The lakes of southern and eastern Arkansas warm a bit earlier, frequently have beneficial high water in the spring, contain plenty of nutrients and grow more and bigger crappie than many lakes elsewhere in the state. When you combine these factors for good natural reproduction with savvy management decisions from Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologists, the result is usually good fishing for everyone’s favorite springtime panfish.
Assistant fisheries management biologist Jeremy Risley said that few crappie live past age 3 in Arkansas, mostly because they’re so tasty to predator fish and fishermen. When you latch onto a bona fide slab — a thick fish of 2 or 3 pounds — it’s an old-timer. In his most recent population studies in southeastern Arkansas, Risley netted a mere handful of 4- and 5-year-olds, with one 6-year-old granddaddy.
While pressure for crappie remains high every year, biologists describe them as “boom-and-bust” fish, with strong reproductive years tied to prolonged high water in the spring, often followed by one or more years of low water and poor reproduction. High water hides crappie fry from predators in inundated vegetation, resulting in big year-classes of fish. The nutrients that wash into lakes feed plankton and other microorganisms, leading to exceptional shad and baitfish spawns too, according to AGFC black bass specialist Colton Dennis.
Late last year, we sweet-talked biologists from the agency’s southern, southeastern and eastern fisheries districts into giving us the inside scoop on their top crappie fisheries for spring 2009. Here’s what we learned:
THE SOUTH SHALL RISE AGAIN!
Fortunately, the crappie lakes in District 6, which covers Dallas, Ouachita, Calhoun, Columbia and Union counties, weathered last year’s flooding with few long-term effects, according to Eric Brinkman, an AGFC biologist who works out of Camden.
At 3,000 acres, Lake Columbia can accommodate the anglers who flock there — including many who travel there from Louisiana and Texas, according to the license plates you’ll see — at this time of year. “Columbia should be excellent,” Brinkman predicted. “It tends to have bigger crappie, some of the largest crappie in this district.”
This water-supply lake, owned by the AGFC, was built on Beech Creek in western Columbia County in 1986. It’s about six miles northwest of Magnolia, with AGFC ramps available off state Route 344 or marked roads that run off the highway. Rather than choosing between jigs or minnows, combine the two for a pattern that tempted slabs there last year.
Tri-County Lake, a 280-acre AGFC reservoir in extreme northeast Calhoun County, is Brinkman’s next choice. “It’s a really good crappie lake and should be good, as usual,” he said. “They (anglers) just pull in a lot of fish there. They’re everywhere.”
The standing timber that defined the lake in its early decades has fallen, but Tri-County remains productive. “It just seems to have all the right things that make a good crappie lake,” Brinkman said. Boaters explore manmade structure off docks and points at this time of year. The lake averages 6 feet deep.
As a bonus for shore-bound anglers, Tri-County has excellent walking access — look for prominent, finger-like projections on the north side of the lake. Start shallow near the shore, searching the water with a jig, and walk toward deeper water until you locate fish. Once you’ve found them, switch to minnows and make pinpoint presentations with a long rod. The lake is along state Route 205 just south of Fordyce in Dallas County.
The 1,645-acre section of lower White Oak Lake is another outstanding crappie destination. “It does really well in the spring, and there’s a couple of places out of Starnes Landing (on the east shore) where people just line up for them,” Brinkman said. “They can expect a lot of competition there, but everyone seems to catch plenty of fish.”
The easiest pickings are often around manmade structure marked with vivid blue “Fish Attractor” signs. They most consist of unsold Christmas trees the AGFC has collected from businesses in the region with the White Oak Lake Citizens Advisory Committee, a group of local folks who work with the agency to improve conditions on the lake. To navigate safely, watch for the marked boat lanes. Access is off state Route 387 in northwestern Ouachita County, southwest of Chidester.
DOWN ON THE (SOUTHEAST) CORNER
Fisheries district 5 covers eight counties in the southeast quadrant of the state. Risley said some flood damage to a courtesy dock on Grand Lake was the only remaining storm damage in the district.
Lake Chicot is Risley’s No. 1 choice. “We have a pretty good crappie population there,” he said. “Last year, the fish were fairly young, but it was a strong year-class that’s growing up and should be moving through.”
Biologists have suggested in the past that stocking crappie sometimes has more public relations value than actual impact on some lakes, but crappie from Chicot’s 14-acre nursery pond seem to make a real difference. “The last batch of crappie in 2006 was a good one,” Risley recalled. “We shocked up broodfish in the spring and stocked 100 to 110 crappie in the pond in March. We stocked it with fathead minnows to feed them and let them go until October.”
Crappie are usually 2 to 4 inches when they’re stocked, but some of the 2006 crop, which will account for many of this year’s biggest fish, were 6 inches when the nursery pond was emptied into the lake. “We expect their survival rates to be better than hatchery-raised fish,” Risley explained. “These fish are more hardy and have to fend for themselves in the pond. They’re not used to being fed on a schedule like hatchery fish.”
Risley expects Chicot to surrender countless crappie that will average 11 to 12 inches long this year. “There are plenty of larger fish out there and plenty of smaller fish to back them up,” he added. The most recent crappie population study on Chicot showed that 5 percent of the fish were 13 inches or longer — quality fish by anyone’s scale.
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