Cotton State Crappie Prospects

The reservoirs of Alabama provide plenty of options for targeting papermouths this spring and summer. The crappie are plentiful and hungry in our lakes!

By Mike Handley

Even if I opined that it would be a waste of time to go crappie fishing this spring, the sales of minnows and jigs would be unlikely to plummet. Alabamians are simply not going to stay indoors when the dogwoods start blooming.

The Heart of Dixie may be home to more bass anglers than other type of fishermen, and there are plenty of fans of catfish as well. Yet even those anglers head to the sunken shoreline treetops in pursuit of slabs during the spawn.

Alabama's most beloved panfish rates high among licensed fishermen surveyed by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF). Results of the 2002 poll show that anglers ranked crappie second only to bass as their most sought-after fish. Specks hit the No. 2 mark as most prized for the table, behind catfish.

"With crappie fishermen, there ain't no catch-and-release," Lomax Dunham of Goodwater, a retired postman turned fishing guide, is fond of saying. "It's pure catch-and-grease!"

When it comes to legal-sized slabs, he is right on the money.

Of course, crappie catching isn't a sure thing, even during the peak of the spawn. There are good and bad years. Predicting what kind of crappie fishing we'll have in any spring is like predicting the winner of the Iron Bowl. However, state fisheries biologists say signs point to a long-overdue banner year.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

CRAPPIE BIOLOGY
The reason biologists believe 2004 should be good for papermouths is that reservoir sampling over the past three years has shown an above average crop of young fish that should be keepers this spring. That's the simple way to describe what they call "excellent recruitment."

To understand crappie production, the term recruitment is essential. Recruitment means the number of fry that survive to young adulthood and join the population. Regardless of the weather and rains, crappie always spawn. There are always eggs, and the eggs hatch. But there might not always be enough food to foster a decent recruitment.

Crappie build and stand guard over nests - sometimes en masse - and they have a tremendous reproductive rate. The latter is why they aren't recommended for stocking in small lakes and ponds, where overpopulation and stunted growth can occur in a very short time.

The shallow-water spawn begins when the water nears 60 degrees in the springtime. An average adult female can produce 150,000 eggs, which adhere to the bottom of the nest for maybe a week before they hatch. The fry feast on microscopic organisms until they are big enough to go after larger prey.

By the time they're a year old, young crappie might have reached 5 inches in length, and perhaps 8 inches by their second year. In their third year, when they are considered mature, the fish should reach or surpass the 9-inch minimum length limit for most Alabama reservoirs. Untold thousands never reach maturity for a variety of reasons.

"It's difficult to produce a good year-class of crappie," said Stan Cook, chief of the DWFF fisheries section. "There's a battle every day out there for survival.

"The fry are dependent upon microscopic food, so that has to be in place," he continued. "When they get bigger, they prey upon even smaller fish. After all, they are predators. And if there's a shortage of those, they'll sometimes eat each other - all this while having to avoid being eaten by bigger fish."

CRAPPIE RESEARCH
Until a few years ago, biologists knew little beyond basic life cycles information about Alabamians' favorite panfish. The only way to describe the fluctuation in populations was to dismiss it as cyclical. Now, however, they've discovered that water levels at key times of the year can influence recruitment - at least in lakes with a tremendous flow.

In the northernmost impoundments of the Coosa River - Weiss, Neely Henry and Logan Martin - successful recruitment seems largely based on the water levels from January through early March. If the level is high, as from high rains and flooding, two things happen. First, high water makes the crappie spawn more intense. Also, it puts more nutrients into the water column, which means more food for the fry.

"We don't know why exactly," admitted Nick Nichols, an assistant chief of fisheries. "It just happens."

That bit of knowledge sprang from a state-funded long-term study of Weiss Lake by Auburn University fisheries professor Mike Maceina.

Weiss is a drawdown lake. Alabama Power Company traditionally lowers the lake's water level around six feet during the rainy season to protect cities downstream from flooding. Although heavy rains don't always occur, the lake's level remains low. When this happens, it apparently impedes the crappie spawn.

TWO PRESCRIPTIONS
"For whatever reason, crappie are more productive when there's plenty of rain and the water level is higher," Maceina said. "The only permanent solution is to impact the natural reproduction process."

Trying to bolster the lake's reputation as the "Crappie Capital of the World" and unconvinced that manipulating water levels is their only hope, the Weiss Lake Improvement Association purchased and released 70,000 crappie fingerlings two years ago. Biologists claim it was probably a waste of time and money.

"If there's not enough food for the existing crappie, there certainly won't be enough for the ones you put in there," Cook argued. "So you'll lose them."

"To do it right, the power company and we are looking into artificially enhancing the crappie population by influencing water levels on the drawdown lakes," added Nichols. "But first we must get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come aboard, since any change would affect flood control efforts.

"The devil will be in the details," he concluded.

Nevertheless, the tourist-dollar-driven improvement association - buoyed by stocking results they saw and read about in neighboring Tennessee - was adamant about buying and stocking crappie. Their insistence saw DWFF biologists acquiescing and lending a hand.

Last fall was the second time crappie were purchased from a private source and stocked into Weis

s. Papermouths are a species that the state hatcheries do not handle.

"The state feels like Weiss Lake is simply too large to manage," Cook said. "Attempting it would be a good public relations effort, but I don't see a benefit to the resource."

It will be interesting to see what happens in another couple of years. Will the crappie population boom? And if so, will it be the result of stocking or manipulation of water levels? From a fisherman's standpoint, I don't really care who gets the credit, just as long as there are more fish for the frying pan!

While the water-level strategy is being tested on Weiss and other downstream Coosa River lakes, it's much tougher to cure the fisheries in slower-moving bodies of water like Millers Ferry, Lake Martin and Smith Lake. For now, we must continue referring to the up-and-down fishing as cyclic.

As far as cycles go, Nichols can't help being optimistic about 2004. One of his responsibilities is to gather and keep the fall sampling reports from the DWFF's six regions. From what he's seen, most reports indicate that there are several year-classes of crappie that should reach or exceed the statewide minimum of 9 inches this spring.

BEST BETS
In Nichols' opinion, Weiss, Jones Bluff, Millers Ferry and Eufaula should support high numbers of "keepers." Among the state-owned fishing lakes, the best are probably Dallas and Fayette County lakes.

"We don't necessarily like the idea of crappie in a primarily bass and bluegill lake. Therefore, the state doesn't stock them where they're not already present," Nichols said. "The last thing we want to do is introduce another predator."

Some of the other lakes that have crappie in them are in Crenshaw, Lee, Chambers, Madison and Walker counties. There is no minimum length limit on these waters and you can keep 30 per day of any size.

"They grow so fast in these lakes, we don't have to worry about that," says Cook. "A 1 1/2-year-old fish is an adult in these bodies of water, while it might take three or four years to grow a keeper in a major reservoir or river."

Whether you're a dunker of minnows or a caster of jigs, there are numerous places in our state where either tactic produces a limit of papermouths. Yet Millers Ferry, Lake Martin and Weiss Lake are the top choices.

Millers Ferry Lake
As a kid, I spent the entire AEA Week prowling the banks of the Warrior River in search of crappie. Yet I always dreamed of going to Millers Ferry, the stretch of the Alabama River between Selma and the town for which the reservoir is named. Tales of 2- and 3-pound crappie had primed my pump long before I ever wet a line there.

Phillip Criss, at the time a coal miner from Abernant, introduced me to Millers Ferry crappie fishing. Later as a professional fishing guide with a reputation always at stake, he searched the lake far and wide and experimented with myriad kinds of tackle and techniques to discover the winning combinations.

"A lot of folks say Weiss Lake is the Crappie Capital of the South, but those people haven't fished the Alabama River," he said with a chuckle.

Criss believes the key at Millers Ferry is water temperature. When it rises to between 61 and 66 degrees, the crappie move to the shallows to spawn. When they're inside the flats and sloughs off of the main river, he prefers minnows, and he dunks them in as little as 18 to 24 inches of water. Even when he goes to deeper water, his bait is still usually set at that depth.

Lake Martin
Lomax Dunham is an equal-opportunity fishing guide on Lake Martin. He can put you on both catfish and crappie.

Dunham relies on his depthfinder and knowledge of the available structure near Wind Creek State Park to keep his clients happy. He can launch his boat at the state park at dawn and be back home by noon with a cooler full of crappie.

His routine is to check brushpiles for hotspots, where the crappie are grouped most tightly. He pilots his 17-foot boat over the areas until his fish-finder begins throbbing and beeping as if it were ready to explode. When he finds the heaviest concentration, he drops a plastic marker buoy overboard, moves off the spot and anchors.

"What I do first is put out some poles baited with minnows," he explained. "Then I start throwing 1/32-ounce jigs. I call it my double-barreled approach."

He prefers crappie jigs with feathered marabou tails. He sometimes pinches off some of the feathers. When using minnows, he gets the smallest he can buy. His reels are spooled with either 4- or 6-pound test line. Heavier lines will not work well on Martin, because the water is so clear.

Weiss Lake
Sam Heaton of Leesburg has introduced a number of anglers to both Weiss Lake and trolling for crappie. Heaton began trolling in the 1980s after seeing scores of local anglers doing it. Back then - before the state began limiting the number of rods to three per angler - trolling boats looked like giant water spiders slowly gliding across the lake.

"You've got to cover all the bases," Heaton said. "When you find out which base the fish are on, you're in business."

Trolling allows you to offer more baits at multiple levels. Once you determine which depth is best and the most preferred jig color, then switch to that winning combination and put the hottest bait in the strike zone. About the only thing that can keep you from catching a limit is the wind, which wreaks havoc with the lightweight lines.

Heaton used light-action B'n'M jig poles because of the different lengths available. He carried three different ones, from a 5-footer to an 11-footer, and all were equipped with spinning reels.

Each reel was spooled with brightly colored 6-pound-test line. According to Heaton, 4-pound test breaks too easily and loses too many jigs, while 8-pound test has too much drag in the water. That prevents the jigs from reaching the desired depth. Also, a bright line enables him to watch each rod so that the lines do not become tangled.

His lures of choice are crappie jigs, but these occasionally were supplemented with 1/8-ounce Rat-L-Trap crankbaits. The latter, he warned, often keep an angler busy battling undersized striped bass.

Heaton said beginners have to learn through trial and error.

"It's kind of like learning how to drive a car," he pointed out. "You don't just jump in your first car and go 60 miles an hour."

Those trying the technique for the first time have to experiment with trolling speed and avoid sharp turns, submerged timber or shallow water. Trolling is meant for suspended fish that are not relat

ing to structure - the ones that haven't gone to the bank to spawn.

Heaton also advised against trolling randomly. The key to finding the crappie is a good depthfinder that can identify them.

"You're looking for fish - fish at least 10 inches long, which is the minimum on Weiss. You're not really looking for structure," he said, "except to avoid it."



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