October 05, 2010
That's the key to crappie-catching success this month, and the author is about to reveal some hotspots and hot tips for finding big crappie all across Oklahoma.
By Bob Bledsoe
Spawning season is drawing to a close or has already ended at most Oklahoma reservoirs. That means many crappie are now relocating, or soon will be. They'll leave shallow-water spawning areas and move to more-open-water or deep-water areas, where they'll likely spend a good part of the next 10 months or so.
So techniques for finding and catching crappie will have to change now, too.
Typically, crappie spawn in shallow water, at least in most Oklahoma reservoirs. The depth at which they spawn is determined, biologists say, in large part by water clarity. In turbid lakes, crappie may spawn in water only 6 inches deep. In tap-water-clear lakes, they may spawn several feet or even several yards below the surface.
Since most of Oklahoma's lakes are comparatively turbid, crappie spawn shallow in most cases. When they're spawning, you should look for spawning habitat in order to find the fish. Shoreline brush, like flooded willow trees, buttonbush (which many anglers call buckbrush), fallen trees, or flooded timber often attracts spawners. A cove with a clean sand or gravel bottom seems especially attractive to spawning crappie if it has a little cover to sweeten the pot.
And when the papermouths are spawning, they can often be caught by "doodlesocking" or "flipping" a jig or minnow quietly around multiple shallow-water targets. It is a technique that can be very effective as long as the crappie are present.
But when the fish leave the bedding areas, how do you track them? Well, you can do it the same way you track them after a cold front or after a lightning storm or after some other event that triggers a move.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Sonar and an accurate topographic or structure map that shows the lake's bottom contours are probably your most valuable assets, besides a boat, when it comes to finding crappie after a move. Experience helps, too, but sonar and a good map can help you even on a lake you've never visited before.
When you're searching for crappie, the first thing you need to know is the depth at which most of the crappie are holding.
If you fish the same lake again and again for years, you probably can eliminate most of the searching and find the relocated crappie based on experience. You may know, for example, that in the summer your lake develops an oxygen shortage in deep water, so it's no use searching very deep for crappie.
But in most lakes, crappie can take up residence anywhere from the surface down to 40 or 50 feet deep. Water temperatures and oxygen content may be tolerable throughout that range.
A second major factor, besides oxygen and temperature, is physical or topographic structure. Crappie are related to the black basses. They're in the sunfish family. And they are structure-oriented and object-oriented fish, no matter whether they are in deep water or shallow. You may find some crappie roaming in open water, but those fish are rarely the active ones. It's the crappie that are lying next to a channel edge, a sloping shoreline, or a sunken tree or brushpile that are the most likely to end up in your livewell.
So for finding crappie that have moved, it is helpful to follow the breaklines - the structural contours of the lake's floor.
If you don't have a clue at what depth the crappie are holding, use your map and/or sonar to find a sloping point or a sloping shoreline and follow the slope down until you see fish that might be crappie. Your search may go faster if you follow sloping points, because on a sloping shoreline you can travel up and down it many times without hitting the exact spot where the crappie are holding. But there's something about a point that seems to attract both bass and crappie.
Choose a sloping point and move out over it, from shallow to deep, watching your sonar closely for fish signals. Make two or three trips up and back if necessary to cover the spine of the point, as well as both sides of it. If you find no fish, move and try another point. If you see fish you think might be crappie, present your minnows or jigs to learn if they are crappie that can be caught.
Once you find and catch crappie in this manner, you can repeat the process by looking for similar spots. If you find crappie at, say, 20 feet deep on a sloping point on the north shore of the lake, then cruise the north shore looking for other sloping points and run your sonar over the 20-foot-depth area. Or if the crappie are at 25 feet on a stumpfield in a cove, then search nearby coves for similar stumpfields.
You can at times find crappie in a unique set of circumstances you can't repeat elsewhere on the lake, but sometimes you can pattern the crappie once and find that the pattern is repeated in many similar spots.
One word of caution about relying on sonar: Don't make the mistake of searching only for big numbers of fish signals. Yes, sometimes you can see numerous fish displayed. But often, and especially when the crappie are holding tight to cover or on vertical structure or rough bottoms, you can see only a single fish or two on the screen, even though there are dozens of them down there.
I've caught many crappie from brushpiles where my sonar showed nothing at all down there - no recognizable "fish" signals, anyway. Sometimes crappie bury up in the brush and can't be seen at all on sonar, but they may readily attack a jig or minnow that is dangled amid the twigs and limbs of the brushpile.
So keep in mind that what you're really searching for is structure and cover. If you can find that, you'll eventually find the fish, even though you may not see them clearly on your screen.
Trolling is another way to find crappie. In fact, it can be so effective that some folks use it as their primary fishing method instead of just for locating crappie. You see more of this kind of crappie fishing in other states, primarily those in the Southeast, than you do in Oklahoma, but it works here too.
Some Dixie anglers call it "spider-fishing," because a boat rigged for crappie trolling looks like a spider. It has multiple rods (spider legs) sticking out from both sides and over the transom. The multiple rods drag jigs or minnows, and they cover a wide swath of water beneath the slow-moving boat, powered by the electric trolling motor, by idling the outboard or simply by drifting with the breeze or current.
A trolling boat may
have a pair of 12- or 14-foot rods as "outriggers" on the sides, a pair of slightly shorter rods - 9- or 10-footers - covering a narrower path on the sides, and shorter rods on the bow or transom.
By choosing the line sizes, the weights and baits carefully, one can cover not only a wide horizontal swath, but also a variety of depths. The speed of the boat and the amount of line in the water also affect how deep the trolled baits travel.
A rigged boat can be steered along creek channels, around humps or along a patch that traces other structure as the driver watches the sonar screen and other anglers watch the rods.
Some trollers move until they find fish, then anchor and fish for them from a still boat. Serious trollers may just throw out a marker and then continue to troll repeatedly through the target area.
The trolling technique isn't for everybody. It can be a lot of trouble, especially if you troll through some submerged treetops or a brushrow that snags several of your jigs. It usually takes at least two fishermen to do it right. One angler runs the boat and watches one rod. The other angler watches the other rods and keeps busy adjusting and re-rigging. If your boat is big enough, two anglers to watch and handle rods are not too many. But it can be a very effective way to find and catch crappie when the fish are moving, or when you don't know where they've moved to.
We know about some things that affect crappie movements - pre- and post-spawn relocations, cold fronts, rising or falling water levels, oxygen content in the water, pH levels, water temperatures and even water clarity.
Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries biologists studying crappie movements in the Show Me State's lakes found that nearly 60 percent of the crappie monitored moved less than a mile throughout the year. Most of the remainder moved from one to five miles at some time, while a very small percentage traveled farther.
This is the post-spawn season at most Oklahoma reservoirs, so let's look at the typical post-spawn move.
During spawning, males move in first and select and prepare a nest. Then they go find a willing female and guide her to the nest. Usually, the female only stays around for 12 to 24 hours. A few hours after the actual spawning is complete, the female typically wanders away, leaving the male to guard the nest and eggs for another few days before he too moves on to the post-spawn holding areas.
Crappie don't all spawn at once in Oklahoma's lakes. Some spawning occurs as early as late February or early March in years with really mild winters. But most of the spawning takes place in April. It continues at some lakes well into May.
You can pretty much follow the latitude lines to figure out when the crappie spawn. They typically start moving to the spawning beds in mid to late March down in the southernmost lakes like Texoma, Hugo, Pine Creek, Waurika and Broken Bow. The spawn there will often last into mid-April, usually peaking in early April.
At those more-mid-latitude lakes like Eufaula, Sardis, Wister and Thunderbird; the lakes near Lawton; the Oklahoma City municipal lakes; Tenkiller; Kerr; and others, the spawn usually gets rolling sometime in the first 10 days of April and then ramps up to peak around the last of April or first of May.
Up at the lakes a little farther north, including Keystone, Skiatook and Oologah, near Tulsa, as well as Grand, Kaw, Canton, Copan and others, the spawn seems to start for real in mid to late April and is still going strong in early May.
Remember, some crappie almost always spawn way before and way after the peak periods, so it never hurts to check for late spawners in areas where there is lots of shallow cover or where there are gravel-bottomed shallows that you know crappie use for spawning.
I do see a difference in those years when we have lots of late winter storms. Sometimes, Oklahoma gets its worst ice and snow in March. I've even seen a couple of blizzards in April, although that may be showing my age.
In years when frigid air and winter storms come late, the spawn seems to be pushed later than normal in those affected areas. There's no doubt that the photoperiod - the length of sunshine hours each day - is a factor in determining when crappie spawn. But I believe that water temperature in the shallows is also very important.
The biologists say that crappie begin spawning when the water temperatures reach about 55 degrees, and that spawning continues until the temperatures pass 65 degrees.
I think the spread may be even slightly wider than that, based on personal observations. However, surface temperatures can vary so much from spot to spot, and depend on wind and sunlight on any given day, that the variations I've observed may not really reflect what the temperatures are two or three feet below the surface where the crappie are spawning.
I've already talked about trolling as a way to find and catch post-spawn crappie. I should point out that stationary fishing is much more popular in Oklahoma. Once you find a piece of deep structure where crappie are concentrated, fishing for them slowly and thoroughly from an anchored boat is, I believe, definitely the most productive approach.
In 25 years of writing about the outdoors for newspapers and magazines, I've been very fortunate to have fished with some of the best fishermen in the state and nation. I've fished with most of the big-name professional bass tournament anglers, a number of the most successful walleye anglers, some of the busiest and most productive fishing guides, and some of the cleverest, most skilled amateur fishermen you could ever hope to find. Among them were several expert crappie fishermen.
If I learned one thing from them about fishing deep structure, it was that boat control is essential. And when fishing over deep-water brushpiles, that means anchoring your boat securely and in the right spot.
Often, that means anchoring directly over a spot to fish vertically amid thick tangles of twigs and branches in a brushpile.
You can't do that with a single anchor. And you can't do it with anchors that won't bite the lake bottom and hold in place while the wind is trying to push the boat across the lake.
I can usually tell a good crappie or catfish angler just by looking in his boat. If he's got two or more serious anchors, he probably knows what he's doing. If he's got one of those little 10-pound mushroom anchors, he's probably not skilled at fishing deep structure.
Deploying two anchors, in a wide angle with plenty of rope, at acute angles to the wind can usually allow you to keep your boat in a pretty tight pattern over the target structure.
But if the wind is strong and gusting from various directions, a third anchor, usually deployed downwind, helps hold the boat in place.
Don't let your anchor ropes drag through the target structure and disturb the fish. But anchoring securely can let you fish a brushpile with precision. An angler who is fishing from a truly stationary boat can probe the brush much more thoroughly than one in a boat that is swinging around at the end of a single anchor rope.
It doesn't matter whether you're a minnow dunker or a jig-fisherman, boat control is important when fishing deep structure and cover.
Catching crappie after a move isn't rocket science. But it can be a science. All it takes is a little study to find where they've moved to and the application of the right techniques to catch them.
The good thing about developing your deep-structure techniques is that it will help you catch crappie about nine months of the year. It will also help you catch black bass during late summer and mid-winter, and it will help you catch catfish in mid-winter, as well.
So just because the crappie have left or are leaving the shorelines, don't stop fishing for them. Just follow them to their new homes and knock on their door. You're sure to start catching them again.
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