Slabs In The Heart Of Dixie
September 28, 2010
Finding crappie in Alabama isn't difficult this month: Virtually any reservoir or river will harbor them, and they'll be active in April. Still, some waters boast above-average action -- and that shouldn't be missed! (April 2007)
The author shows off the kind of slab papermouth that waters throughout the Cotton State yield in April.
Photo by Stephen E. Davis.
Why a crappie forecast? Since Cotton State anglers are never far from good crappie fishing, will a forecast lead to full stringers? The answer is a resounding yes.
According to Alabama's fisheries biologists, crappie populations are cyclical in most waters, so a lake that produced limits last year may not for 2007.
"Crappie do not follow the same population trends as largemouths, bream or even shad," reported Ken Weathers, District VI fisheries supervisor.
Of course, populations of other species fluctuate, but crappie numbers reach higher highs and lower lows. Fisheries biologists from the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries know the reason for this rise and fall in crappie numbers.
"From our sampling data," said Nick Nichols, an assistant chief of fisheries, "we have found that future year-classes of crappie are often tied to the hydrology of the system. In other words, when we have high reservoir levels or river flows in January and February in a given year, we usually have better recruitment of young fish that year.
"Now that's not going to improve the fishing that year, but three or four years down the road it does impact the fishery as those new year-classes move above the length limit."
District biologists monitor year-classes using trap nets in the fall. From their sampling, they are able to predict fishing within their districts.
"Assuming the weather is good through winter and into spring," said Nichols, "our districts report that we are probably looking for a very good year on crappie in 2007."
So let's see where the better fishing is expected this spring.
"Weiss has really been strong the last couple of years," said Dan Catchings, District II fisheries supervisor. "Looking at numbers and size, everything points toward another great spring of crappie fishing."
Located in northeast Alabama, with its headwaters reaching across the border into Georgia, Weiss gains fertility from the Coosa, Chattooga and Little rivers, along with the many creeks entering the reservoir. The lake covers 30,200 acres and has 447 miles of shoreline at full pool. Approximately 2,000 of those acres are in Georgia.
"Weiss is a fairly shallow reservoir with a lot of structure," Catchings noted. "It has good spawning flats with stumps, brush and old trees — it's just oriented toward crappie reproduction. Weiss seems to have the habitat that produces a lot of fish per acre of reservoir every year.
"We had a strong year-class in 2003. They surpass the 10-inch minimum size limit by 3 years of age and are the foundation for our fishing in 2007."
Catchings added that anglers can expect to catch fish measuring 10 to 12 inches, with some larger fish going 13 to 15 inches. The latter sizes make up 5 to 10 percent of the population.
For fishing in early April, Catchings recommended targeting the Coosa River at the upper end of the lake.
"The water warms fairly quickly on the upper river portion near the Riverside Marina," he explained, "and the fish usually move shallower sooner. Also, shallow flats in Cowan and Spring creeks may warm a little earlier in the month.
"Deeper areas like Little River are going to warm slower," Catchings continued, "so the fish move shallow later in the month."
Successful anglers start by fishing the river channel bank in 5 to 8 feet of water and then follow the crappie as they gradually move to shoreline habitat. Look for spawning fish on flats in water 3 feet or less and next to woody cover.
Catchings cautioned anglers new to Weiss to use care when maneuvering on the lake.
"It's easy to find a stray stump on Weiss," he noted. "Either go with someone familiar with the lake or study a map and use sonar to learn the lake."
For current fishing conditions, drop by J.R.'s Marina on the Little River or visit their Web site at www.jrsmarina.com. The marina telephone number is (256) 779-6461.
R.E. "BOB" WOODRUFF LAKE
"Our catch rates on Jones Bluff are always good for crappie," reported Chris Greene, District IV fisheries supervisor. "In my opinion, it ranks right up there with Weiss as one of the top crappie fisheries in the state. Local anglers know it, but it's not known throughout the southeast. Jones Bluff is a great fishery that's like a hidden jewel."
Jones Bluff is the first of three flood control reservoirs maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Alabama River. The Tallapoosa River joins the Coosa at Parker Island, which is downstream and southwest of Wetumpka, to create the Alabama River. About 80 miles downstream from the confluence of these rivers, near the community of Edsons, the Robert F. Henry Lock and Dam controls the waters of the impoundment.
Jones Bluff is mostly a riverine lake, but it does have some backwaters.
"There is a variety of habitat types," explained Greene, "so crappie can use different areas during the year, depending on baitfish location.
There is also an abundance of shallow-water areas that provide spawning habitat."
Greene's trap-net sampling revealed a strong crappie spawn in 2005, with some of the highest catch rates ever documented on Jones Bluff.
He said anglers should begin catching large numbers of these fish this spring.
For the month of April, Greene recommended fishing the shallow water in Prairie Creek near the dam; Catoma, Swift and Tallawasee creeks midlake; and Cooters Pond up lake. He said that his trap nets always produce good numbers in Cooters Pond.
For fishing information, visit Big Bass Bait and Tackle in Prattville on State
Route 14 West or call (334) 365-0600.
An excellent boat ramp for fishing the upper lake is off SR 31 at Cooters Pond. Use the ramp at Swift Creek southeast of Autaugaville for fishing midlake, and the ramp north of Edsons to fish near the dam.
WILLIAM (BILL) DANNELLY RESERVOIR (MILLERS FERRY)
Located downstream from Jones Bluff between Selma and Camden, Millers Ferry is also a riverine impoundment, particularly as it flows through Dallas County. Once in Wilcox County, the Alabama River overflows its banks to create productive crappie habitat.
Known for big crappie, Millers Ferry offers the best papermouth fishing in southwest Alabama. But it, too, has its ups and downs. According to Dave Armstrong, District V fisheries supervisor, crappie populations have suffered.
"Prior to this," he reported, "Millers Ferry had some bad year-classes, and it's just now starting to turn around. When we sampled in the spring, we saw some really nice crappie. In fact, we were surprised by the size and number of those crappie."
Armstrong said a few of these fish measured 13 inches.
What ordinarily makes the crappie fishing on Millers Ferry so good?
"In general," Armstrong answered, "it's what makes the bass fishing good: stable water levels, highly productive water and a stable shad population. Crappie don't live and die by shad, but shad do provide a forage base for the crappie. It's the one thing that makes a difference between a good crappie reservoir and a great one."
Armstrong recommended that anglers fish Bogue Chitto, Ellis, Gold Mine, Pine Barren and Shell creeks. He said that, of these, his trap nets always produce good numbers in Bogue Chitto. He also reported seeing big crappie in Ellis.
"All of those areas have quite a variety of habitats," he offered, "shallows, deep water and lots of cover."
When he is fishing in April, Armstrong prefers to target cover.
"Look for downed trees with most of the crown well underwater," he advised. "That allows baitfish to move from the surface down through several feet. This gives crappie an opportunity to hit baitfish throughout the day as the bait moves in and out of the treetop.
"Crappie are strike predators. They hide and wait for baitfish. But the cover they use is not the heavy cover bass anglers fish. It's thinner and bushy."
For current fishing conditions, visit McDonald's Grocery & Sports Store on SR 221 in Camden, or call (334) 682-4523.
"Eufaula is known as a bass lake," said fisheries supervisor Ken Weathers, "and anglers travel from all over the country to bass fish. It also offers great crappie fishing, but it's a local fishery that's underutilized.
"When we age crappie from our sampling every year, we typically get fish 8 to 10 years old. That indicates excellent survival and low exploitation when you have crappie that old."
Weathers, who also enjoys papermouth fishing, reported catching several limits last year, with some fish weighing 1 1/2 pounds. That is in spite of crappie action that he described as not that great. But the situation was not due to low crappie numbers.
"When crappie are in shallow water spawning," Weathers explained, "they are dependent on the weather."
Fishing activity and angler success hinge on weather patterns. If a cold front blows through and it rains 2 inches with 40-degree nights, the next day it's just like you turned the switch off. You can catch a limit the day before the front, and then the day after you're lucky to catch four fish.
"Some springs, though, fishing is hot and heavy."
For great fishing, anglers need stable high water and constant temperatures. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tries to maintain constant water levels during the spawn on Eufaula.
When the fishing is hot and heavy, Weathers' most productive technique for catching slabs is moving down the bank from sunken treetop to sunken treetop, dropping a minnow in the cover.
Most of the time, though, Weathers fishes with his children, so he avoids treetops.
"With kids," he said, "we float down the creek with the trolling motor and catch fish on the edge of water willow or alligator weed growing out to 1 1/2 to 2 feet deep. Anglers think of crappie holding tight to brush, but they often hold on the edge of grassbeds when they are spawning. With kids, it's easier fishing vegetation, because they can pull their line free when they get hung."
Well-known crappie angler and guide Ronnie Morris of Eufaula has another method for catching fish in April. With two telescopic crappie poles rigged for trolling and set in rod holders, he moves down along the shore while casting to the water's edge with an ultra-light spinning rod. The rod and poles are tipped with 1/32- or 1/16-ounce leadhead jigs with a curly-tail grub.
"Using this technique," Morris explained, "you can cover the entire area, and you can pinpoint cover with the spinning rod. Wood cover on the bank is an excellent place to find numbers of crappie. The key is not to get so close that you spook the fish. Stay far enough away, and you'll catch several off that one piece of cover."
Morris caught his biggest crappie in spring, and it weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces.
Both Morris and Weathers recommended fishing Cowikee Creek. Weathers also said White Oak Creek offers good fishing.
To book a day of guided crappie fishing with Ronnie Morris, call (334) 687-9619. For current fishing information, call L&J Tackle Shop at (334) 687-3313 or visit them on U.S. Highway 431 a half-mile south of Lakepoint Resort State Park.
Jerry Moss, District III fisheries supervisor, said the best crappie fishing in his area is on Aliceville and Gainesville lakes on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. But if forced to choose where he would fish along the Tenn-Tom, Moss picked Aliceville.
From Mile Marker 320 to the dam, Aliceville is a crappie angler's dream. The lake's backwater areas harbor cypress trees, standing timber and a mix of coontail, Eurasian milfoil, hydrilla and water hyacinth. Upstream of MM 320, Aliceville is riverine.
In addition to excellent habitat, Moss credits water fertility, shad numbers, and good reproduction and recruitment for the great crappie fishing.
The lake is very fertile, because its feeders flow through a large section of the Black Belt that's ric
h in limestone, which increases the availability of nutrients to phytoplankton. This, in turn, increases the numbers of threadfin shad for crappie consumption.
"Aliceville traditionally has large year-classes that recruit upwards each year," Moss said. "Crappie move up in size rapidly and are ready to harvest in a couple of years."
Vegetation holds the key to catching Aliceville's big crappie.
"When we sample in April," Moss reported, "we catch them next to the bank in the weeds. Crappie eggs are adhesive, so the weeds probably encourage spawning. The weeds are thick with big slabs, but once the fish have spawned, they quickly move off the bank into deeper water."
Moss suggested fishing weed edges in Coal Fire and Broken Pumpkin creeks.
Part of Aliceville lies within Mississippi, so an Alabama fishing license only covers the lake below MM 322. For current fishing information, visit the H&B One Stop in Pickensville, or call (205) 373-6696.
BEAR CREEK LAKES
Located in Franklin and Marion counties, the Bear Creek Lakes comprise four small impoundments constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority for flood control, recreation and water supply for northwest Alabama. They are known as Big Bear, Little Bear, Upper Bear and Cedar Creek and vary in size from 670 to 4,200 acres.
Of these, District I fisheries supervisor Keith Floyd says, the two largest lakes -- Upper Bear and Cedar Creek -- offer the best crappie fishing in his area.
"We did a creel survey on Upper Bear last spring," Floyd reported, "and in two weeks we measured 240 crappie. The results on Cedar were also pretty good."
Crappie fishing is always good here because fishing pressure rotates among the four lakes.
"As crappie populations decline on one reservoir," Floyd explained, "anglers move to one of the other reservoirs. If anglers continued to fish the same lake, they would deplete the spawning population. So by the anglers fishing different lakes, the crappie are able to spawn without being molested, and the population recovers quicker.
"The four lakes are within easy driving distance -- probably a half-hour from each other -- so not everyone is fishing the same lake year after year."
The Bear Creek Lakes are different from the other waters in this forecast. They are highland lakes with clear water, which makes artificial lures a good choice.
Cast 1/16-ounce jigs with curly-tail grubs, 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Beetle Spins, or 1/8-ounce Bill Lewis Tiny Trap lipless crankbaits toward the bank. Often, crappie press their noses against the shoreline of these reservoirs in April and are easily spooked. In this case, cast your jig onto the bank and pull it into the water. Strikes often occur as the lure enters the water.
Anglers report that points provide the best fishing spots on the lakes, especially if blown-down trees are present.
To fish the Bear Creek Lakes, anglers must purchase either a $3 daily permit or a $20 annual permit issued by the Bear Creek Development Authority. This is in addition to a state fishing license. Local tackle shops sell the permits, as does the BDA office. For more details, phone (877) 367-2232 or visit their Web site at BearCreekLakes.com.