Any brush from cedar or hardwood trees will add excellent fish structure to bare lake bottoms.
(Photo courtesy Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources)
Build it and they will come
by Richard Hines
Several years ago, I was fishing on one of our local lakes in Kentucky when we met our district fisheries crew dropping old Christmas trees into the lake. We stopped and chatted briefly as they were dropping the last tree off the front deck of the pontoon. It was one of hundreds of trees they have dropping into this lake and we knew we would eventually be pulling keeper crappie out of this same pile.
Long before state agencies began building fish attractors, Japanese fishermen had been building artificial fish attractors as far back as the late 1700’s. Records of anglers building fish attractors in the United States date back to the 1860’s, but it was not until the 1930’s that state resource agencies began building attractors on public waters.
Just about every crappie angler at one time or another has considered dropping a brush pile in some “secret location.” And it is a good plan. If you are considering it, however, you should first check with your state fish and wildlife agency and/or lake managers to learn what regulations, if any, govern the water you want to enhance. While most state and federal agencies are happy that you are improving fish habitat, they must also insure it’s done right and doesn’t create navigation hazards.
Also remember that, once you drop a fish attractor into public water, it is just that – PUBLIC. “Build it and they will come” not only applies to fish but other fishermen Reel foot as well.
Picking the Right Spot
When choosing locations consider when you plan to fish – pre-spawn, spawn or post-spawn, heat of the summer or winter. Also consider that some lakes have dramatically changing levels throughout the year. In some upper East Tennessee reservoirs, lake levels can easily vary 30 feet between winter and summer. So do some homework or your lake and think about when you are most likely to be fishing the artificial structure you are putting in the water.
Keep it Simple!
A crappie brush pile can be as simple as sinking a single Christmas tree, or as elaborate as building permanently anchored, huge bundles of cane, sticks or treetops. If you’re willing to spend some money, there are several companies, including Mossback Fish Habitat, that manufacture incredible artificial crappie hotels.
Many anglers build their own similar creations by filling 5-gallon buckets with just enough concrete to hold several sticks, limbs or cane poles together and dropping them to the bottom.
One of the simplest fish attractors was described to me by 96-year-old Willard Parnell from Edmonton, Kentucky. Parnell said, “In the 1950s I used a 2×2 inch stick that was 8 to 10-feet long driven into the mud so it was just under the surface of the water…I would then wait two to three days and I would always catch one or two crappie, then move on to my next stake.” Parnell added that, “Other fishermen will stop and fish a brush pile, but few pay attention to a single stick”.
Pro tournament angler Frank Haidusek agreed and said, “I have caught two to three crappie by one lone stick”.
That is as simple as it gets!
Elaborate Brush Piles
For crappie, evergreens work well. When you drop trees in those lakes where levels vary significantly, remember wave action tends to start breaking trees apart. Your brush piles should be well under water during high water levels and if possible, on dry ground when water levels drop. At their best cedar or trees or other evergreens are only going to last around four years. Hardwoods such as oak, hickory or beech may last up to ten years. Plan on an annual deterioration rate of 10% each year. Also, artificial structures placed well away from any existing natural crappie cover is likely to work best.
For best results line trees down a bank from shallow to deep water two-to-three trees wide and ten trees long.
In my experience, the thicker the cover in your brush pile, the smaller the fish. If you are hoping to provide shelter for young of the year, cedar trees are perfect but larger fish may not be able to get inside the tree. They might, however, stage nearby to ambush bait fish.
Pro angler Chase Petty does not like cedar. He said, “It’s too tight. If you want bigger fish, the limbs, stakes, and material should be spread apart so large crappie are able to maneuver around in the brush”. He believes the best stake beds have around 45 stakes, 12-15 inches apart set on a 10-foot x 10-foot square.
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife District Fisheries Biologist Eric Cummins said, “One thing to remember about fish attractors is edge, just like managing rabbits and quail, edge helps so when tree limbs are not touching, the spaces between limbs provides the right amount of edge crappie prefer”.
Once trees are in the water, it’s only a matter of days before macroinvertebrates begin colonizing the wood which attracts baitfish. Ideal attractors have shade, food for baitfish as well as providing protection.
From simple to elaborate, building your own fish attractor might be easier than you think just remember to check those regulations and be safe.
Finally, and it hopefully goes without saying, but be sure and mark EVERY brush pile as a waypoint on your electronics.
Richard Hines is a retired Wildlife Biologist, book author and award-winning freelance outdoor writer and photographer. Since 1985, Hines has published two books, hundreds of articles on hunting, fishing, conservation, and natural history. Hines is President of the Tennessee Outdoor Writers Association and a member of Kentucky Outdoor Press Association and Hoosier Outdoor Writers.