February 04, 2015
By Bruce Ingram
Spring in Virginia is a time to turkey hunt, ascend into our mountains to trout fish, and visit our lakes and rivers for largemouths and smallmouths. But it's also the season to travel to our top crappie bodies of water, especially when we desire to dine on fresh fish.
As much as I enjoy doing the above activities every spring, I also arrange time to go crappie fishing with Fincastle's Jay and Betty Honse on 20,000-acre Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke. The husband and wife are some of the best crappie fishermen I know, so it surprised me a little when our May outing started a little slowly.
We struck out while probing some docks, checking out a few brush piles, and casting to various downed trees among other places. On our sixth stop just as the sun started to set, we arrived at several large brush piles in the back end of a cove. Then Jay and his bucktail jigs and Betty and her minnows proceeded to haul in enough papermouths for dinner and maybe another meal or two. Me? I caught two of the smallest pumpkinseed sunfish finning Smith Mountain, proving once again that most of the time individuals who are experts when it comes to angling for a certain game fish will outperform those who aren't.
"How Betty and I catch nice crappie at Smith Mountain is not magic," said Jay. "We go to the Roanoke arm simply because it's closest to our home. Then it's just a numbers game. We go from cove to cove looking for docks, laydowns, brush piles, and beaver huts. Sooner or later the time will be right, the crappie will be feeding, and we will catch fish."
A nice crappie on Smith Mountain is 10 to 12 inches long and weighs 1/2 to 3/4 pound. Occasionally we will catch one that runs 15 inches or so but not all that often. Just like most any lake in Virginia, March and April are the best times to go, but last year we enjoyed good fishing well into May.
Understandably, most Old Dominion sportsmen with a hankering for crappie travel to our major lakes (think Buggs Island and Gaston) and lowland rivers (such as the tidal James and Potomac). And those folks go for good reason — the fishing is quite good many days. But Jay Honse encourages state anglers to think outside of the proverbial box.
"Virginia's water supply reservoirs are underrated places to fish for crappie," he said. "For example, Carvins Cove supplies Roanoke's water, and it's not far from our Botetourt home, so Betty and I go there often. Like many water supply reservoirs, Carvins is deep and clear, doesn't have much cover, and has fishing restrictions (such as a regulation that fishermen can't use live minnows).
"So after experimenting a lot, we finally figured out where and how to catch crappie there. Carvins' crappie are often quite deep. It's true that sometimes they are only 6 to 10 feet deep, but much of the spring they are 10 to 20 and maybe even 25 feet down and around some sort of underwater wood cover. We've found that we can catch those fish by drop shotting."
The Honse drop shot rig consists of a 1/8- to 1/16-ounce bucktail jig on the bottom as the weight. Then 12 to 24 inches up the line, the couple affixes a 2 1/2-inch Berkley Gulp Alive Minnow to a Size 6 drop shot hook. Interestingly, the Honses don't employ standard light line, instead opting for 10-pound-test mono, feeling that they don't lose as many rigs by doing so.
"Just as water supply reservoirs are underrated, so are upland lakes such as Moomaw and Philpott," said Honse. "Moomaw has some coves where there is deep submerged timber and also some places where there are standing snags. Philpott has some bridge pilings and beaver huts that attract crappie. Use a drop shot rig around places such as that, and chances are that you'll catch some crappie."
John Odenkirk, a fisheries biologist for the VDGIF, says his part of the Commonwealth offers several enticing crappie destinations for this spring.
"For Northern Virginia, I would list Lake Anna, especially both [North Anna and Pamunkey Creek] arms above the splits, and the tidal Rappahannock River in the vicinity of Hicks Landing. I would also list Aquia Creek, a tidal Potomac tributary. These are all good bets due to habitat. Anna has docks, bridges and water willow beds, and the Rappahannock and Aquia Creek have large concentrations of woody debris along the channels. In all systems, multiple clupeids [forage fish] result in fast growth.
"Average size is near 1/2 pound in Anna, but plenty of fish over one pound are in the population. In fact, fish over 1 1/2 pounds are common, although overall numbers have been trending down for years for unknown reasons. However, size structure has remained excellent. Average fish run a bit bigger in the tidal rivers. The citation potential is probably about equal in all three waters."
Citation crappie must weigh 2-plus pounds and run 15 or more inches.
VDGIF fisheries biologist Dan Wilson had a quick answer when asked which lake was the best in his region — 48,900-acre Buggs Island, also known as Kerr Reservoir — and fellow biologist Dan Michaelson quickly agreed. However, there is a caveat that speck fans should be aware of for this spring.
"Kerr is our best, but it's not what it was 15 years ago," said Michaelson. "The Kerr system in general is not as productive as it was 20 years ago. This is starting to show up in all of the major sport fish species: largemouths, stripers, and crappie. Land use changes and reservoir age are probably the largest contributors to this decline in system productivity. Still, the lake is a good productive system with a lot of available prey like shad and river herring.
"Crappie up to 15 inches and 2 pounds are still in the system but not as numerous as they once were. The bulk of crappie sampled in trap nets were in the 9- to 12-inch range so there are still many desirable fish in the system. Citation crappie were rare in our sample but still available in Kerr."
VDGIF fisheries biologist Scott Herrmann offered an unexpected choice when asked what the premier crappie destination is in his part of the Tidewater.
"The best crappie fishery within Region 1, District 1 would have to go to Beaverdam Swamp Reservoir," he said. "It's a very productive system that yields an abundance of black crappies each year. The crappie fishery is good because there has been a recent influx of juvenile gizzard shad. Large schools of gizzard shad in the 2- to 3-inch range provide the majority of the forage base for the black crappies.
Beaverdam Swamp, he notes, not long ago had a stunted bluegill fishery, with thousands of juvenile sunfish in the 1- to 3-inch range. Recent surveys of the reservoir, however, have detected a drastic decline in abundance of juvenile sunfish. The various predators within the fishery (crappies, largemouth bass, yellow perch and chain pickerel) have worked together to crop the abundance of juvenile sunfish.
Herrmann says the average size for the crappies in the Gloucester County impoundment is typically around 11 inches. An abundance of black crappies in the 10- to 12-inch range fin the reservoir, and anglers who specifically target the crappie population have had decent luck with citations, having reported 11 in 2012, a total that ranked Beaverdam as the fifth-best crappie water in the state. However, in 2013, only 3 crappie citations were reported. Beaverdam Swamp Reservoir has produced 124 crappie citations since January 1, 2000 to the present. These 124 crappie citations also ranks the reservoir as fifth place during that time period.
"Crappie populations are heavily driven by year class strength and the available forage that is shared amongst the various predator species," said Hermann. "It appears that there has been a slight decline in the abundance of trophy-sized crappies, but there are still plenty of 10- to 12-inch crappies for anglers to enjoy.
"We conducted a trap net survey of Beaverdam this past April. The cold weather pushed the typical survey of mid-March into the first week of April. The first week of April was the prime time for the schools of black crappies to fully awake from their winter slumber. The survey managed to catch a record total of 938 black crappies. The catch rate of 47 crappies/net night is the highest rate experienced in any of the Region 1, District 1 impoundments. The majority of these crappies were stacked in the 10- to 12-inch size range. The largest crappie was a beautiful female that measured 15 inches and weighed 2.1 pounds."
Herrmann says the Route 606 arm of the reservoir and sites along the western shoreline were the ticket for finding schools of crappies. These large schools were making their last-second, pre-spawn push to find forage before the spawn. Beaverdam Swamp Reservoir has an abundance of aquatic vegetation and flooded timber. Anglers are encouraged to fish the outside edges of these instead of the shoreline shallows. The Route 606 creek arm is extremely shallow, and this area warms up very quickly during the early spring and also sees a heavy growth of hydrilla during the summer months.
STATE PARK CRAPPIE
I received another surprise answer when I asked Jerry Paitsel of Struttinbird Turkey Calls about any red-hot crappie spots he knew.
"Douthat is really an unknown crappie lake," he said. "People think because it's a state park lake known for its swimming section and deep water trout fishing that it doesn't have other game fish. I think people would find that a lot of state park lakes have under-fished crappie populations."
Last year, Paitsel and friend Tommy Dobbs concentrated on the part of the 60-acre Bath County impoundment between the swimming area and deep water trout environs. They trolled deep running mini-jerkbaits and did extremely well says Paitsel. For more information on our state parks: www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks.
FAR WESTERN HOTSPOT
Marion area fisheries biologist Steve Owens says that 7,580-acre South Holston Lake displays the best action for slabs in his district.
"Crappie spawning and recruitment have been good the last several years," he said. "Additionally, since growth is fast, a 10-inch minimum size limit is in place to protect young fish. The average size crappie is 10 to 11 inches, but good numbers of fish up to 14 inches are available. Occasionally, fish much larger are caught."
Owens adds that March through May is prime time on South Holston and deep underwater cover is often where the specks will congregate.
VDGIF biologist Bob Greenlee says tidal crappie fishing can be outstanding right now.
"The tidal Chickahominy River system offers excellent black crappie fishing in the early spring, as do several other tributaries of the tidal James River," he said. "While citations are extremely rare, there are good numbers of 11- to- 14-inch, about 1 to 1 1/4 pounds, crappie available to anglers. Fish to 1 1/2 pounds are not uncommon — nice fish."
Greenlee says that the Chick's crappie are primarily a winter-spring fishery, November through early April, with peak fishing in early spring, February to mid-March. Anglers should target structure on or adjacent to channel drop-offs. The biologist adds that downed trees, piers, and duck blinds are good targets. Trolling jigs along channel drop-offs is another method that anglers employ on this tidal fishery.
Crappie thrive throughout the Old Dominion, and goodness knows that we have plenty of quality lakes and rivers to visit for this game fish. And now is definitely the time to go.
Editor's Note: Bruce Ingram is the author of five books on river fishing, including his latest on the Upper Potomac, as well as new editions of his James, New, and Shenandoah/Rappahannock books. For more information: www.bruceingramoutdoors.com.