Don't let February's chill keep you off this super Houston-area crappie hole. There's great slab action at these locations right now! (Feb 2009)
Those living in East Texas already know this -- most people in the state are aware of it, really -- but no matter the part of the Pineywoods that you call home, a world-class fishing lake will lie less than an hour from your doorstep. Just say the names Fork, Rayburn, Toledo Bend and any angler in the South will immediately think of bass, crappie or catfish.
Mention Lake Conroe, however, and most outdoorsmen's attitudes turn somewhat negative. In many minds, thoughts of bass and crappie are overshadowed by disagreeable visions of flotillas of personal watercraft, sailboats and powerboats whose horsepower numbers often far exceed their pilots' IQ scores. Thus, the good part about fishing in February is that you don't have to deal with any of that as you pull slab after slab out of Conroe.
Admittedly, the lake's proximity to a large urban population and its abundance of open water results in quite a few Texans using it for recreational purposes other than angling. However, if you live in the Houston area, believe that Lake Conroe is just for the pleasure-boat crowd, and so find yourself driving north to a more famous lake to fish -- well, you're missing out on outstanding angling right in your own back yard.
Historically, if anyone fished at Lake Conroe it was for bass only -- and for good reason: Weighing just over 14 pounds, the largest bass ever documented in an electronic survey done by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department came out of its waters. However, a decision in the early 1980s to introduce grass carp into Conroe in order to eradicate hydrilla transformed the lake into one more popular with catfishermen. In recent years, crappie anglers have learned how to find fish there as well.
February at Lake Conroe is a time of transition. In the winter months, the crappie are hanging deep, lethargically hugging the bottom while buried in cover. Anglers wonder if any fish at all are really in the lake. Later on, the crappie start to feel amorous and move into the pre-spawning stage. Luckily, finding them during both of those phases can be relatively easy -- if you know where to look.
Getting them to bite is another story. If you venture out early in the month, be prepared to use vertical fishing techniques to locate and catch these wintertime fish in deep water. Later in the month you'll need to follow the fish shallow and move to more of a cast-and-retrieve presentation.
David Copeland, a firefighter and paramedic with the College Station Fire Department who spends most of his free time chasing crappie at the impoundment, has discovered a few places that hold crappie in the winter. (Spending a few days per week on a lake will do that for you!)
"Crappie fishing can be really tough on Conroe at times," he said. "From March through the first of November, if you know where some brushpiles are located in 15 to 18 feet of water, you can catch some fish. But in the winter the crappie move really deep into 25 or 30 feet of water right off the main-lake points."
While finding a main-lake point isn't difficult, locating one that holds crappie might be tough, as not all points are created equal. A point devoid of any kind of cover will be fishless, but if you identify one with brushpiles, the chances of putting some fish in the boat are good.
"Look for brush on the points," Copeland continued. "You will get hung up a lot, but if you want to catch them you've got to get right down in the middle of the brush."
Most serious crappie anglers know that if you aren't losing hooks, you aren't where the crappie want to be, so take plenty of tackle in early February, and make your presentation as deep into the brush as you dare.
Some crappie anglers are dyed-in-the-wool minnow dunkers; others fish only jigs, and wouldn't be caught dead with a minnow in the boat. Both types of anglers have a place on Conroe, because, depending on the mood of the fish, either tactic will produce well early in the month, when the fish are still deep. Copeland reported that a jig with a chartreuse tail, green body, and red head seems to work best for him when the fish are deep in the brush.
Some crappie anglers are dyed-in-the-wool minnow dunkers; others fish only jigs, and wouldn't be caught dead with a minnow in the boat.
Both types of anglers have a place on Conroe.
As February progresses, crappie make the transition from deep water into the creeks for the pre-spawn phase, which, depending on the severity of the winter, can start anywhere from the middle to the end of the month. While their location may have changed, crappie are still relating to cover at this point, and so a successful crappie angler should as well.
"Starting in February they will start moving up the creeks to pre-spawn," Copeland noted. "You can find more fish in the muddy creeks than the clear ones this time of year. Stewart Creek is a good place to start."
The main reason for crappie moving into the muddier creeks rather than into clear tributaries is that the murkier water in the former warms more quickly.
The key to finding crappie in the creeks lies in determining the whereabouts of either submerged brush or fallen trees. "Go up a creek until you find a downed tree and fish it," Copeland offered. It's as simple as that.
If one day it seems as if all the fish have moved off your deep-water brushpiles, move to the closest creek and start fishing the laydowns at the mouth, gradually working your way to the back and probing each for crappie. Once you catch a few, more will be in the same general area, so work all cover in the vicinity thoroughly.
Fallen timber will attract crappie, but since it's a visual target, it'll attract crappie anglers as well. Said Copeland: "Another option -- a better one, in my opinion -- is to plant brush in the creeks in about 5 or 6 feet of water a few months ahead of time."
If the creek is clear, plant the brush a little deeper, in 10 to 12 feet of water. Advancements in modern electronics make it impossible to keep these brushpiles a secret, but they'll definitely receive less pressure than do the downed trees that everyone floating past can see.
Of two different methods for catching shallow pre-spawn crappie, again one involves live bait and the other artificials. If you prefer live bait, use a slip-cork to suspend a minnow a few feet under the surface of the water. Stay a short cast length away from the cover, throwing to the edges fi
rst, gradually working your way to the center. The clearer the water, the farther away from the brush you'll need to keep the boat in order to keep from spooking anything occupying it.
This is the time of year for the 12-foot crappie pole that jig-fishermen have had sitting in the corner all year long to come into play. Position the boat 10 or 12 feet away from the brushpile and drop the jig down in the middle of it on a tight line; expect to get hung up a few times. This is also a good time to break out the small spinnerbaits. If the crappie are hanging on the outer edge of the cover, take an ultralight spinning rod and cast past it and slowly reel the spinner past the edges. If you're willing to lose a few baits, casting directly into the brush will produce some big catches as well.
Fishing on a lake close to any of Texas' metropolitan areas can be an exercise in futility during the warm months. As if competing with other anglers for your favorite spot wasn't bad enough, battling personal watercraft adds even more complexity to the trip.
However, if you want to avoid the crowds and put some fillets in the freezer, hit Lake Conroe in February for plenty of crappie action. That biting wind won't feel so cold after you drop 25 slabs in the livewell!