North Carolina's 2006 Crappie Forecast

North Carolina's 2006 Crappie Forecast

Where is the best crappie fishery near you this spring? (March 2006)

A crackerjack spawn every two or three years is normally enough to keep the whole cycle of life spinning.

So crappie populations don't rise and fall on an annual basis, depending on how many little slabs survive through their first summer. It takes a handful of bad years in a row to negatively affect the population on any given body of water.

Once upon a time, biologists thought that momma crappie did such a great job having babies that no amount of fishing pressure could affect the status of a lake's fishery.

Now, they apparently know better. And they are putting size and creel limits in place on various lakes where it appears that slabs need a little lift to keep up with the demand for flaky white filets.

The fortunes of slab populations in lakes and rivers around North Carolina don't vary too much from year to year. That, however, doesn't mean that biologists with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission aren't able to point fishermen in the right direction when they ask about places to fish.

"The same old lakes we always talk about are still good," said Christian Waters of Smithfield, a biologist who is charge of fisheries management on reservoirs in the Piedmont. "Buggs Island, Gaston, Falls of Neuse, Badin, High Rock, Tuckertown, the ones that have always been decent fisheries will probably be decent again this year."

From one end of the Tar Heel State to the other, apparently, the lakes and rivers that have produced bragging-sized stringers of bragging-sized crappie for years will probably do so again this year. We'll take a region-by-region look at some of the tried-and-true hotspots around the state.

PIEDMONT NORTH CAROLINA

If you're talking about the best places to catch quality slab crappie in North Carolina, more than likely you're talking about the rolling hills of the Piedmont, that 200-mile-wide swatch of land between the fall line and the mountains.

A majority of the state's most productive reservoirs are in the Piedmont, and so, not coincidentally, are most of the crappie.

No discussion of crappie fishing can leave out places like Buggs Island Lake, High Rock Lake, Tuckertown Lake, Jordan Lake, Lake Wylie and Falls of Neuse Lake. That big handful of larger reservoirs has been the center of North Carolina's crappie-fishing universe for years. Biologists have weighed in with creel and size limits on a handful of them to try to offset the enormous amount of fishing pressure they receive -- to make sure that an enormous harvest or two and a couple of poor spawns won't leave the lakes' brushpiles and creek channels barren of crappie.

As far as Waters is concerned, Falls of Neuse Lake north of Raleigh and Durham remains a top fishery.

"It's as good as it has ever been," he said. "It really seems to stay in good shape, year after year. Buggs Island is the same way, and Gaston seems to be in pretty good shape, even though we don't tend to catch the numbers of fish at Gaston as we do on other reservoirs when we sample. However, the problem is, you have a good deal of piers and development, and it makes it more difficult for us to collect fish. The best thing to say is that it's more about our ability to sample them than the fishery itself."

The Yadkin-Pee Dee system may be the state's most productive as far as crappie populations are concerned. Several years ago, biologists feared that fishing pressure had grown so heavy that there was the potential for problems if reproduction went down. That led to the 8-inch size minimums and 20-fish daily limits now in place on High Rock, Tuckertown, Badin, Falls, Tillery and Blewett Falls reservoirs.

"We have good growth rates down there, and all the lakes are doing real well," Waters said. "We put the creel and size regulations in there to protect fish so they could get in an another spawn before most of them were caught."

On the Catawba chain, the best fishing is at the bottom -- in Lake Wylie outside the Charlotte city limits. It has been considered for years to be the jewel of the Catawba system for crappie, as well as largemouth bass. Reproduction and growth rates are so good that the commission hasn't had to institute creel or size limits, and the lake annually produces both good numbers of fish and numbers of good fish in the 1- to 1 1/2-pound range. The commission teamed up with South Carolina biologists to do extensive sampling on Wylie last fall, but results weren't available at press time.

Lake Norman, the 32,500-acre reservoir northwest of Charlotte, was placed under the creel and size limits in July 2004.

"Norman is obviously not the top lake around for crappie, but we are getting better growth rates there compared with other lakes," Waters said. "At Norman, crappie are able to use a little different kind of habitat and forage than the stripers there, and in that sense, they seem to be doing OK.

"Our biggest concern is that the alewives and river herring (stocked by individuals and striper fishing clubs) might replace portions of the threadfin shad population. When that occurs -- and it's already happened a little -- we're worried that if crappie feed basically on the threadfins, and the threadfins are replaced by a slightly larger baitfish, that won't be advantageous to the crappie. It's hard to say what will happen. So far, what data we have suggests the impact has been minimal, but we'll be looking at it quite a bit, and we're going to study alewives and bluebacks, largemouth bass, stripers, crappie and other species to determine potentially who's eating who, and what species compete for the same baitfish."

That leaves three very interesting fisheries up for discussion: B. Everett Jordan Lake south of Durham, its neighbor to the southeast, Shearon Harris Lake, and Blewett Falls Lake, the farthest downstream of any of the lakes on the Yadkin-Pee Dee system.

Jordan has long been considered North Carolina's blue-ribbon crappie fishery. Almost since it was impounded in the early 1980s, fishermen have flocked to Jordan from all over North Carolina, and a great many have returned to their homes with coolers filled with slab-sized crappie.

But several years ago, biologists started noticing some interesting things. Their fall trap-net surveys began to show that, every year, more and more fish were belonging to fewer and fewer year-classes.

"That kind of got us," Waters admitted. "We saw this trend over time. Every year, we were seeing one less year-class. One year, most of the fish would be in four differen

t year-classes, then it was three, then two. Two years ago, 80 percent of the crappie we collected in our trap-net surveys were 2-year-old fish."

The commission responded by putting a 20-fish daily creel limit and a 10-inch size minimum on the fishery.

"The anglers were catching fish like they had always been, and they don't see any problems with the fishery because the growth rates are so good. Jordan has always been good -- maybe the best we've got, statewide -- and it continues to be good for fishermen. But the one thing they couldn't see was the age of the fish," Waters said.

"When you talk to anglers, they say there are fish everywhere, that they catch plenty of 8-, 9- and 10-inch fish -- plenty of fish. However, all the fish they were seeing, instead of being 5, 6 and 7 years old, were all 2 years old. We knew if we had a couple of bad spawns back to back, maybe a drought year and a couple of low year-classes, the lake could be in bad shape."

Being taken out of the water and dropped in the hot cooking oil at 2 years of age was allowing most female fish only one real chance at spawning. The 10-inch size minimum, Waters said, is an attempt to give crappie at least two spawns before they swallow the wrong minnow or jig and wind up in a cast-iron skillet.

"They grow so fast at Jordan, that if you put an 8-inch minimum on them, they get one good spawn and then they're harvested," he said. "We were trying to save some fish. Production is high, and they grow so fast."

Waters said that when biologists sampled crappie in the fall of 2004, after regulations went into effect that summer, they could already see a difference. "We've been tracking it, and we were encouraged last year because we saw a handful of different year-classes. Whether that was related to the regulations or not, only time will tell."

Until anything changes, however, Waters will continue to believe that Jordan is the best crappie fishery in North Carolina.

Harris and Blewett Falls are interesting fisheries in that they don't nearly get the fishing pressure that their neighboring lakes get -- and yet, they may be among the best crappie fisheries in North Carolina.

"Some local fishermen fish Harris, but it doesn't get the pressure that Jordan gets," Waters said. "In fact, there's some concern among the local fishermen that the 10-inch size limit on Jordan is going to push more people to Harris."

Waters said that recent sampling at Harris indicates an excellent population of crappie. "The numbers were as good as any of the other reservoirs we've sampled," he said. "The growth rates appear to be good, and the fish seem to be in very good shape. The fishing should be pretty good; the one puzzle piece that we don't know about is the fishing pressure."

Blewett Falls is a mystery lake to many North Carolina anglers, if only because, well, it's out in the middle of nowhere. The dam is not far from the South Carolina border, and there are no major metropolitan areas nearby, so fishing pressure is relatively low.

Joe Aldridge, who runs a tackle shop in Albemarle, the closest "big city" to Blewett Falls, said that the fishery has been great "the past few years, especially for big crappie." But fishing pressure remains relatively low, because many fishermen aren't willing to drive an extra 30 minutes from other Piedmont reservoirs to tackle Blewett Falls.

And Waters said that the nature of the lake keeps a lot of fishermen away.

"It's not your typical Piedmont reservoir; you can't just get out and run on it," he said. "There are shoals, and there is standing timber, so it can be treacherous. I guess fishermen take that into consideration, along with how long a drive it is from anywhere else."

Aldridge, who has a house on Lake Tillery, said that crappie fishing on that reservoir has turned around for the good in the past year, after several down years he attributes to drawdowns that left the water well below full pool.

COASTAL RIVERS

Biologist Chad Thomas of Elizabeth City said there are several do's and don'ts when it comes to crappie fishing the coastal rivers.

Such as: Do fish the Cashie River. Do fish the lower sections of the Roanoke River. Don't worry about fishing the Neuse or the Cape Fear. Do fish the Tar River, or maybe fish the Tar River.

One of the big variables in all fishing along the coast -- not just for crappie -- has been the damage inflicted by Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. Widespread fish kills wiped out species in a number of rivers in the northeastern corner of the state. The commission tried to jump-start their return by stocking in many areas.

Thomas said, "We're in the midst of trying to evaluate some of our new crappie regulations, including the 8-inch size minimum, but the hurricane (Ophelia in September 2005) delayed those plans.

"From what we're hearing, the Cashie River seems to be the hotspot up there," he said. "I'd point people to the lower end of the Cashie as being better. I think the lower Roanoke is coming back (from Isabel), but it will probably be a year or two before it's back to being like it was. People are catching fish, but they seem to be very scattered.

"I'd recommend the Cashie. You can probably say that fish aren't as abundant as they were, but the growth rates continue to be pretty good there -- and in the lower Roanoke.

"The Neuse doesn't have much of a crappie fishery. On the coast, especially in the blackwater rivers, there is so much woody debris. The shorelines are just lined with cypress knees, tupelos and blowdowns. There are so many places they can be. If you can find snags in water that's a little deeper, the fish will be there. Many guys will get back and float down the creeks with minnows until they find a school of fish."

Thomas said that the Cape Fear River is much like the Neuse. "The Tar River is probably a little better; many folks will fish down in the Tar River drainage because we don't have a size limit. But there is still not much (fishing) effort on the rivers, with the exception maybe of the Tar."

MOUNTAIN RESERVOIRS

Biologist David Yow of Asheville specializes in reservoir fisheries in the western third of the state. He understands that "crappie are mainly a Piedmont fishery" because in the mountains "they're not a primary sport fish."

But there are still some decent fisheries for anglers who don't primarily rely on the tasty walleye for the majority of their table fare.

Yow likes the fishery at Fontana and Santeetlah reservoirs in the extreme western corner of the state, plus W. Kerr Scott Reservoir in Wilkes County and Lake James on the upper end of the Catawba River chain, and maybe Chatuge Lake along the Georgia-North Carolina border.

"Fontana is a pretty consistent producer," Yow said. "It's so big that it doesn't suffer from the vagaries or year-to-year things that affect some of our smaller hydropower lakes."

Besides Lake Wylie, James is probably the top crappie fishery on the Catawba, Yow said. "It seems like crappie fishing has sort of retreated up the Catawba chain over the past few years. We're seeing some declines in Lake Hickory -- and we're not sure why. We've implemented a 20-fish limit, and if there's a problem of reproduction, that should spread the catch out better."

Santeetlah is a fairly productive reservoir (in mountain terms) in Graham County. It has a great deal of excellent wooden cover in shallow water.

W. Kerr Scott in Wilkes County has a reputation for producing big crappie -- jumbo crappie -- but not particularly good numbers. Ditto Chatuge in the Hayesville area.

"We've never been able to figure out Kerr Scott; it has blueback herring for the forage base, and there is limited open-water competition," Yow said. "Chatuge is similar to Kerr Scott. It's less of a river lake -- more similar to something like Jordan in that it has much more structure. In the '90s, we had some high winds that put a lot of structure down in the lake, and now, it seems to be running its course. We've made some improvements in the habitat the last year or so, and it may have some effect."

Hiwassee Lake is the Jordan Lake of the western mountains -- in terms of past successes and future question marks, Yow said.

Big populations of crappie disappeared from the lake around 2000. Biologists like Yow fear that the introduction of blueback herring may be having a negative effect on crappie by taking over from threadfin shad as the primary forage.

"As far as crappie fishing in Hiwassee the last couple of years, in a word, it's been 'crappy,' " Yow said. "But now it looks like it might be starting to rebound. Two years ago, we had a good year-class coming along. We were doing some trap-netting with small mesh nets looking for walleyes, and we had quite a few young-of-the-year crappie in the net. I expect a couple of years down the road that we'll have a good year-class show up."

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