More than 40 years ago, customers looking to catch bass or crappie on Lake Ouachita might have found themselves in a boat with a teenage Mark Davis. Davis’s Hall of Fame fishing career originated when he started guiding on the waterways in his home state of Arkansas at age 13.
Since the end of the Bass Pro Tour season, the Mercury pro has returned to his roots. While guiding looks a little different for him these days, Davis (now 59) has taken a handful of clients out on Lake Ouachita this summer and fall in pursuit of crappie.
“It’s different from an aspect of you’re not trying to earn a living doing it, so you’re just kind of doing it to make a little spending money,” he said. “And it’s fun, because you can be more selective about when you go. When you’re trying to guide for a living, you go whether the fishing’s good or not. You’ve got to make them bite. Nowadays, if the fishing’s not good, I just don’t go. And when they get to biting good, I book some trips and go and have a lot of fun.”
Davis got back into guiding last year, in part to help out his son Fisher, who recently started a guide service of his own on Lake Ouachita. He estimated he’s guided 12 to 15 trips each of the past two offseasons.
Most anglers may view spring as prime crappie fishing time, but Davis is typically too busy on tour to do much fun fishing that time of year. In the fall, however, if he’s on the water, it’s usually to chase crappie.
As a result, Davis has mastered the keys to catching crappie throughout the transition from late summer into early winter. He shared a few tips for anglers looking to put together a fall fish fry.
Much like bass, Davis said crappie undergo a transition as the days get shorter and temperatures dip. It happens for the same reason – as baitfish migrate, crappie move with them.
During the summer months, the crappie on Lake Ouachita typically suspend over main lake flats that feature some sort of wood cover — flooded timber, man-made brush piles, stumps, etc. As summer turns into fall, they migrate into creek arms and pockets. They don’t get as shallow as fall bass, however. Davis said he typically finds them in 25 to 35 feet of water.
“They do start to migrate into the creeks, they kind of follow the baitfish around,” he said.
As fall gives way to winter, crappie can do one of two things. If the lake level rises, they often move shallower, Davis said. However, if the water drops — more common on man-made reservoirs that time of year — crappie head to some of the deepest haunts they’ll inhabit all year.
“I’m not saying all of them do, but the vast majority of them go out and they start getting out there in that 50- to 60-foot range,” Davis said. “That’s kind of after the turnover is done and the thermocline kind of goes away. They go really deep on this lake. And then they really get hard for the average guy to catch when they do that.”
One thing that Davis stressed is that crappie move more than most anglers realize. The location of a school can change not only on a daily basis, but while an angler is fishing for them. As a result, quality electronics are vital both for finding and keeping in touch with the fish.
“Crappie move just like bass do,” Davis said. “Everybody thinks about crappie just sitting in one spot and catching them, but that’s not the case. They’re constantly on the go.”
Small soft plastics on light jigheads likely leap to most anglers’ minds when they think about crappie fishing. While jigs always have a place in Davis’ arsenal, his go-to setup for catching crappie throughout the fall might come as a surprise.
When targeting fish deeper than 30 feet, Davis prefers to fish a small, 2 1/2- to 3-inch jigging spoon with a No. 8 treble hook. He’ll vary the offering from 1/4- to 3/8- to 1/2-ounce depending on the depth of the fish and the wind. He wields the lure on a light baitcasting rod and reel spooled with 12-pound-test. Davis makes a vertical presentation, positioning his boat above a school of fish and dropping the bait to them.
“You kind of jig that spoon around,” he said. “You don’t really jerk it hard like you do bass fishing. You just kind of wiggle it around and pump it up and down real slow around those crappie, and you can catch a lot of crappie doing that.”
Davis mixes in standard crappie jigs, too. He typically starts by affixing his plastics to a 1/8-ounce jighead, which he fishes on 4-pound line. Some days, he has to drop to a 1/16-ounce head to generate strikes. “It’s all about rate of fall,” he said.
If he does downsize, keeping his bait deep enough can be tricky. Utilizing forward-facing sonar helps ensure that his jig is getting down to the school of fish and staying there — a must regardless of technique.
“Crappie are weird in that it’s such a precise game as far as where your lure has to be for one of them to bite it,” Davis said. “They’re not going to travel. A bass will travel to bite a lure. Crappie, they don’t. You’ve gotta get it right in ‘em for one to bite it, right next to ‘em.”
If worse comes to worst and the crappie have a serious case of lockjaw, there’s one more bait Davis will turn to — the tried-and-true live minnow.
“I’ve seen some times they wouldn’t bite minnows and they’ll bite a jig,” he said. “So you just kind of have to let the fish tell you. But I have also seen it when about the only way to catch them was on minnows. I don’t particularly like to use minnows, but hey, we’re crappie fishing, we’re going to do whatever we gotta do to catch ‘em.”
As Davis detailed his crappie-catching methods over the phone, the sizzle of frying filets could be heard in the background. That’s part of the reason he enjoys crappie fishing during his time away from the tournament trail — not only is it a welcome change of pace, but the rewards are tasty.
Surely someone who’s been catching crappie as long as Davis has developed a secret recipe, right? Indeed. While deep-fried fish represented the entree on this occasion, Davis has found a less traditional method for cooking crappie filets. He gave up that juice, too.
“We sautee them a lot of times in a skillet, just in olive oil,” he said. “I’ve got some seasoning that I put on there. You wouldn’t think it would work on crappie. It’s actually a barbecue rub. It’s called Holy Gospel, and Meat Church is the company. So that Holy Gospel on some crappie is really good. Serve it over rice.”