Tennessee's 2009 Crappie Forecast

There are plenty of good places to catch crappie in every region of Tennessee. Here's what local experts and biologists say about where to go to catch some slabs this year. (Feb 2009)

Slabs like these are the main reason you don't want to miss the spring spawn in Tennessee. Photo by Bennett Kirkpatrick.

Anyone who has spent a few years chasing crappie realizes that the fish are cyclic, more plentiful then less numerous depending on a variety of factors. Thus, there are subtle shifts in the quality of some fisheries from year to year. But crappie also have the capacity to reproduce rapidly in good years, and they live long enough that at any one time there are multiple year-classes of crappie in any body of water that will interest anglers.

This month we check on the statewide prospects for crappie angling in Tennessee in 2009.

REGION 1
One of the top "crappie factories" in every survey, Kentucky Lake, appears to be on one of those downward swings.

"We have seen a series (four years) of year-class failures and that can't help but impact crappie density," said TWRA's area fisheries biologist Tim Broadbent. "Part of the impact can be directly linked to the drought conditions of 2008 and earlier, so this is nothing new to us. It happens. When certain weather patterns become dominant, you can project what the effect will be on Kentucky Lake and other reservoirs like it."

Broadbent went on to add that the same decline, which he points out is temporary, will be felt on Lake Barkley as well, saying, "Despite the fact that there are some differences in the overall character and ages of the two lakes, they are not only close geographically, but spawning success for crappie is usually pretty much a mirror image. Anglers are simply not going to find the numbers of fish that they are used to seeing on peak or near-peak years. That does not mean that there are not enough to fish for because the numbers are still good overall, and with the high gas prices that have impacted tourism, there very well could be fewer visiting fishermen trying their luck. Competition is likely to be down this year."

Long-time guide Steve McCadams reports that he has noticed fewer fish in the 3-year-old and younger classes, but said that overall the fishing in the Paris Landing/Big Sandy area where he does most of his work is still productive.

"Low annual recruitment does not mean no recruitment," he explained. "The overall census is lower than we would like it, but there are still more than adequate numbers for the fisherman who pays attention to detail and spends time in the best crappie fishing areas. You can't expect to get lucky and find a lot of 'stray' fish, but around good cover and at the right depth for the season it's still possible to take home your limit."

An interesting sidebar to the effect on the drought and its negative influence on crappie numbers was offered up by Tim Broadbent who said, "Strangely enough this situation has exactly the opposite effect on largemouth bass numbers. The last time it happened the bass numbers went crazy." It's something to think about.

Remaining steadily productive -- and expected to be as good as ever this season -- is Reelfoot Lake. Broadbent categorized this timber-studded natural lake as incredible.

"Despite the pressure that the lake receives, it just keeps on producing numbers and the average size is good as well. Nobody is laughing at the 'Reelfoot slabs' like they did at one time. Most of the fish caught are now over 10 inches and some really good ones are brought in every day," he said.

Unless you are familiar with the lake, Reelfoot is one of those places where a guide or local angling companion is a virtual necessity. Not only do they greatly increase your chances of success, they reduce the odds that you will get lost in the twisting, swamp-like bays and arms of the lake.

Region I has other options, which include the bays and backwaters of the Hatchie, Forked Deer, Tuscumbia and Wolf river drainages. They may not be practical for the first-time visitor, but the fish are there and the local anglers know it.

Waters like Lake Graham (500 acres on Cotton Grove Road nine miles east of Jackson), a TWRA-managed lake, and Beech Lake in Lexington are easier to find and offer suitable access for most boats. Brown's Creek Lake on Natchez Trace State Park has already given up one state-record crappie, so it is hard to ignore as well. You can get information on them through the 2009 Tennessee Fishing Guide distributed by the TWRA.

REGION II
Todd St. John with the TWRA's Nashville office said, "Because of its location and the number of fishermen here in and around the metro area, the first thing most fishermen want to know is what is happening on J. Percy Priest. Because of some strong annual recruitment early this decade, there are still good numbers of crappie to be found. The down side of that is the poor recruitments in more recent years have put the lake at a below par status overall."

Veteran local angler and fishing writer Vernon Summerlin suggested that anglers start looking for fish above Hobson Pike Bridge in spring, and then move toward the deeper, cooler portion of the lake as things warm. Despite the pressure that goes with its location, Priest turns out some quality crappie even if not in the numbers that could make finding them easier.

Just across town, so to speak, Old Hickory Lake gets a different report card, according to St. John.

"Old Hickory has had some good spawning results lately and numbers are up there," he said. "The nature of the lake is such that you're able to concentrate on the places where most fishermen think that crappie should be -- shallow to moderate depths that have sufficient cover. Most anglers who fish crappie a lot find the fish in and around the creeks, especially those with dropoffs where they come into the main lake."

In terms of overall production, he adds that Normandy, Tims Ford and Woods are worth the effort to fish, with Woods possibly being the best game in town this year, though not the only one.

"The black-nosed crappie that were stocked there have really taken off and are now showing up weighing a pound and one-half and better. They're turning into a real reason for crappie fishermen to get excited," he said.

In terms of where to go this spring, the breakdown goes like this: Normandy Lake -- points in the Riley Creek area; Woods -- any structure along the creek and river channels. The crappie fishing success on Tims Ford is recent enough that no real annual hotspots have made it into common knowledge,

although you can bet that the locals know. A call to the fisheries experts at TWRA could get you some up-to-date information at (423) 476-1404.

If there is a sleeper crappie lake in Region II, then both St. John and veteran angler David Lawrence of Nashville vote for Cheatham. St. John reports that pressure there is lighter than on any other body of water that close to Nashville and the current crappie population is in good shape. A specific where-to-go varies from day to day and one angler to another, but the general consensus for starting off the season is to concentrate on the abundant submerged cover along the channel edges.

REGION III
Good news is always welcome in any fishing report and John Mayer of TWRA's Crossville office had some to relate.

"According to recent verbal reports from our people who do the collection surveys, we have crappie showing up in the bass collection studies," Mayer said. "That means a crop that should rank from good to excellent is on the way for all of our Tennessee River reservoirs. There's still a lot of data to go through and we'll need reports from the creel surveys this coming year, but based on these initial reports I feel that things are looking good for the future. When it comes to crappie, one good year balances a series of marginal ones."

It is indeed good news because Watts Bar has a history of being one of the state's best crappie fisheries in terms of angler catch rates. Recent concerns about overall population densities have, however, seen the creel limit dropped to 15 fish per angler per day. The story on Chickamauga is the same: A great history of crappie fishing, but according to Mike Jolley of the TWRA Region III office, the lowering of the creel limit has been a popular one with most area anglers.

"On some of our bodies of water it was probably necessary since stocking has been a part of the overall process. It carried over to other non-stocked lakes like the main-river ones which were getting by on natural reproduction. Anglers just need to be aware of the 15-crappie limit."

While the Tennessee River lakes were "getting by," the upland lakes like Dale Hollow and Center Hill were starting to make a showing with the introduction of black-nosed crappie, which have done well in both reservoirs. Jolley is quick to note that although the fish have been in Center Hill longer, they are doing even better on Dale Hollow. Fish weighing a pound are commonplace and bigger ones not that unusual.

In terms of where to start looking this spring, here are some ideas to get you started. On Chickamauga, head for the coves, sloughs and bays as the water level and temperature rise. Drift-fishing with live minnows at depths ranging from 3 to 6 feet over and around cover is a popular angling technique.

On Watts Bar, you can go with a similar conventional approach or do as some professional guides in the area do and troll jigs and jig-and-minnow combos in relatively shallow water running 10 feet and less. Both of these lakes have what must be a bazillion tributaries, arms and pockets, so there is no worry about finding all of the fishing holes crowded.

For crappie on Dale Hollow and Center Hill, success may be more likely to involve fishing contour breaks, especially those along the shallower tributary streams. In both cases, the upper, shallower ends of the lake start holding fish first.

REGION IV
East Tennessee is noted primarily for its trout fishing and other "cold-water" fisheries, but it has one reservoir, 36,600-acre Douglas Lake, a main-river lake, that proves that there is indeed an exception to every rule. Don't look for browns and rainbows here, but it would seem that it sure pays to look for crappie.

Back a couple of decades ago, you could often encounter huge strings here with some local anglers who wanted to do so catching 300 crappie per day when things were going right. All that has changed now and while the numbers taken are sensibly smaller, the average size of the fish is substantially larger. One angler who remembers the big numbers is local angler Floyd Coffee, who now proclaims Douglas to be the very best spot for crappie in all of East Tennessee and among the best for the entire state. He not only has years of experience, he has the creel figures from the TWRA to back him up.

Although there are certainly fish to be found back in the creeks during the spring, both in pre-spawn and spawning situations the concentrated fishing here is more apt to take place on points on the main river or along the larger creek channels. Tube lures are quite popular here and the locals agree that keeping your bait close to the bottom, regardless of the depth that the fish are using, is the best strategy for getting your offering in front of the bigger fish.

In the spring, look for concentrations from Point 7 to Point 16. Yes, this lake is really all about points when it comes to crappie fishing. As the season progresses, the fishing shifts as the crappie tend to suspend in the main channels. By late summer, these same schools are often found by anglers using tightline rigs in as much as 30 feet of water, so a good depthfinder is a much-needed tool on Douglas.

This overview is intended to provide a general idea and some insights into ongoing management practices that affect the Tennessee crappie angler. For the latest details, check out the TWRA Web site or talk to your regional fisheries biologists or your county wildlife officer.

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