Slabs, heavy stringers and full ice chests: just what Texas anglers can expect when they go after crappie this spring! (April 2008)
Photo by Tom Berg
A good number, 8. Not quite that perfect 10, but getting there; definitely better than 5.
And if you're a Texan who likes to catch crappie, 8 is more than just that: It also represents one writer's quick, simple prediction of your prospects for good fishing throughout the Lone Star State this season: On the 1-to-10 crappie-fishing scale, 2008 looks like it'll be an 8.
"I recently had the opportunity to drive around the state for various reasons," said Dave Terre, the new Chief of Fisheries for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "I crossed the Brazos, the Guadalupe, the Sabine, the Colorado . . . and every one of those river drainages was plumb full and running.
"It's been 50 years since all of our state's major river systems were in this kind of shape, and it's wonderful news for us and for our game fish. Crappie, bass -- all of our popular species -- are going to benefit because we've been blessed this past year with a lot of rain. Crappie in particular respond very well to that."
Significant reasons underlie that state of affairs, and they're going to affect your crappie fishing not just during this season but for years to come. And that's got a lot to do with the number 8 leading this story: Your fishing this season may not be all that wonderful (it will be in some spots, and we'll get to them later), but over the next few seasons crappie fans around the Lone Star State are going to enjoy fishing that should be an 8 or better on a 10-scale.
I don't have to tell you about the challenges brought on by low water and lack of rain that Texans have lately faced. But, for the benefit of you Dallas residents and those of you in San Angelo and San Antonio, it could be worse -- you could be in Atlanta.
Folks a few hundred miles east of Lake Fork have been talking about a "100-year drought." One mayor in a rural southeast Tennessee town shut off his community's water system, giving residents three hours a day to use water. Period. It hasn't been that bad here in Texas, but it has been pretty rough.
"Of course, the folks in West Texas know that drought is real common," Terre said. "Water levels will drop over time. Lakes get lower and lower. Then, a hurricane will move into the Gulf and bring substantial rains to the region. It happens."The central and eastern waters tend to be more stable, but even they have dropped in recent years. It's been tough. There have been places where we've even lost (the use of) boat ramps because of low water levels."
Anglers who frequent Lake Falcon in West Texas know all about this cycle, because Falcon may provide the most graphic evidence of how water levels affect fisheries. At Falcon, levels drop 40 feet and more over time, and the impact of heavy rains that refill the lake can't be overstated.
Think about what happens along a lakebed exposed by drought. New vegetation germinates and begins to grow. When things go on for a year or two, even three, the amount of potential submerged vegetation and cover can get quite large. And then it rains.
"All over the state, the heavy rains we've gotten have caused water levels to rise," Terre said. "It has created whole new lakes, and anglers are going to reap the benefits of that over the next few years."
What Terre refers to is the dynamic impact on the ecology of a given impoundment -- especially one that has receded and gotten notably and even direly low -- when rains refill it. Physically, such an impoundment's in the same location, but it's not the same lake that it was in recent prior years. "The vegetation provides so much new cover," Terre said, "and the fish really take advantage of it."
No species is more suited to making the most of it than crappie. They are prolific. They grow fast in Texas waters -- if they can survive the first weeks after they hatch -- because they'll get plenty to eat. These elements are why things have set up to provide Texas crappie fans with eight-or-better angling prospects for the next few years.
Make no mistake -- the impact of lake levels returning to normal touches every element of a given lake's ecosystem. The new water floods vegetation that has been growing, high and dry, for a year or two, or even longer. The new vegetation attracts microscopic organisms, and those little critters attract baitfish that feed on them.
Crappie, bass, other panfish, catfish -- practically every species -- feeds on the baitfish. It's like magic. Texas lakes you've been fishing for years suddenly take on a whole new face, and the fishing starts improving. Then, it keeps getting better over the next few years.
It's tough to argue that many of the Lone State State's "usual suspects" when it comes to great crappie fishing have continued to provide consistent action even as lack of rain has challenged them. The aforementioned Lake Fork, Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend and others have remained more stable than not as crappie fisheries. But even they are fixin' to get better than you've seen them in a while.
One reason for that stability lies in the way in which crappie react in general to receding lake levels. Unlike other species that will move out of an area, crappie seem to focus on staying as close to home as possible. They'll move up and down in the water column as lake levels fluctuate, but it will take a significant drop to force them all the way out of areas they've been using.
So, throughout Central and East Texas -- where water levels have dropped anywhere from a few to several feet, but nothing like anglers have seen at Falcon and other West Texas impoundments -- crappie haven't had to move terribly far. They have just dropped down to areas that provide them the right mix of temperature/oxygen in the water and cover to use.
Now that lake levels have come back up, what anglers likely will notice more than anything else in these reasons is an impact on the quantity of keeper-sized crappie they'll be catching. "We should have a tremendous year-class this year, and likely for the next couple of years," Terre noted.
"We biologists talk about recruitment in a given fishery," he continued. "What we are describing is the number of fish that survive long enough to grow to a size where they can avoid predation and actually contribute to the fishery.
"Anglers know that we have a 10-i
nch minimum size on crappie," Terre said. "Crappie in Texas can grow to the size in a year and a half. Now, when you talk about all the new cover and the way it's going to enhance our year-class, it's easy to see how it also will have a very positive impact on our recruitment."
That explains the statement earlier about anglers noticing an increase in the quantity of keeper-sized crappie they catch over the next few seasons, beginning right away. The return of normal water level has turned on the whole ecosystem in many Texas lakes.
At the same time that food chain described earlier gets going again, young of the year crappie -- and other game fish species -- also will be taking advantage of newfound cover in the form of freshly flooded vegetation. Those little fry will become fingerlings, and ultimately more of them will survive predation and get on the fast track -- in the case of crappie -- to that 10-inch minimum.
This time next year, the spawn will benefit -- again -- from the cover provided by the vegetation flooded by the rains of 2007. The spawn after that likely will benefit, too. Before you know it, there will be some outstanding crappie fishing in a state that already is home to some pretty good action -- even in low water.
"Many of the lakes in Central and East Texas provide crappie fishing, year in and year out, that is more stable than the lakes out west," Terre said. "Even now, for example, Lake Meredith is still hurting. All the waters around Abilene and San Angelo are still not in good shape. But our central and eastern lakes are."
That's especially good news for anglers who choose to buck the crowds and pass on the usual suspects in favor of Central and East Texas lakes that are smaller and less-known (read that as "getting not so much fishing pressure").
"Some of the best crappie fishing in the state can be had on smaller impoundments," Terre offered. "Anglers who fish lakes ranging in size from 200 acres to 800 acres can enjoy some outstanding fishing, and you can argue that these spots don't get nearly the pressure of a Lake Fork or Rayburn. At the same time, the fishing on quite a few of these smaller reservoirs can be boom or bust."
From here, anglers are going to enjoy way more boom than bust over the next few years on those lakes that have rebounded from low water to flooding significant new vegetation. Anglers are going to re-discover why crappie rank with bass at the top of the most-sought-after species of inland game fish around the Lone Star State.
It appears that North-Central Texas may be the one region in which the impact of rain will most be enjoyed in terms of a rebirth of crappie fishing. Think about the fact that impoundments like Ray Roberts and Lake Bridgeport had been significantly low before the rains came. If one single region's going to benefit more than another -- given that West Texas hasn't had the kind of rain the rest of the Lone Star State has enjoyed -- then North-Central Texas is probably that region.
That said, one of the real sleeper crappie fisheries in the northern part of the state just could turn out to be sprawling Lake Texoma. Terre didn't mention it, and there's no significant piece of evidence to support that -- so call it a hunch.
Texoma is extremely large, home to a dynamic mix of game fish species and, as a result, some great angling. The thought here is that stripers, black bass and catfish hog the Texoma spotlight. That being said, fisheries that good suggest that crappie probably do well on the big lake, too. We just don't hear much about them. Be sure to check out Texoma's crappie fishing.
Through the middle of the state, some fisheries will improve. Others, however, might not look so different. "I talked recently to a local guide on Lake Granger," Terre said, "and he told me the crappie fishing has been phenomenal even during the drought. I believe that's proof of the stability we've seen in the fishery throughout the central and eastern regions of the state on the larger reservoirs."
One likely explanation for the situation: Water levels in these lakes having yet to drop deep into the bottom end of the double-digit range, the crappie there have only moved down the water table. In other words, anglers have found the fish fairly close to where they've always been found, and haven't had to do a lot of searching to find their quarry.
One of the best resources at your disposal to get information on the current crappie hotspots is the TPWD Web site, www.tpwd.state.tx.us. You'll find reports on what biologists have found in their annual sampling on lakes statewide, and you'll get direction on the places that should be providing the best of the best in crappie fishing this season.
You'll be able to confirm whether those North-Central Texas lakes have turned back on. You can check on how things play out at Lake Fork, Rayburn and Toledo Bend. You also will be able to see how things are doing around the rest of the state.
Northwest Texas has a number of potentially strong crappie hotspots. Among them are lakes that include Kickapoo near Wichita Falls, O.H. Ivie near San Angelo, Palo Duro near Spearman, Baylor Creek near Childress and several others. Ivie, in particular, could be hit-or-miss because, as Terre noted earlier, the San Angelo area is one that still suffers from a lack of moisture.
In the middle of Texas, Granger shares the crappie spotlight with Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, in the Marble Falls area, and Brady Creek, near Brady. From here, it appears as though you should expect to find improved crappie fishing on all of them.
As you move down into South Texas, the relative sizes of the lakes shrink a good bit, which means that the impacts of fluctuating water levels likely are felt more intensely, both positively and negatively. Places like Alice City Lake (Lake Findley), Averhoff Reservoir and Lake Casa Blanca likely won't ever turn up on Texas' Top 10 list of crappie fisheries. However, rains will provide some improvement to the fisheries.
Are there sleepers? Without question, some Texas waters are going to explode with outstanding crappie action this season; and their production will shock some and, at the very least, surprise many others. It's impossible to know with certainty where they might be. The TPWD Web site can help you there, but so can your own experiences.
If you've encountered good fishing on a given body of water that doesn't get a lot of attention from magazines like this one and -- as a result -- from fishermen, then don't be afraid to spend some time crappie fishing it this season, and for the next couple of years. This is especially true if you know the lake has newly flooded vegetation/cover as a result of 2007 rains refilling it.
There's one other element you may experience in your crappie fishing this season and in the foreseeable future. The "new look" of your favorite spots could include different kinds of crappie than you're used to seeing, especially in the eastern part of
the state. Terre noted that biologists often find more black crappie (or whites) in their samplings than anglers' creels reflect.
"White crappie do much better in West Texas than blacks," he explained. "And in Central Texas, most of the fisheries are primarily white crappie. But in East Texas, we see a lot of black crappie. The ratio could be as high as 50-50 between black crappie and white crappie.
"When we do our annual sampling, the ratios of one to the other that we get in our nets isn't always similar to what shows up in anglers' creels."
The two crappie prefer different kinds of structure, for one thing. Where you fish could be determining what you catch. Given that, there's at least a chance that because you focus on areas that white crappie prefer, or that black crappie favor, your favorite East Texas lake has plenty more crappie that you never see.
It's just another fascinating element of Texas' tremendous dynamic crappie fishery. As this new season unfolds, you should expect to enjoy better fishing than you have in the recent past. And as you do, you should remember that it's just the first taste of the good action to come over the next few seasons.
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