Sac-a-lait, strawberry bass, calico bass, white perch, slab, crappie, and more names than you can remember -- they all mean Oklahoma crappie fishing.
Lots of fish are called by different names in Oklahoma and in different parts of the country, but I know of none that have as many different monikers as the crappie. I saw a new one recently when an angler on an Internet forum said he grew up calling them "checkerboard bass."
But no matter what you call 'em, crappie are one of the most popular fish in Oklahoma. Both white crappie and black crappie wind up as filets in thousands of Oklahoma anglers' kitchens each year. Many anglers argue that they are the best-tasting freshwater fish available.
I love 'em fried. I have a recipe called "mock shrimp" that uses crappie tidbits and is delicious. And crappie makes excellent ceviche — that "raw" fish dish in which acidic lime juice "cooks" the fish in combination with a few vegetables and spices.
There are many ways to enjoy eating crappie.
Crappie are abundant in most large Oklahoma lakes. Most of our big lakes (over 10,000 acres) that were built in the 30- or 35-year period after World War II started out as great fisheries for black crappie, which are native to many Oklahoma streams. As the lakes aged, white crappie, which seem to thrive better in reservoirs, replaced black crappie as the dominant species.
Other species are more intensively managed. Black bass, striped bass, walleyes, and catfish, as well as the hatchery-produced hybrids like white/striped bass and saugeyes, all are stocked more, studied more, and regulated more than crappie.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation recommends against stocking crappie in small lakes and farm ponds, arguing that they tend to "stockpile" and their growth becomes stunted. It is true that without some fishing pressure that removes crappie from a small body of water they tend to multiply and crowd the pond or lake with fish that are smaller than most anglers want to keep. Yet there are lots of ponds and watershed lakes throughout the state that produce excellent crappie fishing.
I caught an actual 4-pound crappie from a pond that was probably half the size of a football field, and I watched a friend catch one that weighed 3 3/4 pounds from another small pond we were fishing for bass.
When I caught the 4-pounder, back in the mid-1970s, I was sure that I had a world record catch, for I had never seen even a 2-pound crappie at that time, much less one twice that size! As it turned out, though, my catch fell short of even the Oklahoma record for black crappie, which had been set a few months earlier. A guy fishing in an Ottawa County pond caught one weighing 4 pounds, 10 ounces. That record still stands 42 years later.
The state-record white crappie is even larger. It was caught in 1991 in a Kingfisher County pond and weighed 4 pounds, 15 ounces.
I have, over several decades, seen a number of 2-pound and 2-pound-plus crappie caught in reservoirs, but the biggest crappie officially caught in Oklahoma definitely have come from small impoundments like farm ponds.
That's not to say you can't catch big crappie in big lakes too. A glance through the lake-record listings for big crappie caught in Oklahoma lakes shows that in most lakes the current lake records are crappie in the 2-pound class. There are several lakes, though, and especially the three Grand River lakes and Arkansas River lakes, where fish exceeding 3 pounds hold the records. The lake-record listings don't differentiate between white and black crappie, but looking at the photos that accompany most of the record listings shows that nearly all of the big lake-record specimens are white crappie.
On the Arkansas River, Kerr and Keystone Lakes both have 3.8-pounders as their lake records. On the Neosho (Grand) River chain of lakes, the record at Grand is 3.3, at Hudson is 3.1 and at Fort Gibson is 3.7 pounds.
Any crappie of 2 pounds or better is a trophy specimen in Oklahoma. During the years when I wrote about hunting and fishing for a Tulsa daily newspaper, I frequently got calls from anglers saying they had caught 3-, 4- or even 5-pound crappie. On several occasions I drove to people's homes hoping to photograph these giant crappie, only to find that they were actually 2-pounders or smaller. People just aren't used to seeing really big crappie, and anything that weighs more than an honest pound and a quarter or so gets people's attention.
When I caught my biggest crappie, I was so excited that I drove to the bait shop in town, leaving my rod and tackle box on the bank of the pond. It was so big I remember wondering if it might be some entirely different species of crappie. I was thrilled when they weighed it, and then crushed when I learned that bigger crappie had been caught in the Sooner State.
But enough about big crappie. I'll say only that February and March may be the best times to catch record-sized crappie in most Oklahoma waters. That's because the big females are laden with eggs at that time of year, as the fish prepare for spawning, which typically takes place from late March through early May in the Sooner State.
In January and February, most crappie are caught in and around submerged structure, including manmade brushpiles, usually those several feet below the surface. On any given day or at any given hour, most of the crappie over a broad area of water will be at similar depths, but the depth can change from hour to hour.
On most of my crappie fishing at Eufaula, Keystone, Grand and other lakes at this time of year, I've found active crappie at depths from about 8 feet down to 20 feet or so. But I have seen short periods when crappie move up and suspend right below the surface during the early morning hours, even though the brush and other structure and cover is several feet deeper.
Sonar can sometimes show you at what depth the crappie are holding. But trial-and-error fishing, probing several depths with jigs or minnows, usually is the best way to find the crappie that are biting.
I recall a crappie fishing tournament a friend and I entered at Grand Lake several years ago. We started the morning by catching probably 60 or more crappie around shallow-water cover. We were trying to build a stringer of large crappie, so we released most of the medium-sized and smaller fish. But the action was fast and furious until about 8 a.m. when it suddenly stopped. We moved around the lake probing more shallow cover but in the next three or four hours we caught only a few fish.
By midday we had started probing brushpiles in 15 to 18 feet of water and we began catching crappie again.
Standing in the weigh-in line that afternoon, I talked to other contestants, many of whom had experiences almost identical to ours. That is, all over the lake the crappie bit really well in less than 3 feet of water early in the morning, but then moved a dozen or more feet deeper and farther from shorelines throughout the middle of the day.
Two contestants had caught crappie deeper during practice, so they didn't even fish shallow water that morning. They said they had hardly gotten a bite before 9:30 a.m., fishing deep water, but that by noon they were catching and culling fish rapidly.
What prompted the move I don't know, unless it was just bright sunlight. No big changes in wind, barometric pressure or temperature triggered the shift.
The point is that what works well at one moment may not continue to work. Sometimes you have to "follow" the crappie to keep catching them.
In the last few weeks of winter, most crappie are caught by fishing vertically with jigs or minnows. Most Oklahoma anglers anchor over brushpiles or similar cover/structure and probe the area slowly.
With either jigs or minnows, it can be important to watch your line. Sometimes crappie bite extremely lightly and only the slightest sideways line movement indicates a fish is on the line. Reacting instinctively to any line movement can increase your crappie catch rate.
Several Oklahoma lakes are lined with private boat docks that also offer good crappie action to those with access to the docks. Brush often is anchored or suspended beneath the docks to attract crappie and other fish.
As spring grows closer, crappie will move toward shorelines and spawning areas. When the shoreward migrations begin, anglers can probe flooded willow thickets, shorelines with buttonbush growing in the shallows, or shorelines with lots of laydown logs. Crappie like such areas for building their nests and spawning, especially if the bottoms are sand or gravel.
The males move in first to choose and prepare a nest site. Then they swim in search of a gravid female and guide her back to the chosen site to spawn.
An angler can sometimes find spawning crappie by watching for swirls on the surface near tree trunks or around brush.
Doodlesocking — dropping a jig or minnow vertically adjacent to trees and logs — is a good way to catch crappie that are spawning or guarding the nests afterward. You can doodlesock from the deck of a boat, but walking the shorelines or wading around the spawning area can be even better because it allows for slow and precise presentation.
Crappie tend to spawn when water temperatures are in the mid-50s to low 60s, so a temp gage can help an angler decide whether it is time to probe the shallows for spawners yet.
Another pre-spawn technique that can be productive, especially for catching bigger female crappie, is fishing small spinners, or jigs or minnows beneath bobbers a few yards out from shorelines where males are preparing nests. Because the females tend to suspend near the surface and cruise just offshore from the spawning areas, offering them a suspended lure or bait can sometimes get good results.
I already mentioned that almost all of our big reservoirs offer pretty good crappie fishing. Eufaula, Oologah, Kaw, Keystone, Sardis, Grand, Broken Bow, Hugo and a few others have given me lots of fun catching crappie.
But I've had some darned good fishing trips at smaller lakes too. There are numerous municipal water supply reservoirs throughout the state that hold good numbers of crappie.
Not many people fish for crappie in streams, but many of Oklahoma's creeks and rivers support good crappie populations. The problem with stream fishing is that stream crappie tend to be even more mobile than the ones in lakes.
Along big rivers like the Arkansas, crappie sometimes stack up at the mouths of tributary creeks. But you might catch a limit at a creek mouth one day, and then struggle to catch a handful in the same spot the next day.
Even the smaller, coolwater creeks in the hilly parts of Eastern Oklahoma can provide good crappie fishing. I used to fish a spot on Sallisaw Creek, a mid-stream boulder pile, that on some days would produce a nice stringer of big crappie, but on other days it seemed like there wasn't a crappie within a mile. We never knew what weather or water conditions drew the crappie to that spot. But some days it was a gusher and other days it was a dry hole.
There are many places to catch crappie in Oklahoma. Late winter and early spring can be great times to catch them.