Several years ago, the National Wildlife Service conducted some surveys to determine trends in the use of natural resources across the country. When it came to the ultimate question of which fish was the most sought after, the expectation was that black bass species, such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, would be the favorite. A surprise to many was that black bass were not the most sought after; that honor belonged to another member of the sunfish family — the crappie.
North Carolina anglers are no different in their preference. Crappie continually rank high in terms of the number of hours of angler effort spent in pursuit of the species. For many years, crappie fisheries were thought to be virtually limitless and self-sustaining. However, gone are the days when crappie anglers only fished in April and waited till the next year to load up on tasty fillets. Advances in technology, tackle and angler understanding of how and where to catch crappie year ’round, combined with an increasing number of crappie fans, brought about the realization that even such a seemingly unlimited resource could at times use some management.
Fisheries management of crappie stocks is a relatively new art. Biologists attempting population surveys of crappie have a hard time competing with the catch rate successes of recreational anglers. In order to determine accurate population density numbers, North Carolina biologists rely on trap nets and other less direct collection methods. Despite the variance, biologists have been very successful in establishing new regulations that have increased the size and numbers of crappie. The vast majority of the state has an 8-inch size limit and a 20-crappie-per-angler creel limit, but it’s best to check your local regulations before harvesting fish in any North Carolina waters. Let’s take a look at what’s on tap across the state this year:
Mostly, when it comes to crappie-angling effort, the Piedmont Region gets the lion’s share. Piedmont area waters are simply more conducive to crappie fisheries than are other regions. The reservoirs here are expansive and fertile; they provide plenty of shallow shoreline and forage, both of which are critical for recruiting crappie to replace those harvested.
Overseeing the state’s crappie fisheries in the Piedmont Region is Brian McRae. McRae is the Piedmont Fisheries Research Coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Division of Inland Fisheries. He manages the research and survey program for all freshwater species in the region and assists local biologists with deciding what fish surveys and research is needed. In addition, McRae helps interpret the results of the research that’s done in the region.
Responsibility for managing Buggs Island and Lake Gaston is shared between the North Carolina and state of Virginia agencies since both reservoirs border the two states. To save on duplicating services, the “gentlemen’s agreement” is that Virginia handles Buggs Island, which is also referred to as Kerr Lake, and North Carolina handles Gaston.
Both lakes are excellent crappie fisheries and Kerr/Buggs could be the best lake in either state, depending on whose opinion you value. Both lakes have a great forage base, but Kerr produces more numbers of fish than Gaston. According to crappie guide Keith Wray (336/635-0207) of Arden, N.C., “Catching 150 to 175 crappie a day on Kerr is typical, the fishing really doesn’t get good until you start catching over 200 a day.”
At the top of the Yadkin-Pee Dee chain and some 30 miles southwest of the Triad area is High Rock. According to McRae, the last survey for High Rock showed good densities of crappie and great body condition.
“This is a place to go to catch some crappie with shoulders,” he said. With a good number of 2-year fish over the 8-inch mark and at least 10 percent of their latest trap net results showing crappie over 10 inches, High Rock is a good lake now and one to watch in the near future.
Just below High Rock on the Yadkin chain are Tuckertown and Badin, two riverine bodies that also have a modest amount of side coves and tributaries. These two, like all the Yadkin-Pee Dee chain, have recovered to full pond from the recent droughts in 2005 and again in 2007. The return to full pool will allow crappie to reach their normal shoreline spawning grounds.
“Both of these lakes have good densities of crappie and a good mix, maybe 50-50 of black and white crappie with maybe just a shade toward black crappie as far as numbers go,” McRae said. “The 8-inch minimum size limit and 20-fish creel limit that was instituted in 2006 will help these fisheries grow bigger fish in the near future.”
If there is a sleeper crappie lake on the Yadkin chain, it’s Tillery. McRae indicated that if you take out Buggs, since the NCWRC doesn’t maintain stats on it, Tillery ranks second on his list of trophy lakes in the region for size of crappie. Tillery’s growth rates are comparable to Jordan and his recent trap net surveys showed 95 percent of the (predominantly black) crappie fishery was over 9 inches and a whopping 75 percent were over 10 inches.
“Although crappie populations tend to be cyclical, the fishery at Tillery is definitely on the rise. Not only are the lengths good, but these are fat fish with great body weights,” McRae said.
Rounding out the most productive chain of lakes in the state, Blewett Falls, near the South Carolina border, continues to see little fishing pressure and has remained pretty consistent over the years. The 2,560-acre lake, which covers the former waterfalls for which it is named, has a predominantly black crappie population.
“Our surveys showed 70 percent of the fish sampled would be over the 8-inch limit and it has a healthy fishery, although the growth rates are not what you’d expect from some more fertile bodies farther up the chain,” McRae said.
On either side of Tillery in McRae’s top picks for the state are No. 1 Jordan and No. 3 Falls of Neuse. Jordan was regulated with a 10-inch minimum length five years ago, so the vast majority of the crappie in Jordan were reared under the new regulations.
“The 10-inch limit was instituted because we were not finding multiple year-classes in Jordan; that left the lake open to a complete failure if we had one or two bad years. After five years, we are seeing each age-class from 1 to almost 7 well represented, so that tells us that step was the right thin
g to do,” McRae said.
Compare this with Falls of Neuse, which showed 90 percent of crappie sampled in the last survey over 8 inches in a very productive, very fertile impoundment.
“Crappie thrive well in Falls — there’s a lot of phytoplankton growth which means a lot of shad to eat. Falls also doesn’t have stripers in it, which means more shad for the crappie to eat,” McRae said.
Just across Hwy. 1 in the southeast shadow of Jordan lies Shearon Harris. Many Harris crappie fans feared an influx of meat fishermen from Jordan when the length limits increased there five years ago. According to Brian McRae, there’s been no direct evidence of any increased pressure on Harris due to overflow from Jordan.
“Harris continues to be a good fishery,” he said. “We sampled the age and growth rates on Harris in the fall of 2008 and won’t have the results of those studies until later on this summer, but the expectations are that Harris remains stable. Our sampling a few years ago showed 50 percent over 8 inches and 30 percent over 10 and that’s on par for what we expect.”
The good news for coastal crappie anglers is that the rate of recovery from Hurricane Isabel, which ravaged the coastline in 2003, has far exceeded expectations, according to the NCWRC. The vast majority of crappie fisheries along the coast are in coastal rivers and the inundation of saltwater and siltation from Isabel’s floodwaters took an extreme toll. The area has managed to avoid any serious hurricanes since that time and the crappie fisheries have come back strong.
Kevin Dockendorf oversees North Carolina’s Coastal Region’s freshwater fisheries. He is not only a regional biologist but also an avid crappie fisherman and suggests that the best venues in his area would be any of the rivers and feeder creeks between the Cashie and Northwest rivers. He offers that drought conditions in the past have created higher salinity in the main rivers and that has concentrated crappie into the feeder creeks off the main bodies.
“Most of our anglers split time between spider-rigging in the slow-moving waters or finding specific structure in the same areas to dunk minnows for speckled perch. It’s not hard to spot a coastal crappie hotspot: Just look for ramps that have a bunch of small, brown-stained johnboats that are outfitted with a number of homemade PVC rod holders.
“The lower end of the Cashie is typically better because there’s not as much current,” explained Dockendorf. “There are some good numbers of fish in the 9- to 12-inch range.”
Unlike inland reservoirs, sampling of crappie in the coastal rivers is very difficult. Typical sampling methods by trap nets don’t work well in the state’s rivers and the NCWRC is experimenting with different methods to keep pace with what coastal anglers are actually seeing in their creels.
Dockendorf points to the Chowan River as the best bet to catch a 2-pound crappie in his region. “There’s an access ramp at the Harrellsville WRC on the Wiccacone River tributary of the Chowan, and I see both good sizes and numbers of crappie come out of this area.”
Two areas that many crappie anglers overlook in the Coastal Region is the Alligator River between the Intracoastal Waterway and Hwy. 94, as well as the canals around Lake Mattamuskett.
“Cherry Ridge Landing is a great place to access some of the wide areas in the Alligator along the banks of Terrell and Dare counties,” Dockendorf said. “If anglers are looking for a good area to fish from the banks, the canals around Mattamuskett don’t permit boats and many anglers fish the shorelines of the canals and catch good crappie.”
The crappie fishing on the Neuse, Tar and Cape Fear rivers has never been very consistent and the primary reason is the flow rate is too excessive for crappie to thrive in. “There are crappie in those rivers, but most of them are hunkered down in all the cover that’s there and are hard to locate,” Dockendorf said.
The Mountain Region of North Carolina is similar to the coastal in terms of its crappie fishermen. Very few casual crappie anglers ply these waters, and the ones who do target crappie are dedicated and die-hard fans. Mountain Region lakes are fairly steep sided and clear, lacking in the fertile phytoplankton and shallow-water structure that provides optimal growth for crappie.
David Yow is the regional research biologist for the Mountain Region and suggests that crappie anglers concentrate their efforts on the lower elevation lakes and specifically the upper third of these lakes rather than the more expansive, open lower segments.
“The rule of thumb is to look for crappie in the upper lake tributaries,” Yow said. “The lake fertility is better where runoff comes into the lakes. The mountain lakes can almost have an invisible wall at a pinch point or narrow spot in the lake. The farther down the lake you go, the more clear and less fertile the water becomes due to the lack of growth of plankton.”
Fontana Lake, 60 miles west of Asheville, has suffered from low water due to recent drought conditions. “If you can get a boat in the water, you can probably find some adequate numbers of crappie over 8 inches,” Yow said. “We sampled the lake last year and it looked like it had a good year-class.”
Kerr Scott crappie anglers make up a dedicated group who has the diligence to find the fish and note what areas they prefer to hold in. As such, those anglers catch their share of crappie where newcomers often struggle. “There’s a fair amount of debris recruitment along the deep shoreline at Kerr Scott,” Yow said. “Knowing which one of these hanging layovers the fish prefer is key to catching crappie.”
After suffering from illegal introductions of blueback herring that affected every fishery in Hiwassee, crappie have made the adjustment and their numbers have improved over the long run. This has been due in part to some innovative structure development by the NCWRC in the form of linear brushpiles.
“These are cables strung from higher elevations on the shore and are anchored to the bottom,” Yow said. “This allows for a continuous vertical structure no matter what the water level. When the water goes down, they look like dead hedgerows that you’d see along an old field.”
To the southeast at lower elevations, Lake Chatuge on the North Carolina-Georgia border has also benefited from some introduced habitat in the form of brushtops and other fish attractors as part of a joint effort between the two states.
Sharing a border with Tennessee to the north, lakes Hickory and Rhodhiss, which are better known as striped bass fisheries, also have some measurable crappie populations. Hickory has been the site of some experimental crappie stockings from 2007 and 2008. “The stocked fish were DNA marked with oxytetracycline as part of an investigation into weak recruitment after reports of a failed year-class. There are no results available at this time,” Yow sa
“Rhodhiss is a structure-rich lake left over from when Hurricane Hugo hit the area back in the late ’80s,” Yow said. “It’s aged and decaying now but makes great habitat for the small numbers there.”
The future for crappie fishing in North Carolina looks very bright. Challenges in the past due to increased angler effort and harvest have resulted in regulations that have been critical to the continued management of the fishery. But the future is not without challenges, as indicated by Bryan McRae.
“We are in the process of instituting a food web project which we hope will illustrate what uses and changes are taking place in our fisheries,” McRae said. The project is a sort of “who eats who” study to make sure food supplies and fish densities are in balance. One of the big concerns for the crappie fishery is the infiltration of non-native species, such as the white perch and blueback herring, which have the potential to severely affect a number of established game fish habitats.
So get out there and get those lines wet, America’s favorite game fish is represented in great numbers in the Tar Heel State. Rumor also has it that the peanut oil and hush puppy mix supplies are also good in North Carolina, so stock up for your next fish fry.