October 05, 2010
Looking for an early start on fresh crappie filets? These lakes may be your best bets for February fishing.
Photo courtesy of Donnie Jinkens.
Each February I find myself in a quandary of sorts: As the last of the bitter cold of winter begins to loosen its grip on the outdoors, I generally find myself suffering from a bad case of the I've-been-cooped-up-for-too-long blues. My remedy before my spring turkey fix in April is to break out my ultralight tackle and go catch a mess of crappie.
It's true: February is a great month for crappie fishing. As the state's lakes and rivers begin warming, the crappie feed with a reckless abandon you have to experience to believe. These silver-sided denizens of the frigid waters are primed to feed in a voracious frenzy before preparing to spawn later. To partake of the bounty, you just need to know where to go.
Last February, days before his second knee replacement, my dad conned me into a slab trip on Arcadia Lake. I reluctantly went as the morning dawned to overcast skies, a howling north wind, and the temperature just below freezing. Not a good day for fishing, I thought. However, my spirits lifted, along with my level of anticipation, after receiving a telephone call from Leon Mixer, who oversees the lake. He assured me our chances were good if we fished in the new indoor fishing dock, located on the southwest side of the lake. "The place has been pretty hot lately for slab crappie," Mixer insisted. "Just make sure you get there plenty early, because the place has been drawing a crowd."
We arrived at 5 a.m. and noticed we weren't the first anglers there. Inside and enjoying success was an Edmond retiree who had a penchant for fishing a twin-jig setup. His curly-tailed jigs were bad medicine for the schooling crappie below, and in short order he filled his basket with the speckled table fare.
I rigged a pair of tandem-hooked crappie rigs for my dad and myself before impaling two pairs of feisty minnows that we lowered into the dark waters below. Soon the telltale taps on our flimsy rods indicated we had struck pay dirt, and in unison we reeled in pairs of hand-sized crappie before rebaiting for round two. Though the weather was freezing outside, we stayed comfortable inside, and we had an enjoyable conversation with the other angler as the three of us shared a frigid February morning at its finest.
So before you settle into the sedentary ways of avoiding a cold February day, consider that the crappie near your locale are just waiting to bite a hook. So, you can put another log on the fire, or you can bundle up and go catch a mess of tasty filets.
IN COLD WEATHER,
Common sense dictates that when temperatures are inclement, it is wise to stay indoors, but why not have your cake and eat it too? How, you might ask? Indoor fishing docks.
Going to an indoor fishing dock can be similar to hanging out at a local coffee shop. Within the diversity of anglers gathered inside the sheet metal confines of these fishing houses, a variety of demographics are represented, but the crappie are the common denominator!
These enclosed fishing spots are the ticket in inclement weather, due to their warm, well-lit accommodations. Most are baited with Christmas trees, offering havens for small fish to hide in. The resulting baitfish buffet draws a variety of fish, with crappie and sand bass being two of the most likely hungry attendees lured in for the feast, but I have caught almost every species of game fish while fishing indoors.
In fact, one of the biggest catfish I ever hooked was one I got during an all-nighter at an indoor marina at Lake Texoma. The monster catfish put a serious bend in my crappie tackle, stripping most of the gears in my ill-equipped spincast reel before rolling onto the surface of the water. A crowd of onlookers did their best to "coach" me into landing the whiskered giant, but too soon the 3-foot-long catfish snapped my 8-pound-test line.
Though several lakes have private indoor docks, these lakes offer public access: Bell Cow, Carl Blackwell, Chickasha, Clear Creek, Duncan, Eufaula (two), Fort Gibson (two), Fuqua, Grand (five), Greenleaf, Hefner, Hudson (two), Humphreys, Keystone, Murray, Ponca, Sahoma, Shawnee, Skiatook, Tenkiller (three) and Waurika. You should note that some indoor marinas charge a small fee for fishing.
Here's a list of Oklahoma's "speck-tacular" crappie lakes.
Just east of Edmond is Arcadia Lake, a 1,820-acre water-supply reservoir that's home to solid numbers of crappie. The lake is turbid most of the time, owing to the inflow of the muddy Deep Fork River. However, don't let the murky water keep you at home, because suspended beneath that stained surface are many strategic brushpiles and much flooded timber -- homes to schools of pan-sized crappie.
"The lake's average crappie caught will be smaller than we hoped for," said the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's crappie expert, Jeff Boxrucker. "Nevertheless, the lake has good numbers of crappie weighing just under a pound. I witnessed that fact when I accompanied the ODWC's biologists on a spring netting survey a few years back. The net surveys sampled lively numbers of hand-sized specks weighing just under a half-pound each.
The lake has some well-marked ODWC brushrows placed in strategic areas, and plenty of timber to keep a doodlesocking angler busy for hours. The best lures -- according to local expert Carl Jones, who operates a bait shop a few miles away -- are small jigs and minnows.
So does the murky Edmond lake with small crappie merit a winter fishing trip? "Absolutely," said crappie fanatic Jones. "I catch some really nice crappie there in February, with some over 2 pounds."
According to Mixer, in February anglers can also find success by targeting slabs off the rocky riprap area near the 15th Street boat ramp, and by using small jigs around any of the boat docks. The lake limit is 37 crappie.
It's hard to mention winter crappie fishing without mentioning the state's largest fishery: Lake Eufaula. Near the town of the same name, this productive fishery spanning 102,000 acres is a popular destination for crappie anglers of all ages. I cut my crappie-fishing teeth at Lake Eufaula nearly 35 years ago, and it remains one of my favorite lakes for taking bragging-sized papermouths.
Lake Eufaula offers a diversity of habitat, as well as varying degrees of water clarity, with parts of the lake being extremely clear and others muddy. The ODWC has improved the fis
hery with the addition of several brushpiles marked with buoys.
February is a great month for catching Eufaula's crappie. The lake offers several heated fishing docks, but I prefer to fish the brushy habitat during daylight hours and, using a crappie light, beneath the bridges at night.
Several of the lake's fishing docks are great spots for jig-fishing. My favorite setup is to tie two or three jigs on my line spaced 12 inches apart and then swim the jigs around the moorings on docks. Most docks are baited with evergreen trees and harbor more crappie than most anglers are aware of.
The water temperatures in the south end of the lake generally warm first, and crappie seem most active there prior to spawning, when the lake comes alive with frenzied panfish.
Fishing guide Todd Huckabee (405-520-8980) rates Lake Eufaula as an excellent lake for February crappie. He advises winter anglers to target crappie in creeks, where the fish stage before moving toward spawning areas. And he notes that when you catch two consecutive days of sunshine with temperatures in the high 40s, you can bet that the next day will be a good day to go after crappie.
"Normally I look for muddy water in the 6- to 10-foot-depth range," Huckabee offered, "and I normally find crappie suspended between 5 and 7 feet. I catch 70 to 100 crappie a day that will average 1 to 1 1/2 pounds, and usually a few in the 2 1/2-pound range."
Huckabee likes larger baits, his preference being a 2-inch Yum Wooly Beavertail in either black and pink or black and chartreuse.
The top winter spots on Eufaula are Gentry Creek, Rock Creek, Coal Creek, Gaines Creek, Duchess Creek, Belle Starr and Mill Creek. The lake limit is 37 crappie.
A newcomer on the crappie roundup is Canton Lake, 75 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. Originally built as a water-supply lake for OK City, Canton is best known for the annual Walleye Round Up -- a festive fishing contest. Yet this prolific 7,910-acre fishery is overlooked by many anglers, according to Donnie Jinkens -- a 40-year resident of the lake.
Nicknamed the "Crappie King" by Oklahoma fishing legend Don Wallace, Jinkens, who owns the Canton Motel and operates a guide service, believes the lake is one of the best crappie lakes in the state.
"The lake has some real nice crappie that are usually fairly easy to locate in February," opined Jinkens. "The crappie will vary from 1/2 to 1 1/2 pounds on average, but it is not uncommon to catch crappie over 2 pounds."
The best spots for winter slabs lie in the Canadian area of the lake, where there is bank access from a jetty located there. The dam is 3 1/2 miles long and is a likely spot for casting a pair of jigs or dunking some minnows. Jinkens advises that there are three pull-off areas by the dam, and these are places where crappie congregate. The ODWC has enhanced the lake's habitat with numerous brushpiles, and though unmarked, they can be located with sonar equipment.
Jinkens' favorite artificial bait is a 2-inch Bobby Garland Baby Shad in black and chartreuse, red and chartreuse, white and chartreuse, and blue and white colors. Minnows and jigs will work well also, and most fish will be caught from depths ranging from 12 to 18 feet.
To get up-to-the-minute fishing reports or to book a trip with the Crappie King, contact Jinkens at (580) 886-5170. The lake limit is 37 crappie.
Located 30 minutes north of Tulsa is Lake Oologah, another exceptional crappie lake. "The lake gets very little publicity," said Tulsa fishing expert Gary Dollohan, who believes the lake is tops for wintertime crappie angling. Dollohan experienced success there last February during a bitter cold day under the tutelage of Red Miller -- a local expert.
Miller, a Dewey resident, has fished the lake for 30 years and says the crappie will be in their pre-spawn routines in February. "The crappie will be moving from the main body of the lake up the river systems, in search of suitable spawning sites," advised Miller. "The crappie will then stage at varying depths and will usually bite aggressively."
"The lake's crappie will average 11 to 16 inches in length and weigh 1/2 to 1 1/2 pounds," said Miller. "However, it is not uncommon to catch a slab over 2 1/4 pounds," noted Miller, who's landed a 3 1/2-pounder there.
Miller, who uses Gene Larew's crappie jigs in black and chartreuse colors, prefers to release any crappie under 11 inches in length. He named Big Creek and Spencer Creek as two productive areas, and cited Goat Bluff in Spencer Creek as a good place for bank anglers.
The lake limit is 37 crappie.
Lake Texoma, a 91,200-acre impoundment on the Oklahoma/Texas border, is a real gem for winter crappie anglers. Oklahoma city lawyer Chris Box fishes from a private indoor dock there, and he regularly hauls in his share of bragging-sized specks, with some over 3 pounds. He uses both jigs and small minnows, and he usually doesn't have to wait long for his rod to start twitching.
"I really enjoy fishing Texoma in February," Box said. "I've caught some nice crappie there, with my best weighing almost 4 pounds."
Anglers fishing Texoma can target crappie in several of the lake's traditional winter hotspots -- areas such as Washita Point, Roosevelt Bridge, Soldier Creek, Alberta Creek, Buncombe Creek and the Railroad Bridge.
Anglers may take 37 crappie daily; the fish must attain a minimum length of 10 inches. Since this lake straddles both Oklahoma and Texas, a Texas fishing license is required for fishing on any area on the Texas side.
Situated near Grove in northeastern Oklahoma an hour from Tulsa is 46,500-acre Grand Lake.
Fishing Grand in the summer can be a trying proposition because the numerous yachts that traverse the lake can kick up some rough water. But the good news is that during the winter months, the huge, deep lake is virtually void of large boats and actually receives little fishing pressure. Except for a few die-hard guides who -- like Ivan Martin (918-257-4265) -- fish it year 'round, the lake's all but vacant and yields some great winter creels.
Martin, an expert on the lake who specializes in crappie, white bass and largemouth bass, has been guiding for 20 years. Headquartered at Martin's Landing on Monkey Island, Ivan operates a sport shop and motel and books fishing trips year 'round.
"Most people think the only crappie fishing on Grand in the winter is done on one of the lake's 10 heated fishing docks," he said. "The fishing docks are good, but actually there is some great crappie fishing on the open water."
Martin notes that the crappie will move and congregate near ledges in 20 to 30 feet of water. Ivan prefers to use artificial baits only and is partial to using 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs in chartreuse, white, and red, white and blue.
Ivan suggests that anglers target Honey Creek, Elk River, Duck Creek and Drowning Creek. He advised that access to these areas is almost limited to boats only, but added that there's public bank access at the Horse Creek Bridge.
Though white crappie are the main species at Grand, Martin says, black crappie are starting to make their presence known. Grand anglers may take a combined creel of 15 crappie daily with a 10-inch minimum length.
Well there you have it: a sampling of some of the state's top winter crappie holes. Though my list is not exhaustive, it represents a sampling of some of the best February hotspots for crappie in the state.
Keep in mind that February can have some unseasonably mild days and yet also feature near-blizzard conditions, so dress appropriately when fishing outdoors. Caution is in order also when fishing, because a fall into any cool-water fishery could produce hypothermia, which can be deadly in short order.
So when you get happy feet this winter, why not hoof it over to some of the state's top crappie waters, and you, too, can catch a mess of Soonerland slabs. A word of caution is in order here, though: Crappie fishing is highly addictive -- and it can take a lifetime to recover!
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