Go Now for Virginia Slabs

by Chris McCotter

While largemouth bass tend to grab headlines and attract large tournament angler followings, there is another species that could be deemed “America’s fish” from its wide range and willingness to bite.

Pomoxis nigromaculatus, freckle, papermouth, grass bass, specks or just plain ol’, crappie draw nearly as many anglers to Virginia boat ramps as bass and striper. The “freckle fleet” might not be at the ramp at dawn, but they do show up en masse after church or after “early dismissal” from work on a warm spring afternoon in everything from jon boats to $60k bass boats.

What’s great about crappie fishing is that the good old boy in an ancient Sears Gamefisher often does just as well as the fellow with the brand new Ranger Commanche.

You can target specks in ponds, little lakes and huge reservoirs using gear as simple as cane poles, corks and minnows or $200, 6’6” graphite rods with $150 spinning reels. Those without depth finders will create their own fishing holes by sinking brush. Those with electronic aid will scour a lake using sonar fit for a nuclear submarine.

With all that said Buggs Island (a.k.a. Kerr Reservoir) tops all others in the big crappie category and March can be prime time. This nearly 50,000 acre lake on the border of Virginia and North Carolina pumps out plenty of big black and white crappie, so many it laps the field usually, and it is still THE place to go for the best chance at landing a two-pound or 15-inch crappie.

The Town of Clarksville, located right on the lake with its angler-friendly hotels and merchants, is known in the spring as Crappie Town USA to freckle fishermen. You’ll find folks that welcome your visit and crappie anglers everywhere you look.

For 2020 Buggs produced 48 crappie over two pounds or 15 inches (up from 45 in 2019), with the largest pulled from the lake weighing an impressive 3-12 and was caught February 6. 2021 figures are coming in soon from our friends at the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources for our annual Big Fish Best Bets article in the March edition.

Over the next two months anglers can expect to catch plenty of 12-15” fish with the occasional citation until the water warms to over 75 and the fish start to head deeper.

Be sure and stop by Bobcat’s Bait & Tackle for gear and where-to-fish tips if you go. The Lake Motel in Clarksville welcomes anglers and the Occoneechee State Park ramp is five minutes away.

The Whitlow family operates the shop and they are avid crappie anglers. They have run the popular VA/NC Team Crappie Trail for years. Bobby and Bobby, Jr. know their Buggs Island crappie.

“In February the fish will start pulling off main lake structure and work their way to the mouths of the major creeks and school around,” Bobby, Jr. told me.

He noted Buffalo and Bluestone crappie move up first, while Grassy and Rudds are next.

Livescope technology helps the Whitlows immensley. For most of February, until the fish move shallow they now do single pole fishing with a combination of soft plastic and hair jigs when the forward-facing sonar shows fish with.

If they didn’t have Livescope they would be spider rigging, according to Whitlow. He revealed his favorite soft plastic jig is the Jenko Tickle Fry threaded onto a 1/8-oz. head on a 8-10’ rod. He uses a 3/8-oz tungsten weight above the jig if the fish are deeper.

Lake Anna is usually in the top five of the DWR citation crappie list. Most of Anna’s trophy crappie are in the spring. The lake is smaller than it’s Virginia impoundment cousins at around 9,500 public acres with three distinct sections.

Lake guide, C.C. McCotter has been fishing for freckles on Anna since 1994 when he first offered four-hour trips for $85. He gets a bit more now for two anglers, but he’s still chasing crappies on the 13,000-acre lake just south of Fredericksburg. He has a system to target spring crappie on the lake that he’s used successfully for years.  

He says the easiest spring crappie fishing on Anna occurs in the up lake region when the fish are shallow.

“They go to willow grass, rocks, brush and docks before during and just after the spawn. Up lake is usually where you’ll find these types of structure in all lakes,” notes the guide.

He also advices to fish where the fish are on Anna or any lake you are targeting crappie.

“If you aren’t catching fish, move and keep moving until you find them. Sometimes I hit a ‘hot table’ right out of the marina. Sometimes it takes 10 spots to make a client happy. Either way, you have to be willing to move in the spring,” McCotter told W2.

Once the long-time guide locates a “hot zone” with shallow spawning cover he’ll use a variety of lures based on water conditions. In stained or muddy water, a Johnson Beetle Spin is his choice. In slightly stained or relatively clear water he’ll opt for a two-inch Bobby Garland Baby Shad on a 1/32 or 1/16 jig head depending on the wide. He uses six-pound test Berkley Trilene XL on a 5’6” Cherrywood HD rod with an ABU Garcia Black Max spinning reel. If he has clients that cannot cast skillfully or the fish are too tight to cover, he’ll switch to a slip bobber and minnow and a 6’6” Cherrywood HD rod and ABU Garcia Black Max reel. He says how you hook the minnow is important, too.

“Do not hook the minnow through the back, tail or mouth – all impede your bait from looking natural. I hook them through the front of the eye socket. They swim freely and stay on the hook better, often for multiple fish.”

Another important nuance McCotter teaches clients is to fish “outside-in” and not to try and hit a home run with the first cast. Instead he instructs his guests to probe the area around likely crappie haunts before going for what might appear to be the prime spot.

“If a client sees a the shallow brush or grass line we are fishing and makes a reaching cast to it first and snags it, that spot is done for a while and he or she has missed out on all the other fish that might have been schooled just off the structure waiting their turn to move up.  I always instruct them to cast first a bit off the structure, especially early in the season and then walk their casts up closer and closer to where they think crappie should be.”

Chickahominy Lake guide Art Conway’s system for crappie utilizes ultra-light gear. His home fishery is mostly shallow with extensive submerged aquatic vegetation, cypress trees and lily pads by April.

In the early season, Conway will fish deep wood on the main lake – in this case 12-22’. This wood comes mostly in the form of sunken trees, stumps on channel bends and a few old barges. Usually by the end of March, the fish move into creeks like Johnson’s, Shingle Annie’s and Lacy and Conway pivots to fishing shallow cypress knees and other wood cover for Chick Lake freckles.

The tidal James River offers excellent crappie fishing. Most of the best fishing the next couple months will occur in the barge pit below Osborne Landing. Dozens of old wooden ships and barges create a watery maze of crappie structure. The sheltered location also offers slightly warmer and much clearer water than the main river. Anglers will use minnows on slip bobbers here to land both black and white crappie.

Beaver Dam Swamp Reservoir is 635 acres and located just outside of Gloucester. The lake was impounded in 1989 and features extensive standing timber. Only boats powered by electric motors are permitted. The majority of the citation crappie were caught in March and April here.

Little Creek Reservoir, an 800-acre water-supply reservoir owned by Newport News is located just north of Williamsburg. Only boats powered by electric motors are permitted. The lake is deep and clear with little visible structure  though it houses good numbers of two-pound plus crappie.

Related Posts

Woods & Waters Magazine contains monthly features on awesome destinations, new techniques, outdoor personalities, tide charts, our Regional Focus Reports, monthly columns from our staff experts and more. If you want to receive the best hunting and fishing magazine for Virginia, consider subscribing today!

Woods & Waters Magazine is Virginia’s source for hunting and fishing information featuring award-winning articles and photographs by top regional experts intended to inspire you to get out and enjoy life outdoors! Pick up a copy today at over 100 retailers or subscribe here.

Featured Articles

Latest Articles

©2022 Woods & Waters Magazine, LC. All Rights Reserved.