Think February is too early for start catching Texas crappie? Not at these lakes.
February is a transition month, with a whole lot of us Texas sportsmen putting up the guns and getting out the fishing gear. A very good option at that time is heading out to the lakes and targeting crappie — one of the best-tasting fish you'll ever fry.
The great thing about crappie fishing in Texas is that it's a good late-winter option that transitions into the spawn from around the end of February on into March.
One of my favorite crappie lakes is Toledo Bend. That lake has been touted as the "best bass fishing lake in America" for not one but two years going. But truth be known, it's one heck of a crappie factory too.
On T-Bend, some of the best catches of crappie in the state are coming from an area known as the Chicken Coop. It's located on a deep bend in the mid-lake area on the Sabine River channel just north of the Pendleton Bridge.
Fortunately for us, it's on the Texas side of the lake. What a lot of fishermen do is put in at the Pendleton Harbor Marina and head to the coop from there.
The big draw in that area is the huge number of crappie that move in once the water temperature drops into the mid-50s. That cold water moves big numbers of shad to the depths of the river channel. The crappie feed on the shad and fishermen feed on the crappie.
Once the shad and crappie show up so do the fishermen. It doesn't take long for the word to spread about this particular crappie run! If you go, especially on a weekend, you can fully expect to have plenty of company; that's guaranteed.
"It's absolutely the best crappie fishing I've ever experienced," says avid angler Rick Ramsey. "If you hit it right you're more than likely going to head home with enough crappie to put on a big fish fry."
The lake record white crappie weighed 3.44 pounds. It was caught on Feb. 21, 2011, by Claude Gilcrease Jr. The heaviest black crappie weighed a whopping 3.69 pounds and was caught on Jan. 17, 1985, by Fritz Gowan.
Here's the drill. Once you get to the Chicken Coop area you'll want to anchor. You'll know you are there when you see all the boats. When you are anchored it's simply a matter of fishing various depths until you locate crappie. The best rig is a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce slip-weight.
Run the line through the weight and tie it off to a small barrel swivel. Next, take about an 18-inch section of monofilament line and tie it off to the bottom of the swivel and the other end to a No. 1 or No. 2 gold Aberdeen straight-shank hook. Bait the hook with a squirming shiner and you're good to go.
Hook the shiner just behind the dorsal fin, above the spine, for the best swimming action. A good tactic is to lower the bait to the bottom, and slowly work it back up at about 2 feet every 30 seconds or so — until you get bit.
The water depth along the top edge of the river channel is about 30 feet deep. It'll drop to around 50 feet deep in the bottom of the channel. To find the fish you'll have to move around and work various depths. More often than not, the edge of the river channel is where the best bite will be.
At the beginning of March the crappie will begin moving out of the depths. That's when you can catch them on 1/8-ounce marabou jigs in white, purple or red/white. The jigs can be fished under floats or simply cast out and reeled back in with a stop-and-go retrieve. Some of the best areas are around the islands, and along sandy shorelines.
Super Hot Lake Fork
North of Toledo Bend, up around Dallas, you'll find Lake Fork — probably the best-known trophy-bass fishery in the world. But it's also a superhot lake for slabs, with excellent numbers of both black and white crappie.
Lake Fork guide Seth Vanover says crappie fishing on Fork is some of the best you'll ever experience. Fishing is good in February, but off the charts in March.
"Last year we started catching male crappie on Feb. 27, in 3 to 4 feet of water," says Vanover. "Up until that time we had been fishing the deeper structure on the east fork of the lake.
"Bridge pilings are good to fish. But I'll also look for schools of crappie holding next to dense timber in 14 to 20 feet of water during February."
Live minnows are always a good bet when it comes to catching crappie on deep structure during February. Vanover says fishing live shiners deep around brushpiles, pond dams and thick brush is the way to catch crappie on cold February days.
By the way, if you recall, that's how Barry St. Clair caught the state-record largemouth bass back in January 1992. He was crappie fishing 40 feet deep in brush with a live shiner when he got the big bite that turned out to be a bass weighing 18.18 pounds!
Vanover, who has been fishing on Fork for 23 years, and guiding on the lake for eight years, says that crappie will start moving up shallow toward the last week of February. Up until that time he'll be fishing deep structure.
"If we have a warm spell during late February I'll begin fishing for the big male crappie in 3 to 4 feet of water," he says. "Once they start moving up we'll catch easy limits. During the first part of the spawn I'll be fishing along the bank and looking for sandy spots. Once I catch a couple I'll anchor the boat and concentrate on that one spot. That's when we'll catch a box load of crappie from one little area. But it's precise fishing. You can be fishing 5 feet on either side of the hotspot and not get a bite."
Vanover says his go-to crappie jig is made by Thermocline Lures. It's a solid body and shaped like a tadpole. His favorite colors are red or orange and they are rigged on a 1/8-ounce jighead. But there are days when the crappie won't hit the jigs. That's when he'll rig up to fish minnows.
"I like to fish either jigs or minnows about 2 to 3 feet under a small bobber," he says. "I pitch it out and when the bobber goes sideways set the hook. I use ultralight spinning gear with 10-pound-test monofilament. It's fun fishing, and when it's on we have a blast."
Choke Canyon Lake
In South Texas you'll find Choke Canyon Lake, one that is at the top of the list for catching big crappie right about now. Carlos Fernandez has been chasing crappie across Texas for more than 30 years. He lives in San Antonio and any chance he gets he'll be on the water at Choke Canyon during February and March.
"The lake level has been down for so long that we don't get a lot of fishing traffic like we used to," says Fernandez. "But during February and March the ramps on the upper end of the lake on the Frio River get a lot of traffic. That's where the bite is best when the water is beginning to warm up. The crappie spawn starts much earlier here than other parts of Texas. After all, it is South Texas."
Fernandez says he basically fishes two areas of Choke Canyon. One is at the dam, the other is on the Frio River. He almost always uses jigs, but on occasion he'll use minnows, especially on the Frio.
"Down near the dam there are trees about 10 feet below the water's surface. I'll ease over the trees while fishing jigs. I've pulled upward of 20 crappie off of one hardwood brushtop. When winter weather begins to play out I'll start fishing on the Frio. I'll put in at the San Miguel boat ramp and usually head upriver. But it's always a good idea to fish the pilings at the Highway 99 bridge. I'll also fish the mouths of feeder creeks."
The San Miguel boat ramp is located on the James E. Daughtrey Wildlife Management Area, about three miles north of Tilden. From Texas Highway 72, turn right on FM 3445 and go six miles. It's a two-lane boat ramp with no launch fee.
Fernandez says he'll fish straight-line jigs over brush in the Frio River, but he'll sometimes fish a jig or a live minnow under a slip-cork. He says the key is to use the trolling motor and slowly move along while fishing each little brushtop or tree. His favorite time to fish for spawning crappie on Choke is during a full moon phase in March.
"I don't use a leader because the water is usually off-color," he says. "I'll use 15-pound-test braided line that's got the diameter of 2-pound-test monofilament. The braided line is good for slowly pulling jigs off snags. My favorite jig is a white Crappie Critter. It's got a curled tail and looks like a centipede. Another good jig is the 2-inch-long Berkley Power Grub in a Christmas lights color."
There is no way you can talk about crappie fishing in Texas without hitting on Big Sam Rayburn. Over the years this lake has given up thousands of crappie, and one of the best guides on the lake is Bill Fondren.
"I wouldn't trade the crappie fishing here for anything," laughs Fondren. "It's just incredible, even during the cold winter months. During February I'll be fishing on the upper end of the lake along the Angelina River channel. That's where the crappie will stack up when the cold water takes them deep. I'll fish Wedgetail jigs on a 1/16-ounce jighead vertically around the trees and any brush along the edge of the channel drop. Another option is to place a Wedgetail on a 1/8-ounce Road Runner, cast it out and fish it back through the trees. That's a good way to find loose schools of crappie. When I catch one, I'll set up to vertically jig. That's when we'll load the boat."
His top colors for the jigs are white/pink, chartreuse/white, red/white or blue/white. He adds that color is not that big of a deal, but once you find one that works stick with it.
During March Fondren says that once the crappie bite slows in the river channel he'll start fishing on the lower end of the lake.
"As the crappie move downlake to spawn, I'll fish for them at the back of coves," he says. "I'll position the boat in 4 to 5 feet of water, and cast the Road Runner jigs up into 2 feet of water. That's when we'll be catching some really nice-sized crappie. I'll also move out on the lake and fish the edge of grass. As the spawn winds down, the crappie will move to the brushpiles in 12 to 23 feet of water, and I'll be right there with them."
Another place Fondren will fish is on the Angelina River above Sam Rayburn. During late March and April he'll be running trips and doubling down on both white bass and crappie. Both can be caught on small micro-spinnerbaits and Road Runners in white or chartreuse. This is a river trip that I highly recommend.
For details on fishing Sam Rayburn with Bill Fondren, call 409-381-1397. For details on fishing Lake Fork with Seth Vanover, call 903-736-4557.
CRANK UP THE WINTER BASS BITE
ON SAM RAYBURN
You never know when bass are going to turn on. But one thing is certain, they all have to feed at one time or another, even during Texas' cold winter weather.
Fishing 8 to 10 feet deep is usually good on Rayburn at this time of year. You can fish a lot deeper, but that's not a whole lot of fun.
Guide Will Kirkpatrick says that both spinnerbaits and cranks will catch bass in cold water. He likes to use 1/2-ounce chartreuse/white spinnerbaits with 6-inch white grubs. His go-to crank is a Fat Free Shad in either silver/blue or Tennessee Shad.
"You might be surprised at how good bass fishing is on crankbaits fished in shallow grass about 8 feet deep," says Kirkpatrick. "That's a very consistent pattern on Rayburn during February. Bass are not nearly as aggressive as they will be when the water warms up about 10 degrees. That's why the cranks with a big, wide wobble will get the most attention."
Another bass-catching option is flipping deep vegetation with a jig-and-trailer. Black and blue are two very good color combinations on Rayburn, according to bass pro Lonnie Stanley. Stanley knows the lake and its bass very well.