Toledo Bend's brush piles normally are filled with hungry crappie this time of year, but something has changed that pattern this spring, one of the reservoir's veteran guides said.
"They're not on the brush piles yet," Living the Dream Guide Service's Jerry "J.T." Thompson said. "We keep checking them, but the fish just haven't showed up."
So how does Thompson and his fellow LTD guides keep clients happy?
The key is using their electronics to find the slabs for which the lake is known.
"We're using down scan to locate crappie," said Thompson, who owns LTD.
His unit of choice is a Humminbird Solix 12, and he said it's indespensible to this way of fishing.
"You can see the fish on the bottom," the guide said. "I'm not sponsored by any (of the electronics manufacturers), but I think this is the best unit available."
But the question remains how to use the electronics to find crappie on a reservoir as large as Toledo Bend.
Well, Thompson said he actually starts before he hits the lake, using Humminbird's LakeMaster maps to find likely crappie haunts.
"These maps are amazing," Thompson said. "They completed (charting) the lake last year, so you have all the contours to work with."
Bottom contours are shown in 1-foot increments, and what the LTD guides look for are ridges dropping off sharply from about 12 to 15 feet of water.
"You can mark some spots before you go out on the water, and then you can idle over them to see what's there," Thompson said.
He said those ledges with some kind of cover — a stump, a log, etc. — are the best bets.
"You'll actually see crappie on the down scan," Thompson said. "They look like little cheese balls."
The down-scan images will reveal bait, which looks more like static, and he knows he has a winner when he sees balls of bait with some of those "cheese balls."
"You don't have to see a bunch of crappie to catch fish," Thompson said. "If you see a few, you can catch fish there. If you catch four or five and it slows down, move to the next spot."
Putting fish in the boat once you see them on the screen is just a matter of dropping baits.
His go-to is a 1/32-ounce jig with a straight-tail plastic lure, such as a Bobby Garland Baby Shad. He adds a small split shot about 10 inches above the jig for two reasons.
"It helps with casting when it's windy," Thompson said. "I learned it from a man named Bill Fondren, who said it also gives the lure a different look. He said those crappie can see that split shot, so it looks like a little fish chasing something."
He often adds a crappie nibblet to the hook for a bonus.
"It goes against everything we learn about making the bait look as natural as possible," Thompson said. "But it works."
He simply casts out, allows the lure to sink to the bottom and then he slowly picks up the lure with his rod tip.
But he's not jerking the lure off the bottom.
"You want to pick it up and then let it sink back down," Thompson said. "You want to keep contact with the lure, but you want to fish it as slow as you can stand."
Of course, live bait also works. Thompson and I caught most of our crappie on a morning trip earlier this week using minnows eye-hooked on a hook. They just didn't seem interested in our artificials.
A larger weight several inches north of the hook keeps the line straight down, while allowing the little baitfish to swim freely.
For this kind of work, Thompson just opens the bail of his reel and allows the lure to fall directly to the bottom — no casting necessary.
"When you hit the bottom, reel it up about 6 inches," he explained. "That's it. Just let it sit."
The lake is off-colored right now because of sustained northly winds and the large amounts of rainfall, but there are still plenty of fish to be found.
If the lake is flat enough, crappie also are on Pendleton Bridge. Just focus on either end of the bridge until water temperatures begin climbing, at which time the fish will move farther out into the lake.