September 30, 2010
Go fishing now while the early-season slabs are roaming Lake Chesdin and Western Branch Reservoir. (March 2010)
This month we'll focus on two crappie hotspots for March: Petersburg's Lake Chesdin and Suffolk's Western Branch Reservoir. Although neither lake is big by Virginia standards, both are sizeable enough to withstand fishing pressure -- and both have plenty of crappie roaming the shorelines.
Spring weather, a light spinning rig and a crappie jig can spell slab crappie at Chesdin and Western Branch.
Photo by Marc N. McGlade.
Among the best-tasting fish in fresh water, black and white crappie are present in Lake Chesdin. Although Chesdin can be pummeled later in the spring and summer by eager anglers, early in the year the water is less crowded. At only 3,100 acres, Lake Chesdin can't really support the flotilla of pleasure craft, bass boats and personal watercraft that invade its scenic shorelines during summer. That makes March all the sweeter.
Lake Chesdin has a good population of black and white crappie. Each year, this southern Piedmont lake produces slabs. Shore-bound crappie enthusiasts, in fact, frequently catch some studs from the bridge crossing (Route 623) in Whipponock Creek.
Chesdin has ample visual cover for anglers to target -- a big help for those not familiar with its many intricacies. Crappie can hide along the many boat docks, brushpiles or blowdowns throughout this dammed-up section of Appomattox River. Boat docks need to be counted here with an adding machine. The docks have grown in number over the years, which has created more brushpiles and structure for these Petersburg slabs to use.
Artificial lures and live minnows both work well at tricking springtime crappies.
Medium-sized minnows work best; with so many big crappie in this lake, there is no need to go with small bait. A small piece of split shot about 6 to 8 inches above a No. 4 light-wire Aberdeen hook works wonders. Position the bobber approximately 6 feet above the hook for starters. If bites are scarce, move the float up or down until the magic depth is located. Crappie can bite lightly at times, so opt for bobbers on the small size.
Tip weedless jigs with minnows and score by swimming or gently hopping them through the branches of brushpiles or beaver huts. "Pulling" or slow-trolling is effective, as is spider rigging.
Lure selection should be relatively basic: 2-inch curly-tailed grubs impaled on leadhead jigs, marabou crappie jigs and small tube baits all work well here. Jighead sizes should range from 1/32- to 1/8-ounce.
This fine lake has a definite water clarity difference between the upper and lower reaches. The lower half of Chesdin -- from Whipponock Creek down to the dam -- is much clearer than its upper lake counterpart. Artificials with a hint of chartreuse in the upper reaches do well as the water can be stained, especially after a soaking springtime rain. In addition to chartreuse, other colors such as white, black, green, orange and red -- and most combinations therein -- work well.
Besides the main lake structure that can be rewarding, a few of the major creeks are worth checking. Cattle Creek, Stoney Creek and Chesdin's largest, Whipponock Creek, are loaded with cover and crappie. On good days in March, anglers can catch their limit of 25 without too much trouble. Some days are better than others, of course, but Chesdin's crappie are normally cooperative throughout the spring season.
WESTERN BRANCH BASICS
For those unfamiliar with the Suffolk lakes, suffice it to say this region of the Commonwealth is stacked with exceptional fisheries. Western Branch Reservoir is one of them. This reservoir spans 1,279 acres, and is the largest of the Suffolk lakes. Like Lake Prince, the reservoir is owned by the city of Norfolk, and provides Southside and Tidewater anglers with an incredible fishery. Its moniker stems from the stream on which it was impounded in 1962: the western branch of the Nansemond River. This horseshoe-shaped lake has Lake Prince upstream on one arm and Burnt Mills Reservoir upstream on the other.
Chad Boyce is a fisheries biologist from the district office of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in Chesapeake who manages the reservoir. He affirms the reservoir has a healthy black crappie population. They have only collected black crappie in Western Branch, as they, rather than white crappie, are the native fish to this drainage.
"In March, I would start off looking for suspended fish adjacent to the deep-water channels," Boyce said. "Specifically, near treetops or structure near the channel edges. The average-size crappie seems to be around 10 to 11 inches, but we see some larger fish in our sampling, with some up to 13 to 14 inches."
The biologist said crappie should be anywhere from 6 to 15 feet deep in March. As for cover and structure, wood is Boyce's favorite, but Western Branch has some "other" structure that can produce fish in the spring.
"Aerators are placed in the deep channels in the lower end of the lake, and although they are not running in March, the structures themselves can hold fish," he said.
Fish will be on the move, as water temperatures will likely range from the low 50s to the lower 60s later in the month.
Boyce recommends small jigs, and suggests tipping them with small or medium shiners. Gizzard shad, alewives and blueback herring are the predominant forage, so mimicking these fish would be best, he said.
The fisheries biologist definitely has a preference for lure color at the Coastal Plain gem.
"I like darker colors in the spring, such as black and silver, but tipped with live bait," he explained.
Though fisheries data over a long period suggest that crappie use the entire lake, Boyce said, "I would focus on the 'Y' area, locally called this because it's the meeting of the Lake Prince and Burnt Mills arms of the lake. The area has deep water, the channels from both arms converge and this seems to be a likely spot to find crappie and other predators. The creek channels that feed the many coves will also produce fish."