Cotton State Crappie Options
September 28, 2010
Regardless of where you go looking for spring slabs in Alabama, your odds of success are good -- because our state's loaded with good crappie fishing! (April 2008)
Photo by Tom Evans.
Wayne Baker and his 9-year-old daughter Sarah spend lots of nights from winter through spring on the banks of Guntersville Lake fishing for crappie. A couple of years ago, they had one of those nights on which the fishing's just great, and they loaded a bucket with slab crappie.
The highlight of the evening came when it looked as though Sarah's line was hung up. She insisted that she had a fish -- and she turned out to be correct, bringing in a giant of a crappie that weighed a whopping 3 1/2 pounds!
The father-daughter fishing team couldn't resist taking the big fish by the local tackle store to show it off. The regulars in the store thought they'd get information from the kid on the location of the crappie hotspot. But even though she was just 7 at the time, Sarah had learned from her daddy just how critical such information is, and how closely crappie secrets must be guarded.
"They asked her where she caught it," Wayne said with a grin. "She hooked her finger, put it near her lips and said, 'Right in the mouth.'"
We'll be following that young angler's example, so don't expect us to give you exact coordinates of a spot at which you can catch a crappie like the one Sarah got. But these tips should get you started in the right direction of some of the hottest lakes in the state for slabs. Maybe you can catch a few "right in the mouth" too.
Alabama is blessed with many papermouth hotspots, but some places are in a league of their own. Here's a look at those spots, broken down by regions of the state.
In northeast Alabama, two fisheries stand out for crappie action: Weiss and Guntersville lakes.
Guntersville Lake is a sprawling 69,000-acre impoundment on the Tennessee River in Marshall and Jackson counties. In late winter and early spring, the bridges on the many riprap causeways are key places for crappie anglers. You know the crappie bite is on when you drive across one of the causeways and a dozen cars are parked at the bridge.
Built over the old flooded creek channels, the bridges serve as chokepoints or funnels that the fish have to use. Anglers in boats and on the banks can access the fish at these locations and usually enjoy outstanding slab success.
Later in the spring, good places to search for crappie on Guntersville are the many blown-down trees along the shore. Fishermen working jigs and minnows around the sunken treetops report substantial success, but it's one of those situations in which location is key. You might find crappie on one brushtop, but then they won't be on a similar blowdown 100 yards down the bank. The fishing does require a bit of exploration.
Brushpiles placed in the lake specifically for crappie are another excellent sort of place, but the anglers who put those piles out usually guard their locations very closely. You can sometimes find them off boathouses or docks, as many dock owners who fish place the brush within casting distance of their docks in order to try catching crappie in their back yards. One clue is to look for docks with rod holders attached -- there's probably a reason for those being there!
Guntersville has good, steady lake levels, something that other reservoirs have struggled with during the long drought that has gripped the state the last two years.
Even as good as Guntersville can be, district fisheries biologist Dan Catchings said, it's not the best crappie lake in northeast Alabama -- that honor goes to Weiss Lake, an impoundment on the Coosa River covering some 30,200 Cherokee County acres.
"Weiss is a shallow, fertile reservoir and seems to be just geared perfectly for crappie production," Catchings said. "There's a good shad population."
Going into the winter, Catchings added, the drought that has gripped the state has left the water level at Weiss about 6 feet below full pool. For such a shallow lake, that can create problems with regard to the usability of boat ramps and the safety of running conditions if spring rains don't materialize.
The dry weather isn't expected to affect crappie populations this year, but it may cause a down cycle in their numbers in a couple of years. Crappie reproduction and recruitment tend to be strongest in years of high water -- something to keep in mind for the future on Weiss and just about every other Alabama impoundment.
"We had a good year-class at Weiss in 2003," Catchings pointed out. "It was a poor spawn in 2004 and a moderate one in 2005 and 2006."
The dry weather aside, the biologist said, conditions are looking good for strong fishing on Weiss again in the spring of 2008.
In northwest Alabama, the Bear Creek lakes -- a chain of four fairly small reservoirs on that creek's drainage -- offer the best crappie fishing, reported district fisheries biologist Keith Floyd.
"The last couple of years, the Bear Creek lakes have been our best bet for crappie," he stated. "They have a lot of crappie in the 10- to 11-inch range."
Look for the crappie there in brushtops or along creek channels. "There's not a lot of causeway habitat like you see on some of the big Tennessee River impoundments," Floyd noted. "Two years ago, we had a really good year-class of crappie here, so that's what anglers are enjoying now."
Crappie are popular with anglers at the Bear Creek impoundments -- creel surveys by state fisheries personnel have shown as much as 40 percent of the spring fishing there targets papermouths -- so expect company.
Wheeler Lake is another good bet for slabs in this district, with fish being found in some of the stumpflats off the main creek arms. Reports that Wheeler's crappie fishing has picked up in recent months are circulating.
A good shad base enables Wheeler's crappie to grow very fast. The fishing at the lake is cyclical, with exceptional fishing every three or four years.
Aliceville Lake is considered the premier crappie destination in this locale, but, said district fisheries biologist Jerry Moss, its sister, Gainesville Lake, can be just as good. Covering some 6,400 acres on the Tenn-Tom Waterway, it's a river-run type of reservoir with some creek
backwaters running off the main river.
"A difference in Aliceville and Gainesville is that Aliceville has a lot of plants or weeds," Moss said. "The weedlines can be good places to find crappie."
Both lakes have standing timber that affords another great habitat to probe for crappie. "Our crappie anglers do really well," asserted Moss. "Our growth rates for crappie are as good as anywhere in the Southeast. We've got a lot of shad as a food source. It's just a terrific fishery."
But, he added, even at outstanding venues like Aliceville and Gainesville there's only an "exceptional" year-class of crappie every three to five years. "It does coincide with high water, so one thing we're doing is working closely with the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers to manipulate water levels to improve the chances of a good spawn."
Of course, that might not be possible this spring, since the region has had two straight years of drought. But the drought hasn't affected the fishing yet, and Moss expects a good spring at both Gainesville and Aliceville this year.
According to Moss, the bigger fish seem to come from Aliceville, but the Gainesville population appears to be just as abundant. "Aliceville gets a lot of press about its crappie fishing," the biologist pointed out, "and Gainesville is overlooked."
He recommended the backwater creeks if you fish Gainesville.
Two east-central Alabama sites really shine for spring crappie fishing: Jones Bluff Lake (also known as R. E. "Bob" Woodruff Reservoir) and Jordan Lake. So said district fisheries biologist Graves Lovell, who helps sample the crappie populations in both from time to time. "Jones Bluff is the best we have," he stated.
In the spring of 2005, state fisheries biologists working at the 12,510-acre lake on the Alabama River documented an extraordinarily large spawn of crappie. Those fish ought to be there for the taking this year.
Jordan Lake, a 6,800-acre Coosa River impoundment 25 miles north of Montgomery, is the region's other crappie highlight. "The Coosa is a very fertile system, as everyone knows," Lovell said. "So there's a good forage base for the fish."
Jordan has lots of good places to look for slabs -- steep banks, rocks, docks, brushpiles and blowdowns. "I would target the blowdowns in the spring," Lovell suggested.
Jones Bluff is more a riverine lake. Some of the best crappie fishing, according to Lovell, is right off the main current. "There are a few backwater creeks," he said, "but this body of water also has a lot of blowdowns, and that is again where I would look for the crappie. Some of the biggest crappie I have ever seen have come from Jones Bluff."
In the southeastern corner of the state, Lake Eufaula stands out as the best crappie destination, District biologist Ken Weathers said. But Gantt and Point A lakes on the Conecuh River are also excellent choices.
Weathers believes that anglers take too little advantage of the crappie fishing at all three lakes. "We're expecting another pretty good spring this year," he said. "We've got good crappie numbers -- but our size is good, too."
Eufaula was feeling the effects of the drought going into the winter, with water levels about 5 feet below normal.
In early spring, Weathers said, crappie anglers should probe deep ledges with jigs and minnows. As the water warms later in the spring, those fish move up. "They'll get as shallow as 2 to 4 feet," the biologist noted.
Because Eufaula has such a strong tradition as a bass destination, the crappie are underfished. Samplings of crappie on the reservoir had turned up fish as old as 11 and 12 years old -- proof that some fish are dying of old age rather than being caught by anglers.
Millers Ferry Lake (a.k.a. William "Bill" Dannelly Reservoir) is the cream of the crop when it comes to crappie fishing in this corner of the Cotton State.
"It's just awesome," said district fisheries biologist Ben Ricks. "The catch rates are as good or better than just about anywhere in Alabama. We're seeing lots of large crappie, too: We had some 3 1/2-pounders in our most recent sampling there."
Good places to try at Millers Ferry include Bogue Chitto Creek and Alligator Slew, Ricks offered.
"Alligator Slew is really good," he said. "There's another little unnamed slew around river mile 33 that is good too, along with Ellis Ferry. Pine Barren is OK, but it's not as good as the other creeks."
The very first part of April seems to be the best time for crappie on this body of water; that's when Ricks netted those 3 1/2-pounders last year. Minnows, small jigs and even small Beetle Spins are good baits.
"I see crappie fishermen out at all hours of the day when I'm there, so I don't think one particular time is better than another here," Ricks said.
Another outstanding location to try in the region is Coffeeville Lake. "It has good numbers, but the size isn't quite what it is at Millers Ferry," Ricks said.
Sampling turned up a lot of "short" fish in previous seasons there, but those crappie should have reached keeper size -- 9 inches or better -- by this spring.
And there you have 'em: a dozen places around Alabama at which to try for crappie this spring. Surely one of them is close to home for you -- and, we can only hope, the fish there will be biting when you go.