World's Best Crappie Lakes?
October 24, 2014
Sunlight peaking over the mountains painted the arroyos every shade of ocher and peach beneath a deep purple sky. The desert mountain road led through a river and along a high pass overlooking Lake Roosevelt. Down below, parked on the floodplain, a fleet of trucks rested in the shadows of high desert walls, with license plates reading Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and, yes, even Texas.
Could this be the Mecca — the sacred gathering place where crappie fishermen come to whale — as in whale on numbers of slabs? How could this be? Guides and fishermen from each of those states swear the greatest crappie fishing in the world is right out their back door. So what are they doing here?
"Same thing you are," laughed Terry Kubik, our guide to the world-class crappies of Arizona. Indeed. Minnesota folks think they have some of the world's best crappie fishing, too. But we can't look up from a 2-pound handful of crappie to see stands of cactus stretching toward the sky. Traveling to top-flight waters for giant crappies can be a vivid, rewarding experience.
Besides, the slabs back home in Minnesota keep getting harder to find. Famous tackle shops like Koep's in Nisswa adorn their walls with stringer mounts of 2- to 21â„2-pound papermouths from lakes that long ago gave up their final bucketful of such trophies. With a much shorter growing season, northern crappie hounds have to learn to release big fish or forever relinquish all thought of "world's-best" status.
In my home state of Michigan, a 3- to 4-inch sucker minnow — pike bait — was my choice to ice crappies over 3-pounds in secret reservoir honey holes that would disintegrate if mentioned in a piece like this. There, a 10-inch crappie is seven years old. Ontario has its share of slow-growing wilderness slabs, too, where a 2-pounder is 16 years old or more. But in Kentucky, the Carolinas, and Texas, crappies grow bigger faster. The supply of big fish is replenished faster. And that's a good thing.
At any given time during the day or night, every month of the year, quite probably more crappies are being caught and kept than any other fish in North America. What's the magic? With a delicate mouth and a fuselage designed neither for power nor speed, the crappie cannot compare with the lightning-fast runs of a steelhead, the raw power of a tarpon, the barbarity of a muskie, or the brute strength of a trophy smallmouth. Pound for pound, they compare unfavorably even to bluegills and sunnies in terms of combat readiness.
So crappies prove that a fish doesn't need speed, power, or acrobatics to capture our imagination. Something tugging at the other end, something balanced to the tackle in hand, in the right setting, at the right time — something swimming in huge schools that can be sinfully easy to catch yet doggedly difficult to locate, at times, provides a perfect combination of difficulty and pure pleasure for most folks. That crappies make excellent table fare doesn't hurt (unless folks fail to practice selective harvest, that is). It's enough. It's plenty.
World-class crappie waters, such as those mentioned here, can be found in the heat of a southwestern desert, in a rock-and-pine wilderness in Canada, on the Great Plains, and in the buzzing hush surrounding a deep South cypress swamp. The thrill is there for any who would travel long distances to experience big crappies on different turf — on a warm winter day in Louisiana or in a cool summer breeze on the Canadian Shield. Basically, experiencing behemoth crappies from 2 to 3 pounds in settings quite different from home is worth every minute and every penny spent. (Hey, I'd visit downtown New York and fish the Hudson for a 3-pound crappie. And I hate cities.)
Slabs Down The Road
Kubik's home interior reflects every hue of earth tone found in the desert mountains around his home. Peach, ocher, beige and brown adorn the walls, furniture, and art. Kubik, a fly-fisherman turned bass pro turned crappie nut, lives within view of his beloved Lake Roosevelt and thinks it's possibly the finest crappie fishery on earth. He may be right.
"They bite here all year," he said, looking out over the reservoir with a cold beer in one hand and a phone in the other. "In summer, crappies are down about 40 feet, but so predictable, so bunched, that a 100-fish day is too easy sometimes. Some days, most of the fish top 2 pounds, and a 3 is always possible here." Drifting and vertical jigging with tubes and plastic grubs (Kubik abhors bait only slightly more than trolling) is the plan in summer. But he prefers spring, those marvelously temperate days in March and April, when pitching 1/16-ounce Northland Whistler jigs tipped with small Berkley Power Grubs to submerged tangles of mesquite and briar makes the game more challenging.
So, the crappie Mecca could be in Arizona, though many believe it's in Texas or Tennessee. South Carolinians would scoff at the notion of anyone considering any lake other than Santee Cooper, where 1- to 21â„4-pound crappies come rolling into the boat all day. North Carolinians think John Kerr is the place for crappies, and Virginians think they're heretics. Kerr is called Buggs Island Lake on the Virginia side of the border. Whatever you call it, In-Fisherman correspondent Roger Bullock (who happens to hail from Oregon) thinks it's "probably the best crappie lake in the world for numbers as well as trophies, producing, in the recent past, black crappies over 4 pounds and whites to nearly 6 pounds."
The hill-lands here offer numerous coves and creek arms for crappies to spawn in, not to mention the pastoral beauty of the surrounding midsouth deciduous forests that tower over the lake. Two Virginia state parks, Occoneechee and Staunton River, offer scenic camping opportunities right on the water close to the best spring action.
In-Fisherman editor Steve Quinn begs to differ with Bullock. Though a former resident of New York, Massachusetts, and Georgia, Quinn (now in Minnesota) believes Kentucky Lake, straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border, is the finest "speckled bass" lake in existence. Sprawling through a huge valley between high rolling hills, Kentucky Lake has for many years produced astounding catches of slabs despite heavy pressure. "For numbers of sizable crappies, it's pretty amazing," Quinn said. "I was there last fall when conditions were worse than bad." Spidering around with ten rods, each trailing a different colored tube through various depths until a pattern developed, Quinn and his biologist friends had quite a time. "It was windy, chilly, and cloudy," he said. "Post frontal, yet we still managed to hook quite a few over 2 pounds every day, even though they were suspended and tricky to catch."
Ask anyone from Texas about the best crappie water on earth, and they'll answer with two words. They just won't be the same two words. Some will say Toledo Bend, others, Sam Rayburn. In-Fisherman Chief Financial Officer Gary McEnally fished Toledo Bend frequently during the 1980s. "It was just incredible then. It went through some bad times, but it's just as incredible now, thanks to new size and creel limits," he said. "Folks used to load the back of pickups with crappies, and it was legal. My father landed a few 3-pounders on the Bend, and 2's bit all day long. Boats were everywhere, and everyone caught fish, jigging vertically 20 to 25 feet down with 6-pound line and light jigs, or just a split shot and a minnow. One hundred fish a day was common. Very common."
Then the heavy pressure took its toll. Bo Dowden Jr., a crappie fanatic on Toledo Bend, said, "Crappie fishing has been much better in the past two years than in the 12 years prior. Several years ago, Texas implemented a creel limit of 25 crappies a day, and a size limit of 10 inches. The new regulations had a dramatic effect. For the past two years and right now we generally catch limits of crappies from 11â„4 to 21â„2 pounds every day."
The key time is April, according to Dowden, when the lake starts dropping after winter and spring rains end. Right after the spawn, crappies migrate back toward deeper water in the main body of Toledo Bend. "They stage near points, in standing timber on the edge of the creek channels," Dowden said. "Pitching and swimming 1/8-ounce jigs on 8-pound line over the tree tops or vertical jigging with smaller jigs produces many fish over 2 pounds at that time of year.
"In fall, we catch lots of whites over 3 pounds in the back end of main creek channels. For numbers of fish that size, it's probably the best lake in Texas, with Sam Rayburn a close second. Fish average over 11â„2 pounds on Rayburn, and the best times pretty much coincide with what's happening on the Bend."
Ask Professional Walleye Trail pro Tony Puccio about his favorite winter junket for crappies, and he unflaggingly insists it's Lake Norfork in northern Arkansas. Nestled into the down-home beauty of the Ozark Mountains, Norfork is perhaps better known for stripers, but giant schools of big crappies are untouched in early spring by most local anglers.
"When I have multiple 60-fish days for crappies while trolling walleye cranks on boards, I tend to think it might be a good crappie lake, yes," Puccio remarked. Working in shirt sleeves in March, Puccio found crappies suspended 10 to 12 feet down over 30 feet of water about two-thirds of the way back into major creek arms. "The cribs in shallow water were being checked every day, but the crappies weren't there yet. I had them to myself in open water. Crappies were slamming those big cranks, and most ran from 11â„2 to 2 pounds."
If we allow Mr. Bullock a second choice for giant crappies (and apparently we will), he would mention Millers Ferry near Catherine, Alabama. "This little-known reservoir is a heavy hitter for slabs and big bass in spring and fall," Bullock said. "Check in at the Shell Minnow Bucket on highway 28 for a detailed map, some bait, and a little southern hospitality. Play your cards right, and they may put you on a hot bite." (Don't, for instance, whistle the Battle Hymn of The Republic en route to the cash register.) "If the action's slow," Bullock continued, "Lake Weiss, 170 miles north, is known for its crappie fishing in early April. But numbers are good on Millers Ferry, too. Crappies average over a pound, and quite a few 3-pounders show up at the Minnow Bucket every year." (Check the bulletin board for recent pictures.)
The slower pace of southern Alabama, the warm gentle breezes through the cypress and Spanish moss, and the relatively shallow bite combine to make Miller's Ferry a fabulous choice for north-country papermouth addicts in early winter, as is Santee Cooper in South Carolina. Not far from the flower-laden boulevards of Savannah, Georgia, and right next door to Charleston on the sea, Santee Cooper's giant schools of slab crappies fit right in with those family-oriented midwinter travel plans.
Reversing the migration route, southern crappiefiles can expect surprising action from slabs topping 2 pounds beneath the spruce-forested granite cliffs of the Canadian Shield on Lake of The Woods. Radiating out over half a million acres and encompassing more than 14,000 islands, The Woods is truly huge and intimidating for any newcomer. Gordon Pyzer, guide and crappie enthusiast in Kenora, Ontario, said, "The fishing is incredible this year. At times, we don't see another boat the entire day, especially in fall. Ontario folks think seeing another boat is a lot of pressure. We see deer, moose, and bear almost every day in a wilderness setting — paradise. Having thousands and thousands of acres of prime crappie water all to yourself isn't unusual.
"Spring is the key time to be here, without question," Pyzer continued. "If you know anything about the movements of spawning crappies, spring can be awesome up here. Summer is boom or bust, and the ice fishing season is actually best. Fish are concentrated in winter. But for open-water action, come in May."
Sabaskong Bay is a world-famous ice-fishing hot spot, where the crappie harvest approached 70,000 pounds last winter. "A high percentage of those harvested fish were over 2 pounds," Pyzer said. "And that's a shame. A 2-pound crappie up here is 15 years old or more. If lots of people pinpointed them during the open-water season, they could destroy them in a year. I think regulation changes are on the way. Lowering the 30-fish limit to 15 will reap huge benefits. Ontario crappies need to be handled with care to preserve the future of this world-class fishery.
"Releasing the 2-pounders would certainly help. Most of the year, these fish are aggressive. A 3-inch Yamamoto grub on a 1/8-ounce jig works better than minnows, especially in fall. Small crankbaits on 3-way rigs also take a lot of trophies here." Big crappies really crush little minnowbaits here in fall, but it takes a knowledgeable crappie angler to find them in isolated spots out in the back of beyond.
At times, even bigger crappies can be found in nearby Rainy Lake. Rainy is another magnificent body of water, stretching 70 miles from tip to tip and sprawling across the international border with Canada. It covers over 230,000 acres. Rocky spires rise from the bottom to form thousands of pine-studded islands. It's one of the most beautiful crappie settings in the world.
"Springtime on the American side is great in Black Bay," according to Barry "Woody" Woods of Woody's Fairly Reliable Guide Service. "Northwest Bay on the Canadian side is hot, too. No typical crappie days here, but a good day is 70 crappies from 1 to 2 pounds. On a fabulous day?" he pondered with that familiar wicked grin, "come see. Some years we can stay on them all summer, but winter and spring are consistent."
Woody trolls with a gold spinner in summer, using a 1/4-ounce weight to get down 10 to 15 feet. He tips the rig with a "pretty big shiner because in summer we catch some real slabs, fish over 2 pounds. I think Rainy can be just as good as Lake of The Woods, even better at times."
Papermouth. Calico. Crappie. Slab. Spec. The alias fish has more homes than names, from desert heat to Canadian cool. From the Gulf to the Shield, from rivers on the plains to reservoirs in the mountains, crappies are a worthy pursuit in these times when better regulations and a growing catch-and-release ethic for trophies make traveling for giant slabs a truly enjoyable challenge.