappie spawn last. They don't like to spawn in the upper creeks until after they get the rush of water with the spring rains, so they spawn later there."
To avoid spooking fish that are spawning among trees growing in 2 to 5 feet of water, Steve Danna, an angler from nearby Farmerville, will approach with great care. When close enough, he'll swing his limber 11-foot crappie pole, which is fitted with a fly reel, and drop one of his homemade hair jigs into the dark waters. He'll attach the jigs to 4-pound test fluorocarbon line that nearly vanishes once in the water.
Danna catches many of his fish on hand-tied 1/32-ounce "Steve's Special" hair jigs equipped with a No. 4 hook. For the clear, black water, he favors smoke, smoke and chartreuse, black and chartreuse or red and chartreuse jigs, each of which he tips with a chartreuse Berkley Power Bait crappie nibble, which gives added flavor, color and substance. The tiny jigs attract surprisingly large fish at times.
"The biggest crappie I've ever personally caught weighed 2 pounds, 14 ounces, but a lot of crappie are between 2 1/2 and 2 3/4 pounds," Danna said. "They are so big that I seldom keep a limit of 100 with two people. I can't fit them in the livewell."
A 1/32-ounce hair jig entering the water doesn't make much of a commotion, but sometimes in crappie fishing, stealth often brings more fish than does noise (as in, say, bassing). Frequently, a hungry crappie approaches a bait to nudge it or to taste it before gingerly sucking into its mouth.
"I let the fish decide how they want the presentation, but I usually don't move the bait very fast," explained Danna. "Often we just hold the rod as still as possible. It's almost impossible to hold it completely still with the boat movement, but the wind and the waves can add just enough action to get fish excited. I've caught plenty fish that way. On a good day, two people can catch 45 to 50 crappie, but I've caught that many by myself. It's the best technique in February and March, but I've caught fish around the trees up through June."
Besides numerous cypress stumps, trees and knees, anglers can also fish at several artificial reefs created by the LDWF in conjunction with the D'Arbonne Lake Association and other groups. Biologists created these reefs from plastic pallets and pipe. Looking something like artificial Christmas trees, these reefs draw in minnows, shad and other baitfish, which in turn attract big crappie and bass. Large yellow buoys mark each reef so that anglers can find them.
Similar reefs exist at Claiborne Lake, a 6,400-acre lake east of Homer, and other northern Louisiana water bodies. Largely devoid of cover, these reefs provide excellent hiding places in the deep, clear lakes.
Also in the northwest corner of Louisiana, Lake Bistineau, Cross Lake, Grand Bayou Reservoir and the Red River can produce excellent crappie catches, said James Seales, an LDWF district fisheries biologist in Minden. In these waters, anglers can hope to catch both black and white crappie up to about 2 pounds. Here, At Cross Lake, near Shreveport, artificial reefs like Claiborne's concentrate crappie so that anglers can find them.
"People can usually expect to catch about 10 to 20 crappie per day with the biggest going about 2 pounds," Seales said. "The crappie populations in my district are good, and pretty stable."
Unlike Claiborne and Cross Lake, Lake Bistineau abounds in cover, resembling as it does a cypress swamp. This heavily wooded 17,200-acre lake east of Bossier City can often surrender excellent crappie catches. Here, as at D'Arbonne, a formidable complement of natural cover allows crappie to hide from predators long enough to spawn in peace. Many anglers probe the tree trunks along the channel edges with tailspinner lures, live shiners, and tube or hair jigs.
"Lake Bistineau is a good lake for spring crappie," Seales observed. "Crappie move into the shallow areas as the water starts to warm. The best months are March and April. In the spring, a good crappie fisherman can catch a limit on Lake Bistineau with some fish going up to 2 pounds."
Despite the storms, central and north Louisiana abound in places at which anglers can land a limit of fat slabs. It might take a while for much of southern Louisiana to catch up with the rest of the state, but fortunately, the highly prolific -- and succulent -- crappie can rebound quickly.