Tennessee's 2007 Crappie Forecast

Tennessee's 2007 Crappie Forecast

The crappie spawn is fast approaching. Here's a statewide look at some great places to set the hook on some slabs this year. (February 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Crappie cycle: Their populations go up and down like a yo-yo. There are periods when their numbers and sizes run high and times when they just don't get us excited. Not only in Tennessee, but all of the Southeastern crappie have their good years and bad years.

Bobby Wilson, Assistant Chief of Fisheries with TWRA explains.

"It all depends on the amount of rain in the watershed," he said. "If we have high flow during the spring, we will have good reproduction. If we have low flow or if the water level falls, comes up, and falls again -- when water levels are erratic -- that's not good at all."

To get an idea of what the future populations of fish are going to be in our lakes, TWRA biologists tow a net to collect fish larvae (about the size of an eyelash) in the spring and use trap-nets in the fall to get an example of reproduction and recruitment. With these data they can predict with some certainty what fish populations should be like for the next year or three.

One caveat: This article's data is based on projections from early 2006 before the autumn trap-netting studies have been tallied. The following predictions are, well, predictions.

Now that we know why crappie populations cycle and how predictions are made, let's look at some of the best guesses for good crappie holes in Tennessee for 2007 by region.

WEST TENNESSEE: REGION I

Bobby Wilson said that Reelfoot, Kentucky and Barkley lakes are perennially good lakes for crappie. Especially Reelfoot, because it has plenty of nutrients and the water quality is good. All three lakes rarely get below a good rating -- they're usually either good or excellent. Rarely are they ever rated as average.

The best month to catch crappie on Reelfoot is during the spawn in April, but February and March are good months, too. April has more stable weather conditions. October and November make up the second crappie season.

Crappie have a great habitat of wood and aquatic plants in the "earthquake lake." The plants and cypress trees provide more habitats for the food chain than most lakes. Upper Blue, Lower Blue and Swan basins are probably the best areas in the spring. The deepest hole in this lake is only 18 feet deep.

"Reelfoot is totally different fishing than it is on Kentucky Lake," said West Tennessee biologist Tim Broadbent. "Anglers just float on Reelfoot, they drift with minnows and jigs at different depths until they find fish. They fish there for a while then start drifting again. The place is full of stumps and cover everywhere."

A commercially prepared double-hook rig with a 3/8-ounce lead weight on the bottom, a couple of spinners for flash and little red beads is popular on Reelfoot. One hook is tied above the other about 18 to 20 inches. Minnows are the top bait choice, but some anglers are strictly jig-fishermen. It only matters to the angler, not the crappie.

Because of the great many stumps, knowledgeable anglers recommended that you use 14- to 30-pound-test line on your cane or graphite pole. Reshaping your hook after you pull it free is faster, easier and less expensive than tying on another rig. Reelfoot's water is almost always stained, so the heavy line is not a deterrent to the fish biting.

Kentucky and Barkley lakes are connected by a 1.75 mile-long canal constructed when Barkley Dam was built in the mid-1960s. This connection lets these lakes mirror each other. When recruitment is up in one, it is up in the other.

Broadbent said, "Lake Barkley is the hidden gem of West Tennessee. It's 20 years younger than Kentucky Lake; it has a lot more cover, but I'm not sure it can stand the fishing pressure that Kentucky Lake gets because it is so much smaller."

Another aspect of Barkley is that it is shallower than Kentucky Lake. Boaters have to be more vigilant for stumps and flats. It's rather challenging to walk back to the ramp after your lower unit has been trashed on a stump.

Birdsong, Harmon, Leatherwood, Eagle and all the larger creek embayments have the best crappie populations on Kentucky Lake. On Lake Barkley, you'll find plenty of crappie in the backwaters between Bumpus Mills and Dover, with Saline, Blue and Dyers creeks worth attention.

Broadbent said that all the guides he's talked with have been happy with size and number of fish they've caught from these lakes. There is no problem with fish health on any of the reservoirs in West Tennessee.

One of the best crappie holes in the spring is around the brush-covered islands near Dover on Lake Barkley. Working the bushes is as close to a sure thing as I've ever seen in crappie fishing. If you want to catch crappie deep in the heart of the bushes, here are the steps:

Start at the mouth of a cove within an island and keep moving until you fish all the bushes. Dunk a minnow at the base of the bushes near you and then those farther back. When you catch a fish, stop and give the area a thorough going over. It seems crappie like to be close to one another, so where you catch one, you should catch others.

The hard part is sticking your poles in the bushes without knocking your minnow off or snagging on a limb. This is where the slip-bobber method comes in. You keep your minnow, hook, weight and bobber very close together as a single unit on your line, stick your pole through the bushes and release your line so the unit falls on target.

To make this unit, place your bobber stop at the depth you want to fish. Six to 12 inches is usually deep enough, but it depends on how flooded the bushes are.

Once the stop is in place, slide on the bobber. Next, put on your 1/8-ounce conical slip-sinker and crimp a split shot about 3 inches above your hook. The split shot keeps the slip-sinker on your hook.

Use a light wire hook for fishing the bushes because eventually you are going to snag. A light wire hook will bend before it breaks your line, provided your line is 8-pound-test or stronger. A No. 2 to 2/0 hook is a popular size.

Now you have a slip-bobber resting against the slip-sinker against a split shot and your baited hook, all in the space of a few inches. This compact unit is easier to thread through the limbs without snagging. When you release your line, the unit drops to the water and se

parates with your minnow swimming on a short leash at the base of the bush.

With this method, you may find what others have discovered: The biggest crappie seem to be in the back of the bushes, the hardest to reach places. When you are working the bushes in the back or have threaded your pole among the limbs, you soon discover you can't set your hook in the usual jerk and lift. There is usually very little room to lift your pole. Of course, it's a natural reflex to lift the rod, but that can get you in trouble. The remedy for this is setting your hook while leaving your pole in position and quickly reeling in or you can pull the line in front of the reel with your free hand to set the hook.

Sometimes getting the hooked crappie out of the bush can be difficult, especially if you have reached way back to a nearly inaccessible spot, but this is a nice problem to have.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE: REGION II

"The best crappie population in Middle Tennessee is probably in Percy Priest Lake," Wilson said, "but I'd have to rate it about average for 2007."

Priest is nutrient rich and has good cover. That's a prime criterion for good crappie fishing.

John Riddle, Region II biologist, said, "Water levels and nutrients are very instrumental in reproductive success. Spawning habitat is too, but it is not completely defined as cover. Because there is plenty of cover along a bank doesn't mean it's suitable habitat for spawning."

Spring and Fall creeks on Priest are where TWRA catch the greatest abundance of young crappie. In most lakes, the back ends of large embayments are the best crappie-producing areas.

"Spring and Fall creeks are nutrient rich," Riddle said, "but there seems to be some relationship between young crappie and mud flats. It may be that those mud flats are very beneficial to over-wintering of young crappie. Again, we don't know the mix of factors; these are just things we've seen. It's all so interconnected; it's difficult to say what's doing what. We're just not that smart yet."

Percy Priest is a productive lake that astounds fisheries biologists because it gets extreme fishing pressure but, like a Timex, it keeps on ticking. The reason Priest is so prolific is because of the sewage treatment plants upstream in Murfreesboro, Smyrna and LaVergne. The water quality in Priest is rated good because the treatment plants meet EPA standards.

Wilson said Tims Ford Lake is average for black crappie but below average for white crappie; however, it is a lake where you can catch large crappie.

Riddle said, "In a lake like Tims Ford, crappie just don't do very well. It's not necessarily being deficient in nutrients because there are plenty of nutrients in the upper end. But the lack of habitat and what the water does during the spawning season affects the spawn. There are many factors that influence the spawn. These factors aren't black and white but gray areas. We don't know all there is, but we are learning through our studies.

"When we trap-net for population sampling, they always find more at the upper ends of the lakes. They are catching young-of-the year, 3-inch fish. This doesn't mean the angler will do better in the upper end, because by the time these small fish grow to catchable length, 10-inch fish, they have dispersed in the lake. They don't know if the spawning takes place there or if it is a nursery area."

Cheatham Lake ranks average. Normandy Lake ranks below average because of poor recruitment of black crappie and white crappie. Old Hickory also ranks below average.

PLATEAU LAKES: REGION III

"Lakes that stand out in Region III are Chickamauga, Dale Hollow, Cordell Hull and Watts Bar lakes," Wilson said. "Chickamauga is better for black crappie and average for white crappie. Cordell Hull should have some good white crappie fishing and black crappie should be fair. Center Hill ranks average. Nickajack comes in as average"

Dale Hollow has blacknose crappie because that reservoir has abundant aquatic vegetation that makes it a suitable habitat for that strain.

Years ago, Center Hill was chosen to receive the blacknose because it was a relatively small reservoir. Dale Hollow is almost twice as large but has become as popular as Center Hill among the blacknose crappie a-fish-a-nadoes.

The initial experiments with blacknose crappie began in Center Hill Lake to learn if crappie could be stocked successfully. Center Hill had suffered a severe decline some years ago because there was little to no recruitment. No babies, no fish.

After several years of low recruitment, anglers were having a difficult time finding enough crappie to make a trip to Center Hill worthwhile. We can thank the efforts of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for the popular crappie fishery that is now in that lake. Anglers no longer go just crappie fishing, they go specifically for the blacknose crappie.

Although the blacknose is a plain ol' black crappie with a racing stripe down its face, anglers have developed a cult around this fish. The blacknose are described as thicker, heavier and even more determined fighters than the other crappie.

Indian Creek is the main arm to explore for the blacknose. Keep in mind that they will be spawning this month among the stumps in the shallows if conditions are near normal.

John Riddle said that crappie will spawn in nearly any conditions, but it is the survival of the young that determines if recruitment is good or not.

EAST TENNESSEE: REGION IV

Bobby Wilson said, "Douglas Lake ranks as excellent. Boone, Melton Hill, and South Holston lakes also have good fisheries."

Allen Ricks, Information Officer for Region IV, noted, "Douglas is the reason we have a creel fish limit on crappie. It was nothing for anglers to catch 200 to 500 crappie a day. Douglas is still one of the best producing reservoirs in Region IV."

Expert angler Floyd Coffey has fished Douglas Lake since the 1960s and his fishing style doesn't change from season to season. He tosses a solid-plastic tube on a tight line and fishes the main or secondary points in river or creek channels, sometimes venturing into large hollows, but never heading far back into creeks.

Coffey's gear consists of a stiff 5 1/2-foot graphite rod, a small spinning reel spooled with gold 4-pound-test monofilament, and -- most of the time -- a 1/8-ounce split shot leadhead molded on a No. 4 hook and threaded with solid-plastic tubes.

Coffey tosses light colors in clear water and bright colors when the lake is dingy. Chartreuse, chartreuse/ black, green metal flake, pink and solid white are among his favorite shades.

"If I could only have those five colors with me at any time, I'd be in pretty good shape," Coffey said.

He said you have to learn to walk your bait on the bottom and do so without slack in your line. Most of his early-spring fishing occurs on the lake's midsection from Point 7 to Point 16.

Other good spots are Muddy, Indian, McGuire and Flat creeks. The smaller creeks near Swan Bridge, especially Nina Creek, are hot fishing holes.

Norris Lake, north of Knoxville, is suffering. Some used to blame the poor crappie population on the stripers, but, as studies have shown, it is the lack of nutrients and loss of habitat that has caused that lake's decline.

The Clean Water Act of the 1960s that brought back many fisheries from the brink of ruin has, in some cases, shifted waters out of balance in the other direction, from polluted waters to waters nearly sterile of nutrients. The fish won't miss the industrial pollutants, but they do miss the results of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and some organic materials.

Without these nutrients to feed phytoplankton, the entire food chain suffers. Oligotropic is what Norris has become -- meaning it is poor in nutrients for plants.

Fort Loudoun and Tellico are average, but Cherokee ranks below average.

BOTTOM LINE

So, the picture we get from TWRA biologists is that you can find some very good crappie fishing in all regions of the state. Now, get out there and dunk your minnows and jigs; you'll find some happy hooking!

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