March in the Show Me State offers prime-time crappie fishing. Which waterways look to have the hottest springtime prospects? (March 2006)
If ever there was a fish made for catching and eating, it'd have to be the crappie. Without doubt, Missouri anglers catch and eat more crappie each year than any other fish species. Ranked second in popularity with Missouri anglers, crappie are easy to catch, plentiful in all of Missouri's lakes and rivers -- and, oh, so good to eat. It's hard to beat a mess of pan-fried crappie and morel mushrooms in the spring.
Each spring I spend several days crappie fishing, not only for the sport, but also to add filets to my freezer to carry me over as spring drifts into Missouri's hot summer months. Although tactics change during the summer, the catching isn't anything near as fast and furious as it is during the spring spawn.
Here, I'll share my favorite spring crappie lakes with you and highlight what crappie anglers can expect to encounter this year in Missouri's more famous lakes and rivers; then, I'll provide some fishing tips to add to your crappie fishing success and enjoyment this year.
TABLE ROCK LAKE
I like Table Rock Lake. A component of the White River system sited in southwest Missouri's Stone County, it reigns both as one of Missouri's most beautiful lakes and as one of the state's best crappie lakes, such that Missouri Department of Conservation biologists used it for much of their crappie research. Table Rock also feels relatively light crappie fishing pressure compared to other Missouri lakes near major metropolitan centers.
Regardless of what lake arm you fish, this lake supports the sort of outstanding crappie population that leads to great fishing. The James River Arm historically contains water richer in nutrients than that in the other lake arms. In this somewhat murky arm, crappie (and other fish) grow slightly faster.
MDC population surveys conducted during the last two years suggest that crappie fishing will be good to outstanding throughout the lake, with good numbers of 10-inch and larger crappie available for anglers. A strong year-class of papermouths will reach legal size later in the year.
For more information, maps, and access information, write the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 1109, Branson, MO 65616, or call the MDC at (417) 895-6880.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri's second-oldest lake, was built in the 1930s to provide electricity for residents in the state's central region. The electricity apart, it also provides some of the best fishing water in the state. Built on the nutrient-rich Osage River, "LOZ" consistently provides outstanding crappie fishing year in and year out. That's the good news.
The bad news: Fishing and recreational use on the lake is off the charts. During spawning season, it's hard to find a cove that doesn't have several anglers already fishing the shoreline, looking for spawning crappie, and during the summer months, hundreds of recreational boaters take to the lake, making fishing difficult. That said, however, the crappie action is usually good enough to warrant putting up with lots of other anglers.
According to MDC biologists, crappie fishing was good to outstanding in 2005 -- almost half of the slab population exceeded 9 inches, and many broke the 11-inch mark -- and worthwhile crappie fishing should continue through 2006. The key to fishing Lake of the Ozarks lies in locating brushpiles in coves or off docks and then using 1/32-ounce jigs or small fathead minnows.
For more about fishing at Lake of the Ozarks, write the MDC at P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102, or call (573) 346-2210.
Built by the Corps for electricity generation and flood control, Truman Lake lies on the Osage just upstream of LOZ. The largest difference between the lakes is the managing agency: The Corps has the power to mandate site use for all lands around the lake, thus reducing encroachment of residences and resorts and making the lake much more enjoyable to fish. The lake is rich, and abounds in drowned timber, shallow flats and long arms that support some wonderful crappie fishing.
Last year, Truman yielded up lots of undersized crappie -- 9-inchers that should grow into the legal range this year. This lake also consistently produces strong crappie year-classes. This information strongly indicates that early crappie fishing should be outstanding, with a brisk surge of legal fish late in the summer as small fish reach the keeper threshold.
For more information about fishing Truman Lake, write: Corps of Engineers, Route 2, Box 29A, Warsaw, MO 65355, or call the MDC at (660) 530-5500.
Stockton Lake, about 15 miles northwest of Springfield, is one of my favorites. Another clear-water lake situated on the edge of the Ozarks, it's smaller than the other lakes I've discussed and feels less fishing pressure, and anglers here find it comparatively easy to locate crappie concentrations.
During the past couple of years, crappie recruitment has been spotty; further, crappie in the 2003 year-class should have reached legal size late last year. Regardless, spring crappie fishing should be good to outstanding, with a solid complement of legal fish available to anglers.
For more information about fishing at Stockton, write: MDC, Box 180, Jefferson City MO 65102; or, call (417) 895-6880. Or call Thompson Fishing Guides, (417) 424-2277.
OSAGE AND MISSOURI RIVERS
These are sleepers, as it seems that anglers don't commonly think of fishing for crappie in any of Missouri's many streams. Big mistake: Crappie can be found in most, with decent-sized populations in many larger streams.
The Osage not only has its own resident spawning crappie population, but also receives fish from the Lake of the Ozarks to add to the population. The two most popular fishing areas are just downstream from the dam, and at the Osage's confluence with the Missouri. You can access the Osage River just downstream from Bagnell Dam and from several public accesses all the way down to the Missouri River.
Also: Biologists report that spring crappie fishing along the middle section of the Missouri River can be outstanding at mouths of tributaries such as the Osage.
For more information about fishing the Missouri River, call (573) 884-6861; call (573) 346-2210 for information on fishing conditions on the Osage River.
SMALL PONDS AND WATERSHED LAKES
If you're interested in catching the new state-record crappie, f
ish in a farm pond or a Natural Resources Conservation Service watershed lake in north Missouri. I fish for crappie at several farm ponds and watershed lakes in northeast Missouri each spring, and, depending on the year, several times during the year.
"Why?" you ask. Because farm pond crappie action is fabulous. My fishing partner and I consistently catch 10- to 15-inch crappie whenever we fish the ponds, which also have the potential to yield up an 18- or 19-inch specimen. The lakes and ponds are small, allowing us to locate crappie easily, regardless of their whereabouts in the pond or lake. And the ponds and lakes are all very lightly fished.
I'm not going to tell you where I fish: You'll have to identify your own crappie lakes and ponds, and gain permission to fish from the owner. NRCS watershed lakes are all over north Missouri. To locate a lake, visit your local NRCS office and ask the district conservationist for the location, ownership, and age of the lakes. If you enjoy great crappie fishing, it'll be well worth the effort.
CRAPPIE FISHING TIPS
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on fishing instruction, as we all presumably know how to fish; however, I am going to provide some tips I picked up from the MDC research biologist who conducted the original crappie research. Over the years, his suggestions have helped me locate and catch numerous spawning crappie.
The annual crappie spawn takes place when water temperatures reach the mid-60s. Males move onto the banks to build nests and wait for individual females to move to the nests to spawn. Once the female deposits her eggs and the male fertilizes them, the latter guards the nest for 15 to 20 days; he will not stir until the eggs hatch and the fry leave the nests.
The depth at which the nest is set is controlled by water clarity. The clearer the water, the deeper the nest; conversely, the dingier the water the shallower the nest. You can determine the approximate nest depth by lowering a white jig off the side of the boat and marking the depth at which you lose sight of the jig in the water; crappie will be building nests at this approximate depth along the bank, and rather than fish blindly, you can target this depth.
The other tip the biologist conveyed provided a method for locating larger females during the spawn. Female crappie stage in loose schools out in open water at the depth of the nests. Once you locate males on nests and determine the approximate nest depth, turn and fish out in the open water at the same depth for the females. To keep a jig at the correct depth, attach a small float to your spinning line.
It was also suggested that I use line of the smallest diameter (that is, the lightest) that my rods could handle. He used 2-pound-test line; I generally set my spinning rods up with both 2-pound and 4-pound lines. The clearer the water, the more essential this becomes.
The MDC has become a leader among natural resource agencies with regards to crappie management. The success of Missouri's crappie management program testifies to the outstanding crappie fishing that we now experience.
Beginning in the '60s and continuing through the '70s, MDC researchers studied crappie management techniques and crappie populations in Table Rock Lake and other large Missouri lakes. This long-term research effort led to the development of several innovative approaches to crappie management that at the time were remarkably innovative. Now most states have adopted similar strategies.
For many years, anglers and biologists believed that crappie populations in large lakes would inevitably tend to overpopulation and stunt the average specimen, resulting in many small crappie and few large individuals. At that time, the solution, it was felt by the scientists, consisted in increasing harvest.
That was then; this is now.
MDC research proved the conventional wisdom wrong. Under the old methodology for management, most crappie populations in Missouri's large lakes were composed lots of small crappie, but young fish 2 years old or younger -- not "stunted" fish. These fish, the biologists concluded, simply didn't live long enough to grow large, as anglers were picking off the large individuals as soon as they reached an acceptable size, usually 6 to 8 inches.
Researchers found that when they imposed a length limit of 9 or 10 inches, depending on growth rates, those small fish lived and grew large -- as long as they weren't harvested.
Missouri's most popular crappie lakes now have a minimum-length limit and a creel limit that combine to allow crappie to live to 3 years of age and older and to attain lengths of 9 or 10 inches before being harvested. One interesting sidelight of this research: It was observed that even with the generous length limit and reduced creel, crappie anglers were actually harvesting more in the way of edible fish flesh than they had been before the regulation change.
MDC biologists also manage lakes individually, basing harvest regulations on lake surveys made each fall. From the surveys, biologists determine the number of different crappie age groups in the lake, the size of the individual age groups, and their growth rates. From this they predict what effect a length limit might have on the population and angling. Although crappie regulations for a given lake don't change often once they're set, check your 2006 codebook to be sure that the regs governing your favorite lake or river haven't changed.
Missouri's lakes and rivers support two crappie species: black and white. Black crappie are most plentiful in the large clear-water lakes in the southern part of the state. The current state record, which weighed in at 4 pounds 8 ounces, was caught from a farm pond, however.
White crappie, on the other hand, are much more widespread throughout the Show Me State, but aren't commonly seen in the many clear-water streams of the Ozarks. Comparatively tolerant of turbidity and siltation, they're found in the navigation pools of the upper Mississippi River, in north Missouri streams and small impoundments. The current state-record white crappie -- also the product of a farm pond -- weighed 4 pounds and 9 ounces.
Be sure to check out Missouri's outstanding fishing opportunities for both black and white crappie in our many lakes and rivers this year. If you haven't fished for crappie before, I believe that you'll end up hooked --just like the rest of Missouri's crappie anglers!