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 21⁄2-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 21⁄4-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.”
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