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Oxbow Crappie
written by Keith Sutton

It's not uncommon to fish all day on a little backcountry oxbow and never see another boat. And when the crappie are biting, there's only one way to describe it. It's heaven on earth.
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060500_oxbowcrappie1Fast-paced fishing for jumbo crappie, beautiful scenery, a get-away-from-it-all atmosphere -- these are some of the characteristics that lure crappie anglers to oxbow lakes along our country's big bottomland rivers.

Oxbows are formed by a timeless cycle of eroding floods, meandering channels and resettling earth.  Big lowland rivers follow the path of least resistance, eroding the outside shores of their broad bends.  In time, some bends become isolated from the main river as it changes course.  These bends are called oxbow lakes, because they resemble the U-shaped piece of wood on an ox yoke.

Mastering oxbow crappie fishing requires knowledge of the types of oxbows.  Some remain connected to the parent stream; some are not.  Some lie within the floodplain of major streams, while others lie entirely outside the floodplain.  Differing conditions dictate the manner of planning necessary to enjoy a productive crappie trip.

Oxbows connected to the parent river normally provide the best fishing for big crappie.  When the river floods the oxbow, inflowing nutrients enrich the water, feeding bountiful crops of forage animals on which crappie feed.  This yearly overflow cycle also provides temporary but important spawning habitat for crappie.

Unfortunately, severe water level fluctuations also make river-connected oxbows the trickiest to fish.  When the river rises, the lake rises.  When the river falls, so does the lake.  Changing conditions dramatically affect fishing, and anglers must monitor water levels closely to pick productive days.

As a general rule, crappie bite least when water is quickly rising.  A fast rise scatters fish.  They don't stay concentrated and holding around cover.  Most are suspended and moving like nomads.

Fishing runout areas -- the cuts connecting oxbow and river -- can be outstanding during a fast fall.  Baitfish concentrate near these runouts, and crappie follow for an easy meal.

The best fishing overall, however, is when the water level is steady or slowly rising or falling.  Crappie seldom roam then.  You'll find them concentrated in cover on or near structure.

On river-connected oxbows, crappie anglers should also know the river-gauge level at which the parent river will overflow into each oxbow.  When gauge numbers are higher than this number, you know the river and oxbow are connected, and you must ascertain the intensity of water level fluctuations -- fast rise, slow  fall, etc. -- to determine the best crappie fishing days. When gauge numbers are lower than the "magic" number, the river level is so low that it doesnt flow into the lake. Consequently fishing conditions are more stable and predictable.

The best way to obtain the gauge number is to inquire at local baitshops or to ask area anglers.  You can then read the current gauge number in local newspapers to plan a trip during peak periods.

Many oxbows are no longer connected to the river but still lie within the stream floodplain.  These still flood during wet months, and here again, crappiers should scrutinize water fluctuations when planning a visit.

060500_oxbowcrappie2Some oxbows lie outside the river floodplain, completely isolated by levees or dams.  These usually provide the most predictable fishing opportunities, since water fluctuations are less dramatic.  Consequently, they may offer good fishing when water conditions are unfavorable elsewhere.  If it's big crappie you seek, however, you may be disappointed.  The absence of an annual overflow cycle leads to decreased fertility, and quality crappie  1 - to 3-pounders -- are seldom found.  Nevertheless, some of these water produce astounding numbers of smaller crappie, making them good places to visit if you aim is simply to catch a lot of fish. 

During pre-spawn and post-spawn periods, spider-trolling is an excellent way to catch oxbow crappie.  Use sonar to pinpoint the deepest water available.  This is usually near underwater creek channels, if they are present, or near the oxbow's outside bend.  Once this is done, rig several poles (check local regulations first to determine how many poles can be used) with different color jigs set at different depths, then troll slowly, making large zigzagging sweeps over the deep-water areas. If you're patient and cover these areas thoroughly, sooner or later you'll catch fish.

During the spawn, however, anglers must head for cover to find slabs.  One first-rate fishing tactic is using a jigging pole or spinning rig to work jigs or minnows around the broad bases and knees of cypress trees.  Many anglers rig the bait beneath a small bobber so light--biting crappie can be more easily detected.  Others prefer to jig the bait or lure around the trees with a slow lift/drop action.

Buckbrush and willows are also prevalent on many oxbows, and many crappie are caught in the thickest such cover available. The idea is to get away from the edges that are fished by every passing angler.  You want to fish as far back in the cover where you can.  This means fishing jigs; live minnows will keep you tangled up.  And you'll have to employ a long pole -- 10 to 16 feet -- for extra reach.

To use a jig in these thickets, pull it all the way up to the rod tip, work it back in the brush carefully, then let it down through a hole in the brush.  The hole doesn't have to be big for you to fish it -- about the size of silver dollar, if that big.  And though you wouldn't think you could pull a 2--pound crappie out of a hole that size, you can -- most of the time, anyway.  You're going to lose some fish, but usually, if you get a good hookset, and hoss that fish up and out of the brush, you can get him in the boat.060500_oxbowcrappie3

Other prime oxbow fishing spots include fallen trees, beaver lodges, sunken Christmas tree shelters, weedbeds, riprap, stump fields and boat docks.  Fish them as conditions dictate.

If you're on an oxbow when floodwaters are receding, try fishing around run-out chutes between the oxbow and the river.  Look for areas where outflowing water is constricted, like sloughs and natural cuts, then work a minnow, jig or jig/spinner combo around surrounding woody cover.  Key your efforts to periods when water is falling 3 to 6 inches a day; during a faster fall, crappie are likely to be more scattered and harder to locate.

One final note: when considering where to go, think small.  Some oxbows cover several thousand acres, but the real jewels are much smaller.  It's not uncommon to fish all day on a little backcountry oxbow and never see another boat.  And when the crappie are biting, there's only one way to describe it.  It's heaven on earth.

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