To find out where to fish on Washington, we stopped in to visit Mike Jones, owner and operator of Southern Star RV park and Bait 'N Thangs tackle shop in Chatham (http://www.baitnthangs.com/). Jones suggested that to get an insider's look at crappie fishing on Lake Washington it was best to talk to his friend Jimmy Chambers, a weekend angler who knows the lake like the back of his hand.
To call Chambers a weekend angler is a bit of a misnomer. He's a weekday angler, often preferring to leave the weekends to Lake Washington's many visiting anglers. He's a local who grew up on the lake, has even been known to grab a snake or two from Washington's swampy waters and would be the kind of angler who you'd love to get a look at the spots he had marked on his GPS - if he used one.
So the next best thing was to get in the boat with him and ask him to show us where he fishes at Washington. Here are his top picks and some notes on how he fishes them from the beginning of February through the spawn:
1. Alligator Hole – N33 05.824 x W91 03.618
"Every so often, you'll see a gator in here but not during this time of year," said Chambers of the open area on the northwest corner of the lake the locals have named Alligator Hole. "It should be called 'crappie hole' because this place is loaded with them."
The Alligator Hole is a clearing in the numerous cypress trees that line the west banks of Lake Washington and is approximately 6 acres in size. Small sandbars, shoals and islands make up the interior of the hole, perfect staging areas for February crappie.
"You might fish this area and catch just a few fish or maybe nothing," he said, "then an hour later there will be crappie on every stump and stick up. That's how quick the bite can cut on in here."
2. Entrance to Alligator Hole – N33 05.861 x W91 03.918
Variances in water levels have a big influence on the quality of fishing on Lake Washington. During drought times, the lake suffers, but during floods it's protected from onslaughts from the Mississippi. At normal levels, the Alligator Hole has up to 10 feet of water in it, particularly in the creek channel at spot No. 2 that winds through the Alligator Hole from one entry way to the other.
"This point is the south entrance to the Alligator Hole," said Chambers. "There are two entry and exit ways, and those fishermen who like to troll will start here and troll through the area when the fish are staging before the spawn."
Typical bottom depth around the cypress trees in the Alligator Hole is from 3 to 5 feet. Chambers indicates this is ideal depth for jigging around the stumps with a jig pole during the coming spawn, which may start as early as late February and run through the month of March.
3. West End - N33 05.970 x W91 04.992
"People call this the north end of the lake, not realizing that Washington is shaped like a horseshoe and bends back around," said Chambers. "This is actually the west end of the lake."
Regardless of your compass preference, the west end of the lake silted in when the Mississippi River changed course to create the oxbow. An old creek channel and various run-off ditches form subtle changes in bottom depth that staging crappie will be holding on and later use to work their way into the standing cypress trees when the water rises in the spring.
Not much for trolling, Chambers prefers a 9- to 10-foot jig pole and a handful of 1/16-ounce jigs to work the cypress knees and stickups typical in the west end of the lake.
"I don't get hung up on the colors of jigs," he said. "I mostly use hand-tied jigs, I even tie a few of my own simply because I like the action on these jigs over a bunch of multi-colored plastics.
"As you can see, I have some old, beat-up jigs, but they still catch crappie. You put one of these down beside a stump and if that fish sees it, he's gonna eat it."
4. Cordell's Landing – N33 06.310 x W91 03.725
Chambers points to two kinds of structure that hold crappie in Lake Washington during the early spring: natural structure like cypress knees on the west side of the lake and man-made structure like piers, docks and the planted brushpiles associated with them that are more prevalent on the east banks of the lake.
"The area around Cordell's has got a lot of piers and docks both above and below the ramp," he said. "Everyone puts out structure, mostly brushpiles and stakebeds, around their docks, and that's what crappie use to hold on before, during and after the spawn."
Depending on the timing of the spawn and seasonal weather patterns, Chambers will look for deeper water and structure out in front of the docks early in the month, and then work his way shallower as the water warms and crappie begin feeding up during the pre-spawn and then bedding as the spawn starts.
5. Sailboat Club – N33 05.449 x W91 02.220
Hotspot No. 5 is out in front of the old Glen Allan Sailboat Club. The property is no longer in use, becoming more of a local landmark since the club went out of business two decades ago. The upside is that the old wooden piers are still there, and many of them are beginning to deteriorate.
"Any time you find old wooden structure that nobody is using, it's a magnet for crappie," said Chambers. "Some of these piers are newer and some of them are so old they're starting to rot and fall into the water. The old ones will hold three times more fish than the newer ones."
6. Bells Fishing – N33 05.492 x W91 02.232
Just north of the Sailboat Club on the east bank of Lake Washington is another abandoned property that was once the home of Bell's Fishing Camp.
The row of old pilings that run out into the lake will have 6 to 7 feet of water around them at normal pool. Chambers says the visible structure gets its fair share of fishing pressure, partially because it just looks like a good fishing area, which it is.
He also advises that many visiting anglers never take the time to locate the submerged structure that's not visible above the surface, and that's where he catches most of his fish in this location.
"The outside bend of the lake has better fall fishing than the inside bend," he said. "When the water floods up into the trees on the inside bend, crappie swarm in there to spawn.
"But I will come over here if the lake is having a drought season or before the fish move in to spawn because it's got some deeper water structure."
7. Duck Blind Hole – N33 05.020 x W91 02.866
So named for the remnants of an old duck blind that once overlooked this cove on the west bank of the lake, Chambers will head to spot No. 7 once crappie have invaded the surrounding trees during the spawn. He'll often pull into the area, don a pair of waders and leave the boat behind.
"It's good hard bottom, not silted in like some other areas around the lake," said Chambers. "Crappie like a little firmer bottom for spawning, and the hard bottom makes it easier to get back into the trees and wade for crappie."
Whether or not wade fishing becomes an option with the spring spawn again has to do with water level. If the waters infiltrate back into the trees, the wade fishing, and fishing in general, will be good.
"This past spring was a dry one," he said. "That made it a whole lot tougher to fish this lake."
8. Highland Club Pier – N33 04.655 x W91 02.997
The long wooden pier out in front of the Highland Club on the west bank is only part of the appeal of this hotspot. According to Chambers, the typical water depth at the end of the pier averages about 5 feet, and the pilings provide plenty of structure that draw and hold pre-spawn and spawning crappie, particularly if the water isn't up in the trees yet.
A drainage ditch runs in on the south side of the pier and has silted in over time, which makes it difficult to find unless you're watching your depth finder. The ditch helps funnel crappie into the area. Another bonus factor about this spot is that it's a natural magnet for baitfish.
"Washington is full of what we call pot-gut minnows," he said. "Anywhere you see an area where the surface of the water is dimpling, it's those pot-gut minnows swimming just under the surface and that's pretty common to see in this area.
"If you see the dimpling, there'll always be crappie hanging around in that area."
9. Mouth of Cuckleberry Swamp – N33 03.664 x W91 02.888
Otherwise know as Cuckleburr Creek, this spot marks the creek that runs from the main lake into a stump-studded slough that may only be accessible when the water is high. The average water depth at this point may be in the 8- to 9-foot depth range. Look for crappie to stage along the drop during the month of February and then use the ditch as a pathway to move back into structure as water temperatures and water levels dictate.
"The creek that runs up into the field is a good area to troll before the spawn or if you can't get back in there," said Chambers. "Some old cypress stumps run along the channel before it drops off into the lake."
10. John Henry's Slough – N33 02.825 x W91 02.762
Similar to Cuckleburr and the West End Spot, both crappie and anglers can advance into John Henry's as water levels and temperatures dictate. When the water is up, anglers have a choice of working their way into the cypress trees and jigging the knees and stumps found there. If conditions are right, wade fishing can be productive along the back edges where the water is shallow enough to wade.
From early February until the spawn, anglers may find trolling with live bait to be more productive. Chambers indicated that many anglers fish too deep in relation to where crappie hold on Lake Washington. Most crappie prefer to hold higher in the water column, possibly in relation to the pot-gut minnow forage that is prevalent throughout the lake, than they do in other bodies of water.
"The spawn will start as early as the end of February at Washington," Jones said. "We get a lot of visitors during March and April.
"Seems like as soon as word gets out that the fish have moved shallow, we'll get a lot of folks from all over and a lot of my customers do well from the beginning of February all the way to the end of April. We'll see daily catches of 2-pound-plus crappie and several fish that will top 3 pounds when the fishing is good. "