Crappie Days Are Here Again
Anglers sing the praises of a fish that is fun to catch and even more fun to eat.
By Larry D. Hodge
My wife’s daughter, Kalmia, is a city girl. She grew up in Dallas, attends college in New York City and generally regards any urban area with a population of less than 500,000 as the boonies. So I thought it was a stretch to invite her crappie fishing last January on Lake Fork.
Her response surprised me.
“Yes! I LOVE CRAPPIE!” her e-mail shouted.
I love getting all-capped by a young person excited about fishing.
Kalmia is not alone. Crappie are the quail of the fish world. Like quail, they tend to hang out near cover. And like quail, predatory city girls love to eat them. (So do another predator, big bass. The current state record largemouth bass was caught by an angler fishing for crappie in January on Lake Fork. Winter entries in the Budweiser ShareLunker program are often caught by anglers targeting crappie.)
Catching crappie — and if you follow the tips in this article it will be catching, not fishing — is just plain fun. Even seasoned crappie fanatics like Cedar Creek Lake guide Ernest Paty and nationally known crappie angler Wally (“Mr. Crappie”) Marshall told me, “I live for the thump.”
Marshall has been fishing for crappie since he was a kid growing up near Lake Lavon, northeast of Dallas, and he started crappie fishing professionally in 1986. He’s designed more than 100 items for crappie anglers, and still nothing gets his heart pumping like the thump of a crappie taking his lure. “I like crappie fishing because of the action,” he says. “Still today that thump on the line is the real deal for me.”
How you can get that thump on your line is what the rest of this article is about. I picked the brains of five crappie experts for the information I’m about to give you. Study it carefully. There will be a test. Bring plenty of cornmeal and cooking oil on test day, and show up hungry.
There are two kinds of crappie, black and white. The two look similar and are easily confused. White crappie have dark vertical bands on their bodies and are silvery in color. Black crappie are silvery-green and have irregular dark blotches randomly scattered over their bodies. The easiest ways to tell them apart are to look at them together or to count the number of spines on their dorsal fins. White crappie have no more than six spines; black crappie have seven or eight. The foremost spine is very short; pull the dorsal fin up with your finger to get an accurate count. A 2-pound crappie of either species is considered large, though both can grow to about 4.5 pounds.
And about that name. Some people pronounce it to rhyme with happy, but the preferred pronunciation is KROP-ee.
“Black crappie prefer clear water and also live better in and around aquatic vegetation,” says Craig Bonds, a TPWD fisheries biologist. “White crappie seem to do better in turbid water and around flooded timber and brush. That’s one reason you see black crappie sometimes dominate in East Texas and white crappie more in Central and West Texas.”
Researchers and anglers alike note that crappie tend to move around, often at night. Voracious feeders, they follow shad as the baitfish journey daily from creeks and the backs of coves to open water. “The key thing to remember is that the fish move, and if you are fishing a place and not catching any crappie, move. But recheck that spot even four or five hours later, and the fish may be there,” Bonds says.
In spring, crappie move up into shallow water to spawn and sometimes concentrate in huge numbers. “Research has shown that the spawn for the crappie population as a whole lasts from 27 to 56 days,” Bonds says. “They begin spawning when the water temperature reaches about 61 degrees; the spawn peaks at 68 to 72 degrees. There may be one or two days with no fish against the bank, then a day or two later they will move in and spawn, then move right back out again. There are multiple pulses of fish.”
Crappie like to spawn on a hard bottom. If the bottom is silty, the eggs will get covered with silt and won’t hatch. It’s likely that crappie spawn on submerged wood in some reservoirs.
Crappie typically take three years to reach the minimum legal length of 10 inches. On Lake Fork and Lake O’ the Pines, from December 1 through the last day of February there is no minimum legal length and all crappie caught must be kept up to the bag limit of 25. This is because fish caught from deep water may not survive if thrown back. The same regulation applies to Toledo Bend Reservoir, but there the bag limit is 50. The bag limit on Lake Texoma is 37. All bag limits are for any combination of black and white crappie.
As you might expect, finding fish that move around a lot can be frustrating. Some people never get it, says Tommy Tidwell, a guide on Lake Granger. “Lots of people think you need to find a big brushpile and sit there three or four hours,” he says. “But when you go to a spot and don’t catch any crappie within five minutes, they’re not there, even though it may be the best crappie hole in the country.”
But, Tidwell says, don’t give up on a place too easily. “Probe the whole area. Try every corner of it. They may be in a spot maybe twice the size of your boat. Once I watched a boat sit on a spot for three hours and not catch any fish. When he left, I went in and found fish just a few feet away. We caught 10 big slabs.”
Crappie can often be found near some type of structure — bridge pilings, brushpiles, lay-downs, drop-offs, boat docks. In open water, crappie will hold on underwater humps and points of land. They show a distinct preference for structure near creek channels, which are baitfish highways. Use a topographical map of a lake to locate potential crappie hotspots ahead of time.
Unless you fish a lake often enough to know all the favorite crappie hangouts, electronics are the key to finding fish — but you have to know how to interpret the little squiggles marching across the screen. “One of the biggest weaknesses people exhibit is not knowing how to read their graphs,” Paty says.
For that reason, both Paty and Lake Fork guide Roy Greer approach crappie fishing with clients more as education than fishing. They don’t just take you fishing, they teach you how to fish. “A fish looks like an arc on the screen,” Greer says. “Crappie are arced higher than bass, because their body is smaller on either end than in the middle. A short, curved arc is probably a crappie; a long arc is probably a bass. A tightly packed group of tiny arcs is often mistaken for brush. It’s probably baitfish. You’ll often see a ball of baitfish with an arc or two beneath it. That’s crappie following the baitfish.”
As if on cue, a wiggly ball creeps across the screen on Greer’s fish finder. He points to the arc beneath it. “That’s a big crappie,” he says. A few seconds later our fishing companion, Mike Delph, sets the hook on a 1.25-pound white crappie. Greer has made a believer out of me.
One of the appeals of crappie fishing is its affordability. You can catch plenty of crappie off the bank or fishing barges, and $75 will buy all the crappie toys you need. One spring while birding the wildlife management area that surrounds Lake Granger, I met a man and woman carrying long rods tipped with about 6 feet of line and white jigs — and two 5-gallon buckets half full of big crappie. They simply walked the shoreline and dabbled around lay-downs and stumps.
Think light and small when rigging for crappie. Ultralight gear is plenty heavy and multiplies the fun. Use the smallest jig the wind will let you cast. Greer favors a 1/32- to 1/8-ounce lead-head jig with mylar tail of his own design and manufacture. Four or five basic colors — blue, pearl, watermelon, orange, purple — seem to work best, though it varies from day to day.
Marshall’s favorite color for Texas lakes is a chartreuse head with a blue-and-white body; second choice is lime and chartreuse. He likes lures with a small gold willow-leaf blade, especially in murky water. Paty’s favorite jigs are black and chartreuse or cinnamon brown with a blue tail, but “almost any color will catch fish if you have confidence in it and fish it well.” Paty says the second-biggest weakness most people have is not knowing when they are getting a bite, so he likes to use a high-visibility yellow line that makes any movement easy to see.
Tidwell says lure color on Lake Granger makes no difference because the water is very turbid, but presentation is everything. He uses a 1/4-ounce egg weight held 6 inches above the jig with a split shot. “Move the jig around slowly,” he advises. “Drop it down and feel the weight touch the brush. Fish hear the click. Hold really still, then if they don’t hit it, move it just a little and then hold it still. They will usually hit it when it stops moving.”
On lakes with lots of shoreline development, “shooting docks” catches crappie. Marshall explains how. “Use a 4-foot rod, get in close, hold the lure with your thumb and index finger, bend the rod and shoot the lure into the shade.” Paty teaches the technique and says to look for bigger patches of shade, diving boards that indicate deeper water and docks near creek channels.
All four guides agree that minnows will catch crappie, and Tidwell says dead ones work even better than live ones. Greer and Paty believe that jigs will outfish minnows. In open water with no submerged structure to hang up on, Marshall slow-trolls with up to 16 rods at a time using crankbaits.
Catching crappie is fun, but the best part comes later. Few fish taste better than crappie fried in cornmeal or sautéed in butter. The fish we caught on Lake Fork appeared on our dinner table the very next night. If I were sending you an e-mail about that meal, I’d have to shout it in uppercase letters, because IT WAS GOOD.
For information on crappie fishing on a lake near you, visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/> The best way to learn to fish for crappie is to go with someone who knows how.
- Roy Greer, (903) 765-2075 <www.thebassclinic.com>
- Ernest Paty, (972) 245-9311 <www.catchcrappie.com>
- Tommy Tidwell, (512) 365-7761
- Wally Marshall does not guide clients, but he offers crappie fishing information on his Web site, <www.mrcrappie.com>.