Nothing gathers attention at the local bait shop faster than, “The crappies are biting!” Bass, walleye, catfish and other anglers who specialize in their favorite species quickly become crappie fishermen anytime crappies in their local lake go on a bite.
Crappies are like buttered popcorn — nobody can turn down a handful of popcorn, and no angler can resist the chance to catch a mess of crappies.
Who can blame them? Crappies are almost irresistible to fishermen. When crappies are on a serious bite, they provide fish-on-every-cast action. They respond to everything from a tiny jig to a mini-crankbait to a live minnow. And nobody turns down a platter of fried crappies … or a handful of popcorn!
Most lakes and a few rivers in Iowa hold crappies. For sure, some crappie fisheries are better than others, but don’t overlook fishing your local lakes to fill your fish basket or live well with what may well be Iowa’s favorite fish.
District fisheries biologist Mark Flammang of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is optimistic 2019 will be a great year for crappie fishing Lake Rathbun, located on the Chariton River, about 7 miles north of Centerville.
“Last spring, anglers were really happy with the number of 10-inchers they caught,” Flammang reports about the crappie fishing at Iowa’s largest lake (11,000 surface acres).
“Creel surveys indicated (local anglers caught) around 100,000 crappies last spring. The size was excellent. We saw a lot of 12-inch fish during our population surveys last fall and we expect to see a continuation of those good numbers and large sizes this year.”
The challenge to catching crappies at Rathbun in recent years has been where to find them. Much of the traditional, brushy crappie habitat along the shoreline that made Rathbun a crappie hotspot during the 1970s and ’80s has been removed by wave action and erosion. Flammang says local crappie-catching experts have learned to focus on depth, structure and water temperature to find crappies.
“The guys who are really on top of crappie movement seem to catch the big females in late April and early May,” he reveals, “in areas where they’re staging prior to the spawn. The Buck Creek and Honey Creek arms have spots along their shorelines that warm up faster than the main lake, so those are prime places both pre-spawn and during the spawn.”
RED ROCK LAKE
No lake in Iowa has more potential for producing 14-inch crappies than Red Rock Lake, and no lake has more probability of breaking anglers’ hearts than Red Rock Lake. The big, flood-control reservoir on the Des Moines River, about 40 miles southeast of Des Moines, consistently floods during the crappie spawn to provide excellent spawning and nursery habitat. The resulting excellent individual year-classes of crappie feed well on young gizzard shad, and for more than a decade, anglers have reported catching 14-, 15- and even 16-inch crappies from Red Rock.
But the same factors that produce strong populations of huge crappies in Red Rock work against anglers who hope to catch them. Rising and falling water levels change the location of crappies almost daily, and the huge population of shad makes it so easy for Red Rock’s crappies to fill their bellies.
Red Rock’s successful crappie anglers move a lot to find fish on any particular day and throw everything in their tacklebox at them to trigger a bite. Pre-spawn, Red Rock’s crappies favor sun-warmed cliffs and fallen, partially submerged rubble and rocks at various locations around the lake’s southern shoreline. The many shallow inlets and coves in the Whitebreast arm attract crappies during the spawn, as do small coves and inlets in the Marina arm. Local bait shops do a good job of tracking crappie movements and offer suggestions on the latest baits/lures that catch the interest of Red Rock’s huge slab crappies.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER BACKWATERS
The easiest but most intimidating place(s) to catch crappies in Iowa are the backwaters of the Mississippi River. From DeSoto south to Keokuk, tens of thousands of acres of shallow, brush-lined, slow-moving backwaters along the state’s eastern flank provide spawning and nursery habitat to keep the big river’s floodplain filled with huge populations of crappies. Conditions in many of the backwaters support crappie that measure 12 to 14 inches long.
Crappie populations are so strong in the Mississippi River backwaters, Gritters says, the challenge is not in figuring out where they are but in how to get them to bite.
“I guarantee, that if you find some brush in relation to deeper water, there are crappies there. I’m a professional fisheries biologist and a sometimes-frustrated fisherman,” admits Scott Gritters, IDNR fisheries biologist based at the agency’s Bellevue station. “I’ve shocked (electro-fished) those areas, I’ve netted those areas, and the number of crappies I see in my work doesn’t always match the number I catch when I’m fishing. They’re there. You just have to figure out if they want a minnow or a jig or what color of jig they want on a specific day.”
One trick, Gritters says, that helps him catch crappies is to fish mats of floating debris along the edges of the backwaters.
“Crappies love being under those mats,” he says. “I’ve had good luck dropping jigs right under the edge — 5 feet out from the edge is too far out. In fact, if I can find a hole in that mat and drop a jig down into it, it’s almost a guaranteed bite. Sometimes I’ll reach out and stir a hole with the tip of my rod, then come back later and drop a jig into the hole I created.”
But Gritters also understands how fussy crappies can be about baits. He says he was fishing for sunfish one spring day, using a crappie jig as the weight for a drop-shot presentation of a trout nymph tied to the line above the jig. To his surprise, he spent the afternoon hammering 12-inch crappies that ignored the crappie jig and gulped the trout nymph.
“The lesson there is to keep trying different things till you find what they want,” he advises.
Crappie Fishing with Brad Chappell
Flammang reports fisheries surveys completed in fall 2017 indicated a strong population of large crappies in Lake Miami will be even larger in size this year. The 120-acre impoundment, 8 miles north of Albia, was renovated in 2013.
“I’d call the crappie (fishing) potential at Miami ‘awesome,’” Flammang says. “We saw a lot of 12-inch crappies come out of that lake last spring, and that year-class is only going to be bigger this year.”
Because the IDNR was only able to lower the lake 10 feet during its renovation, brush piles added during that project are often visible above the surface. Timber still stands in the upper end of the lake where submerged, fallen trees lie scattered beneath them. Anglers who fish Lake Miami’s woody structure and coordinate their bait selection with the mood of the fish on a given day have a good chance of filling their live well with 10- to 12-inch crappies.
DON WILLIAMS LAKE
The challenge with a small reservoir like 151-acre Don Williams Lake, 6 miles north of Ogden, is that fishing pressure from anglers in nearby Boone, Ames and Des Moines can exceed the lake’s population of crappies. But for the past three years, Don Williams’ crappies have been up to the challenge.
Crappies from the lake haven’t been huge, averaging 8 to 9 inches long, but the fish have maintained a strong population that has provided good fishing. Several year-classes have had their numbers thinned by angling, but the survivors now are in the 10-inch and larger range. IDNR surveys in fall 2017 indicate crappie numbers are still strong and will provide good fishing again this year.
Don Williams Lake features three distinct types of crappie habitat. The lower third of the lake’s pool is deep, reaching nearly 40 feet, with steep, timbered sides (and a few irregular-shaped small inlets and coves) that plunge vertically from water’s edge. The lake’s middle-section carries a strongly defined, submerged creek channel that winds from between the boat launch on the west shore toward the beach on the east shore. A stump field lies around the bend north and west of the beach where the lake makes a hard swing to the west. The northern third of the lake’s reach features shallow mud flats that generally hold little interest for crappies or crappie anglers.
The steep, brushy edges of the lower two-thirds of the lake are crappie country. Anglers searching for pre- and post-spawn crappies drift along and adjacent to the old creek channel, especially in the middle third of the lake. Vertical jigging over drop-offs and slow-trolling over the old creek channel are favorite tactics of local crappie experts.
GO GET ’EM!
Ultimately, almost any lake in Iowa holds crappies worth catching. Tactics from one lake to another don’t vary much, beyond matching the right tactic with the right habitat. Fish near rocks early in the season; fish under floating rafts of debris in mid-spring; and vertical jig over submerged structure to find crappies year ‘round in your local crappie-fishing honey hole.