Crappie fishing is going through an evolution right before our eyes. Once one of those something-else-to-do things to most fishermen, crappie fishing was a summer staple for those with brush piles at the end of their boathouse piers or with boats who could access deeper water holes.
But in recent years that has begun to change. Crappie fishermen now are just as likely to show up in fully-rigged bass boats, fishing competitively or looking for a lake-to-table catch.
It is hard to pinpoint what has prompted crappie’s newfound popularity, but in some ways it has to be the transition of bass from a food fish to a sport fish and the restrictive limits that have come with that. Another factor is the locavore movement where younger people seek to bring their own game and fish to the table for family and friends. The third driver is the competitive angle, tournaments that attract fishermen with a desire to displace their skills just like bass tournaments have since the 1950s.
Clay Gann is one of those converts. The Hideaway Lake resident has gone from occasional crappie fisherman to competitive angler and part-time guide. He jokingly blames his wife, Cassandra, a fitness instructor, for his immersion into crappie fishing. At the same time he purchased a boat in 2015, she wanted more healthy fish for meals and doubled his electronics budget with instructions for him to keep their freezer full of crappie fillets. He has gladly obliged.
Over the years Gann teamed with his friend Todd Froebe and successfully began fishing Crappie Angler of Texas tournaments and other events they could find. With a seven-fish limit, that turned Gann’s attention from numbers to size, at least during competition.
More recently he began guiding clients wanting to catch fish to eat. While keeping his day job, he has been able to book enough clients to make the venture lucrative. During the winter, when crappie fishing can be difficult in Northeast Texas, Gann often made the commute to Lake O’the Pines, using Fork and Palestine as backups.
Knowing a 25-fish per person limit could be difficult some days, from his tournament experience Gann knew that on Pines he could always put his fishermen on big fish 2.5 pounds and larger.
“The way Pines sits up, it has one river channel and there is a stretch about four or five miles I don’t care where you are on it, you are going to catch some big fish out there,” Gann said.
In his pecking order, he ranks Pines as the top big fish lake followed by Fork and then Palestine. For numbers, his list is reversed to Palestine, Fork and Pines. With the weather warming and days getting longer, Gann has shifted to Fork and Palestine where he can take morning and afternoon trips.
Like a lot of other modern crappie fishermen, Gann has upgraded to Garmin Livescope electronics, which has helped eliminate the need to explore tree after tree for fish, and even narrowed the search for big fish since they are distinguishable from smaller crappie on the screen.
Of course the fisherman must know where to start and how to catch the fish.
“I am mainly staying on creek channels where they are going to and coming from spawning areas, and some points where I know they are actually spawning in trees,” Gann said, adding 90 percent of the time he is focusing on timber no matter what lake. He told the story about a day last year on Fork he found a crappie four feet down in 22 feet of water spawning in a tree top.
The Livescope has even helped him with bait selection.
“A lot of people use the theory of using big bait to catch big fish. I used to fish big baits, but since using a Livescope I could see I would get short-struck a bunch on a three-inch bait. Now I hardly use any bait over two inches,” Gann said.
Gann said his client base varies from parents and children of various ages, couples and bass fishermen looking for a change. He said he often carries minnows as a backup, but jigs are his bait of preference for their effectiveness and because of the challenges it provides for skilled fishermen.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department surveys, crappie remains the third most sought-after freshwater species behind bass and catfish. However, either on social media, through tournament participation or attendance at big tournaments, Gann said he has noticed an uptick in crappie fishing interest. Although shelved for now, he said Crappie Anglers of Texas tournaments have attracted as many as 53 teams to an event. Last fall Gann and Froebe fished the Mr. Crappie Invitational and Crappie Expo on Lake Hamilton, Arkansas, that attracted more than 5,000 to the weigh-in and twice as many to an accompanying expo. The two finished ninth in the event.
With more consistent fishing, Gann’s trips are now more focused on numbers including a chance at big fish unless a client specifically wants to fish just for bigger crappie. For more information on a crappie trip, contact Gann at 903-312-7276.