Story & Photos by Ron Presley
Okeechobee crappies are black and photogenic. Small hair jigs are Gibson’s favorite jigging lure.
Paoli is a small town in Indiana near Lake Patoka. Anglers in the know praise its population of white and black crappie. Okeechobee is a small town in Florida near a lake bearing the same name. It is know for its huge population of black crappie.
Pro crappie angler Tim Gibson knows Patoka Lake well. “I have over 35 years of sport and professional fishing experience,” says Gibson, “Twenty-three of those years were enjoyably invested at Patoka Lake. I was there before the reservoir was built and saw the lake bottom when it was still dry land.”
He knows Okeechobee too. “I have been fishin’ Okeechobee since the late 70s. It has always been a good crappie lake. The folks down here call em’ specks.” Regardless of what you call them, they are plentiful, beautifully black, and excellent table fare.
In the summer Gibson can be found in Indiana chasing after both white and black crappie. In winter he’s in Florida, determined to catch some specks.
Some areas on Okeechobee will have grass beds stretching three miles from shore, creating a huge area of crappie habitat.
Gibson describes Patoka Lake as an 8,800-acre reservoir controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. “They dammed the Patoka River to create the lake in a well planned experiment.” The Corps of Engineers actually built several ponds in the area that would be flooded when the lake filled. They stocked each pond with a different fish. “They put bass in one pond, crappie in another pond, catfish in another and so on. Then they did it all over again, building the ponds at different levels because they figured it would take three to five years for the lake to fill. They expected each stage of flooding to release fish into the lake at a different growth rate. At least that is how the Indiana biologist figured it.”
Mother Nature had other ideas. “The lake was planned for flood control, just not as soon as it happened. We had a hard rain for about a week,” explains Gibson. “The lake came up in a matter of three days and the entire reservoir was flooded. The rain came so hard it even washed out some bridges. No one expected the flood control aspects of Patoka to be put to use so quickly.”
The official opening came in 1980. The dam flooded standing timber, big field farms, a lot of small lakes and ponds, including the ones they built as stocking ponds. Several small feeder creeks create arms of water extending out from the main lake giving anglers plenty of area to investigate. Angler access is maximized by numerous boat ramps at various locations around the lake.
Because of all the standing timber Gibson does a lot of vertical jigging, especially along the river channels. “Vertical jigging on Patoka is the same as vertical jigging on Okeechobee, you just got more line out,” says Gibson. Sometimes on Patoka I will jig down 17 to 18 feet along a channel edge. You can usually spot those fish on the side imaging. You have to understand, there is no timber in the middle of the Patoka River. You should run the middle shooting out both sides with the Humminbird to find brush piles and timber. Move your cursor over to the brush and mark it. Do this for a quarter of a mile or so and then fish back on your marks.”
Gibson uses more plastics on Patoka then on Okeechobee. “I use plastics on Patoka instead of hair jigs that I use on Okeechobee. I use a lot of Charlie Brewer slider grubs and Bobby Garland Minnows, on a very light hand-made jighead.
In early spring his fishing starts up the Patoka River. “The water temp will be five to eight degrees warmer than in the main lake,” says Gibson. “Once the water gets into the high 50s or low 60s I start finding fish in the lake. Crappie are just more active in the warmer water.”
Gibson pays particular attention to how a tree has fallen to create a brush pile. He looks for a fallen tree where the top surrounds one or more standing stumps. “You can often see the stumps unless the water is high. If a tree top surrounds a stump or two or three stumps, I will guarantee you there will be big crappie on there.” Gibson says those situations are unbelievably more productive than a lone stump or a fallen tree trunk without a brushy top.
“I don’t always fish the wood,” says Gibson. “At certain times of the year, like pre-spawn, a lot of those big crappie will be out there on the main lake on the grass beds in 4 to 7 feet of water. ” In this scenario Gibson likes to cast curly tailed grubs over the grass. “You can swim a grub through there and feel it hit the tops of the grass. Let it drop when you hit something, and THUMP, you got one. Folks in our neck of the woods don’t fish those crappie often.” Gibson reports that when there is a tournament on the lake the pros will be seen spider rigging or maybe pulling over the grass, but local anglers have not got into multiple rod techniques much.
Where Patoka is shaped like an octopus with legs created by its feeder creeks, Okeechobee is more like a round basin of water with the edges covered in various vegetation. “We have a grass here called Kissimmee grass,” states Gibson. “It is a short grass that grows to the surface. Usually behind that you find pencil reeds and flat reeds (bulrushes). You will also find patches of hydrilla, duckweed and floating cabbage, all good habitat for crappie.
Gibson explains that cabbage and the hyacinth have a long root called a feather root. It is what’s below the surfaced that is important to Gibson. “The cabbage and the hyacinth plants are thick and the tiny grass shrimp live underneath there. If you can find those and tap them a little or loosen those shrimp with your boat motor, go back in there and fish. The crappie will be there, eating those grass shrimp.”
Gibson normally starts on the outside edge of the Kissimmee grass, with his boat in open water, casting towards the grass. Gibson rigs a 10-foot B’n’M Sam Heaton Super Sensitive bottom seat rod with 6-pound line. “I like the balance of the rear seat rod because I will be holding it all day. Let out enough line to pitch the jig to the edge of the grass and just let it swim back to the boat naturally. I use hand tied jigs from Madd Jigs. They are made by Capp Williams in Okeechobee. I like the June Bug color and the gold with a blue crystal flash, tied on a #4 hook.”
Super-slow jigging is usually the trick for catching crappie. Gibson prefers the B’n’M Sam Heaton Super Sensitive rear seat pole for jigging Okeechobee crappie in the thick vegetation.
When it is too windy to keep the boat positioned in open water Gibson moves back into the thick vegetation. “When you fish the lake in windy conditions you just have to get back behind the first row of vegetation, it will calm down the rollers coming in off the lake. There are boat lanes all back through the grass.” Some places the vegetation runs a mile from shore. In others it may be as much as three miles from shore to the edge of the vegetation creating a huge area of crappie habitat.
Gibson uses his Minn Kota trolling motor and drifting with the wind to make his way through the grass and reeds. Now instead of swimming his jig he is dropping it vertically into any opening in the vegetation. “I use my Talon to stop and fish a likely area thoroughly before moving on. You can sometimes catch several fish from the same opening in the grass.”
According to Gibson it is a slow and deliberate presentation that catches fish. “You need to drop your jigs slow. The first drop should be about 6 or 7 inches, real slow. Stop, tap it one time and hold it awhile. If you don’t get a hit drop it another 12 inches very slowly. Now, stop and jig it again, maybe 3 or 4 times before you go on down to the bottom. Even though you may be fishing only 3 to 5 feet of water those specs will hit it a thousand times quicker on a slow drop than one that just comes zooming by. If you don’t get a bite, pick it up and move it to another opening in the grass.”
Gibson is also a proponent of appealing to the crappies’ sense of smell. “One thing I do, and suggest others do, to is to use scent on the jigs. One of the scents I use is Atlas Mikes Gel Shrimp Scent. I have also used Berkley Crappie Nibbles. I believe a little scent on the jig increases my bites. On Okeechobee there are so many grass shrimp in the lake I like the shrimp scent. Crappie have a good sense of smell and any scent will help catch more crappie.”
Okeechobee is not the best beginners lake and a guide might be advised. “This lake is so large the average person would need some good advice to get started on his/her own. When I visit a new lake I hire a guide,” says Gibson. “It saves me tons of time and produces fish more quickly. I want to find out what kind of tackle they use, what type and color of jig they use and basically where to go to catch some fish.”
This tale of two cities and their related lakes is a story of adaptation understood by crappie anglers around the world. Crappie angler’s equipment should be match to the type of fishing, while technique and presentation should be matched to the body of water being fished. One way to discover what works and what doesn’t work is to visit with local tackle shops and anglers around the body of water you plan to fish. They probably won’t give you GPS coordinates, but they are likely to reveal some basic and general information that will help you catch more fish. The rest is up to you.
Tim Gibson is sponsored by B’n’M Poles and Crappie Pro Bait Company. You can contact him at (812) 309-0482 or email@example.com.