Canyon Crappie

by Jeff Samsel

Backs of side canyons and pockets along the edges of bays are often rimmed by flats that offer moderate depths to work and good crappie habitat, but specific hotspots vary dramatically based on the level of the lake.

Massive Lake Powell, which impounds Glenn Canyon along the Colorado River, provides spectacular scenery and high quality black crappie.

I’ll admit it. An errant cast helped us locate the crappie on the first morning of my trip to Like Powell earlier this year. I had cast toward some tumbleweeds (yep, same stuff they sing about in cowboy songs), overshot the cast a bit and snagged some brush.
As we moved closer to the snag, David Rose and I peered into the water, mostly to gawk at the crazy clarity. About the time I was popping my bait free, Rose said, “fish!” pointing into the water. “Crappie,” he added, as he got a better look. Sure enough. A nice-sized crappie was holding tight to some tumbleweeds, and after a bit more looking, we realize several slabs were within pitching range.

The author with a Lake Powell crappie that he caught by casting a hand-tied hair jig toward tumbleweeds on a flat. The first step to catching crappie in this lake is identifying the areas that offer suitable water depths based on current levels.

Initially, we pitched whatever baits we had rigged. We were geared for smallmouths, though, and the crappie just moved out of the way. So Rose dug though his tackle stash and found a micro jig – one actually designed primarily for ice fishing – and rigged it on a St. Croix crappie rod.
“We need to go small in this clear water,” Rose said confidently, as he pitched his dainty offering just past a crappie and let it swing in front of the fish. The fish showed immediate interest and sort of danced with the bait, with Rose leading the dance and both of us watching. Soon temptation won, and Rose was able to set the hook into a big, beautiful black crappie.
I switched to a tiny hair jig, and it wasn’t long before I got in on the crappie-caching game. We ended up catching several crappie that morning. Some by pitching up close. Others by casting to similar cover and swimming our jigs.

Lake Powell
The toughest thing about fishing Lake Powell for me staying fully focused on the business at hand. Impounding the Glenn Canyon section of the Colorado River, immediately upstream of Grand Canyon, Lake Powell looks like what you might expect – like the Grand Canyon filled 2/3 with water – and if you’ve never been to Lake Powell, it looks different from anywhere you’ve ever fished.
Canyon walls rise straight from the water’s edge in many places, and rock formations rise in the middle of nowhere, often with hundreds of feet of water around them. Every bend brings a fresh vista – each different, but all magnificent. Dozens of narrow side canyons feed the main rivers. Some are cliff bound. Others wind between sandstone domes.
Lake Powell covers over more than 160,000 acres and impounds more than 175 miles of the Colorado River. Other major tributaries include the San Juan and Escalante rivers. The total shoreline stretches more than 1,800 miles. The lake has been way below full pool for many years because of extended drought and downstream water needs that often exceed inflow. Much of the lake is so vertical, though, that it doesn’t look that odd when it is 100 feet below full pool, and you’re still apt to be riding over a few hundred feet of water. The deepest water in Lake Powell at full pool is nearly 600 feet deep.
Lake Powell is an exceptionally popular recreational boating destination because of its splendid scenery and proximity to the Grand Canyon. Many visitors rent houseboats, which actually provides an outstanding option for fishing outings because you pick the area the lake where you want to focus efforts and position the boat in that area. Camping on the lakeshore is also popular.
Although Lake Powell is very popular with recreational boaters and anglers alike, anglers mostly target smallmouth bass or stripers, with some attention given to largemouths and walleyes. Crappie get minimal fishing pressure. The lake does not a have a huge crappie population, but there are enough fish to provide good fishing for anglers who go after them, and they grow to large sizes.

David Rose of Traditions Media shows off one of several black crappie that he fooled by pitching a micro jig in front of fish that he could see.

David Rose of Traditions Media shows off one of several black crappie that he fooled by pitching a micro jig in front of fish that he could see.

Finding & Catching Crappie
Although Lake Powell is massive, the amount of quality crappie habitat is limited. The bad part about that fact is that it will always limit population growth. The good part is that it helps you “shorten the playing field” and find the fish.
The first key is to find water that’s less than about 25 feet deep. Most of that is found along inside bends well up the lake’s river arms and in the back parts of canyons and bays, especially in the little pockets and spur canyons. Specific areas depend on the level of the lake, so a good starting strategy is to look up the current lake level, study a lake map, and find areas that would offer some room to work at the right depths. You don’t need to pinpoint spots. Just find areas that offers significant water to explore that isn’t 100 feet deep.
Identify several areas you can look at in the same general area of the lake and build your plan accordingly. From just downlake of Dangling Rope Marina to Padre Bay, where the lake widens a bit, the bays and canyons formed by creeks coming in on both sides of the river offer quite a bit of good crappie habitat, as do several areas just downstream of the Big Bend in the San Juan River arm.
On the water, look for any hint of stain. From mid-summer through fall, after runoff into the rivers has settled, the entire lake gets mighty clear, but if you can find any color in the back of a canyon, you’ll generally find fish that are a bit more aggressive and shallower.
Cover might include tumbleweeds, aquatic vegetation, boulders, or desert brush. Through mid-summer, most fish are apt to be off the bank a bit, in 15 to 25 feet of water. If you can glimpse the top of some cover, try drifting or trolling in that area.

Lights Out Crappie
The best mid-summer plan on Lake Powell is to set up during the evening in a pocket that has the right ingredients, put down a crappie light and fish into the night. The light will draw up the zooplankton, minnows and crappie in the clear water, and the fish will feed more actively than they do by day. Jig straight down into the light.
Be cautious traveling at night, though. Move slowly, especially out of the channel. Keep in mind that if there are rock formations coming out of the water with 200 feet of water around them, there could also be one that tops out a foot beneath the surface. Study lake maps, consider the current water level and exercise extreme caution.