Hot Spots for Kansas and Nebraska Crappie
February 21, 2012
It pays to be flexible if you're an outdoorsman. Even though you might have a game plan, Mother Nature can throw you a curveball that requires you to go to plan B. That's exactly what happened on a crappie trip to Kansas last spring.
Our initial plan was to fish Milford Reservoir, near Junction City, Kansas. The 16,200-acre reservoir is known as one of the better crappie waters in the state. An unusually cold spring, though, had delayed the spring crappie bite. The specks were still in deep water and scattered for the most part because of the weather. Blustery north winds and temperatures in the 50s meant fishing there would be tough. "I've got an idea," stated my guide, Rick Dykstra, assistant director at the Geary County Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.junctioncity.org, 800-528-2489). Dykstra keeps close tabs on the fishing activities in the area and always has a plan B to fall back on. "Meet me at my house in an hour. I know another place that we can go that should be sheltered where we can catch some fish."
Dykstra had his boat hooked up when I arrived at his house. We jumped in and he pointed the rig to the southwest. On our route we passed 3,280-acre Council Grove Reservoir. The wind had turned Council Grove Reservoir to a muddy brown as we crossed the dam and waves and whitecaps were pushing their way down the lake. There wasn't a boat in sight. Not far from Council Grove Reservoir, Dykstra pulled into the launch on 434-acre Council Grove City Lake. The lake is city-owned and located just west of Council Grove.
There was a noticeable difference in the wind. Cottages and a large row of cottonwoods protect the sheltered bay and the launch. Without the wind, the sun actually felt a little warm and, although we initially had coats on, it wasn't long before we both were peeling them off.
"We'll fish this little cove right off the launch to start," suggested Dykstra. "It's sheltered, shallow and it warms up pretty quick. There might be some pre-spawn crappies moving into here." Because the lake was sheltered and smaller, the fishing schedule there was weeks ahead of the larger bodies of water in the area.
Dykstra didn't even fire up the big motor and just used the trolling motor to ferry us across the cove where the sun was shining brightly on the shoreline and some docks. We each began flipping small twister-tail jigs up under and next to the docks. At about the third dock we fished I felt a subtle "tick" and set the hook. "There's one!" I exclaimed as my light spinning rod bent double. I quickly hoisted about a 10-inch white crappie into the boat. A flip back under the same dock produced a twin. And then another.
Rick Dykstra has fished for bass competitively and the competitive bone was getting the best of him. "Let me see what you're using there," he queried as he strained to see the jig I was using.
"Silver sparkle with a pink head," I said as I dangled the jig in front of him so he could get a good look. "1/16-ounce jig head."
"That's a lot smaller than the jig I'm using," he contemplated. While Dykstra was rummaging around in his tackle box looking for a smaller jig, I added another speck, a white bass and a sheepshead to the tally. Dykstra only looked up and grinned. I always said I'd rather have the client catching the fish than the guide. Dykstra finally got another jig tied on and immediately caught three crappies on three consecutive casts. Touché!
You could see the wind whipping through the tops of the cottonwoods, but you could hardly feel it on the water. The warm sun gradually heated up the surface of the water and as it slowly climbed into the low 60s the fishing got even hotter. We just kept working up and down the docks. Several times we poked our nose around the point, but the wind and lack of fish brought us back into the cove. In addition to the crappies, we caught eight other species of fish. We hadn't caught a walleye all day, but suddenly a school moved in and we caught a half-dozen in quick order and added a couple of them to the live well. The catch included white bass, saugeye, spotted and largemouth bass and plenty of hard-pulling drum. It was one of the best multi-specie fishing days I've ever had and all because we had a plan B.
Indeed, to take advantage of the great spring crappie fishing in the Great Plains states it pays to be flexible, have the boat on the trailer and be ready to travel to find the best fishing. If you can do that, you can turn a hot two-week crappie bite into a long two months of great fishing.
"There's a big difference between when the crappie spawn occurs between north and south," stated Kansas Department of Park and Wildlife Fisheries Biologist Chuck Bever. "In the middle part of the state, when the water reaches between 60 and 65 degrees, you can count on the spawn to begin. That may be May 1st or later in the north, but down in southeast Kansas it might be two weeks sooner or more."
Bever said that many factors work to determine exactly when the crappie spawn takes place. "It depends on the depth, water clarity and the size of the lake," he said. Some years, anglers might be fishing for pre-spawn crappies in open water on the southeastern lakes when others are still ice-fishing on Glen Elder.
Bever said that two southeastern reservoirs produce consistent crappie action. "Fall River and Hillsdale are two of the better crappie waters in that part of the state," said Bever. Both have a lot of brush and flooded timber, so they warm up quickly. There's usually some good fishing beginning in early March." Twenty-five hundred-acre Fall River Reservoir is located near Fall River. During the last fisheries survey on the lake, 44 percent of the crappies captured were between 10 and 15 inches. Four thousand five hundred and eighty-acre Hillsdale Reservoir is located in eastern Kansas in Region 2, near Paola.
Bever admitted that pre-spawn crappies can sometimes be tough to find, but when you do they'll be concentrated and you can do well. It's usually sometime in April before the crappies move shallow and begin to spawn in earnest on these reservoirs. Again, 60- to 65-degree water temperature is key.
How big a lake is has a huge bearing on how fast it warms up and when the crappies turn on. Lakes just a short distance away, like Council Grove Reservoir and Council Grove City Lake, might produce a hot crappie bite a month apart. "It's hard to predict exactly when the best crappie fishing will be on Council Grove Reservoir," said Bever, "but it's a good crappie lake year in and year out."
Turbidity can be a huge factor on how quickly a reservoir warms up in the spring. "Melvern Reservoir is one that fishes well from early March right through the spring, but it warms slower than other reservoirs," claimed Bever. "It's a clear lake and clear lakes don't warm as quickly as lakes that are turbid. They don't absorb the heat." Melvern Reservoir offers 7,000 acres of prime crappie habitat near Topeka. Melvern is also among the state's best for smallmouths and walleyes, too.
"I would expect the northwest reservoirs to produce some good fishing this spring," offered Bever. "They have had good water for a number of years." Checkout Kirwin, Webster and Norton reservoirs for big slabs this spring. In the north-central part of the state, Glen Elder, Lovewell and Wilson generally produce hot spring speck action. Because of their size, clear waters and northern climes, these reservoirs generally don't produce great fishing until early May and it extends well into June most years. Last year, when I fished these reservoirs in mid-May, the crappies weren't even close to spawning and were nowhere near the shallows. Start in the southeast and finish up the spring on these northern reservoirs and you can enjoy more than two months of great fishing for papermouths.
For more information on angling opportunities, maps and licenses for fishing in Kansas, contact the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism at www.kdwp.state.ks.us/ or at (620) 672-5911.
Check out Nebraska hotspots for crappie on page two
"In Nebraska, there's likely to be a month or more difference between the peak of the crappie spawn, depending where the water is located in the state," stated Daryl Bauer, Fisheries Outreach Program manager for the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. "There are huge climate changes in the state of Nebraska, not only from north to south, but from east to west, that determine when the best spring crappie fishing takes place on any given water."
Bauer said that Nebraska anglers can count on crappies moving into the shallows right after ice-out. "Crappies move into the shallows in the spring first to find something to eat and to take advantage of the warmer water there," said Bauer. "Usually, that's from mid-March through early April, before the spawn begins. They stay shallow until after the spawn."
Predicting when the height of the spawn takes place on any given lake is a crapshoot. "It could be any time from the first of April into May," stated Bauer, "In the north part of the state, probably through the month of May. It depends on the region. I would say it progresses more southeast to northwest than just south to north or east to west."
Bauer said a sure bet for some good crappie action this year will be the Sand Hills lakes. "Higher water levels over the last few years have set the stage for some great fishing on the Sand Hills lakes," claimed Bauer. "Look for places like Island Lake in the Crescent Lake NWR and Big Alkali Lake for some good crappie. Big Alkali has a reputation for giving up some slab black crappies." All of these are natural lakes that are shallow and warm up quickly.
Willow Lake WMA is place in northeast Nebraska that Bauer recommended for crappies. Located southwest of Ainsworth, 313-acre Willow Lake is known for not only decent-sized specks, but also good numbers. Look for it to produce big catches from late April though May.
The drought that Nebraska experienced for over a decade left reservoirs like Harlan and Swanson at historic low levels. The low water gave vegetation a chance to grow on the barren shorelines. Now that the reservoirs are filled again, there is an incredible amount of habitat for crappies.
"Both Harlan and Swanson went through a dry to wet period that allowed trees and mixed vegetation to grow on the shorelines," said Bauer. "Now that habitat is flooded, these reservoirs have experienced prolific crappie spawns the last couple of years. Now they're crappie heaven!" Harlan Reservoir covers 13,500 acres and is located south of Alma and Republic, Neb. 5,000-acre Swanson Reservoir SRA is two miles west of Trenton, Neb.
On both Swanson and Harlan, expect the first crappie action to take place on the west ends of the lakes where the Republican River enters the reservoirs. Shallow, warmer water there and plenty of vegetation and in-water structure is a draw for spring crappies. Also try the mouths of south-facing coves and bays on the north sides of the reservoirs. For fishing reports, guides and tackle, contact Fisherman's Corner at (308) 928-2158.
Eastern Nebraska is also home to some exceptional spring crappie waters. "I'd have to rate Wehrspann and Branched Oak as two of the better crappie waters in the eastern part of the state," offered Bauer. Two hundred and forty-five-acre Wehrspann Lake receives a modest amount of fishing pressure due to the fact that it's close to Omaha. It continues to give up stringers of decent specks in spite of the pressure.
One of the premier crappie waters in the southeast part of the state is Branched Oak Lake SRA. Located northwest of Lincoln, the 1,800-acre lake has a special 10-inch size limit on crappies. Formed by branches of Oak Creek, look for spring crappies to gravitate to the backs of the creek arms right after ice-out.
For more information on spring crappie locations in Nebraska, contact Daryl Bauer at Daryl.Bauer@nebraska.gov or call (402) 471-5005.
With reservoirs again filling across the Great Plains, crappie fishing is staged to explode this spring on many Kansas and Nebraska reservoirs. Peak fishing times that correlate with the spawn vary greatly from state to state, and even within a given state. Anglers need to use resources like the Internet and fishing networks to stay on top of the hottest bites. Those who are in the know, keep their boats hooked to the pickup and who aren't afraid to travel and buy multiple fishing licenses should to be able to enjoy two months of fantastic crappie action this spring.