February 04, 2015
Being predictable, easy to catch, and tasty on the dinner table makes crappie one of the most popular sportfish in Texas. And late winter into early spring is the opportune time to prepare for a full calendar's worth of good crappie angling.
Unlike some other fish favored by Lone Star State anglers, crappie are not complicated. They will spawn each spring regardless of lake levels, which have a tendency to rise and fall in our often draught-plagued state.
Veteran anglers don't waste too much time in calculating crappie behavior and locations. That's because, depending upon water temperature, they will be located in one of two areas of Texas reservoirs. Crappie reside in shallow areas during the spring and deep water the remainder of the year. It's as simple as that.
After spending a few weeks in the shallows depositing eggs, they'll always return to the "deep woods." By following a few simple techniques, successful crappie fishing can become a year-round guarantee, and owning a boat is not always a requirement.
Without question, crappie will rush to spawn in late spring. The same cannot always be said for black bass and some other fish species. The crappie's seasonal patterns are difficult to disrupt. The spawn will span a few weeks each spring and the event is triggered when water temperatures reach 68 to 70 degrees.
As time on their nests is complete the fish will venture back to their year-round stomping grounds, deepwater areas that are packed with timber.
Crappie are caught easily from the bank when they are in the shallows and they'll attack everything from feathered jigs to minnows.
As a youngster growing up in West Texas, not knowing much about crappie jigs at the time and not having enough nickels to buy live minnows, I would often go to my father's vegetable garden for crappie bait: the ever reliable earthworm. They worked just fine, and still do.
The spawn doesn't last long in Texas, typically April through May. Upon departing the shallows, crappie demonstrate their predictability once again when adults find neighbors of their same age groupings and species.
The young spawned crappie will spend a few weeks in shallow water, eluding predators the best they can. Later they join adults, where they'll feed on microscopic crustaceans called zooplankton. As they reach juvenile size they feed on small minnows and threadfin shad.
For the remainder of the year the crappie clan hangs in schools near deep water and brush.
During the transformation, you'll also find them in size-specific pods. The small ones, mid-sized crappie, and large ones tend to prefer their individual age groupings.
Doug Shampine, a popular fishing guide on Lake Fork, feels crappie are so predictable that he often books crappie-specific fishing trips years in advance with full confidence.
There are certain maneuvers he takes to increase his odds of catching crappie on Lake Fork, arguably the finest crappie lake in Texas.
During the dog days of summer, when black bass are who knows where, Shampine is busy at work setting the stage for crappie fishing time, and that period of time for Shampine is all season.
He works year 'round establishing his future crappie hotspots. Guesswork, he contends, can mostly be eliminated by pre-staging areas for future fishing trips.
"I've marked about 15 areas around Fork, locations where I've created brushpiles," said the guide. "I first look for timbered areas, and at Lake Fork they're not hard to find.
"I prefer deep water and the location needs to be over a creek or near an underwater ditch."
The next pre-planning move for Shampine is a stop at his local home improvement store where he picks up a load of commercial cinder blocks, the ones that have two holes in each end of the brick.
He trims willow limbs from tree growth along the shoreline, inserting the branches through each arm of the block and then sinks the stuffed bricks into his pre-selected sites.
"I'll typically set about eight loads to a location, trying to create an underwater circle of cover," he says. "The fresh brush becomes an almost immediate fish attractor."
Shampine points out that two species of crappie are found in Texas, the white crappie and black crappie. Both species occupy the same lakes but some Texas reservoirs serve black crappie better than the white species and vice-versa.
Black crappie have irregular dark speckles and blotches on their sides. With white crappie, the dark markings consist of regularly arranged vertical bars.
If in doubt of the species, count the number of dorsal spines at the front of a crappie's dorsal fin. Black crappie will have seven or eight spines as compared to five or six on a white crappie.
During the spawn, males of both species develop dark markings over most of their body, causing many anglers to misidentify male white crappie as black crappie.
Both species of crappie are found in Texas lakes, but black crappie is more abundant where water is clear and alkaline rich. Reservoirs Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Lake O' The Pines and Palestine hold unusually large populations of black crappie.
Both species have reached enormous sizes in Texas lakes, but some of our state reservoirs tend to favor one species over the other, as far as growth in concerned. For instance, Lake Navarro Mills, which contains both black and white crappie, owns the state record for crappie, a monster white crappie weighing 4.56 pounds.
A new Texas state record was set this year for black crappie. The fish was caught at Lake Texoma, a 2.93-pound lunker that was boated by Johnny Summers of Pottsboro.
The fish hit a typical bass lure, a Rat-L-Trap. The record setter was caught near a Marina basin located on the lake.
Texas fisheries biologists try to keep a close watch on crappie populations across the state. As they reach larger sizes crappie must experience high mortality rates just to keep their numbers in check, say TPWD fisheries technicians.
Sufficient mortality is seldom realized through angler harvest alone, but from natural causes. However, TPWD experts are constantly urging crappie anglers to take their legal limits and help contain the species
Texas has a statewide length limit of 10 inches and a daily limit of 25 for crappie. Bag limits are higher on some reservoirs that border neighboring states. Others have special regulations that prohibit culling of a crappie catch. That's especially true at this time of year.
In these lakes, crappie tend to spend the winter months in deep water. Those fish, when caught deep and brought to the surface, are unlikely to survive release because of the rapid decrease in water pressure and its effect on the fish's swim bladder. The season regulations, for many East Texas reservoirs, are designed to prevent post-release mortality.
Crappie can be caught with almost any fishing equipment. The simplistic cane pole works well when fish are spawning and anglers can fish from the lake or stream banks. Lightweight spinning tackle is provided to Shampine's customers and he prefers using 8-pound braided line.
When lingering in shallows, crappie will take an assortment of baits, including numerous small jig combinations, tiny spinners, minnows and earthworms. Shampine insists that color of baits doesn't seem to be a factor.
Best artificial lures include jigs and spinners ranging from 1/32 to 1/8 ounce. Crappie will respond to almost any color and the small lures are cheap in price, which amounts to nothing compared to the expense of filling a bass angler's tackle box.
When fishing from the bank during the spring spawn, crappie anglers will find fish congregated in shallow water, so when one is caught don't leave the spot. There is likely to be several more in the same location.
Crappie movement during the spawn is similar to that of white bass: They will explore the upper tributaries of creeks and streams. In many cases, locating them and coming home with a large catch can be as simple as walking the banks of your favorite reservoir or private pond, prospecting for fish.
Shampine doesn't dilly-dally at his fishing locations. If nothing bites in 10 minutes, he moves to another site. That's one great benefit of having a selection of brush-filled crappie holes.
The crappie expert says that deepwater locations frequently offer up an occasional bonus fish. East Texas reservoirs are noted for an abundance of channel catfish and the occasional giant blue or flathead.
These big cats like to swim with crappie, eating a few of them from time to time, suggests Shampine. In fact, he says, when the first big cat is pulled from a crappie locations, it's normally time to move, unless you want to catch more catfish. When catfish join the school, crappie will soon skedaddle, he says.
Shampine uses a high-end Lowrance fish locator to check fish formations when he pulls up to a site. Typically, fish are in place at each site: lots of baitfish, and larger images that are normally what he's looking for — crappie.
A bonus fish at his locations can also be the occasional lunker black bass. Two Texas ShareLunker bass caught in early 2014 were taken by crappie fishermen anchored to bridge pilings in a deepwater region of Lake Fork. Both of those bass weighed greater than 13 pounds and hit minnow-baited hooks.
Texas' Hot Crappie Locations
Texas is fortunate to have excellent crappie lakes, but a contingent of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists and some noted state fishing guides have selected arguably the best nine locations in the state. We also threw in a "sleeper" location for the 2015 fishing year. Here they are.
Lake Fork, 80 miles east of Dallas, leads the pack of Texas' hot crappie locations. Noted also as the finest lunker largemouth bass location in the nation, Fork cranks out slab crappie all 12 months of the year.
It's brush-filled, with creek channels worming their way through the 27,264-acre impoundment. The lake record for black crappie is 3.92 pounds and the largest white crappie to date is a 3.19-pounder.
Sam Rayburn in deep East Texas is a favorite of Texas crappie anglers as well. Sporting more than 114,000 surface-acres, the reservoir is chockfull of brush.
The white crappie record is 2.94 pounds with a 2.15-pounder setting the mark for black crappie.
Toledo Bend Reservoir, just next door to the east of Big Sam, easily takes the third slot.
Cedar Creek, near Athens, approximately 80 miles southeast of the Metroplex, is a strong contender when it comes to crappie favorites.
The boat dock-lined lake has almost 33,000 surface-acres. The lake record for black crappie 3.10 pounds, and for white crappie it's 3.14.
Other top picks are Lake O' The Pines, Ray Roberts, Texoma, Navarro Mills and Lake Lewisville.
A lake that holds future promise as a good crappie location is Twin Buttes Reservoir, located near San Angelo in West Texas.
One of the few Texas lakes receiving draught relief in 2014 was that same Twin Buttes. Fish surveys revealed it's loaded with threadfin shad, a primary crappie food source.
The 2015 projected crappie spawn at Twin Buttes will immediately see growth-providing food sources. The lake should be an excellent crappie fishing location for Texas anglers during the years to come.
A meal of crappie, filleted or whole, is delicious when served up with a batch of onion rigs, French fries or green salad. As one of the favorite freshwater species of Texas, they usually are prepared in one of two ways, fried or broiled.
They can be cooked as filets or whole. Those who don't mind navigating a few fish bones find deep-frying whole crappie preferable to filets. Crappie are easily scaled using a kitchen spoon as a scraper.
Either way, when deep-frying the fish, filling cookers with too many of them can result in cooking oil growing cool and the fish soggy. Keep the oil hot!
Yum, Yum! There's nothing tastier than crappie!