September 28, 2010
With few exceptions, the Bayou State looks to encounter another prime sac-Ã -lait season in 2009. Here's your guide to making the most of our state's crappie opportunities. (March 2009)
By Lynn Burkhead
Atchafalaya Basin crappie took a big hit from 2008's storms, but LDWF officials expect most fisheries to rebound quickly. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
In most years, the crappie forecast for the Sportsman's Paradise is almost entirely optimistic.
Fortunately, 2009 shouldn't deviate from that theme. Louisiana anglers have more than enough reasons to grab a cane pole or ultralight spinning rig, some minnows or jigs and an empty fish basket . . . and go crappie fishing, of course!
That's because when it comes to fishing for sac-Ã -laits, few states can match Cajun Country in its sheer volume of really good crappie waters.
Need a place to start? Then throw a dart onto a map of the Bayou State. Odds are your dart won't land far from good water.
From Caddo Lake to Toledo Bend, from Caney Lake to D'Arbonne Lake to Lake Bistineau, Louisiana has no shortage of good places to wet a line.
Add in False River, Old River, Catahoula Lake, and, well, I think you'll begin to get the picture -- the Sportsman's Paradise is, in fact, a crappie angler's paradise!
According to Gary Tilyou, the inland fisheries administrator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, one of the best spots to start crappie fishing this year might be on Toledo Bend Reservoir, the 181,600-acre Sabine River impoundment in western Louisiana.
"We've got a pretty good water event going on at Toledo Bend," Tilyou said. "That should be good for the fish, and we would expect the fishing to be fantastic this year, perhaps the start of a few great crappie years (in a row)."
Another one of the state's crappie hotspots is the 2,700-acre Poverty Point Reservoir near Delhi. Annually one of the top crappie producers, Poverty Point should be primed again this year.
"Poverty Point has been very good (lately)," Tilyou said. "For (the best) crappie (fishing of the year), it would be more of when you would expect it -- in January and February."
In other words, get the fishing gear ready -- after you finish reading this story, of course -- and head for the water!
Perhaps one of the state's few exceptions in what is expected to be a phenomenal sac-Ã -lait year, southern Louisiana's sprawling Atchafalaya Basin complex appears to be on a bit of downturn. As Louisianans will recall from 2008, big saltwater storm surges rolled into the Basin late last summer, thanks to Hurricane Gustav, and to a lesser degree, Hurricane Ike.
And that saltwater intrusion wasn't good for the Basin's freshwater fish species.
"In the Atchafalaya Basin, we did have some major fish kills that occurred," Tilyou conceded.
The top Louisiana inland fisheries biologist said that the storm surge rolled up the main river stem itself, into some of the region's tributaries, and into some interior lakes that have served as refuges for freshwater fish in past storms.
"It was very similar to what happened after Hurricane Andrew if somebody is going to go back and compare what Gustav did," Tilyou said. "Gustav was not quite as bad as Andrew was, but it was almost as bad in the Atchafalaya Basin, since both storms went right up the basin, basically.
"The storm affected all species with an indiscriminate fish kill," Tilyou continued. "Everything that was in the bad waters died and we did lose a lot of game fish, a lot of bass, crappie, bluegills."
While the effects of Gustav were bad in the Basin, Tilyou reminds anglers that hurricanes are a natural part of the landscape and, as of press time, signs of recovery were emerging.
"Mother Nature will dictate how fast the fishery recovers," he said. "We had a very high water event after Andrew and that stimulated production. The first year after (that) hurricane, we had little 6- to 8-inch bass everywhere. By June of the following year, there were little fish everywhere, and by the end of year, the 10-inch growth rates were phenomenal.
"Now we don't have instant re-growth of age after such an event, but we had a lot of little fish the following year, and they started becoming something that you could take home -- which is 14 inches for bass in the Basin -- in about two years."
While the anglers reading this article may or may not be enthused about the period for catchable bass in the Atchafalaya Basin, they probably will be quick to smile when they hear Tilyou's report on how quickly the panfish in the Basin responded after Andrew.
"The crappie and the bream responded just as quickly (as the bass), and since there are no size limits in the Basin, anglers were able to have success right off the bat," Tilyou said.
"We supplemented (fish stocks after Andrew), but with Mother Nature supplying a good water event, what we were doing was just a drop in the bucket (compared to the natural process). You just never know what you're going to get from Mother Nature."
Now that you have a few of the state's prime crappie waters on your radar screen for this month and throughout spring, how do you go about catching a limit of slabs as winter's chilly temperatures give way to spring?
To answer that question, let me defer to America's favorite fisherman, Jimmy Houston, the highly energetic, blond-haired, fish-kissing B.A.S.S. king from Cookson, Oklahoma.
While Houston originally staked his claim to fame as a two-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year, his second career as the television host of "Jimmy Houston Outdoors" has given him years of fishing action for one of his favorite freshwater species.
Especially at this time of the year.
"Crappie are a great winter fish, but once we start having a few of those 75-degree days, we'll start getting into a spring crappie pattern," Houston said. "The water can warm up in a hurry as we start getting some of those warm days with a good south to southwest wind."
As the weather moderates, Houston's crappie game plan on any Southern water body becomes a simple one.
"I would try to look for creek channe
ls close to where you feel fish are going to move in to spawn," he said. "Flat areas with hard type banks are good places for them to spawn. Remember where you caught spawning crappie last year, find a nearby creek channel and that's where they'll tend to be."
Keep in mind that this is the time of the year that crappie will spread out over very wide areas of a particular lake while still being typically located in very narrow vertical bands within the water column.
That's a very important fact to consider once the first crappie is dropped into your livewell.
"Crappie will rarely go down to get a bait," Houston said. "But crappie will go up for a bait. If you're fishing below them, you can be over huge schools of fish and never get a bite."
While many anglers successfully catch crappie using small jigs and live minnows, Houston relies on his old favorite, the Roadrunner, in fluorescent red, black and Christmas tree (fluorescent red, green, and yellow) color patterns.
"I use them year 'round for crappie," Houston said. "Early in the year, when the water is cold, I like to use marabou as opposed to plastic."
How big of a lure should you use? That depends, according to Houston.
"I have a tendency to use a lot more 1/16-ounce or even 1/32-ounce Roadrunners when it is cold," Houston said. "One good rule of thumb is that the more difficult the fishing is, the smaller the Roadrunner you'll need to use. I don't really like to fish the 1/32-ounce, but when the water is really cold, it really works. As the water warms up though, I'll move to a bigger size."
Once the transition time from winter to spring is over and crappie move shallow for their annual spawning rituals, how does a Cajun Country angler go about catching a mess of sac-Ã -laits for the table?
My fisheries biologist friend Bruce Hysmith indicates that finding a springtime crappie hole is relatively similar wherever it is that a sac-Ã -lait angler is targeting slabs.
"Crappie fishermen should be keying on shallow shorelines, especially with brush and grass," Hysmith said. "They are nest builders and will move in, fan out a nest, and then the male and female will move in. A lay-down log around a location like that is usually a good spot."
Potential springtime crappie magnets on lakes, reservoirs and backwater sloughs typically center around three things according to Hysmith: shallow water, moving water and some sort of cover like standing timber, brushpiles or rocky riprap.
While many fishermen have had success angling for crappie in still water, how does one go about fishing for slabs when there is a current flowing?
"If the creek has running water and it's known to have crappie hanging around, the tendency is for the crappie to stay near the bank," Hysmith said.
In other words, during the spring, whether a crappie angler is fishing still water or flowing water, look for waters crowded with plenty of natural attractions.
"Actually, any kind of cover is good," Hysmith said. "In fact, you'd like to fish an area that has just a little bit of cover instead of a whole lot of cover. A little cover means that crappie will be concentrated in one area; a whole lot of cover means that you'll have to look everywhere."
As Houston alluded, one key in catching crappie -- once you've located a school of them -- is to carefully consider exactly where the slabs are looking.
"A crappie's eyes are more on top of their head, so that gives them a better view above than below," said the North American Fishing Club's Steve Pennaz. "When you catch a fish at, say, the 10-foot depth over 20 feet of water, you'll want to drop it right back down to that level."
With that in mind, what bait should you drop down to a school of sac-Ã -laits?
Like Houston, Pennaz has his own tackle recommendations, honed after many years of crappie-fishing experience across the country.
For live-bait crappie fishing on a small wire hook, he likes to use a small float to detect subtle bites. To get the offering deep enough, Pennaz will add one or more split shot.
When fishing a crappie jig, Pennaz likes to use white, yellow and pumpkin/chartreuse versions ranging from 1/16-ounce to 1/32-ounce sizes. Particularly on the smaller jigheads, he'll most often tip them with plastic tails as opposed to marabou.
"Especially if the bite is going, plastic is more convenient," Pennaz said. "Plus, it (plastic) comes in a lot of different colors and most of the time plastic will outfish live bait."
As far as his crappie fishing tackle is concerned, Pennaz suggests spooling 4- to 6-pound mono on spinning reels attached to light spinning rods in the 6 1/2- to 7-foot range.
"I like a light-tipped rod since crappie have very soft lips," he said. "You want to fight the fish without ripping the hook out."
While this article has covered fishing for Louisiana's abundant crappie schools in the winter and spring months thus far, don't forget that fall is also a great time to pursue a limit of slabs in the Bayou State.
Where should you target such autumn panfish? They'll generally be deeper than the shallow waters they haunted during the spring spawn. But even so, one thing that was true earlier in the year remains true when the leaves change colors.
These fish like to hang around some sort of underwater structure and cover. From rocks to submerged brush to sunken timber and stumpfields to points and breaklines to a tried-and-true bridge piling, crappie are likely to be found hanging around such underwater features.
Also keep in mind that during this active time of fall feeding, don't waste much time from your angling day by staying on unproductive water. Work hard until you locate and catch a willing crappie and then go back to that same depth to catch a few of its buddies.
"If you're not catching fish, it's likely that the fish aren't there," Pennaz agreed. "Continue to move until you find fish. Don't spend a lot of time in a place where the fish aren't biting."
Winter, spring, summer or fall, once you find active crappie, Pennaz said to keep the fillet knife handy, since you're now likely to fill the livewell with a limit of these tasty panfish.
"Crappie are great eating, they're very plentiful and at times, it will (actually) help a body of water to harvest a few," Pennaz said. "I'm a believer in letting big crappie go -- something in the 2-pound range -- but a lot of fish in the 3/4- to 1 1/4-pound range, they're great eating."
So, with another year of great crappie fishing awaiting most Louisiana anglers, pour some peanut oil, dredge the slab fillets through your favorite batter, sprinkle a little Cajun seasoning into the mix, drop them in a hot fish fryer, and let the good times roll!