Listen up as local experts tell where and how the slabs are coming aboard at these prime Northeast Texas crappie lakes.(February 2008).
Photo courtesy of Adam Simmons.
February can be a miserable time for outdoorsmen in Texas. Deer season is long since over for most hunters, and rifles have been oiled and stowed for another eight months. The only waterfowl hunting available is the snow goose season. Many fishing rods haven't seen the light of day since late October.
Besides that, it's miserable outside, and nobody wants to sit idle watching water freeze in the eyes of his rods. The closest many sportsmen get to the great outdoors is watching hunting shows and thumbing through last year's hunting catalogs while eating Cheetos.
If anglers only knew how many crappie were out there, ready to impale themselves on sharp hooks, the water would be covered in boats!
I don't envy those who live in the concrete jungle of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Battling millions of people who don't know how to drive to get to work each day is not an enviable chore. However, living in close proximity to others does have one advantage. In order to ensure that all your neighbors can flush their toilets and water their yards, an incredible amount of water is required to be stored in local reservoirs.
While those lakes provide the water needed to sustain day-to-day activities, they also are chockfull of fish, providing anglers with local fishing opportunities. With all this water available, deciding where to fish can be a difficult decision, but Cedar Creek and Richland-Chambers lakes should be at the top of every crappie angler's list of hotspots.
Cedar Creek Reservoir rests almost directly in the shadow of downtown Dallas and is a favorite destination for many anglers. But as Guy Skinner, a fishing instructor and guide on Cedar Creek (acrappieguy.com214-886-7752), admits, "February is the worst month for catching crappie."
When the men who make a living catching fish say it is tough, you can take it to the bank. Even in this difficult month, Guy has to be able to put clients on fish, so knowing the migratory patterns of the resident crappie is essential to his success.
At Cedar Creek in February, Guy pointed out, "the crappie aren't relating to any structure; they are relating to the schools of shad. If you find the shad you'll find the crappie." Not fishing structure might seem wrong to most crappie anglers -- but if you try to jig a brushpile on Cedar Creek in February, be prepared to go home empty-handed.
From December through February, the large schools of shad move deep and the crappie follow them, suspending in open water. Instead of using your electronics to scour the bottom for structure, use them to find the schools of shad moving throughout the lake and key on the baitfish. Just below the shad will be large schools of feeding crappie.
At this time of year, most Cedar Creek crappie are on the same feeding pattern, and at the same depth throughout the lake. Very rarely will you find a few fish in shallow water and the others still hanging deep.
"If you find one school of shad at 25 feet deep with crappie beneath them," Guy advised, "then you can go just about anywhere on the lake and if you mark shad at 25 feet, then they will have crappie beneath them."
After finding the fish, Guy uses a technique known as strolling to put them in the boat. Strolling is simply slow trolling with multiple rods out at the same depth. The presentation keeps the bait in the strike zone for a longer period of time while still covering more water than a vertical presentation over a brushpile. The key in strolling is going slow. If you think you are going slow enough, slow down just a little more. Even then you probably are still trolling too fast.
At this time of year, most Cedar Creek crappie are on the same feeding pattern, and at the same depth throughout the lake.
Guy's basic strolling rig consists of a 3/4-ounce bell sinker on the end of the line with a hook 12 inches above it and another hook 18 inches above that. In his opinion, strolling in February is best done with live minnows, as they often out-fish jigs by a margin of 10 to 1. The size of the minnow is less important than its liveliness: the more active the better.
"Some people get hung up on matching the size of the minnow to the size of the shad in the lake but I don't think it's that important. I generally use minnows between 1 1/2 and 2 inches long but they need to be active," Guy shared.
Another tip Guy passed along is that too many rods in the water can be more of a hindrance than an aid. He typically fishes with no more than three rods when guiding experienced anglers. When taking out first-timers he'll often use just one rod per angler to help alleviate tangles from multiple hookups.
While Guy concentrates his efforts on chasing crappie deep in Early February, Richland-Chambers fishing guide Adam Simmons, of Gone Fishin' Guide Service (903-389-4117) doesn't get serious about chasing these popular panfish until the last few weeks of the month.
At the beginning of the month the fish are still deep, hanging out next to bridge pilings and planted brushpiles, but after Valentine's Day, crappie start thinking about moving shallow. Savvy anglers do the same thing.
"Depending on the weather, crappie will start moving shallow anytime between the last week of February and the first week of April," Adam recently shared. "They'll start staging at the north end of the lake, first in the mouths of coves, in the creek channels and in brushpiles."
When asked where he finds his most consistent action, Adam advised that planted brushpiles are easier to locate and tend to hold larger concentrations of fish than creek channels. That's why when he's not out putting customers on fish Adam is planting structure. When available, old Christmas trees can make quick and easy brushpiles. Other times of the year Adam will use cut willows, cut cedars, and even crappie condos made from PVC pipe and five-gallon buckets.
In 2006, torrential rains turned the waters on the upper end of Richland-Chambers into something the consistency and color of chocolate milk, making fishing nearly impossible. With water levels rising more than 7 feet in less than a week, patterning fish was difficult at best. However, in normal years, the crappie will start congregating in water between 6 and 8 feet deep in preparati
on for spawning so if you find a brushpile, or plant your own, at this depth you will find fish. Adam also advised that the Richland fork of the lake produces a shallow-water bite earlier than the Chambers, producing more consistent and larger catches.
When Adam is on the fish, his bait of choice is a small jig suspended under a slip-bobber. By simply adjusting the depth of the jig, this rig can be used throughout the entire spawning cycle, from pre-spawn staging fish to spawners, and even while chasing post-spawn crappie that have moved back into deeper water. With less experienced customers, Adam will switch to minnows for ease of use, but on most days the jigs outperform live bait.
Jig size depends entirely on how hard the wind is blowing. Windy days require heavier jigs and Adam will go as heavy as 1/8 ounce. On days with little to no wind he'll go as small 1/64 fished on a fly rod outfitted with a small spinning reel.
Crappie fishing in February -- and if we're being honest, all fishing -- often is an underutilized outdoor recreational opportunity due to adverse weather conditions and fish that are sulking in deep water. For those anglers in the D/FW area willing to brave the cold temperatures at the beginning of the month, a quick trip out to Cedar Creek can reward you with a livewell full of filets. Later on, as the temperature climbs and fish move shallow, a shift to Richland-Chambers can mean even more crappie in the boat. A resilient angler can easily fill a freezer during the worst month of the year while the rest of the state is waiting for spring.