It's usually about the time February approaches middle age and trees have begun to glow with the expectancy of life that the first avid crappie anglers in the southern clime set out to stalk the banks of Texas lakes and streams.
Some of our northerly neighbors might retort that this is much too early to be concerned about fishing. "It's still too cold." "They won't be biting anyway." "Why bother when the weather will be much more pleasant in the spring."
This type of logic may not be faulty, but it ain't necessarily so! At least not for everyone. Beauty may very well be in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder might be bedazzled with an entirely different view because it is during this particular time of year that southern crappie begin to stir.
To some, beauty might be sitting in a boat, snugly bundled and shielded from the wind in a quiet cove dunking minnows for winter crappie. To others, it might be doodle-socking a jig under an overhanging limb along the bank of a creek, or under a boat dock. Whatever method anglers prefer, hard-nosed crappie anglers check out proven areas as early as December and stay with it until the spring spawn.
Due to unusually mild winters, we southerners experience - what to others might be dead winter days - spring-like warmth. The waters respond and the scrappy, prolific crappies move into the shallow streams and creeks that shoot out from most southern reservoirs. And they come in by the bunches. First the males to make nests and await the female's approach. She soon follows bringing her eggs to spawn and a vociferous appetite.
Depending on the area of the country this fish (pronounced "kroppie" by Texans) is also called calico bass, speed perch, papermouth or sac-a-lait (pronounced sock-o-lay). Regardless of the name, the immense popularity of the crappie is widespread among old and young alike. Perhaps one reason for the well-deserved status is the simplicity of equipment needed to catch them.
More crappie fall victim to the cane pole and minnow than all other angling methods combined. Additionally, the schooling tendency of crappie provides the angler with almost nonstop action once a school is located. The best explanation for the crappie's large following comes with its eating qualities. Many anglers proclaim that no other fish comes close.
The crappie is a member of the sunfish family and therefore is a first cousin to the largemouth bass and bream. Two distinct species of crappie exist. And both of these - black and white - are found in most southern waters. Their common names indicating color are not always a good way to distinguish between the species. For positive identification you'll need to count the hard spines on the dorsal fin. Black crappies have seven or eight dorsal spines while white crappie have only six.
Black crappie prefer clear, slightly acidic waters and spawn slightly before the white crappie in the spring. When water temperatures warm to about 60 degrees, the black crappie begin spawning. White crappie do not begin spawning until water temperatures reach 65 to 70 degrees.
Although natural hybridization between the species has been documented, the difference in peak spawning periods probably serves to reduce the incidence of hybridization.
When the water temperatures warm in the spring, the spawning migration toward shallow water beings. Both species build nests in water from 1 to 8 feet deep, usually in gravel or on hard bottom. If these types of bottoms are not readily available, tree roots and submerged vegetation may serve as spawning sites.
Fry normally hatch in about five days and after the yolk sac is absorbed, feed actively on microscopic animals called zooplankton. As growth continues, insects and small fish make up the bulk of their diet. During winter, fall and summer months, crappie tend to school in the deeper, more open areas of the lakes.
While crappie is most vulnerable to fishing during the spawning season, during the winter months you can look for them concentrated and suspended over deep-water structure. A sonar unit is a real asset in locating crappie under these conditions. Once they are located, spinners, jigs and minnows - fished during the day or by lantern at night - are all proven catching methods.
Large female crappie of both species have been known to contain 100,000 eggs or more prior to spawning. Due to the prolific spawning ability of the crappie, stocking them in small bodies of water is not recommended because small ponds do not provide enough food for the abundant young crappie. As a result, when you catch a crappie from a farm pond it is usually stunted because few young ever reach a desirable size.
Crappie spawn from late December through March in most southern waters. Old Papermouth is pursued vigorously by perhaps a wider range of anglers than any other species. Winter sees many heated docks walled with anglers aged 3 to 103, all chasing crappie. March finds an increasing number of boats clustered over hidden brush piles where crappie seek shelter and food.
To find brush-pile crappie your sonar unit can show you brush concentrations and fish underwater. Your best bet is to fish near stickups and tops of trees as there is often more brush under the surface.
While Lake Fork bass guide Mark Woodruff isn't likely to say anything, he probably is one of the best crappie anglers in Texas and he willingly passes along his crappie fishing "secrets" to just about anyone who'll listen. Woodruff has some good information about locating and catching this particular species of fish.
"It's actually pretty simple," Woodruff says. "Find the habitat and you'll find the fish. If you're not much of a map person, when you go to a lake - whether you're a first-timer or know the lake waters pretty well-you need to get a good look at the water, a feel for the lake and get to know where the feeder creeks are located. If you're wanting to catch big, quality crappie, the best place to look is in the creek channels from mid-December through about mid-June."
Techniques for catching crappie center on finding the proper depth. Timing the drop by knowing how fast your jig and line falls is one method. Returning your bait to the depth at which you caught the first one may lead to many more.
Another method is "crocheting." Line is allowed to play out until the lure rests on the bottom. Then it is taken by hand, using a pull-and-relax movement while moving the rod to either side. The process is repeated, reeling in slack at each unsuccessful level until a crappie strikes. At the strike, the angler should lift the rod quickly. The phantom-like strike alone is enough to keep your blood warm and your mind off frigid temperatures.
When Woodruff says to look for creeks, he isn't talking about small, 4-foot creeks. He says you should look for creeks with 10 to 15 feet of water because crappie will stay in these deeper creeks until the water temperature reaches the high 80s.
"Crappie stage in the deep, cool thermocline of these creeks," Woodruff says. "Then they leave the area to go on to their feeding pattern. Shad are the No. 1 forage for crappie, so the crappie move up onto the flats where the water temperature is higher and where the shad are working, have themselves a meal, then go back into the creek channel where the water is a lot cooler."
When the temperatures get higher in midsummer, the crappie will migrate out of the creeks and into the main lake. "You can still catch crappie, but you need to change your tactics," Woodruff says. "I basically use the same techniques that I use during the early part of the year, I just do it in different places. When the water gets warm, I look for crappie near mainlake points and in deep areas where creeks enter the main lake."
Woodruff says one of the keys to a successful trip is knowing the water depth. "In the summer months the water depth will be a key factor as to where the fish are located," he says. "I don't fool much with creeks with a 4- to 6-foot channel, because the water will be too hot for crappie in midsummer. Once you locate a creek with sufficient depth, look for structure. Crappie relate to wood, such as stumps, lay-downs and wash-ups. I like to work from the deep part of the water to the shallow."
Woodruff says other good places to look - and a place often overlooked - during the hot summer months on manmade lakes are the large open flats. "A large flat can be very productive for crappie, especially if it was an open field with fence rows before the lake was built. Key on those fence areas. That's where the shad will stage and that's where the crappie will go to find them. Again, work from the deep water to the shallow, and you'll probably find a place somewhere in there where the crappie are biting."
Site design by
Copyright © 1996-2007 Outdoor Management Network Inc.
America Outdoors® is a registered trademark
of Outdoor Management Network Inc.