Crappies on the Trashy Side

Bud Haynes lives to catch big crappies at Kerr Lake each spring and he does that by knowing where “trash” piles are located.

April is prime time to find big crappies at Kerr Lake and one expert fills his boat with slabs by fishing sunken limbs and refuse.

Once upon a time, it was a pile of limbs and vines that a guy had cut around the bank of his lakeside lot in Bluestone Creek, one of the many major tributary creeks that feed John H. Kerr (aka Buggs Island) Reservoir.

But then the rains came, and the water level rose, and the current started running, and the pile of trash disappeared, swept away.

When it reappeared, double its previous size because of more limbs it picked up on its journey, it was in a pocket off the main lake about a mile downstream from the Rt. 58 bridge at Clarksville, Va.

Bud Haynes found it. He might have been out cruising with his wife on their pontoon boat, cooking hamburgers, enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon. He might have been idling along in his bass boat, headed to fish a secondary point where largemouths stage before they move into the bank to spawn.

Either way, he had an eye on his depth-finder, and on an otherwise barren stretch of bottom, he caught sight of a black mass sticking up off the lake’s floor, half-way to the surface in 15 feet of water.

One man’s trash had become another man’s treasure. And a few dozen crappies were doomed to become fillets in a frying pan.

Because if there’s one thing that Bud Haynes knows, it’s that piles of trash, piles of brush, attract crappies. And crappies will attract Haynes, who guides fishermen at Kerr Lake (aka Buggs Island on the Virginia side), a 49,500-acre lake that sits astride about 35 miles of shoreline along the North Carolina-Virginia border, following the old Roanoke River channel.

In the spring, when crappies make their annual spawning runs into the shallows in the backs of pockets, coves and creeks, Haynes is waiting many mornings and afternoons, looking for the big black and white slab crappies that typically spend some time at his trash piles before they swim to the bank to release their eggs.

“I’m all the time looking for trash piles; I keep my depth-finders on all the time,” said Haynes (434-374-0348). “I like natural trash piles a lot better than ones you put out yourself,”

And during the latter stages of March — and throughout April — he makes almost daily visits to dozens of his trash piles, most of them not too far from his lakeside home near Clarksville. He understands that similar to bass, crappies use creek channels as travel routes in the spring when they’re heading to spawning areas, and they’ll pull out of those channels and rest for a while whenever they find a trash pile or a stump or two or even a rock pile at the edge of a channel.

And if a school of threadfin shad or fathead minnows happens to swim past while the crappies are in residence, well, you’ve never seen a fat kid in the buffet line at the Golden Corral for Sunday lunch react as quickly.

Haynes proved that the last week of March 2006 when he carried a friend fishing one afternoon after a fruitful morning cranking for bass. He motored into a main-lake pocket, lined the bow of his boat up with a tree on a point, then headed toward the bank, eyes glued to his depth-finder. Halfway there, the screen lit up, with a Christmas tree-shaped trash pile and tiny markings all around it indicating a school of crappie.

Haynes threw marker buoys out around the perimeter of the trash pile, backed off a good cast away, then unlimbered a few spinning outfits, each one tipped with a tiny leadhead jig.

He pulled out a small tackle box filled with soft-plastic hellgrammite lures he manufactures — primarily with smallmouth bass in mind — picked one out and started clipping off some of the tiny legs that stick out of both sides of the dobson fly larvae’s body. Suitably altered, he threaded the bait on a mini-jig, made a few casts, and within two or three minutes, had a half-pound crappie flopping in the bottom of the boat.

The first trash pile produced a dozen or so fat white crappie, as did the next one, halfway back in the deepest water of the pocket. Visits to a half dozen other trash piles produced similar results, with a cooler full of delicious slabs in slightly more than three hours.

That kind of action is no surprise to fishermen who visit Buggs Island (Kerr) regularly, and certainly not to Bud LaRoche, a supervising fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who said the lake has always had an “excellent crappie fishery.”

“It’s kind of a combination of good numbers and some big fish,” said LaRoche, whose agency passes on all of its management data at Buggs Island to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, which returns the favor by working up data at Lake Gaston downstream — another reservoir shared by the two states.

“Crappie populations are cyclical, but generally, you’re going to catch a lot of fish, and some up to about two pounds,” LaRoche said. “They’re pretty common.

“It’s not unheard of to have a big creel of fish anywhere from 10 to 12 inches all the way up to 2 pounds.”

LaRoche said Kerr Lake is such a fertile reservoir, full of shad and other baitfishes, that crappies can’t help but have good growth rates and reach good sizes within a few years. Overall fishing success, he says, is largely dictated by the water level in the spring, when big slabs head for the shallows to spawn.

“A lot depends, in the spring, on the water level,” LaRoche said. “If the lake is low and a lot of the cover is out of the water, it can be tough. But if the water is up around 305 like it gets sometimes (full pool is 301.5 feet above sea level), then that puts all the fish back into the brush, and it can be great.”

But Haynes doesn’t rely on fish getting into that shallow shoreline brush. When he thinks a great majority of crappie are spawning — sometime in April — he’ll work the shallow water, but he thinks fishing is much easier when he can intercept pods or schools of fish setting up at trash piles in deeper water, getting ready to make their moves or moving back out when they’re finished.

“Usually it will be up into April before they go on the bed,” said Haynes. “March is a big prespawn month. As you get toward April, more of the crappies will be moving into the pockets. The bigger fish will move up into the shallows earlier, and most of your deeper fish are smaller fish. I’d rather find ’em right up on the break between shallow and deep water.”

Haynes said most crappies won’t stray far from deep water until they’re ready to move to the bank and do their stuff. He believes they’ll use a deep ditch when moving back into a pocket before fanning out into the shallows, and fishing just along the edge of a deeper channel is the best way to stumble onto bigger concentrations of fish.

And similar to bass, Haynes said anglers can just about pattern crappies by depth and water temperature. If he finds fish holding at the top of a trash pile, 6-feet deep in 12 feet of water, he’ll find them at similar locations throughout the lake.

“Crappies will start to move when the water temperature is between 48 and 50 degrees,” he said. “I’ve had ‘em located on top of a trash pile, 10-feet deep, at 46 degrees.

“One day when the surface temperature is 51 or 52, they’ll be in one place, then the next day, 75-feet away, they’ll be at a different depth, just loaded up. It can change from day to day.”

Haynes has a regular milk run of brush piles he can make in an afternoon of fishing, working at different depths to try and figure out what slabs are doing that particular day. Are they well back in pockets or out on points? Are they on top of the brush piles in 6 feet of water or down in 10 feet? And what color lure do they want?

When Haynes approaches a trash pile, he idles around, learning the perimeter and marking it with buoys. He backs off and makes a cast to the outside edge of the trash, then counts his bait down to the proper depth before engaging the bail of his spinning reel and starting a steady retrieve.

“I used a 1/16-ounce jighead — either white, yellow or pink — and I count it down at about 1 foot per second,” he said, to the depth at which he thinks most of the fish are holding.

“I’ll experiment with different counts until I get a bite. A lot of the time, if they’re in there good, they’ll hit it right when you end your count.”

Once he has the count down, Haynes fan casts around the trash pile, making notes about where most of his bites are coming, then keying on that spot. He may take two dozen fish off a single trash pile before the bite slows. Before he leaves, he may change colors or change his countdown, often getting the bite started again. If he’s guiding one or two fishermen, he may get each one counting down to a different depth, then switching to the one where the fish are biting.

“I’ll make six or eight good casts, and by that time, I should have a fish; if I don’t, I’m gone to another one,” Haynes said. “I’ll hit a whole lot of trash piles in an afternoon’s time.”

Haynes said color can make a big difference when fishing for crappies. He has a few favorites, but he keeps Spike-It dye markers in several different colors in his boat so he can change basic jigs to match what he thinks fish might prefer on any given day.

“Crappie fishermen always think about three different colors: the jig, the head and the tail,” he said. “You might have a pink jig, a pearl head and a chartreuse tail. I like to throw a little hellgrammite in pumpkin, and dye the tail chartreuse with a pen. I like pearl-and-chartreuse and orange-and-chartreuse.

“A lot of trips, I’ll start out with eight rods rigged with different colors and sizes of baits, and then eventually get down to the one color that’s the best one for the day.”

Haynes stumbled onto his altered-hellgrammite grub several years ago while experimenting. He makes them in several sizes to sell to smallmouth fishermen, but he sticks primarily with a 2 1/4-inch-long model for crappies.

He’ll pull the horns off the bait’s head, then pull off the first leg on one side. He’ll pull the legs off the entire other side of its body, leaving the tail. Trial-and-error produced that combination, which he has been thinking of selling pre-packaged, with a leadhead. It produces a jig-and-grub with a natural swimming motion that produces a lot of strikes.

Haynes expects to stumble onto some bigger fish during a half-day trip; he’ll often find them at a particular trash pile, or they’ll be mixed in with fish of different sizes at different trash piles. He’s noticed during the past handful of years that his biggest fish have been white crappies.

“I used to think until three or four years ago that all we had in this lake were black crappies, but the last three or four years, it’s been dominated by white crappies,” said Haynes, who hasn’t noticed the species inhabiting different areas.

Although he sticks pretty close to his home base between Grassy Creek and Bluestone Creek — several miles on either side of Clarksville — he said his tactics will work anywhere at the lake, which stretches from the outskirts of Henderson to Kerr Dam near Boydton, Va., all the way to the junction of the Dan and Staunton (Roanoke) rivers several miles upstream from Clarksville.

It’s basic: look in pockets and coves for brush in the deeper areas of the pockets, where fish will congregate before they head into the bank to spawn. Count your bait down to the top of the trash pile first. If fish aren’t biting, try different depths until they do. Don’t waste time on a trash pile that isn’t producing.

And remember, keep your eye on the depth-finder, even when you’re putting mustard on that hamburger.

About Dan Kibler 887 Articles
Dan Kibler is the former managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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