Toledo Bend’s crappie are in a class all their own.
Trophy bass fishing has gained the most media attention for Toledo Bend over the last few years, but its highly productive crappie fishing drives a strong and dedicated core of anglers to navigate these massive impounded waters.
This lake is full of big slab-sized crappie, and that’s in no small part due to the prime habitat contained within. Toledo Bend has abundant natural cover as well as a large network of sunken man-made brushpiles to hold these structure-loving panfish.
And during spring time, crappie fishing on Toledo Bend becomes an exciting contact sport as big slabs put the light-tackle rigs preferred by many crappie aficionados to the test.
It’s during this time of year that the water temperature starts to climb toward the magic 70-degree mark and crappie begin heading from deep water into shallow water to make nests and begin their spawn. The fish are highly gregarious, and one female may deposit more than 100,000 eggs at a time.
At first, the fish stage in 10 to 15 feet of water and continually move up shallower as water temperatures rise. Sometimes water as shallow as 2 to 3 feet may hold huge schools of these fish.
A good place to start searching this time of year is off any creek mouth that offers brushy or weedy areas. Find shallow water surrounded by weed beds or brushpiles, and you’ll find crappie. Tangled cover is a magnet for these, and locating them is the first step to good catches. Again, structure is the key ingredient.
Several fishing techniques work, but a favorite is using a two-hook crappie leader with two single hooks baited with a minnow. A small bell sinker is used to hold the rig near the bottom or alongside brushpiles at the proper depth.
One method that also works is to jig a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce yellow or pink bait near likely cover. Move it up and down slightly until a school of fish is found. It’s very important to somehow mark the depth where the fish are biting because you can be sitting over a school of thousands of fish and not get a single bite if you miss them by a foot or two.
When I get the very first bite, I take out a magic marker and mark that spot on the line — that way I know exactly what point to drop to the next time.
Speaking of line, the trick to landing crappie is to use as light a line as you can get away with. These scrappy gamesters have very soft mouths, so rough handling can tear the hook loose and result in lost fish.
When crappie begin to move into shallow water, it’s not usually a matter of what exact cove or stretch of water an angler fishes. It’s the pattern. In other words, if the inside grass line in Huxley Bay is red hot for crappie, you can bet the inside grass line in other areas with similar depth and structure will also be productive.
“During spring, a lot of the crappie on Toledo Bend will be along the shorelines in shallow water, usually ranging from 1 to 3 feet. In early spring, they’ll be up in the buckbrush in the back of the creeks, and some of them will be around the shallow boat docks,” said Toledo Bend guide Greg Crafts.
The top bait for crappie in these parts is a live shiner rigged on a thin single hook. Crafts said long-shanked hooks are best because the fish are easier to unhook and release.
But don’t get the idea that Toledo’s crappie don’t accept plastic. They do if you’re careful.
“It’s all in boat positioning and stealth. If you get right over where you find the crappie and vertically drop your jig, you can absolutely hammer crappie. Small 1/32-ounce tube jigs and curl-tailed jigs can catch as many fish as shiners do any day of the week. You’ve just got to pay attention to detail,” Crafts said.
There’s a big misconception that once crappie start hitting shallow water that’s the only place to catch them.
Crappie generally hit the shallows in waves, and there always seems to be fish on the main-lake brushpiles. Sometimes they’re few and far between when the shallow-water fever hits the populations, but there are other times when the brushpiles are just as good and virtually no one fishes them this time of year.
On that note, one of the dilemmas about fishing such a massive body of water like Toledo Bend is that locating good main-lake structure can be difficult.
Crappie expert Roger Bacon has a solution for this. He advises anglers not familiar with brushpile locations to cruise the lake with a good pair of polarized sunglasses and look for submerged marker buoys.
“The buoys that are submerged and are covered with green slime are the ones you want to look for. These are the ones some of the hard-core crappie anglers put out, and they usually hold plenty of fish,” Bacon said. “That type of catch has been pretty commonplace for anglers who know where some of the main-lake brush is. This time of year it’s tempting to run shallow to find fish — and you probably can — but we’re catching the biggest and the most in deeper water.”
Last spring, I made a trip with Bacon, and the first spot we fished was right in the middle of the lake, in an area Bacon calls “the hard spot”.
“It’s the hard spot because it’s hard to find and hard to fish,” he said.
I’ll agree on the hard-to-fish part. The wind was blowing like crazy and the waves were churning, making flipping a 1/32-ounce jig difficult. But the crappie were in there so thick it didn’t really matter. If we pitched the jig near the brush, it got hit.
Bacon is a real stickler for details, and said the best way to ensure a successful crappie trip is to pay strict attention to all aspects of the fishing process.
“Pay special attention to your electronics. When you run around some of these markers, you may come across a smallish brushpile right off, but there are usually bigger ones around it, and they’re the ones that hold most of the fish. Also, there are a lot of peripheral fish or ones that hang on the outside of the big school,” he said. “You can catch some of these peripheral fish, but you’ll have much better luck working over the major concentration of fish.”
Bacon’s preferred crappie tackle is light action spinning gear with 6-pound-test monofilament line. His secret weapon, though, is a 9-foot fly rod rigged with a small spinning reel.
I got to test this weapon out on our trip, and found it to be highly effective. The fish were holding very tight to this one particular brushpile, and by using the long, limber rod I was able to much more easily work the jig at the right spot. In fact, I caught two fish weighing more than 2 pounds in two casts.
A highly unorthodox but effective technique of locating and catching crappie right before and after the spawn is by trolling.
During early spring and into summer, crappie are often found in huge schools feeding heavily on schools of minnows or shad.
At these times of year, crappie are most often found where deep, open water contacts some form of bottom structure or cover. Channel edges, road beds and weed edges are just a few of the spots crappie are likely to be.
Trolling is a good way to check these spots quickly and efficiently. Small crankbaits like a Cotton Cordell CC Shad or a Rapala Shad Rap are good choices for crappie trolling.
Since they’re usually suspended, troll several baits at different depths. And it helps to vary lead lengths when searching for fish. This can be achieved with light-action casting gear equipped with 8- to 10-pound-test line.
Work your trolling motor just fast enough to give the trailing crankbaits some action. This technique does not require fancy outriggers or planing boards, although they can be helpful. You can get away by simply putting several rods in holders at the back of the boat and keeping an eye on them.
On big reservoirs like Toledo Bend, it’s advisable to troll along creek channels that run through coves known for spawning activity.
When approaching points and brush, it’s important to skim the bottom to pick up some of the larger fish that might be hanging around.
Once the fish are located, you’ll need to get your baits in the strike zone. To do this, you need to know the exact depth your baits are running, and the easiest way to do this is to move into shallow water until your baits hit bottom. Carefully mark the depth with your depth finder.
For example, if your baits are running at 7 feet and the fish are deeper, try adjusting your rod-holders so your rod tips are at a 5 to 6 o’clock position. If you need to go deeper, try adding split-shot sinkers 3 to 4 feet ahead of your baits. If the crappie are shallower than 9 feet, try adjusting your rod-holders so your rod tips are around the 11 o’clock position.
And don’t forget to look at the electronics. Suspended crappie tend to be easy targets for quality sonar units. Watch your graph closely for signs of suspended fish, and diligently work areas showing numerous fish marks.
There are two separate species of crappie in Louisiana waters — the white crappie (Pomoxis anmilaris) and the black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus). Both are similar in appearance, but the black crappie is the most common in Louisiana.
The easiest way to distinguish one species from the other is to closely examine the dorsal and anal fins. White crappie have six spines in both fins, whereas black crappie usually have seven or eight.
It’s also important to note that crappie aren’t called crappie everywhere. Many anglers call them “white perch.” In most areas of Louisiana, they’re called “sac-a-lait.”
Don’t be surprised if your favorite crappie lake seems to shut down for a year or two. Crappie are highly cyclical creatures and their population dynamics can best be described as “boom and bust.” Last year was an excellent year for Toledo Bend crappie, but this could be a bust. Then again it could be even better than last year.
Some biologists believe that during good years young crappie are the dominant brood, but during slow years the mature fish eat the young fish. This cycle may continue until there are no dominant fish left and the process repeats itself.
On that same note, other species can have a strong effect on crappie numbers. On many southern reservoirs, crappie have been stocked on numerous occasions, but very few are caught.
Crappie are a mysterious fish and that’s probably what get some anglers so excited. But their value in the frying pan could have a little something to do with that.