Is one of our picks for great crappie fishing in Virginia near you?
Jay and Betty Honse of Fincastle and I had been fishing on Smith Mountain no longer than five minutes when Betty announced that her bobber had disappeared and a plump papermouth was the reason. Thus, Betty quickly leaped into first in our three-person crappie competition, a position she had not relinquished when sunset occurred two hours later.
Smith Mountain is just one of many state waters that offer crappie action. Except for far Southwest Virginia where Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) biologist Tom Hampton told me that populations are "at the bottom of the cycle right now," quality sport can be found statewide.
DGIF fisheries biologist Bob Greenlee states that the Tidal Chickahominy River is currently the premier crappie fishery in his part of the state and should retain that title in 2011. Recent spawns have resulted in good population numbers, with average size specks running 11 to 14 inches or about 1 to 1.25 pounds.
"Nicer fish up to 1.5 pounds are not uncommon," maintained Greenlee. "This is primarily a winter to spring fishery, that is, November through early April."
The biologist adds that a sleeper hot spot for this spring could be tributaries of the Tidal James, such as Herring Creek and numerous others. Like crappie spawns on the Chick, recent spawns have been good on the Tidal James' feeder creeks.
Fisheries biologist Dan Wilson relates that a number of smaller impoundments offer fun sport for crappie and a variety of other panfish in his region. These mini-lakes are fine destinations for family oriented anglers that have access to canoes, kayaks, and john boats states the biologist. Please note that anglers after crappie may well catch a mixed bag of other panfish -- not necessarily a bad thing at all, especially if kids are along. Here are Wilson's choices and species available.
'¢ Amherst County lakes have picnic /play areas with Thrasher and Stonehouse the best chance for shoreline success.
'¢ Mill Creek Lake fish numbers are lower than previous two lakes, but Mill is most popular impoundment, holding crappie, sunfish, largemouth, and catfish.
'¢ Nelson offers toilet facilities April through September and the lake istelf contains crappie, sunfish, largemouth, and catfish.
'¢ Fairystone has state park facilities and anglers here catch crappie and sunfish.
Of course, the major impoundment in the Southern Piedmont is 20,000-acre Smith Mountain, a lake not known for its papermouth fishery. Jay Honse, however, disagrees with the conventional wisdom.
"People say that Smith Mountain is not a great crappie lake, but it has a lot of potential," he said. "I've never caught a citation here, but I have caught plenty of stringers filled with fish 12- to 14-inches long. What I look for are concrete slabs that anchor some kind of structure. All kinds of brush, trees, and other debris wash up on those slabs, making them real hot spots.
"I prefer fishing in the Roanoke River arm, but the Blackwater River and Gills Creek have plenty of fish, too."
The Fincastle sportsman relates that another aspect of this clear water impoundment that makes spring crappie fishing difficult is the wide variety of depths where fish will hold. March could find the fish 8- to 20-feet deep, but by early April the specks could be in as little as 3- to 4- feet of water.
Steve Owens, a DGIF fisheries biologist in the Fredericksburg office, offers several options for the Northern Piedmont: lakes Anna and Orange, plus an overlooked impoundment.
"Both Anna and Orange consistently produce fish in excess of 10 inches with the occasional fish over 2 pounds," he said. "A sleeper is Abel Reservoir in Stafford County. It is a narrow, steep-sided lake that is reminiscent of a more northern latitude and not a traditional crappie factory. A handful of anglers consistently catch large numbers of respectable fish from this lake from spring through the end of summer."
Owens adds that recruitment seems to be good throughout these and Northern Virginia's other impoundments, assuring that the fishing will continue to be superb in 2011 and beyond. A creel survey at Anna concluded in December; look for those results to be published soon.
"Most Northern Virginia impoundments offer decent crappie fishing," continued Owens. "The key is to be flexible and to be able to concentrate on a variety of habitats and water depths so as to find fish as they transition throughout the year. Nine- to 10-inch fish are average."
Anna guide Chris McCotter said crappie action was poor early last spring, fair in the middle and excellent late.
"By this I mean the fish missed the first spawning moon at the end of March due to the extended cold winter," he explained. "Some spawned in April. Amazingly, we were seeing crappie spawn next to largemouths, though, in early May.
"Pending our winter, I would predict a much more consistent spawn the spring of 2011 where about 30 percent of crappie spawn at the end of March around the full moon. Most of the rest will go at the end of April. Some always spawn in early May -- mostly those in the upper reaches of the lake.
"You can target 12- to 14-inch fish if you know where to go. We only keep 10-inch or better fish and I do not target smaller ones. I would anticipate [on a good day] 20 to 30 fish over 15 inches and 2 pounds caught by visiting anglers this spring."
McCotter relates that one of his strategies is to avoid community holes, which receive intense pressure, given Anna's location in heavily populated Northern Virginia.
"Depending on the water temperature and time of year, you can start on bridge pilings in the upper end of the lake and work your way to the grass where the fish actually spawn. Water willow is fairly extensive in the North Anna River arm of the lake from Big Ben Flats on up. In the Pamunkey Branch we target fish on docks and stumps, sometimes rocks. In the middle portion of the lake it's docks, rocks, stumps and beaver huts. The lower end of the lake has crappie but not enough to head down there."
For more information, contact McCotter at his Webs
ite, www.mccotterslakeanna.com, or by calling 540-894-9144.
The 48,900-acre crappie fishery at Buggs Island Lake has been the number one papermouth destination in the Old Dominion for so long that it deserves its own classification. It's so good that if you are a serious crappie angler dwelling in the mountains of Western Virginia or the flatlands of Tidewater, sooner or later you should make a pilgrimage to the south central part of the state to visit Buggs.
Tim Wilson, who operates the aptly named Tim's Guide Service, emphasizes that the fishing remains of high quality.
"No question that Buggs is the top crappie lake by far in Virginia and one of the best in the entire country," he confirmed. "The crappie fishing wasn't as good in 2010 as it was in 2009, but I really can't complain. A guide here can become spoiled by the high quality crappie fishery. I look for another good year in 2011.
"One of the best things about Buggs is that there're so many 10- to 12-inch fish with a good number of 14-inchers that weigh 2 pounds. In the spring, the best strategy is to go to the backs of major creeks such as Bluestone, Little Bluestone, and Buffalo, especially when the fish are in a transitional stage. A great tactic is to slow troll with a spider rig."
For slow trolling, Wilson employs 4- to 6-pound test with either minnows or 1/16-ounce or smaller jigs. Sometimes he will tip the jigs with minnow. For guided trips, contact Wilson at www.kerrlake.com-timguide, 434-374-0674. Lodging is available at Little Retreat, www.kerrlake.com/cottages/activity.htm, 434-374-8303 or 800-843-0633.
Northwest Virginia isn't known for its outstanding crappie action, but Alleghany County's Jerry Paitsel says Lake Moomaw is capable of some enticing early spring sport.
"Come spring when the water first starts to warm sometime from mid to late March, crappie will move shallow for a brief period of time," said Paitsel, who has fished the upland reservoir since it opened some 30 years ago. "The fish will move into bays in about 5 feet of water.
"Under that situation during relatively warm spring afternoons, I've caught plenty of 1-pound crappie with 1/16-ounce curly tail grubs on that pattern. But then I've come back a week later, and the fish have left the shallows and moved deep, and then it's a chore to catch one or two. For much of the spring, Moomaw's crappie will be 18 or more feet deep and scattered; you have to hit them just right."
Scott Herrmann, a DGIF District I fisheries biologist, relates that Beaverdam Swamp Reservoir and Chickahominy Lake remain the two major black crappie fisheries in his part of the state, specifically because of their ability to consistently produce quality size slabs the past few years.
"The crappie population in Beaverdam is typically centered around fish in the 9- to 11-inch range," he said. "The 2009 trap net survey revealed an abundant crappie population with the majority of the fish collected from the northern third of the reservoir. Anglers have been able to catch a fair number of crappies in the 1.5- to 2-pound range. The 2010 electrofishing survey of Beaverdam Swamp Reservoir showed smaller schools of crappies to be scattered in various locations. This was different than the 2009 survey that encountered a couple large schools staging off the break line (4 to 6 feet of water) in the Route 606 creek arm on the southern shore."
Hermann says that the crappie population within Chickahominy Lake is not nearly as numerous as the one in Beaverdam, but anglers should be able to find a higher percentage of fish that measure in the 11 to 12 inches. Warm spring weather allows for the northern creek arms of Johnston and Lacey Creeks to become hot spots for crappie fishermen. The high water of April 2010 allowed for an electrofishing survey of the upper marsh basin of Johnson Creek. Numerous black crappies in the 11- to 13-inch range were collected around small vegetated islands.
The biologist also lists an often overlooked hot spot.
"The best sleeper fishery is Little Creek Reservoir in Toano," Hermann said. "The steep-sided topography of Little Creek Reservoir makes it difficult to find black crappies during our typical electrofishing surveys. Past trap net surveys were hit or miss when it came to finding schools of crappies. Angler reports from various fishermen (who) have logged their hours on the water, have been very positive -- high catch rates of fish in the 10- to 12-inch range with a decent number of fish in the 13- to 15-inch range.
"Most crappies are caught in deep water. Our striped bass gill net survey of 2008 caught a huge 17.5 inch black crappie. The abundant forage base of juvenile bluegills and small blueback herring allows mature crappies to put on some serious weight."
Herrmann emphasizes that it's difficult to tell how strong the 2010 year class in Tidewater was. Beaverdam always seems to feature strong recruitment, and spawning success on Chickahominy varies throughout much of the impoundment.