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Early Crappie Outlook

Early Crappie Outlook

Where is Oklahoma's crappie action heating up right now, and where will it be hot in the near future? We've got the answers for you right here!

By Bob Bledsoe

There's one thing I really like about crappie fishing at this time of year.

It's dependable.

That doesn't mean that it's a cinch. You still have to find the crappie and figure out what it takes to make them bite.

But once you've figured that out, the crappie seem to hold in the same spots for many days, even for several weeks at a time. And when they finally do move, it's fairly easy to figure out where they went.

That's because crappie, from January or February up through late April or early May, follow a fairly predictable routine at most Oklahoma reservoirs.

Oh, there may be days when a thunderstorm or a howling winter storm shuts the action down for a day or two. But in most of our lakes at this time of year, crappie can almost always be found hanging around deeper structure - from about 12 to 20 feet at most lakes, deeper in some others. Submerged river channel edges, vertical bluff-type structure, and manmade brushpiles are probably the three most likely kinds of spots for finding Oklahoma crappie in the colder months.


Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Once you locate a brushpile that holds wintertime crappie, it'd be a good idea to make careful note of that brushpile's location, as it may continue to hold crappie until springtime.

There are some deep lakes in Oklahoma whose wintertime crappie can be found down at depths approaching 50 feet. But not all Oklahoma reservoirs have sufficient oxygen to support crappie or other sportfish species at such extreme depths, so it is unlikely that you would have to fish that deep to find crappie. I'd venture to say that all but a tiny percentage of Oklahoma crappie are caught at depths of less than 20 feet.

While crappie may spend a majority of their winter daytime hours clustered around deep structure, that doesn't mean they never move up to shallow water. Sometimes, even in midwinter, crappie will move up within inches of the surface for a short time during the day. That's especially true during periods of mild, sunny weather. And it seems to happen more often around big brushpiles that may be anchored in 15 or 20 feet of water but reach up to within 3 or 4 feet of the surface.

I recall one year in early February when we were trying to catch crappie to be tagged and released for a crappie-fishing contest at Lake Eufaula. We'd fished the day before and caught crappie 14 to 16 feet deep in several locations. I walked out on a fishing dock and began fishing at that depth, which was near the bottom below the dock. After 30 minutes, I had fished my way around the whole dock and hadn't caught a fish. I reeled up most of my line, leaving only enough out to let my jig dangle a foot or so into the water - shallow enough so that it wouldn't get snagged on any of the brush below the dock. Suddenly my rod tip snapped downward. I set the hook, and lifted a big 1 1/2-pound crappie out of the lake.

I thought that surely it was an accident, that the big crappie must have followed my jig up as I reeled in. But just to be sure, I dropped my jig back to about a foot below the surface and began moving it slowly around the dock. I caught another nice-sized crappie within seconds.

I told my partner what I had found, and he shortened his line and began fishing within inches of the surface as well. We caught about a dozen decent crappie in the hour or so of fishing that we could get in before having to meet the tagging crew.

By the next day, the crappie were again back down in the brushpiles 14 or 15 feet deep, which was the level at which we continued to catch crappie right on up until April, when we started catching spawners in the shoreline shallows.

I throw in that little anecdote to reinforce that, while crappie seem very predictable most of the time, there may be days during the first two or three months of the year - usually brought on by periods of warm, sunny, calm weather - that see the crappie suddenly move up almost to the surface for some reason.

And when they move up like that, it's good to have a couple of locations to fish where brush comes up near the surface, too. The brush under the dock from which I caught the crappie just described reached nearly from the bottom to the surface. Cedar trees were anchored upright both beneath and a couple of yards away from the dock; other, smaller cedars, suspended by cables, hung down from the floating dock. So there was cover at nearly all depths.

If you're an angler who builds his own brushpiles, it'd be worthwhile to build a couple on steeply sloping banks so you can have brush reaching from a couple of feet below the normal surface level, all the way down to the bottom of the slope. A brushpile like that gives crappie some cover at all depths in a given spot, and may hold them in the area better than will brushpiles providing cover only within a certain narrow range of depths.

If you build brushpiles, be cautious. Don't sink anything that will be a navigation hazard to boaters or endanger skiers, swimmers or divers.

Having a boat comes in very handy when fishing for winter crappie, but a boatless angler isn't completely out of the hunt. Off the shorelines at many lakes, depths drop to 20 feet or more within a rod's length of shore, and bank-bound fishermen can catch crappie by fishing straight down. By using slip-corks to present their bait, shore-anglers also can fish vertically over brushpiles located several yards from shore.

Boatless anglers can also fish in one of the many heated crappie docks available at some Oklahoma reservoirs. Texoma, Grand, Fort Gibson, Eufaula, Tenkiller, Keystone, Hudson and Oologah are some of the lakes that have heated docks; at these, anglers can fish for a daily or annual fee. There are probably public docks at other Oklahoma lakes as well.

Now let's take a brief look at several of Oklahoma's best early-season crappie fisheries.

Big Lake Eufaula is, at 102,000 surface-acres, Oklahoma's biggest impoundment - and it's one of the champs at producing big crappie.

Crappie in Eufaula's southern arms may move and behave differently than do those in the northern areas. This is especially true later in the spring, when spawning season nears, less so in February.

Fishing brushpiles in 10 to 20 feet of water is perhaps the most dependable way to catch crappie at Eufaula from late fall until

springtime, when fish shift toward spawning areas.

Many Eufaula regulars like to build their own brushpiles of cedar trees, discarded Christmas trees or other materials that will attract fish. The lake also has numerous fish-attracting shelters built by the state wildlife department. Those shelters are marked with floating buoys that make it easier for fishermen to locate them. Many of the marked brushpiles get a considerable amount of fishing pressure, but some produce abundant catches of crappie.

There are marked fish-attractors in virtually all sections of the lake - Mill Creek, Gaines Creek, Longtown Creek and the south Canadian River area south of the town of Eufaula. Farther north they can be found - to name a few sites - in Deep Fork, Gentry Creek, Coon Creek, Duchess Creek, and the Belle Starr area.

From the U.S. 69 highway bridges upstream, Eufaula's waters can remain turbid much of the year. Get below the "chute" where the lake's three major arms come together and flow toward the dam, however, and the water is usually clear.

No matter where in Lake Eufaula you find crappie on brushpiles, and no matter at what depth crappie may be biting when you arrive, it'll be a good idea to check other depths periodically throughout the day. Fish can move up or down without any visible motivation. On many occasions, I've been fishing for Eufaula winter crappie around such brushpiles and seen the action wane only to find that, for a short time, active crappie had moved up and suspended over the tops of the brush. I'm a firm believer in the theory that, at any given time, most of the active crappie are at the same depth in a given body of water. But the most productive level can sometimes change for no apparent reason.

Lake Keystone, just 15 miles from Tulsa, is where I've done a lot of my crappie fishing. That's because it's so close to home. It's a 23,600-acre lake that gathers the waters of two big, turbid rivers - the Arkansas and the Cimarron. Keystone consistently produces good crappie for a host of urban anglers.

The rocky shores of Keystone have many stretches where bluffs tower over submerged piles of boulders. Those areas can be wintertime crappie hotspots. To make them even better, anglers have built hundreds of small brushpiles from Christmas trees, cedars, buttonbush (which most locals call "buckbrush") and other materials.

It isn't difficult to locate many of these piles if you fish from a boat with any kind of sonar unit. In just about any part of the lake, an angler can position his boat a few yards from shore - say, over a contour 15 to 20 feet deep - and cruise parallel to the shore, finding the brushpiles by watching the sonar screen or flasher. For some reason, I've found brushpiles located around 19 to 20 feet deep to be the most productive there during January, February and early March.

I fish them mostly with tube jigs, but probably the bulk of Keystone's crappie are caught by anglers using minnows tightlined - that is, fished vertically - beneath the boat.

While the southern portions of the lake, especially the Salt Creek arm, get pretty intense fishing pressure because of the many boat ramps and access points there, much of the best crappie fishing is actually up in the northern reaches of the lake, from Boggy Creek on upstream to the waterfowl refuge area near Cleveland. Walnut, Mud and Wauresha creeks are all promising crappie areas for anglers who can find the brushpiles or who build their own.

Kaw Lake, near Ponca City, on the Arkansas River above Keystone, is a lake known for yielding up stringers of bigger-than-average crappie. This 17,000-acre impoundment is much like Keystone and Eufaula, in that it's generally turbid. As at those lakes, brushpiles in deeper water are usually the best wintertime fishing spots.

There are many lakes in Oklahoma whose shores are lined with private docks and boathouses, but probably none have shorelines as densely developed as 46,500-acre Grand Lake. Grand must have more indoor fishing docks, both public and private, than any other lake in the region. There are also many artificial brushpiles scattered throughout the lake to concentrate crappie. The Grand Lake Fishing Guide's Association has built numerous brushpiles, some marked with buoys and some not. Individuals have built many, too, and of course, the Wildlife Department has built and marked quite a few.

Solid crappie populations are found in all portions of the lake. Drowning Creek has long been my favorite area. Horse Creek, especially the portion from the Bernice Bridge upstream, is also productive.

Broken Bow, a 14,200-acre impoundment of the Mountain Fork River, is a deep lake with lots of steep, rocky shorelines. I've always believed it to be Oklahoma's most beautiful lake, with a look that's more like something you'd find in central Canada than an Oklahoma water. It's also a top-of-the-line crappie lake.

While some brushpiles can be found at Broken Bow, the lake's cover situation is probably more commonly thought of in terms of flooded forests whose treetops are 25 to 40 feet beneath the surface. Broken Bow's crappie suspend over deep water around those treetops. Some anglers swim small jigs on 4-pound-test line over the flooded trees. Others use small Beetle Spins, retrieving them very slowly, just fast enough to turn the blades, even slow-trolling with an electric motor in random patterns above the timber.

Lake Tenkiller, on the Illinois River just south of Tahlequah, is similar to Broken Bow as far as winter fishing is concerned: Local anglers often fish in midlake, using small jigs or small minnows to catch suspended crappie from 40 feet of water, sometimes even deeper. This kind of fishing is usually done only in the lower portion of the lake, within sight of the dam. In the upper reaches, most anglers use more-conventional patterns, fishing brushpiles on dropoffs and on sloping shorelines.

Still another lake that produces good stringers of crappie is Skiatook, near Tulsa. Skiatook has both black and white crappie, although the black species seems to be getting scarcer season by season - a typical progression as reservoirs age.

Crappie can be found throughout the lake, but one popular wintertime area is Hominy Creek at the upper end of the lake. Anglers fish there at night - even on very chilly winter nights - in the bends of the creek a mile or so above the uppermost boat ramp. Some fishermen have even rigged their boats with makeshift cabins to block the winter wind while they fish, almost exclusively with minnows, during the dark hours.

Farther south, Hugo Lake on the Kiamichi River is another consistent crappie fishery. Hugo has many acres of flooded timber, and crappie in that timbered upper portion of the lake are usually found near old creek channels and deeper holes. Many Hugo regulars do much of their crappie fishing in winter and early spring in little pockets and feeder creeks off of the Kiamichi River channel at the upper end of the lake in the Rattan area.

Canton Lake in northwestern Oklahoma is another worthwhile crappie hole. I don't get to fish Canton as much as I once di

d, but friends from Enid and Woodward tell me it's still their favorite spot for slabs. Boatless anglers catch lots of crappie at Canton by fishing the face of the very long riprapped dam. Using slip-corks and those long 12- and 14-foot telescoping crappie fishing poles can be very handy for reaching out from the bank to fish along the dam face. Be careful, though, when walking the riprap. The footing is precarious, and more than one angler has broken a leg and twisted an ankle while trying to walk up and down the riprap.

The lakes I've mentioned thus far certainly aren't the state's only promising spots. Sardis, Kerr, Oologah and McGee Creek are all standout crappie fisheries. Also, many smaller impoundments - like Spavinaw and Eucha, Tulsa's municipal lakes over in Delaware and Mayes counties - are productive. And don't forget Oklahoma City's municipal lakes, Hefner and Overholser.

Although I haven't fished it personally in many years, friends who fish Lake Thunderbird near Norman still catch some hefty stringers of crappie every winter.

I'll put in one more plug for heated docks before I go. At many lakes, for fees ranging from about $2 to $5 a day, anglers can try their luck in the heated comfort around indoor fishing wells that float over sunken or suspended cedar trees or other fish-attracting structure. Some docks have bait, tackle and even hot food service on the dock or nearby on shore.

Some skeptics say that crappie of any size or quantity can't be caught in the often-crowded heated docks. But I've seen days when dock anglers, especially the local regulars who know the tricks of the trade, catch impressive stringers of crappie.

Here's one good piece of advice for dock fishermen: Think small! Use small baits - the tiniest jigs you can feel and control, or the smallest minnows you can buy.

Why? Well, first, if you're in a heated dock in the winter, it's probably because the weather outside is cold and blustery. In such conditions, small baits almost always work best. And that's a recommendation based on experience. I've seen days on which anglers using 4-pound-test line and 1/64-ounce jigs could catch crappie steadily for hours, while those using 1/16-ounce jigs or 3-inch minnows couldn't buy a bite during the same period of time.

Veteran dock anglers will usually tell you that as the season progresses and water temperatures gradually get warmer, larger baits and heavier line can be used. But in midwinter, when there's ice forming on the lake shores and the water temperatures are frigid, ultralight line and lures are usually best for catching Oklahoma slabs.

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