Bluegrass State 2009 Crappie Forecast

Bluegrass State 2009 Crappie Forecast

Here are the hottest waters around the state when it comes to catching papermouths right now and through the coming months. (March 2009)

Victoria Sinfelt holds up a good-sized crappie. Specimens like this one are prevalent in the waters featured in this forecast. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Spring is just around the corner --and that spells excitement for papermouth enthusiasts. Crappie fishing is extremely popular with Kentucky anglers, and with good reason.

Here in the Bluegrass State, we have our fair share of outstanding crappie waters that produce both good numbers and huge slabs.

Crappie fishing success can ebb and flow at any particular lake. In many waters, crappie are typically cyclical. The fishing will go through periods of being really good and then fall off and go through a down cycle.

Here in Kentucky, fortunately, we don't see a lot of lakes whose fisheries usually go through huge swings, but during certain years, they do see incremental changes.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) stays on top of the situation and does a great job of maintaining the fisheries in the best possible conditions.

This spring should offer up a great opportunity to go out and catch a boatload of slabs. Across our state, our fisheries are in great shape. With some help from Ma Nature, your success will be only a cast or two away.

Here are a few of the places you might want to target this year.

KENTUCKY & BARKLEY LAKES
Anglers looking to supersize their catch this spring will probably want to venture into western Kentucky, to this crappie-fishing paradise. Not only are these lakes two of our largest reservoirs, but they also hold some of the largest crappie in the state.

Are you looking for a 2-pound papermouth? This is where you're likely to find one.

These two lakes are separate and have distinct differences, but we've included them here as one single entry -- for several reasons. They are located adjacently, are connected by a canal and both have similar crappie fisheries.

The KDFWR rates the crappie fisheries for both lakes as "good." There are numbers of fish over the 10-inch minimum-size limit. Anglers will regularly catch plenty of slab-sized papermouths, and some will approach or even exceed 16 inches.

The fisheries are made up of both white and black crappie. In recent years, due to an increase in the number of black crappie found in these lakes, anglers have been learning to fish differently for the two species.

Since the population dynamics have changed, methods used in the past to take fish from a population dominated mostly by white crappie have not been as effective.

Anglers have learned that black crappie prefer much clearer water than do white crappie. The black variety also does not seem to depend on woody structure as much as white crappie and will often be found on ledges, points and rocky banks.

Many anglers have also reported that in spring, the black crappie move shallower much sooner quicker than do the whites.

Both species of crappie will move up into the brush at certain times. Anglers who frequent the lake refer to this brush by various names including "buck brush," "buttonball brush" and others. No matter what you call it, it's a crappie magnet. There's also plenty of other natural structure such as lay-downs and artificially placed structure like stakebeds, Christmas trees, brushpiles and PVC attractors.

For crappie anglers, some of the most popular locations on the lakes include Jonathan Creek, Eddy Creek and the Blood River area. However, crappie can be located throughout the lake because structure is abundant, albeit difficult to locate at times.

Anglers need to remember that the daily creel limit was recently reduced from 30 crappie to 20 fish.

That is, white and black crappie in the aggregate, not 20 of each species.

GREEN RIVER LAKE
This spring, fishing for crappie at Green River Lake should be really good. There are numbers of harvestable size fish, and numbers of sub-legal fish add to the total population.

Anglers have been reporting good numbers of these sub-legal fish for the past two years, so many of them will have now moved into the keeper-size category.

Over the past two years, David Jones has caught plenty of these smaller fish and now believes the fishery is in great shape. He operates the lake's only crappie-fishing guide service and spends a lot of days out on the water. Contact him online at www.greenriver lakecrappietrips.com.

Given the small fish on their way to becoming large slabs on Green River Lake, Jones believes that crappie anglers should find great success.

"Green River Lake has a great crappie population. Now, you're not going to come down here and catch a bunch of 2-pound crappie, like over at Kentucky and Barkley. But if you want to catch a lot of fish between 9 and 12 inches, then this is a good lake to fish. You'll also catch a good number in the 13- to 14-inch range and even an occasional fish up to 15 inches. On average, the majority will be a little smaller."

Green River Lake is located in Taylor and Adair counties and totals about 8,210 acres. It's basically divided into two major arms that branch out from the dam on the Green River. The Robinson Creek arm and Holmes Bend arm both offer excellent crappie fishing opportunities. There are an ample number of launch ramps and facilities around the lake.

Trolling for crappie is an oft-used method on Green River Lake. There are numerous flats and channels with structure on them. By trolling along these structures, you can cover more water rapidly and pick up good numbers of fish. After catching one, many anglers will turn around and troll right back over the same area. Others will mark the spot with a buoy and then cast or fish vertically.

Jones prefers to fish structure. He has marked a lot of sites with his GPS and will typically hit a number of different locations throughout the day. However, if you're visiting the lake and don't have the time to run all over searching for structure, Jones recommends getting a lake map and targeting the structure located by the Corps of Engineers.

NOLIN RIVER LAKE
Greg Snellen, a fisheries biologist with the KDFWR, said that Nolin River Lake has a fairly stable crappie population. Its fishery does suffer from the typical cyclical swings due to spawning success, available forage and the like. But Nolin Lake consistently produces good numbers of crappie up to 11 inches.

Crappies grow well at this 5,795-acre lake, according to Snellen, and generally attain legal size by the middle of their second year. He said that their growth rate is comparable to the fish in Kentucky and Barkley lakes, but Nolin is a deep-sided upland reservoir and lacks the overall optimal crappie habitat that those lowland reservoirs have.

Most of the crappie at the lake will be of the white variety, but approximately 10 percent of the fishery is comprised of black crappie. This helps anglers extend the spring season by targeting the two species in different areas of the lake and at different times. Most of the black crappie are found in the lower third of the lake where the water is clearer.

In the spring, the fish will move from their deeper-water haunts when the water begins to warm. Look for them near main lake structure and the edges of creek channels. Ledges with brush or other structure are crappie magnets. Sandy banks often warm quicker in the spring, and in these areas, crappie will often move as shallow as three to four feet.

As spring progresses and the water warms even more, look for the fish to continue moving farther back into the timbered coves.

Good areas to target include Rock Creek (Iberia ramp), Briar Creek, Conoloway Creek, Dog Creek and the upper portion of the lake above the Wax Recreation Area.

South-facing coves like Rock Creek and Conoloway will warm up sooner than north-facing areas.

Crappie love timbered coves, but you can often find them scattered and at different depths from day to day.

Factors contributing to crappie movement include water temperature, water clarity, weather conditions and fluctuations in water level. Heavy discharge at the dam can turn off the crappie bite or keep them from moving into shallower water.

If you're fishing the timbered coves, varying your presentation is the key to success. Anglers will often use vertical presentations of minnows or jigs as well as cast with jigs, curlytail grubs or baits such as the Road Runner. Spider rigging can also be effective at times.

ROUGH RIVER LAKE
The crappie fishery at this 5,100-acre lake in Breckinridge and Grayson counties has typically been fairly stable and usually has good numbers of fish up to 11 inches.

For this year, the fishing is predicted to be really good -- but some recent adversity could contribute to a decline in the near future.

In the fall of 2007, the lake was drawn down early to facilitate repairs on the dam. Consequently, the repairs prevented discharges of water, and in December, the lake's level soared to as much as 25 feet above summer pool. This high water continued into April and May of last year. At the time when crappie should have been spawning, the lake was some 10 to 15 feet above summer pool and fluctuating every time it rained.

Said biologist Greg Snellen, "We won't know those water fluctuations' full effect on the crappie until fall, when the young-of-the-year fish from 2008 start recruiting to our trap nets.

"On the other hand, there was considerably less fishing pressure on Rough during the spring because some of the marinas and ramps were closed. So for 2009, there may be a larger number of the 9- to 11-inch fish that were able to spawn and survive. Can more fish spawning offset the less-than-ideal spawning conditions? That remains to be seen."

Nonetheless, anglers should find excellent fishing conditions this year, with plenty of fish above legal harvest size. As at Nolin, most of the population here is made up of white crappie, with a few black crappie in the mix. Both species have a 9-inch minimum-size limit.

To find spring crappie, some likely areas at Rough River Lake include Tools Creek and Walters Creek on the south fork. Calamese Creek and the Upper River are also good. In the spring, coves with timber are the best.

Areas adjacent to the main lake channel and the large creeks will hold a lot of fish, too. Many anglers on Rough will troll or drift these areas while focusing on any structure they find with onboard electronics.

Jigs, minnows or a combination of the two are the most-used baits with trolling, but small crankbaits can be effective also. Some people will spider-rig several rods and push the baits into available structure.

FISHTRAP LAKE
This eastern Kentucky water isn't as large as the others we've looked at, but it nonetheless has very good numbers of white crappie.

KDFWR fisheries biologist Kevin Frey has rated the fishery as "good" and indicates that plenty of fish are 9 inches long or even longer.

Some real slabs are also available, but just not as plentiful.

The crappies begin moving shallow in March and into April in preparation of the spawn. Early in the spring, anglers will often drift or troll with minnows or tube jigs, targeting the edges of the main channel from the middle to the lower end of the lake.

Mudflats near the main lake channel, especially where structure is present, are also good in early spring.

Frey's sampling suggested targeting spring crappies on these shallow-water areas of the lake. He said that during last spring, a good number of crappie between 12 and 15 inches were in the area of the lake from Jonican Branch to Grapevine Branch.

During April, the lake is allowed to fill up to summer pool, which raises it by 22 feet. If this occurs quickly, it can make crappie less likely to move near the shoreline right away. You can still find fish shallow, but suspended on flats near the main lake channel. After the lake has held its water level consistently for a few days, along with warmer weather, the papermouth will venture into shoreline cover.

Things typically change after April. In May, the male crappie will still be with the nests, guarding the young fry, while the females will typically be suspended at the same depth but away from the shoreline, in open water or on the flats. Anglers will need to try different locations and methods until they find the fish.

Our "Honorable Mention" award in this crappie roundup goes to Lake Cumberland. We can't rank Cumberland right at the top, simply because the crappie population there isn't great. The lake's depth and topography are not optimal for crappie fishing. However, the size of those fish definitely makes it worth mentioning.

Some huge slabs are lurking in

Cumberland, but finding them can be pretty tough.

SPRING TIPS
The early part of the year is one of the most productive and fun times for fishing and for anglers who seek crappie. The fish are moving shallow, feeding aggressively and spawning.

However, it's not a sure bet every time out. You still have to watch water levels, temperatures, frontal conditions and other factors that can alter angling success.

As these fish transition from deeper water to shallower, generally they will follow woody structure as much as possible. But in areas with limited woody structure, the fish will relate more to drops, channel lines and points. Anglers with good onboard electronics have a definite advantage when seeking out the hiding places of these finicky panfish.

A variety of methods can catch crappie, but the fish usually decide the one that works best on any particular spring day. Many anglers will prefer live bait, while others employ a variety of artificial baits.

Still others will use a combination. The choices are endless.

When crappie hold deep, vertical fishing is often the way to catch them. This may be with minnows, various jigs, jigging spoons or other blade baits. When slabs move up shallower, some anglers will stay with vertical presentations. Others will switch to fishing bobbers, spider rigging or even casting with jigs, spinners, swim baits and even small crankbaits. Still other anglers prefer to troll over good cover, along channel lines or flats.

If the fish move into very shallow water, anglers will often use long poles to present baits precisely, right into the shallow-water cover. This may be done with individual poles or by spider rigging.

Another method gaining in popularity is to shoot baits right up under docks to access hard-to-reach fish.

No matter what method you use, crappie fishing is a lot of fun in the springtime. The fish are now at their heaviest weight of the year and are feeding actively. So load up the boat and hit the water in search of slab papermouths.

Later, when it's time for supper, you'll be glad you did!

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