Photo & Story by Darl Black
When the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed Shenango River Lake in northwestern Pennsylvania during the mid-1960s, the primary purpose was to prevent down river flooding. Recreation use was not a priority; therefore the ACE had no idea that Shenango would become one of the top crappie lakes in Pennsylvania, including producing a 3-pound 12-ounce PA State Record White Crappie in the 1990s. Now, ‘mature’ at 50 years of age, Shenango is still producing high numbers of crappies.
The 3,500-acre Shenango River Lake is roughly 25 river miles downstream of Pymatuning Lake, another excellent Pennsylvania crappie lake. But the two lakes are very different. Compared to Pymatuning, Shenango has very little aquatic vegetation. The lack of vegetation, coupled with a greater water level fluctuation, leads to a dingy water color throughout the year on Shenango. Off-color water is particularly evident following snow melt combined with spring rains.
There’s an old saying about winter-into-spring weather which states “March comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb.” But in northwestern Pennsylvania, gentle springtime weather never makes an appearance in March. Early April is actually winter’s last hurrah, arriving cloaked in brown then departing 30 days later adorned in green. Likewise on Shenango, the crappie bites starts off slow in April and goes out gangbusters at the end of the month.
Living in nearby Sharon during my youth, I regularly fished Shenango with my dad for years following the lake being filled. During late April and early May we explored the skinny water flats just off the river channel in the headwaters of the reservoir. Here we enjoyed success by dropping a minnow beside partially submerged willow brush in the newly formed reservoir.
The visible brush has rotted away over time. But the spider-like root systems of large stumps cut close to the ground remain intact in the shallows – although difficult to spot in the dingy water. These spider stumps and man-made brushpiles in slightly deeper water are the key attractors for spring crappies.
Many of the brushy structures are ones built and installed as part of a program overseen by the Shenango Lake Army Corps habitat manager. Other random brush piles are slipped in without approval of ACE. All will hold crappies sometime in April.
Today, Ken “Chaunc” Smith of Sharon, Pennsylvania, is the sage of Shenango crappie fishing. He fishes strictly for crappie on the lake year-round, both open water and ice. “My April fishing on Shenango is curtailed somewhat due to an extended annual fishing trip to Kentucky Lake. I’ll fish the first week of April on Shenango and then later in the month when I return from my Southern Swing.
“In early April, I fish from the shore. I drive up to shoreline access areas on the Pymatuning Creek Arm of the reservoir because this section of the lake warms up quicker than the Shenango River Arm. I use a simple presentation of slip bobber with minnow suspended below it. I’m targeting brushpiles and stumps that are in 10 to 12 feet of water but within casting distance from the bank. Crappies are holding just outside the shallows waiting for warmer water temperatures. Using a sliding bobber rig allows me the ability to make long, accurate casts from the shoreline and still get the minnow down to the cover.”
By surveying the perimeter of the lake during drawdown in the fall over many years, Chaunc has located many potential wood attractors. He triangulates their location and writes it down so he can target them when fishing from the bank in early April.
“When I return from Kentucky Lake, I launch my boat on Shenango for the first time each fishing season,” explains Ken. “Crappies are just starting to move, so I generally find fish as shallow as 5 feet and as deep as 13 feet. Because crappies are not locked to spawning areas but spread out on flats and sloping points, drifting is an excellent presentation.”
He typically puts out two rods when drifting. One rod is fished tight-line style with a bait hook tied direct and tipped with a live minnow. The second rod will have a minnow suspended below a bobber. With the tight-line minnow swimming just off the bottom and another minnow suspended several feet above the bottom, Ken has the necessary depth spread to find crappies.
“I prefer small to medium fatheads at this time of year. April is the only time he use live minnows,” acknowledges Ken. “Once the water warms in May, I go to plastic body jigs and never bother with minnows again until the following spring.
“I use #2 Tru-Turn Gold Crappie Hooks. I have such faith in this hook that it’s the only live bait hook I allow in my boat! My drift rods are 10-foot BnM Crappie Wizard Rods that have the stiffer action I prefer. Occasionally, I’ll insert a soft plastic tube body over the bait hook which adds some attraction to the minnow when the water is unusually dirty. My buddy Tim Oden always insists on a green body, but I like black/chartreuse.”
The sock is retrieved by pulling the dump line which collapses the sock in order for it to be hauled back to the boat on the lead rope.
The weights on both lines are split shots – usually a #5 shot. When faced with brisk April breezes, Chaunc employs a drift sock to slow the boat so he does not need to add more weight.
The use of a drift sock has long been popular in NW Pennsylvania among Pymatuning walleye fishermen as well as Lake Erie smallmouth anglers who like to drift-fish large open water. But in recent years, more and more area crappie anglers are observed utilizing a drift sock. I’ve come to appreciate a drift sock for crappies, too.
Attached to the boat via a short rope lead, the cone-shaped nylon sock fills with water, increasing resistance and slowing the boat. Deployment of the proper-size sock for a specific length boat off the bow or mid-ship can substantially reduce the drift speed, allowing the angler to use minimal weight while slowly covering water.
Although Shenango River Lake hosts populations of both white and black crappies, Ken concurs with my long-standing observation that black crappies are the first ones to move in the spring. White crappies rarely show up in the angler’s catch until early May. Late April is the time to catch Shenango’s biggest black calico crappies.