Cotton State Crappie Preview

With the coming of spring, crappie fishing begins to heat up all over Alabama. But if you want the fastest action, try these lakes this year.

By John Phillips

"Length limits, PCBs and high-water levels in January and February produce more and bigger crappie for Alabama fishermen," says Nick Nichols, assistant chief of the Fisheries Section for Alabama's Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (FWCC).

That may seem like a strange trio to be influencing the Cotton State's papermouth fishery, but on closer inspection the statement makes sense. Length limits allow fish to get to bigger sizes before anglers remove them from lakes. Worries about PCB contamination in some waters leads most anglers to release all the crappie they catch. Finally, high water levels early in the year lead to more crappie being spawned. In the long run, all of these can lead to bigger papermouths showing up in any of the state's reservoirs.

"Although crappie populations naturally fluctuate, the overall condition of the population throughout the state remains good and may even get better," Nichols explains. "In most reservoirs, you see the population of crappie go up and then fall back down over a period of years. We're just beginning to understand what causes this cyclic nature of crappie."

The number of crappie spawned each spring acts as one limiting factor on the population. However, during the springs with great spawns, anglers may not see the results in the number and size of fish they catch for up two or three years later. Crappie need that long to reach the 9- or 10-inch minimum size limit before fishermen can keep them. Even though a great spawn occurs one year, a poor spawn two or three years earlier may have already made it impossible for anglers to catch very many crappie.

"Last summer and fall, crappie fishermen experienced a less-productive year on Weiss Lake, on the Alabama/Georgia border, than in past years," Nichols reports. "The last really good crappie big enough to reach the 10-inch-minimum-size limit in Weiss Lake are the fish left from the 1996 year-class. Those fish are fading out pretty fast.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"But fortunately," he continues, "Weiss had a good crappie spawn in 2000. For this reason, we predict a really good year-class this year because the 2000 year-class of crappie should surpass the 10-inch size limit this spring."

Nichols believes that Weiss Lake, often referred to by local boosters as the Crappie Capital of the World, will produce as many as, if not more than, the fish this spring than it has in the recent past. That is partially due to the 10-inch-length minimum size limit for the species that has been in effect on the lake for several years now.

"This 10-inch limit protects young crappie and gives them an opportunity to reach the larger sizes before anglers harvest them," Nichols explains. "I don't know for sure that Weiss' 10-inch-length limit works dramatically better than the 9-inch-length limit we have on other lakes. I do know the length limits statewide help to ensure more crappie in the waters for fishermen to catch."

The Alabama Department of Public Health has issued an advisory suggesting that anglers not eat any crappie caught from Logan Martin and Lay lakes on the Coosa River. The advisory was prompted by concerns about the level of PCBs contained in the flesh of the fish.

Because most crappie fishermen eat their catches, these advisories probably take a lot of fishing pressure off these two lakes. Obviously, the crappie in these two reservoirs survive longer and reach heavier weights than the crappie in other impoundments around the Cotton State. Anecdotal reports coming from those lakes tend to bear out this assumption. Most of the crappie fishermen still visiting on Logan Martin and Lay have caught more and bigger crappie than ever before. Granted, the health advisory has turned these lakes into catch-and-release bodies of water.

Nichols doesn't have data to prove that the PCB advisories on Logan Martin and Lay actually help to produce more and bigger crappie, but he does say state fisheries biologists have made this assumption.

The third factor influencing crappie populations is the water level early in the year. Some fresh research has provided revelations in this area too. Dr. Mike Maceina of Auburn University has conducted the research in cooperation with the Fisheries Section of the DWFF. Basically he has looked at the effects of high water on crappie populations.

"Dr. Maceina has just finished a statewide study of crappie recruitment on all the major lakes in Alabama," Nichols explains. "He has looked at the hydrology of all of the major river systems and studied how water levels affect the crappie spawn. He also has studied the historical data the Fisheries Section has on crappie year-class reproduction.

"Dr. Maceina correlated the years we had good year-classes of crappie with water levels and water flows in those river systems. He not only studied the effect of high-water flows on the crappie spawn, but more specifically, the time of year high-water flows caused a good crappie spawn."

In essence his research indicated that when some reservoirs have a high-water level in January and February, a high rate of reproduction of crappie could be expected. As yet, this connection between high water and good spawns has not been explained by the studies.

"This past spring, we had one of these high-water events in January and February and in the year 2000 on Weiss Lake," Nichols mentions. "A strong year-class of crappie spawned in 2000, and we are waiting to see if we had an unusually high year-class this past spring since we did have a high-water event. These high-water events don't produce large numbers of crappie on all reservoirs, but on some reservoirs they do."

The fertility of the lake and the retention time of the water in the impoundment also come into play for producing a large year-class of crappie. Weiss Lake and Logan Martin, in particular, have met the criteria that produce large spawns.

"We've talked to Alabama Power about holding water in these lakes if we get a lot of rain during January and February," Nichols says, noting that the company did hold water in Weiss Lake this past year during January and February. "For this reason, we expect a big year-class of crappie from last spring."

Nichols points out that a lake does not have to have a really strong year-class of crappie every year to maintain a healthy population. Good rec

ruitment numbers once every three years in a lake produce plenty of big catchable crappie. By working with Alabama Power to control the amount of water released during January and February, the Fisheries Section may be able to increase the number and size of crappie in both of these lakes over the next few years.

Most of Alabama Power's reservoirs get drawn down during the fall and winter months as a part of flood-control efforts in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Alabama generally gets big rains in January and February, but high levels in the lakes need to be maintained for 10 to 12 days after the lakes refill.

"But last year, Alabama Power held water on Weiss Lake to give us a peak of 10 or 12 days," Nichols said.

Through cooperation between Alabama Power and the DWFF, Alabama anglers may see the up-and-down cycle for crappie change for the better on Weiss and Logan Martin.

"Although holding water in January and February may help certain lakes, other lakes, like Lake Martin and Smith Lake, don't seem to benefit from this practice," Nichols cautions. "But we're very excited about this new discovery and the opportunity to test this theory on at least two lakes."

Picking out which lakes will have the very best crappie fishing this spring is a bit of a crapshoot. On the other hand, by using historical trends and noting the fishing conditions prevalent on the various lakes, it is possible to make some educated guesses. That is just what we have asked some experts from around the state to do.

Northeast Alabama
"Weiss Lake historically has provided the best crappie fishing in this area of the state," Nichols explains. "Although Weiss got on somewhat of a down cycle last year, we expect it to come back strong.

"Because of the outstanding 2000 year-class of crappie moving into the older age-classes, we can expect good fishing this year. The fishing will continue to improve over the next two or three years."

Steve Pope of Centre has guided on Weiss Lake for many years. He consistently catches 10-inch keepers, but he also boats crappie that hit the 2- to 3-pound mark every week. Pope trolls different sections of the lake depending on the water conditions and produces an angling report on his Web site based on his fishing.

To check the fishing and water conditions on Weiss Lake, visit on the Internet or call Steve Pope at (256) 927-6617.

Northwest Alabama
The Tennessee River impoundment in the northwest quadrant of the state that Nichols looks favorably upon for this year is Pickwick Lake. It has historically produced good-sized crappie and good numbers of crappie. Angling in 2003 on this lake at the junction of the borders of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee should be no exception.

For the last 10 years, Roger Gant of Corinth, Miss., has guided crappie fishermen on this lake for more than 200 days each year. He consistently produces limits of large crappie by trolling with small crappie jigs.

To learn more about crappie fishing with Roger Gant, call him at (731) 689-5666 or (662) 287-2017.

Central Alabama
Nichols believes Millers Ferry Lake is one of the best waters for crappie in the state. Located on the Alabama River in central Bama south of Selma, this 17,200-acre reservoir is a top producer of slabs in this portion of the state.

Historically, Millers Ferry has produced plenty of big crappie on the lower end of the lake. In that area you find a vast expanse of backwater and creek mouths with standing timber, flooded stream channels and sunken logs where crappie live.

This fishery produces good numbers of big crappie from February through August. Even during the hottest part of the year when current that is created by the release of water through Millers Ferry Lock and Dam gets pulled through the lake, you can find feeding fish along the old river channel and associated creek channels.

Phillip Criss of Bessemer has fished and guided on this lake most of his life. To learn how or where to catch crappie on Millers Ferry Lake, call Criss at (205) 477-5850.

Central East Alabama
"Lake Eufaula, on the Alabama/Georgia border, historically has been home to numbers of crappie," Nichols advises. "We usually have good year-classes of crappie produced in this fertile lake."

Jackie Thompson of Eufaula fished this part of the Chattahoochee River for crappie before Lake Eufaula was impounded. Once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the dam and backed up the lake, he redoubled his efforts to find the crappie hotspots. Although Thompson built his reputation as a bass guide, the anglers who have crappie fished with him over the years have usually headed home with coolers full of slabs.

To learn more about crappie fishing on Lake Eufaula, you can contact Jackie Thompson at (334) 687-9595.

West-Central Alabama
"On the western side of the state, I'll have to pick Demopolis Lake as the best for crappie fishing," Nichols explains. "Anglers can fish in the backwaters up the Tombigbee River and the Warrior River systems."

The portion of the impoundment from Spidle Lake north to the Epes River Bridge is quite productive for slabs. During the spring of the year, you can't beat Spidle Lake, not only for numbers of crappie but also for extremely big crappie. Many of the creeks coming off the main river also have numbers of large crappie in them.

South Alabama
Coffeeville Lake, on the Black Warrior/Tombigbee Waterway, is Nichols' pick for the best in this region of the state for crappie. It has always produced great crappie and should again yield plenty of fish for south Alabama anglers this year.

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