Lake Varner Spring Crappie
This Newton County water-supply reservoir can supply you with a mess of crappie this month, and maybe a bonus hybrid or two. Here is how and where to catch them now.
front of the boat as we slowly drifted across Lake Varner on a recent breezy afternoon in February. Dennis Young, my partner and guide for the afternoon, grabbed both rods and sat on one as he reeled in the first fish, dropped it in the boat, then quickly brought in another eating-size crappie on the second rod.
“Must have come through some fish right there,” said Dennis with a grin as he dropped the crappie in the cooler.
I had already caught a few from the back of the boat before Dennis got his double, so he quickly pointed out, “I spotted you those first few fish you caught, just so you wouldn’t feel bad when I got serious about catching them.”
Catching doubles on crappie isn’t unusual on Varner when they’re biting good, and that wasn’t our last double for the afternoon.
Lake Varner is a water-supply reservoir that provides drinking water for Newton County and the city of Covington. It also provides some top-notch fishing for anglers from Newton County and for miles around. Lake Varner, also known as Cornish Creek Reservoir, has a reputation for producing lots of big bass and crappie. People regularly come from 50 miles away and even farther to fish the 850-acre reservoir.
Dennis Young lives a short 10-minute drive from the lake, and he has been hauling in crappie there since the lake first opened to fishing in 1993. He had the opportunity to see the lake basin as it was being built, so he knows the lake better than most folks ever will. Dennis and I spent some time on the lake in February catching crappie and also scouting out some of the best locations for pre-spawn and spawning crappie in March.
The fish we caught that day were still 20 to 25 feet deep in the main body of the lake, but things change fast with crappie this time of year. By early March the fish should be moving up the creek channels toward the backs of the coves and the spawning flats, and they’ll be up shallow and easy to catch when water temperatures reach the mid 60s a few weeks later.
One of the more pleasant aspects of Varner is the lack of shoreline development. Newton County owns the lake, and they want to keep it undeveloped to protect the water quality since this is a drinking-water reservoir. Most of the privately-owned land around the lake is in pasture or woods, and there are only a few houses on the lake. No outboard motors are allowed, and boats with outboards can’t even be launched on the lake. A strong trolling motor is a must, as are a good battery or two or three. I recommend taking at least two good batteries, because the wind can kick up in a hurry on Varner. The layout of the lake causes it to be windy when it might seem like a calm day elsewhere. Many Varner regulars have two, three, or even four trolling motors mounted on their boats to get them across the lake faster and help deal with the wind. The electric-motor-only rule makes it a nice, quiet place to fish without a lot of disturbance from other boaters, or even worse, jet skis, and the lack of development does help protect water quality. Some people even say the fish taste better from Varner because the water is so clean. Dennis likes to keep his crappie fishing simple, and he fishes with minnows most of the time.
“I’ll use a jig when they’re up shallow and I can cast around cover, but minnows are easy and they’re hard to beat on this lake most days,” Dennis said.
The day we fished, we spent most of our fishing time in the main body of the lake within sight of the boat ramp, dropping minnows down near the bottom and moving around very slowly with the trolling motor. The fish were 20 to 25 feet deep in mid-February, and they’ll still be out in the main lake at that depth in late February if the weather and the water stay fairly cold. The best locations change from day to day, but generally the fish can be found between the boat ramp and the bridge on the left-side arm of the lake, and then into the right-side arm of the lake up to the first big bend. Dennis targets areas within 100 yards or so of the shore at whatever depth the fish happen to be at that day. At some point, usually in late February or early March, as the days get longer and the water begins to warm up, the fish will start to move toward shallower water and stage in preparation for the spawn. According to Dennis, you can still catch them with minnows fished near the bottom at that time, but the fish won’t be as deep and they’ll be staging near likely spawning areas.
“They’ll hold off close to the bedding areas but near the channels and deeper water until it warms up enough to move in and spawn,” he said.
When the fish first start moving up from the main body of the lake, the bridge on the left arm of the lake is a perfect bottleneck where you can often reel in a mess of crappie in a hurry. Of course plenty of other crappie fishermen on the lake realize this too, so the good spots at the bridge can fill up in a hurry on the weekends. On past the bridge headed upstream, there is an island to the left and a large cove in behind the island. This cove has a good sandy bottom and lots of stumps, so it is a great place for the crappie to spawn. On the point on the upstream side of this cove an old roadbed comes into the lake. This roadbed and the area around the island are good places to catch fish as they prepare to move into the cove and spawn. The next point upstream runs out fairly shallow for a ways and then drops off into the creek channel. Around the channel in that area is another good location to find crappie staging before the spawn. On the right-side arm of the lake, good places for early March crappie will be around the mouths of the three coves on the right side of this arm when you first get into it. On farther up in this arm, good locations to try in late February and early March will include the area around the big island (you can’t miss it once you get up there) and out in front of the point with a big house sitting on it. There are only a few houses on Varner, so this one is easy to pick out. Don’t overlook the mouths of the coves on the main body of the lake either. Quite a few crappie are caught every year in and around the cove where the boat ramp is located, and almost straight across the lake from the boat ramp is another good cove that has some cover in the back. This cove also has an old submerged pond dam out toward the mouth of it that is easy to find with a depthfinder. Crappie and other game fish will hang around this pond dam throughout the year. Once the water temperature gets up into the 60s, or if there are several warm days in a row and the water is warming quickly, crappie will start to move up into the shallows in preparation for the spawn. Then it’s time to pull out the bobbers and prepare to fish shallow if you’re a minnow fisherman. Jigs can be just as effective as minnows on those days when they’re really tearing it up. A good tactic is to cruise the banks casting jigs until a fish hits, then fish that area more thoroughly with either minnows or jigs to locate the big concentrations of crappie.
Dennis says there are always spawning fish in the very upper ends of both arms of the lake, but there are lots of good-looking spots to try before you get to the upper reaches of the lake. On the right-side arm, the narrow cove on the right just before the arm takes a big bend is a good place to start. Up the lake from there, the pocket on the right just before the big house on the point has a lot of stumps and cover and can be a hot spot for shallow crappie. On past the house on the point, still on the right side, there is a large stump field in three to four feet of water that will be good if the water comes up a couple of feet. Varner was about three feet low when we were there in mid-February, so some of the traditional crappie-spawning locations may be high and dry this year. Low water levels may make the fish a little harder to find, but low water can also concentrate the fish, so that when you find a good spawning location it will be loaded with fish. Hopefully, though, we’ll get some good rains this spring to bring the lake back up to full pool.
On the left-side arm just about any place above the bridge in shallow water will be good. The first cove on the left above the bridge, as mentioned before, always has some crappie spawning in it when the time is right. Around the next point from this cove is a shallow flat that will hold some thin-water crappie if the water level comes up. There is no shortage of good places to fish on Varner, and the crappie will be biting hot and heavy during any warm spells in March, so pick up a few dozen minnows and give some of these locations a try. While Dennis and I didn’t catch any really big crappie the day we fished, there are some big ones out there, and March and April will be the best months to catch them.
The Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries Section sampled the crappie in Varner in November 2001, and about 30 percent of the crappie collected were more than 10-inches long. Crappie up to 15-inches long and well over two pounds were collected, so the odds are pretty good for catching some slabs. In addition to the crappie fishing, Varner offers hybrid-bass fishing that has been heating up this year.
Mike Henderson is the reservoir manager at Varner, and Dennis and I talked to him at the ramp the day we fished there. He advised us to “Keep a rod handy with a Rat-L-Trap or a Rooster Tail tied on. The hybrids have really been providing some good fishing out here lately. People have been catching them schooling off the points. Some of them are nice fish too, up to five or six pounds.”
Hybrids were first stocked in Varner by the WRD in 1998 after gizzard shad were discovered in the lake during fish-population sampling. The gizzard shad were apparently introduced by unauthorized stocking, possibly by anglers using them as bait. Hybrids were stocked to help control the gizzard-shad population, and they have grown quickly. The first group of stocked hybrids are over five pounds by now, with another group coming along at two to three pounds or so. Take Mike’s advice and keep a rod handy with a hybrid lure such as a Rat-L-Trap tied on. Keep an eye out for surface activity while crappie fishing, and you might take home some big hybrids to round out the stringer. Either way, this water-supply reservoir supplies a lot more than just water.
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