Spring Target: Patoka Lake Crappies

Springtime usually means one thing to Indiana’s crappie fishermen: fish are biting. Even though many crappie anglers start pursuing their favorite fish in March and April, May is still an excellent time to fish for them. Both large fish and big numbers of these can be found throughout the month.

One of the most popular crappie waters in Indiana is located in the southern half of the state in Patoka Lake. Patoka is a huge reservoir, sprawling over 8,800 acres in Dubois, Orange and Crawford counties. This water has been a popular crappie destination for many years because it’s home to an extraordinarily large population of them. They can be found almost anywhere here, from flooded timber in the creek arms to weed-lined coves off the main lake.

Crappie populations are often cyclical, so it’s helpful to know whether the fish are in an “up” cycle or in a “down” cycle here. It also helps to know whether or not there are any quality fish present or whether there are only hordes of stunted runts.

This year, there is both good and bad news for Patoka Lake. The bad news is the lake is still crowded with small crappies. Anglers will definitely catch plenty of them when they fish here. The good news is that Patoka still has plenty of trophy-sized crappies. Would you like to catch a 16-inch or larger crappie? Head for Patoka for a chance to do so, but the trick is to find the larger ones and sort through the smaller ones.

Both white and black crappies can be found here, and some are really big. It’s not unusual to catch them ranging from 12 to 14 inches with the bigger fish at 16 to 17 inches. But again, there are thousands of smaller crappies, and at times these 5- to 8-inch fish can drive fishermen crazy.

According to Rebecca Munter, the DNR Fisheries biologist for District 6, the crappies at Patoka Lake are currently stuck in a slow-growth cycle.

“From our 2014 survey, the crappie population at Patoka is characterized by high densities of slow-growing fish,” she said. “Historically, crappie growth has been very cyclical here, meaning they regularly go through fluctuations between fast and slow growth.”

DNR biologists performed a crappie survey at Patoka in the spring of 2014 and found huge numbers of fish ranging from 3 1/2 to 14 inches.

“With our catch rates, they are the highest they’ve been since 2006,” Munter said. “With continued harvests of smaller fish, I believe crappie populations at Patoka will return to the fast growth and lower densities we have seen in the past.”

Biologists performed a creel survey at the reservoir in 2015, from the beginning of April until the end of October. According to Munter, they recorded some very large crappies with the some measuring 15 1/2 inches in length. But the majority of harvested fish were smaller, Munter added, saying they fell between 7 to 10 inches.

Local crappie guide Tim Gibson lives in nearby Paoli, and knows this lake as well as anyone.

“It’s not that the bigger crappies aren’t there,” he said. “They are just outnumbered by the small ones. I think they are eating the bigger shad too so they may be ignoring some of the smaller baits from fishermen.”

He said some of the larger ones they caught last year had three or four big shad in their bellies with shad tails sticking out of their mouths.

“One of the biggest crappies caught on my boat recently was landed during the springtime,” Gibson says. “We caught several crappies with the largest almost 16 inches long. We caught them up in the Patoka River section on curly-tailed grubs.”  The bigger ones are there for anglers willing to search, and Gibson recommends fishing the lake’s extensive grass beds in May.

“Look for grass beds near submerged timber,” he said. “If the creek channel is also nearby, the spot can be even better.”

He also said that live minnows are productive crappie baits and that tube jigs are often just as good.

Anglers can fish from shore at Patoka, but access is limited and boaters usually have the best luck. Patoka Lake has 11 public boat ramps located around the lake, so fishermen can launch close to the action no matter where the fish are biting. Patoka Lake is still a great bet for spring crappie fishermen with many having a reasonably good chance of catching a trophy-sized crappie any time they fish here—not many lakes can make that claim.