Welcome to the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, where they grow wheat, corn, soybeans … and big crappies! Yep! Year in and year out, the farm country of the Great Plains produces a bumper crop of these fancy speckled panfish that keep anglers grinning from ear to ear.
El Dorado’s big-fish boom
Want a good look at the size of the crappies roaming the flooded timber at El Dorado Reservoir? Consider the results of the local Kansas Crappie Trail tournament last May.
The winners, Ryan German and Tony Niemeyer, brought in their tournament limit of seven fish, weighing a whopping 13.45 pounds. That included big fish of the event, a 2.21-pound crappie caught by Niemeyer.
The kicker? These two crappie slayers had never fished El Dorado until the tournament.
“A lot of fishermen think that crappie only spawn on the banks, but that’s not true,” says Niemeyer, who lives in Gardner. “We found these fish in a patch of timber on the main lake. We just kind of stumbled onto them. Those big crappies were grouped up in one spot. We caught all of them in one 50-yard stretch.”
Four more fishing teams that day joined Niemeyer and German with big catch results, each totaling more than 12 pounds. Granted, the tournament took place during the spawn, when some of the females were still heavy with eggs; nonetheless, those catches served as an eye-opening example of why El Dorado is arguably Kansas’ best big-crappie reservoir these days.
The 8,000-acre reservoir, located about 35 miles northeast of Wichita, simply looks like good crappie water. It features acres of flooded timber and brush; murky, fertile water; and an abundance of gizzard shad. All of this has long supported El Dorado’s good crappie population, but the boom in fish quality hasn’t been seen until recent years.
Doug Nygren, chief of fisheries for the KDWP, theorizes that recent developments might have something to do with the downward trend of white perch in the lake. Listed as an invasive and a nuisance species in Kansas waters, state fisheries officials have been encouraging the harvest of white perch. “We feel the white perch may have been competing with many species, crappie included, for food and habitat,” Nygren explained. “Now that we’ve knocked their (white perch) population way back, we’ve seen growth rates of game fish take off. That may be a factor in the increased size (of crappies).”
Frank Haidusek is a believer, too. He specializes in fishing flooded timber rather than isolated brush piles, and El Dorado holds a lot of it. An abundance of trees was flooded when the reservoir was built in the 1970s. Much of his crappie fishing at El Dorado centers on the timber in the northwest part of the reservoir. He starts shallow during the spring months, but he moves to main-lake structure once the spawn is over, jigging along creek-channel bends, places where the river or creek channel swings against the bank, and the timber stands along submerged road beds.
The Topeka Connection
Not far from Topeka, Perry Reservoir boots out great crappie fishing just 25 miles northeast of the Capital City. 25 miles southeast of Topeka, Clinton Reservoir joins the panfish fray, providing Kansans plenty of opportunity to fill their stringers or live wells with crappies. Both get hit hard, being close to a population center, but both hold up well to the local fishing pressure, as displayed by fish population density surveys completed in 2018 by the KDWPT. Those studies rated Perry Lake at No. 2; Clinton Lake was rated No. 7.
Both lakes produce excellent fishing during the spring spawning season, and there are signs that 2019 will be another good year. Much of that optimism is based on water level. During a stretch of drought years in eastern Kansas, both reservoirs saw low water levels that affected the crappie spawn. Now, the water is back and crappie populations are growing in both lakes, German reports, despite their differences. Local crappie fishermen recognize Perry as mostly a brush-pile fishery, while Clinton anglers target standing timber. At both reservoirs, fishermen often are out in force during late April and early May, when the crappies move in to spawn.
German and Niemeyer say travel corridors are key to catching Clinton’s crappie.
“We look for areas where the crappies are moving back and forth,” German says. “That could be channel edges, tree rows, the timber along road beds. We seldom fish deeper than 12 feet, and we’ll fish there from late March into November.”
At Perry Lake, many crappie fishermen key on brush piles on the main lake or in the creek arms. They use their electronics to locate those piles and their GPS units to guide them back to those spots.
Local fishing guide Joe Bragg of Thump Thirty Guide Service in Topeka, says spring fishing is good on Clinton’s rocky banks in the Rock Creek arm and the riprap at Perry along the Highway 92 bridge. He casts curly-tailed grubs to the shallow areas that hold a mix of rock and gravel, he says, but he works brush piles just out from the spawning banks where the big females stage while waiting for the water to warm before moving in.
Unlike some fishermen who target crappies in deep brush once summer arrives, Bragg keeps his fishing shallow. He finds big crappies in 3 to 8 feet of water in the back of Slough Creek on Perry, vertically fishing a jig along timber in fencerows. He uses the same approach at Clinton, fishing the back of Rock Creek and Deer Creek. “You have to have muddy or stained water to make it work,” he added. “If it’s clear, you’ll spook the fish.”
More Kansas Crappie Lakes
• Hillsdale Reservoir, located close to Kansas City, is full of timber and crappie. It has ranked at or near the top in KDWPT density surveys of crappies over the last few years.
• Elk City, Fall River and Toronto lakes – a trio of reservoirs in southeast Kansas, collectively hold good crappie populations and big individual fish. The only drawback? Heavy spring rain can muddy the water and raise water levels, setting the fishing back for weeks.
• Kirwin and Webster lakes, two reservoirs in western Kansas may be sleepers this year, Nygren suggests. “Their water levels were down so long that a lot of brush and vegetation grew up along the old banks,” he pointed out. “Now that the water has come up, they’re like new reservoirs.”
Irrigation Reservoirs Shine
Sherman Reservoir, a 2,800-acre irrigation lake in the middle of Nebraska, has two faces. During the summer growing season, it can be drawn down dramatically to irrigate crops in the region. But the local irrigation district always refills the reservoir by spring — perfect timing for the crappie spawn. An abundance of cover that grew along dry banks is suddenly flooded, and the fish have dozens of new options for spawning and nursery cover, annually delivering Nebraska’s most consistent crappie fishing.
Sherman has lots of bays and coves, and all of them will hold spawning crappies in spring. State fisheries biologist Brad Eiffert says he is encouraged about what he sees. Sherman holds good numbers of keepers (10-inch minimum-size limit) and two big year-classes of crappies —one in which the fish are now 9 to 10 1/2 inches long, another in which the fish are 6 to 71/2 inches.
Bauer reports the same scenario plays out at Davis Creek Reservoir, located about 15 miles northeast of Sherman. It, too, is an irrigation lake that sees huge fluctuations in its water level between the crop-growing season and the following spring. But its crappies thrive, too, in that ever-changing world, says Daryl Bauer, chief of fisheries for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The result is that the lake produces some large individual crappie among an abundance of 10-inch fish.
Crappie fishermen flock to Sherman and Davis Creek lakes in spring when the crappie are in the shallows spawning. Surveys reveal most of the lake’s many coves hold spring fish. Eiffert says the best areas for bank fishermen are the coves off Trails 3, 6, 8 and 10, and Marina Beach. The situation is similar at Davis Creek, a narrow stretch of the lake featuring many coves and bays. Look for these to produce good crappie fishing in the spring, especially along newly flooded cover along the banks.
The Sandhills Lakes
Want to fish in a remote setting and have a chance at catching big crappies? Head to the vast Sandhills region in north-central Nebraska. The unique setting — a region of mixed-grass prairie on grass-stabilized sand dunes — includes 1,600 natural lakes fed by the Ogallala Aquifer; 225 of them support fish and according to the NGPC, many of those hold big, healthy crappies.
By nature, the Sandhills lakes are shallow, filled with weeds and remote — no marinas, no resorts. But they can be hidden jewels. Blue and Home Valley lakes, in particular, hold strong crappie populations and some big ones, too, but it takes some work to reach them.
Blue Lake (311 acres) is located 20 miles north of Oshkosh and is accessible only by a rough road that requires a 4-WD vehicle. Home Valley Lake (220 acres) is part of the Cottonwood-Steverson Wildlife Management Area where there is no access road to the lake. In spring and summer, fishermen have to portage a small boat from Cottonwood Lake or use a snowmobile or ATV to cross the ice in winter.
But many fishermen say it’s worth the effort to get to both lakes. They offer big crappies and a chance to fish in beautiful settings. Thick vegetation makes bank fishing tough, though, where crappies spawn in the weeds in May, and fishermen in boats use everything from light jigs to Beetle Spins to catch them.
Once summer arrives, fishermen often concentrate on deeper holes in both lakes to catch crappies. Ice-fishing is popular on the small lakes in the winter months. Fishermen often drill holes along weed edges and drop-offs and catch crappies on everything from small jigging spoons to soft-plastic and hair jigs.
Other Nebraska Hotspots
• Wanahoo Lake, located halfway between Omaha and Lincoln, gets hammered with fishing pressure, but crappie fishing reports prove it is still incredibly productive. The 600-acre lake, which is relatively new (it opened in 2012), holds an abundance of standing timber and flooded brush.
• Merritt Reservoir, 30 miles southwest of Valentine, produces consistently good crappie fishing.
• Branched Oak Lake and Wildwood Lake offer plenty of crappie fishing action for nearby anglers based in Lincoln.
• Whitney Lake, 14 miles northeast of Crawford, is a proven crappie fishing sites in far northwest Nebraska.