Catching crappie is a favorite sport all across the Lone Star State, and these waters crank out the kind of action that keeps anglers coming back for more. (April 2007)
Photo by Polly Dean
Here's hoping that by the time you read this, the rains will have come and Texas' drought concerns will have been eased, if not erased, after a period of much-needed precipitation.
But either way, by the time you read this, it'll be time to go crappie fishing, drought or no drought.
And surprisingly enough, even if low-water conditions persist, most crappie observers believe that the 2007 spring season will be a good one.
"Unlike a lot of other sunfish-type species like the largemouth bass, the bluegill, or the redear, (crappie) have life stages that don't require shallow water," said Bill Provine, chief of research and management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's inland fisheries branch.
"Crappie are a little bit more pelagic and less dependent on shoreline cover than you might expect," he said. "Once these fish hatch and get a little age on them, they move out to deeper water."
The bottom line on crappie, according to Provine: "(They) can hang on a little better in these conditions than bass, bluegill, or redear."
That's good news, since the TPWD's Web site, www.tpwd.state. tx.us, reports that fishing for both the black and the white varieties of crappie ranks as the state's third-most popular angling sport behind the targeting of largemouth bass and catfish.
So what kind of fishing can Texas' crappie anglers expect this spring? "Probably not bad," said Provine, who offered that he'd give a statewide crappie forecast grade of "C" for 2007.
The TPWD biologist said that stalwart crappie waters such as Lake Fork, Sam Rayburn, and Toledo Bend Reservoir are among those that should once again hold up their end of the spring slab-fishing bargain.
But Provine had a cautionary word, considering the recent long, dry spell: "It will probably not be one of the better years if nothing changes."
Again, with an El NiÃ±o winter forecast, water levels may have risen significantly by the time you read this. "If we get really good rains and a really good spring spawn," Provine pointed out, "remember: It would be over a year before those fish are harvestable."
Putting Provine's last statement in context will aid you in detecting the presence of at least two silver linings in that aris cloud of drought that's been hovering over Texas crappie fishing for the latter half of 2005 and nearly all of 2006. The first silver lining: If good early-fall rains in some portions of Texas turn into more general and heavy run-off winter rains, this spring's crappie spawn could set the stage for a banner crop of crappie fry, along with great fishing in years to come.
Why is that? Because drought brings not only low-water conditions but also tremendous growth of the vegetation on exposed lakebeds. When the rains finally return, they'll cover and flood that vegetation, vastly improving the lake's habitat almost overnight. In fact, after rains fill a lake back up after a drought, such a phenomenon produces an explosion of food, nutrients, and aquatic life rivaling the biological bonanza set in motion when a new reservoir is impounded. Add to the mix better nursery cover for game fish fry and prey fish fry to escape from predators, and that means that not only will spawning efforts be good, but also recruitment of little fish into adult fish.
"We have had that type of situation in West Texas forever," Provine said. "With drought, you have situations that occur and are prolonged over four or five years with the water decreasing. All of a sudden you get abundant rainfall and water levels rise 20, 30 or, in the case of Lake Falcon, 40 feet, and you have what looks like a new reservoir."
Provine noted that water bodies like Falcon International Reservoir resemble new lakes after such a cycle is completed, because that's in effect what they really are.
"All the conditions that a new reservoir has, Falcon has," Provine said. "Several years down the road, Falcon is going to be really, really hot because of this extended drought."
While Falcon -- and Amistad Reservoir farther up the Rio Grande River -- are prime examples of how this low-water/high-water cycle can work to the eventual benefit of fisheries, Provine says that such occurrences aren't limited to just South and West Texas. "That will happen to a much lesser degree in East Texas or anywhere else where we've had prolonged low water, followed by grass, weeds, and brush growing up, and then all of that is inundated," he said.
That could be good news for such well-known East Texas crappie waters as Lake Fork, Lake O' The Pines, and Toledo Bend Reservoir, all of which were a few feet low as of press time, and great news for a northeast Texas crappie hotspot, Cooper Lake, which was more than 17 feet low as of press time.
"When the water comes back, there is the potential that it could explode," TPWD inland fisheries biologist Kevin Storey told me in a previous interview about Cooper. "Any of the fish populations can do that. We'll have an increase in the amount of habitat available -- there will be a lot of flooded terrestrial habitat -- and the first spawn should be a pretty big one. In fact, the first year or two fishing could be pretty good."
At nearby Lake Fork, long regarded as one of the state's top crappie fishing hotspots, it isn't the fact that Fork is a few feet low that has Storey concerned. "We've had no tremendous loss of crappie that I know of, but there are some signs that there are changes in the population," he said of Fork. "Our catch-rates and our harvest have been declining, and we have been having a hard time sampling (the crappie population). It's still a good fishery -- but we're just a little concerned."
Such worry stems not only from creel surveys and TPWD sampling catch-rates, but also from a dropoff in angling pressure. In fact, some anglers have expressed their own growing concerns over Fork's crappie fishery.
The bottom line: This big-bass factory is still a relatively good crappie lake, although perhaps not as superb as five or six years ago.
Fork's crappie concerns notwithstanding, even if East and North Texas water levels do not improve over the winter and
into the spring, at least one biologist believes that is not all bad either.
"Sure, we've got low lake levels in places," said Bruce Hysmith, a TPWD inland fisheries biologist stationed at Lake Texoma. "But we've also got concentrated populations of fish too. That means that the mamas and the papas are closer together and they are closer to their food. That means that they will eat really well and come into spawning season fat and healthy. That will result in more eggs and bigger ovaries for the females."
What will that mean? A spring spawn that produces healthier crappie fry, according to Hysmith. And it would seem, by extension, that healthier fry would stand a better chance of recruitment success into adulthood.
Now keep in mind that the TPWD biologist isn't making light of low-water conditions. In fact, concerns about low water levels in Hysmith's management district in North Texas are certainly on his mind, And justly so: Lake Bridgeport was more than 17 feet low, Lake Lavon 14, and Lake Ray Roberts 8. Happily, other water bodies in his region including Moss Lake, Bonham City Lake, Davy Crockett Lake, Coffee Mill Lake and Lake Texoma aren't quite as low, and were still having pretty good levels when we talked.
Low water or not, Hysmith is expecting good things this spring in terms of both North Texas' crappie angling opportunities and the crappie spawn itself.
"We're in a win-win situation," he said. "If the low water persists to spring, that will still allow the fish to be concentrated with their forage, so they will eat well all winter long, albeit with their metabolism slowed up a bit. That means they'll break into the spawning season healthy.
"If the lakes do come up, that probably means a bigger spawn and better survival of the offspring."
The TPWD biologist says that if the waters do come up for 2007, that could make angling success a little bit tougher. Even so, a good spawn should be ensured.
"If things stay this way and we don't have any late, extended springs with cold snaps back and forth, I think the crappie ought to have a bumper spawn," Hysmith said. "And the ones that are going to be harvestable in 2007 ought to be exceptional."
While East Texas lakes often get all of the crappie fishing press in Texas, several exceptional slab lakes lie in Hysmith's North Texas region.
"Coffee Mill is No. 1 in my district, but right now we just finished up trap-netting at Lavon," Hysmith said. "Hey, Lavon is hot; Lavon is going to be a source to be reckoned with. Coffee Mill, Bonham City, Lavon, and Bridgeport would be my top choices."
The TPWD biologist offered that Lake Bridgeport, while very low, is still what he characterized as "a dandy." He added that Lake Mineral Wells can be another good crappie fishing spot.
We are going to go down there and trap-net the next few weeks, but I'd say that Mineral Wells can be a boon or a bane," Hysmith reported. "Sometimes, we get a lot of crappie; the big ones are 7 inches long. At other times, we have some hubcap-sized crappie. It's generally a tradeoff between numbers and size anyway."
In a nutshell, when numbers go down, size goes up and vice versa. Why is that? Well, consider the numbers-down, size-up idea: "When numbers go down, you have reduced the population of smaller fish -- or even just reduce the population, period -- and you have lessened the competition for food," Hysmith said. "That means that the remaining fish have plenty to eat and can get bigger."
I can personally vouch for Hysmith's contention. On Bonham City Lake, a municipal water-supply lake in central Fannin County, I found superb numbers of crappie on a trip a couple of seasons ago. Problem was, despite catching plenty of crappie, we had to search a little harder to find keeper slabs on this water body.
The same year, I fished with one of my sons and my wife's uncle at sprawling Lake Texoma, an 89,000-acre striped bass factory rarely thought of as a crappie hotspot. Fewer sac-Ã -lait may have been tugging at the end of our light lines that spring day, but the ones that did were good keeper-sized fish that made for some fine eating once the peanut oil was heated up.
While we're talking about North Texas crappie-catching hotspots, don't forget that Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex water bodies like Eagle Mountain Lake, Lake Lewisville, and White Rock Lake offer excellent crappie fishing prospects most years.
And don't forget the waters lying between Dallas and Houston either -- Richland-Chambers Reservoir and Lake Conroe can offer good-to-excellent slab angling if conditions are right.
OK -- the eastern and northern portions of the state have been covered. So what about crappie fishing prospects in western, central, and southern Texas?
Well, for starters, while West Texas isn't typically thought of as the state's crappie-fishing hotbed, the truth is there are plenty of crappie to be caught in the shadow of the Cap Rock, the Panhandle, and the Rolling Plains.
In fact, according to the TPWD Web site, water bodies like Alan Henry Reservoir near Lubbock, Lake Arrowhead near Wichita Falls, Baylor Creek Reservoir near Childress, Fort Phantom Hill Lake near Abilene, Greenbelt Reservoir near Amarillo, Kickapoo Reservoir near Wichita Falls, O.H. Ivie Lake near San Angelo, Palo Duro Reservoir near Spearman, and Pauline Reservoir near Quanah all offer fair-to-good -- and in some cases even excellent -- crappie fishing.
How about Central Texas? Well, while certainly not the best crappie fishing region in the state, some of the area's water bodies like Brady Creek Reservoir near Brady, Granger Lake near Granger, and Lake Lyndon B. Johnson near Marble Falls can offer good to even excellent crappie fishing at times.
Down south, prospects for crappie are also a bit limited according to Randy Myers, a TPWD biologist stationed in San Antonio.
When the area isn't wasting away amid drought conditions and water levels are good, some fair to good crappie angling can be found in smaller waters like Averhoff Reservoir (174 acres), Lake Casa Blanca (1,680 acres), and Lake Findley (also known as Alice City Lake, a 247-acre water body).
But as a general rule, the area south of the Alamo City is better known for bobwhite quail, big bucks, and Rio Grande turkeys than for its crappie fishing.
"We just don't have a lot of great crappie waters," Myers said. "One that has some crappie is Lake Falcon, but it is depressed and recovering from the lengthy drought. We are seeing some signs that they are coming back, but it will be a matter of time. Amistad is another one: There are some crappie in there -- it's just that no one goes after them. Most anglers that go to Amistad are after bass or catf
The one bright spot in South Texas crappie fishing is generally regarded to be Choke Canyon Reservoir, not far from Corpus Christi. While not home to the best crappie angling the state has to offer, the slab action can be pretty good at times on this 25,670-acre water body.
"All of our sampling for crappie on Choke Canyon is off of random sites," said TPWD inland fisheries biologist John Findeisen. "Sometimes we pick them up and sometimes not. Last year, we picked up some good ones in our sampling. I wouldn't expect it to be outstanding this year, but not real poor either."
Which sounds much like the overall crappie forecast for all of the Lone Star State -- perhaps not the best of years, but certainly not the worst either.
Which in the mind of yours truly -- and many other anglers, I'm sure -- is more than enough reason to grab a cane pole or ultralight spinning rig, some minnows and/or jigs, and an empty fish basket.
"Oh, yes -- there is still ample reason to get your gear out and go crappie fishing," agreed Provine.
And I'm quite certain that legions of slab connoisseurs across the great state of Texas couldn't agree more.
Find more about Texas fishing and hunting at: TexasSportsmanMag.com