February 15, 2017
"Can we wait to go to Smith Mountain until Betty is able to go with us?"
I replied when her husband Jay Honse told me that he could take me to the 20,000-acre Roanoke-area impoundment for crappie but his wife had a meeting to attend and couldn't accompany us.
Jay and Betty, who live in Fincastle, are my longtime crappie-fishing partners, but here's the truth. Jay is a very good crappie angler, I'm a mediocre one at best, but Betty is able to put slabs in the livewell many times when Jay and I struggle.
Also, quite frankly, when it's time to go home, I experience no shame in asking Betty, well, could she give me the crappie she's brought aboard? They sure look like nice ones, and I surely wouldn't mind taking them off her hands and cleaning them€¦ seeing she's caught so many and all.
So the spring trip was postponed for a week or so until Betty was able to go. And events transpired just like they often do when the three of us visit Smith Mountain. Jay and I caught mostly green sunfish (of all things) and yellow perch while Betty put speck after speck into the boat.
How the Honses implemented our game plan that year proved typical. We put in at the Hardy ramp, motored upstream to a series of coves in the Roanoke River arm, and stopped at a succession of docks, brush piles, and fallen trees, all the while dangling minnows 5 to 10 feet deep under a bobber.
Why the Hardy ramp and the Roanoke River arm? Betty's response was that the Hardy ramp is the closest to their house; that they sometimes go to other ramps, but the scenario is always the same regardless of the access point: coves, wood cover of some kind, minnows and bobbers, and crappie in the boat. Smith Mountain is a solid, unspectacular crappie fishery with 8- to 12-inch fish fairly common. Our state hosts a number of other quality fisheries; here are the choices of some state biologists and local experts.
EASTERN TIDAL REGION FISHERIES
Reid Burford and Harry Byrd, IV are two Richmond fishing buddies who often travel eastward to experience some of the Commonwealth's best crappie action. They particularly relish excursions to our tidal waterways.
"We've got two little sleeper choices for crappies that many people don't consider," Burford told me. "The tidal Pamunkey and Mattaponi are not as well-known or as heavily fished as rivers like the lower James and Potomac, but they have a lot of crappie of a pound and up. Another thing that I like about them is because they are so much smaller than the James and Potomac, they are easier to explore and it's easier to learn the best spots.
He notes that late winter and early spring is the best period to visit the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, as the crappie there turn on quicker than fish west of Richmond. Both rivers have an abundance of duck blinds, downed trees, and brush piles. When the tide is coming in or going out, the crappie concentrate in eddies behind those types of cover. Also in the spring, look for wood cover at creek mouths.
"Any type of situation where there's a current break, we can often find the crappie stacked up," he said.
For the Pamunkey, Burford suggests that anglers concentrate on that part of the tidal waterway above Poplar Grove. The river is rather narrow that far up the river, but the best spots are easy to locate. For the Mattaponi, Burford suggests that fishermen narrow their travels to the Walkerton to Aylett stretch. He adds that the river becomes much smaller above Walkerton and debris can make the river difficult to navigate.
Byrd remains a fan of the tidal James.
"The barge pits in the Dutch Gap area are an outstanding place to catch late winter/early spring crappie," he said. "Two things to know about this area: first, early in the year, the heated water from the Dominion Power Plant causes the crappie to stack up in the pits. And, second, for some reason, the smaller crappie are the ones we catch when we first start fishing the pits on any given trip. But once a few small fish are caught, the big ones — 10 inches on up to 14 — are sure to follow. Look for them around 10 feet down, especially near wrecked barges and other wood."
Byrd relates that the barge pits remain productive until mid-April when the water typically becomes too warm for the fish because of the discharge. Then the crappie scatter.
At that time, Byrd and Burford often head for yet another tidewater destination — the Chickahominy. Byrd says the best spring action on the Chick occurs in its creeks: Diascund, Shipyard, Yarmouth, Gordon, Nettles, Morris, and Blackstump among others. And here's an inside tip.
"During the spring spawn, often in April, the fishing on the Chickahominy's creeks can be phenomenal," said Byrd. "Last year on one trip during the spawn, for example, my son Harry and I caught 15 to 20 black crappie — all between 11 and 14 inches. I've never seen crappie so dark in color before. Unbelievably, the fish were in 2 feet of water or less around stumps along the shoreline. The next week, we came back but only caught 5 to 10 that size, and they were much deeper. Timing is everything on the Chick, especially during the spawn."
Burford and Byrd employ several specific baits for early season tidal crappie — and they are lures that will likely work well anywhere in the Commonwealth.
Burford's favorite is a round 1/8-ounce lead jighead adorned with a Bobby Garland Baby Shad or Charlie Brewer crappie slider. Interestingly, one of Byrd's go-to offerings is a 1/32-ounce Beetle Spin tipped with a worm. This lure is an especially fetching option, he says, when the specks are shallow and spawning.
Another tactic of Byrd's is to vertically jig a 1/4-ounce Brewer crappie slider over wood cover. To enhance this setup, the Richmond sportsman will sometimes use the 1/4-ounce slider as the bottom weight (and lure) and affix a 1/32-ounce slider jig 18 inches above it.
Briery Creek and Sandy River are probably the two best known mini-impoundments in the central Piedmont part of the Old Dominion and certainly attract their share of crappie enthusiasts. But DGIF fisheries biologist Dan Goetz notes that 400-acre Bannister Lake, upstream of Buggs Island in Halifax County and located on its namesake river, deserves to be considered.
"Bannister is shallow, turbid and not very pretty, but it grows white crappie," said Goetz. "The main forage is bluegill and shad, and crappie growth is average, but densities are above average and the average size is 8 to 10 inches."
Goetz relates that brush, trees, and docks are the main forms of cover, and the best time to visit is probably from mid-March to mid-April. The biologist says Bannister is fairly shallow so it warms up quicker than many Piedmont impoundments. Additionally, the upper half has filled in with sediment so boaters should exhibit caution running up the lake. Fishermen may well experience difficulty if they try to motor a boat much past the power lines at roughly mid lake.
In the northern Piedmont, fisheries biologist John Odenkirk relates that 9,600-acre Lake Anna is one of the region's best for slabs. Fellow DGIF biologist Mike Isel agrees.
"Lake Anna probably gets the most attention for crappie fishing in our district," said Isel. "Average size crappie from our survey the fall of 2015 was 8 inches with fish up to 15 inches. We saw the highest catch rates of crappie along with good-size distribution in the upper lake arms. The forage species in Anna are gizzard shad, threadfin shad, and blueback herring. Growth rates of crappie have slowed some since last check; however, fishing should be improving with strong year classes from 2013 and 2014 moving up. Crappie can be found in the spring off the bridge pilings, docks, and brush piles."
For an underrated destination, Isel suggests 124-acre Lake Orange in, appropriately enough, Orange County. Fish in the 1-pound range are commonly caught every spring, and both natural (beaver lodges) and manmade (fish attractors) cover enhance the fishery.
Finally, both Odenkirk and Isel recommend that Northern Virginians visit the tidal Potomac for crappie, specifically its tributaries. One of the largest of those is the Occoquan River.
Buggs Island sprawls across 48,900-acres on the Virginia and North Carolina borders. Given its location in the south central region of the Old Dominion, it's no surprise that Buggs draws anglers from across our state. There is also the fact that the impoundment has long held the title as the premier crappie destination in Virginia.
DGIF fisheries biologist Dan Michaelson says that the lake is not as productive as during those legendary years in the 1980s and 1990s, but it still remains a high quality body of water. And just as in the past, from the first relatively warm days in February through the end of April, slabs are available.
During the most recent sampling, Michaelson reports that 2-pound specks were still common and fish up to nearly 3 pounds were netted. So the crappie are as big as ever, but they are not as abundant as they were in decades past. But, again, in my opinion, Buggs is still by far the best place to go for crappie this year in Virginia and definitely one of the foremost destinations in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Michaelson adds that the Staunton River side of Buggs remains the most productive part of the lake and that the Nutbush Creek portion still is in a down cycle. Some productive creeks include Buffalo, Grassy, Bluestone, and Butcher.
Chris Bullock, who operates Kerr Lake Crappie and Cats Guide Service, says that crappie fishing was very good on the lake in 2016 and anticipates as good or better a year in 2017.
"Buggs is still the best crappie lake in the state," said Bullock. "One of the reasons why is because of the lake's large size. For example, if the water is muddy in Grassy, you can go to Eastland. If the fishing slows in Eastland, you can go to Panhandle or Rudds creeks. I like to rotate among the creeks and find the one that is hot at the time."
This approach works well for Bullock. Last year, the guide's personal best crappie was 3.19 pounds and his clients caught a two-pound citation fish on two out of every four trips on average from late January through mid-May. Just as Bullock prefers not to have a favorite tributary, he also opts to not favor a certain lure or technique.
"Early in the season on Buggs, a spider rig might be the way to go," he said. "Later, working a 1/16- to 1/32-ounce Roadrunner jig tipped with a minnow or curly tail grub might be the best bet. Sometimes the fish are over shallow brush piles, sometimes under docks."
STATE PARK SLEEPER
DGIF fisheries biologist George Palmer says 168-acre Fairy Stone Lake is no Buggs Island when it comes to crappie fishing, but the mini-impoundment does host specks in a beautiful setting. My parents brought my sister and me there when we were kids, and the lake and surrounding state park remains a family-friendly destination.
Located in Patrick County near Stuart, Fairy Stone State Park offers swimming and boat rental as well as camping. A nice touch is that outboard motors are not permitted, so folks can tool around in a canoe or johnboat and not be concerned with wakes swamping them.
Palmer says the crappie are not overly abundant, but, from my experience, folks shouldn't have trouble catching sunfish if the specks are uncooperative.
Virginia offers a number of quality crappie destinations this spring where folks should be able to catch plenty of fish to eat. And if you struggle to catch papermouths like I sometimes do, be sure to go with somebody who does not, like Betty Honse.