With the weather warming, West Virginia crappie are getting ready to spawn, which means anglers are getting ready to catch them. Here are a few places to should consider this year.
By Richard Hines
The Mountain State has numerous fishing opportunities within its borders, from largemouth bass to trout and muskie to walleye, as well as crappie.
According to Central Fisheries Biologist James Walker, all Corps of Engineers reservoirs throughout the Mountain State hold crappie and, as is true with all fishing, angler success varies according to weather, water conditions and timing.
"There are a number of anglers targeting crappie and being very successful," said Walker. "But this means getting out early in the spring, but early spring temperatures are rarely steady so it takes anglers willing to understand the hit and miss opportunities of crappie. You have to be ready to change tactics to catch lakes when water levels and temperatures are just right."
With over 2,600 acres, Stonewall Jackson located in Lewis County, is a year-round crappie hotspot, according to Walker.
While the lake is loaded with crappie, the best time to focus on this lake is late March into early April. Spring is the best time to catch good numbers, but success is entirely dependent on water temperatures, which vary from one end of the lake to the other. Heavy rains running water into the heads of creeks tend to warm the upper end of the lake, while large rain events can also muddy the water.
"Stonewall is the Mountain State's premier bass lake, but there are plenty of crappie to be had and I think this species is overlooked," said Brady Lewis, Stonewall Marina manager.
Lewis does have customers who routinely purchase five or six dozen minnows per trip, but last year crappie seemed to be running a little smaller. However, it's not unusual to see gaps in certain year-classes because of poor production in previous years and it's something many lakes experience. Over time crappie should bounce back.
"While you are on Stonewall, anglers may notice numerous no wake signs around the lake," said Lewis. "That's because the lake has lots of shallow areas with stumps and structure that can be dangerous for recreational boaters but it's good news if you are pursuing crappie, as it gives crappie plenty of places to hang out."
Lewis recommends painted jigheads tipped with small minnows, saying to experiment with color until discovering what fish want that day.
As the water starts warming up in late spring in Stonewall, crappie move into the old river channel where it necks down, and by mid-summer are in 20 feet or so of water. Depth finders are key to finding crappie schooled up during this time and there is always plenty of structure located along or near old channel bluffs and other types of steep banks. Jigging is the most productive method as crappie shift patterns from the shallow spawning areas back into the deeper water.
According to Mark Scott, Fisheries Biologist for District 4, Bluestone has been one of the most consistent crappie lakes during his 30-year career.
A lot of this is because Bluestone is fed by the New River, which is considered a nutrient rich system. Bluestone Lake also has plenty of shallow mud flats, sunlight and structure, along with the inflow of nutrients.
"The spawn is generally in April but watch surface temperatures on this lake as it tends to warm earlier than other lakes because water is flowing from the south," said Scott.
When water begins warming up in the spring, crappie begin staging along the main channels waiting for the water temps to reach the mid 50s or lower 60s before moving into shallow areas to spawn. These pre-spawn groups will be easily spotted on depth finders.
This 550-acre power company lake has several characteristics that make it different from other lakes found around the state.
"Stonecoal has a horsepower limit of 9.9, which limits larger boats, and no jet skis are allowed, which makes Stonecoal a perfect destination for kayak anglers, canoes and smaller watercraft," Walker said.
Even better, Stonecoal tends to get overlooked because when folks come to Lewis County they are generally heading to Stonewall Jackson.
Additionally, DNR Fisheries staff have been working to improve crappie habitat in Stonecoal by cutting trees along the bank in selected locations, as well as by dropping Christmas trees to construct fish attractors.
These locations are always marked with either a sign or a buoy but sometimes signs don't last.
CHAIN OF LAKES
According to Daniel Baird, operator of the Burnsville Marina, the winter draw down pushes fish into the original river channel, but at the Corps of Engineers starts raising the water level in March, fish begin to stage along the mouths of creek channels waiting to move into newly flooded areas.
Burnsville is a narrow lake and even during summer pool, the lake may not be much wider than the historic river channel, so as crappie go into summer patterns Baird suggests moving along the original channel and watching depth finders because bass fishermen drop brush and this structure has helped both bass and crappie. One of the primary baits for crappie on Burnsville seems to be combinations of black and green jigs. White is also a good standby color, depending on water clarity and cloud cover. Minnows or jigs tipped with minnows also work well.
Walker says that while Burnsville may not produce huge numbers of fish, it, along with Sutton Lake, produces some of the best quality crappie anywhere in the state.
Burnsville is part of a chain of lakes that includes Sutton and Somersville, which were impounded by the Corps of Engineers and are fairly close together.
Head north in the Mountain State to check out 1,730-acre Cheat Lake. This hydropower lake not only provides good fishing but is also a success story.
"Cheat originally had problems from acid mine drainage, but during the 1990s, reclamation efforts upstream improved the watershed and by the early 2000s fisheries began improving," said David Wellman, District 1 fisheries biologist.
While the spawn is absolutely the best time to pursue crappie, other times of the year can also be very good. However, many anglers have given up crappie by early summer, which Ron Wong, American Crappie Trail public relations rep, doesn't understand. He says that when crappie start moving into summer patterns, it is the perfect time to get into crankbaits.
"Start out early May or June with a Strike King Series III but the key is not to start with deep-diving baits until later in the summer," said Wong.
Wong recommends setting out at least six to eight rods. Set one rod with 90 feet of line out, another one at 110, 120 and even 150 feet out. Remember crappie feed up, not down, so try to put baits above fish. Also use the same method when testing which colors are working best. Wong always starts with at least four colors.
After finding fish, remember that fish typically face the same direction, so turn and go through the school in the same way but make wide sweeping turns so not to tangle lines. As summer begins heating up the lake, pushing the thermocline down, switch to a Strike King 3XD. By letting out 125 feet of line this bait will dive to around 15 feet.
Overall many of the lakes across the Mountain State are beginning to show some age. When reservoirs are first impounded, the response of fish is unbelievable. Cover is unlimited, with stumps, logs and weeds creating a mecca for fish production. As reservoirs age, cover begins rotting and degrading to the point that once productive fishing spots are devoid of cover.
This is not just the case with reservoirs in West Virginia but also across the U.S. This is why WVDNR fisheries biologists are working on habitat improvement projects to create new cover. As these are improved or expanded each year, anglers should start seeing a bump in numbers and size. That's good news for Mountain State crappie anglers. Especially those anglers willing to spend time chasing crappie into their summer haunts.
Strike King Series 3 Crankbait
Soon after the spawn pattern has ended you may notice anglers fishing minnows or casting light jigs. This year, you should try a method used by pros. Step up the lure size and go deeper and troll for crappie with a Strike King Series 3 crankbait.
This small-bodied medium diver is a perfect match for schooling crappie. Specifications indicate it runs 6 to 8 feet deep, and it can go deeper with additional line.
"If you let out 110 feet of line it should drop the bait down to around 10-11 feet, which in most cases is just above the thermocline," said Wong.
In fact, the more line you put out, the deeper this bait runs. By May and June crappie don't go to the bottom, but will suspend in a comfortable temperature zone. The Strike King Series 3 has a rattle inside but if you need a quieter approach, there is also a Silent Series model without the rattler. The Series 3 also comes in a myriad of colors needed for every situation.