Over the past several weeks I’ve written about a variety of local waters (within a 90-minute drive), the species in them, the guides who work them and the techniques successfully used on those waters. Today we look at crappie, specifically, white crappie.
Clients often ask me why I don’t guide for species other than white bass and hybrid stripers here on Belton Lake and on Stillhouse Hollow. My reply is always the same, “I don’t like to try to pick peaches in an apple orchard.” The point is that our local lakes simply do not offer ideal habitat for certain species, including the popular largemouth bass and crappie. So in order to help anglers be successful, I focus on what is plentiful. Our clear, relatively cover-free, relatively infertile lakes are just right for white bass and hybrid stripers.
The lack of ideal habitat is a two-fold issue. Unfortunately, both lakes were, for the most part, intentionally cleared of timber and brush during construction. This eliminated a lot of wood cover that both largemouth and crappie prefer. Most of the timber that does exist stands in heavily sloped areas where dozers could not work, especially along the old river channel.
The second part of the habitat issue is the matter of fertility. Belton and Stillhouse simply do not have great amounts of nutrients being flushed into them by rain to act as fertilizer for the food chain. The lands that form the watershed for both reservoirs have little topsoil and are not rich in agriculture (hence, there is little fertilizer runoff), nor in high density cattle ranching (hence, there is little manure picked up in runoff during rain events). This leaves the lakes relatively clear, as there is not a great amount of algae blooming, and somewhat underfed. The fishery reflects this lack of nutrition.
This is not to say that our lakes don’t have bass and crappie, nor that an occasional quality fish can’t be taken. But, compared to the crappie and bass “factories” like Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Lake Fork and others, where there is both abundant cover and high fertility, Stillhouse and Belton fall short in these categories.
The bottom line on crappie is that this species does best in fertile, turbid (off-color) water with abundant wood cover. To enjoy solid, nearby crappie fishing, one must travel east and out of the limestone-based Hill Country. I-35 serves as a divider of sorts between the rocky Hill Country and the more fertile, flatter “blacklands.” Located just east of Austin near the towns of Taylor and Granger is a fairly small lake teeming with crappie called Granger Lake.
Granger Lake is turbid and fertile. Although there are no expansive stands of timber, thousands of man-made brushpiles have been placed in the lake over the years and serve to concentrate crappie within them.
One of the most well-known crappie guides on Granger Lake is Tommy Tidwell. I interviewed Tommy and asked him for a seasonal snapshot of how Granger Lake’s crappie should be fished for in the two main “seasons” of the Granger crappie calendar — spring and summer/fall. Here is what I learned from him and I hope this helps the crappie enthusiast visiting Granger for the first time:
This season starts around mid-April at the end of the crappie spawn and extends to the end of October as the first severe cold fronts both chill and muddy the water. In April, crappie begin to move out of the shallows and coves and back to the main lake where they begin to orient to brushpiles in 4-to-15 feet of water.
Tidwell prefers using marabou jigs tipped with Berkley Crappie Nibbles in off-colored water during and following times of high winds.
The dirtier the water, the larger the jig. Jig color is not an overriding concern to Tidwell and he mainly sticks with basic black or white.
He prefers minnows hooked on a No. 1 hook in clear water under calmer conditions. Using a loop knot to connect the jig to the fishing line is a must to keep the jig hanging naturally and horizontally.
Whether using a marabou jig or minnow on a hook, Tidwell likes to fish on a tight line vertically and directly beneath the boat targeting the high point of the brushpile being fished over. Abundant brushpiles, and even the fish orienting to them, can be found using modern side-looking sonar.
From the beginning of March to mid-April, the crappie begin to move shallow to spawn. Tidwell puts the spinning tackle away and instead uses a 10-foot B&M jig pole or other telescoping graphite pole with a small underspin reel. He uses small Bass Assassin plastic jigs 1½-to-2 inches in length set just 12-14 inches below a slip float to keep the jig suspended off bottom when fishing in about 2-feet of water. Again, a loop knot is used to tie the jig to the line.
Prime locations are backwaters, coves, pockets, indentions along the bank, beaver lodges and naturally occurring or man-made brush piles all in shallow water just 1-to-2 feet deep.
Of these two seasons, Tidwell feels the summer/fall is most productive and consistent. Due to prolonged drought, a lot of willow trees have grown in the shallow areas typically inhabited by the crappie during the spring spawn. This has limited access to key areas and has had a diluting effect on fish location.
Instead of one brushpile holding 15 fish as in the past, those 15 fish may now be located among five or six willows, forcing the fisherman to cover more water and probe more ambush points to put together the same tally of fish. Tidwell advises against cold water crappie fishing on Granger from November through February.
So if it is white bass or hybrid striper you want — go no further than Belton or Stillhouse. But if crappie are what tickle your fancy, a drive to Granger is definitely worth the look.