Crappies are ubiquitous in North Carolina. But where are the top places an angler can expect to catch slabs, the 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-pounders that make the hearts of dedicated panfishermen beat fast?
Photo by Craig Holt.
Here’s a look at the Tar Heel State’s top lakes — Jordan, High Rock, Wylie — where anglers are likely to encounter a trophy-sized black or white crappie.
Jordan is the No. 1 trophy crappie lake in North Carolina. Nearby Falls of the Neuse reservoir gives Jordan a run for its money where size of fish is concerned, but Falls doesn’t have as many impressive slabs.
Anglers may land a mix of white and black crappie, although black crappie prefer lakes with clearer water, so Jordan mostly has whites.
Four characteristics make Jordan Lake the Tar Heel State’s premier crappie destination: brushy shorelines, deep nearby channels, water quality and plenty of baitfish.
“Spring is the best time to catch good numbers of Jordan Lake crappies,” said Jay Garrard of Durham, 38, a veteran tournament crappie angler. “But you can catch crappies at this lake all year long.”
Jordan Lake is shaped roughly like a “V” with a narrow left arm formed by the Haw River drainage and its right (and larger) arm formed by New Hope Creek. That normally wouldn’t be significant, but what’s upstream helps make Jordan a particularly good crappie destination: the nutrients flowing into the lake.
Anglers and boaters can’t miss Jordan’s year-round dark-green color. It provides a tremendous nutrient base for plankton, which in turn sustains all types of baitfish (gizzard and threadfin shad) that game fish need to survive and thrive.
“Nutrients drive the ecosystem that drives the (Jordan Lake) fishery,” said Christian Waters, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s top District 5 fisheries biologist.
About four years ago, the WRC noticed most of the lake’s crappie age-classes were 1- to 2-year-old fish (8 inches or less), so the agency instituted a 10-inch keeper limit (previously there had been no size limit).
“Now we’re starting to see crappie in the 5- to 7-year-old range, which are bigger fish,” Waters said. “Folks routinely catch crappie above the 10-inch limit. There’s a lot of 12-inch and larger crappie in the lake.”
Garrard said the lake’s crappie bite usually begins in mid-February as fish leave deep water and begin to stage at the edges of creek channels near spawning areas.
Crappie spawn at brushy shorelines during April as they attach their eggs to submerged limbs and trees. That habitat exists at most of the creeks that feed into Jordan Lake, including Ebenezer, White Oak, Beaver and Bush creeks on the New Hope side and Kirks, Stinking and Robeson at the Haw River arm.
“Mainly, I fish the mouths of the creeks and bridges in the main lake during February and March,” said Jim McKinnon (Jigmanjim Guide Service, 919-943-1128), also a Durham resident. “I’ll either go to the back of Ebenezer (in April) because there’s so much brush, or I fish the Fearington Bridge in March.”
During February, Garrard trolls only small 1/32-ounce jigs, eschewing live bait. During March, he begins to tip his jigheads with live minnows and continues to do so throughout the spring.
“But (successful crappie fishing at Jordan) is mostly just finding out where the fish are staging,” he said.
Similar to Garrard, McKinnon prefers to troll during early spring more than anchoring and fishing with live bait.
“You can live or die sitting on one spot,” McKinnon said. “If you don’t move, I don’t think you’ll catch a lot of fish.”
Garrard’s technique for crappie fishing changes from early to late spring, but one aspect that remains constant is movement. He never anchors, preferring instead to use a Minn Kota autopilot trolling motor. He trolls Charlie Brewer sliders or Triple Ripple grubs in 1/32- to 1/16-ounce and in a mixture of colors.
Garrard and McKinnon use 8- to 12-foot-long B&M crappie rods and micro reels positioned gunwale rod-holders. Garrard likes 6-pound-test line, but he often drops to 4-pound-test or even 2-pound-test in clear water.
During colder months, he goes to the backs of Jordan’s upper creeks, puts out a six- or eight-rod setup and “strolls” (slow trolls).
“Somewhere I’ll usually start catching fish at a certain depth,” Garrard said. “I’ll turn and go back through that spot until I’m not picking up fish.”
HIGH ROCK LAKE
It was difficult to rank High Rock, a Yadkin River lake, behind Jordan, simply because “The Rock” is loaded with crappie, including a good number of slabs.
“We survey the Yadkin lakes every three years,” said N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Lawrence Dorsey. “We don’t get as many big fish as at Jordan, but High Rock’s probably the most prolific central piedmont crappie lake. It certainly is the best of the Yadkin River lakes.
“In 2005, High Rock had a combined black and white crappie sample of 42.2 fish, which is really good,” Dorsey said.
High Rock’s crappie are about evenly split between black and white species. Plenty of baitfish, good woody and rocky shorelines, deep water for staging and spawning flats upstream at High Rock provide top-notch crappie habitat.
Veteran guide Jerry Neeley (www.Carolinasfishing.com, 704-629-9288) spends all the time he can at the Rock when he’s looking for big numbers of crappie each spring.
“In the spring, it’s easy to catch 100 crappie in four hours at High Rock,” Neeley said. “And you’ll usually get several that weigh 1 to 2 pounds.”
Neeley prefers Charlie Brewer slider jigs in chartreuse and black, June bug, pink and chartreuse, and some in burnt orange and chartreuse. “I mix up my jig colors until I find one they like,” he said.
His trolling is slow, from 9/10 to 1.1 mph. In addition to trolling different colors, he varies jig si
zes, tying on 1/16-ounce and 1/32-ounce jigs. The lighter jigs run shallower.
“I’ll have a few jigs on really short lines right off the back of the boat,” he said. “Everybody has a different way to do this. I use three ‘cast’ rods to see where the fish are. I also use two depthfinders, a (two-dimensional) screen and a 3-D screen. That way I can pinpoint a certain water column that’s holding fish.”
Neeley said he uses the same techniques during February, March and April in order to cover a lot of water, looking for stacked-up schools of crappie.
“I’ll go to the heads of creeks in February,” he said, “or maybe the first section of the lake’s headwaters. The crappie will be in the creeks during the pre-spawn. You can look for (sunken) brushpiles, too, but mostly I’m looking for stacked-up fish in open water.”
By the end of March and early April, Neeley changes his tactics and beats the shoreline like everyone else. But he still trolls for crappie.
“I’ll just troll faster to keep the baits at about 5 feet deep,” he said. “If I find a hot dock, I’ll stop and cast jigs.”
Spring is about the only time anglers should fish for crappie at Wyle, the last of the Catawba River impoundments in North Carolina (the lake’s lower half is in South Carolina).
Although Wylie once was a booming crappie lake similar to High Rock, numbers of fish have declined. However, that fact has created a fishery with crappie that come in jumbo sizes. Today, Wylie is a true trophy lake but only for anglers during spring when fish congregate at spawning creeks, brushy shorelines and docks and are easily caught.
The rest of the year, crappie fishing at Wiley can be tough.
“Our last net sample was in 2005, so that’s five years ago,” said the WRC’s Dorsey. “We only sampled the North Carolina side of the lake. A typical day showed just 2.7 crappie per net set each 24 hours, and that’s way behind a lake such as High Rock, which was 17.8 (for black crappie).”
Wylie’s clear water means it’s a totally black crappie lake (white crappie like dingier waters).
Recent anecdotal evidence from crappie chasers such as Neeley bears out Dorsey’s figures.
“It’s really tough to get on crappie and catch them like you used to at Wylie in summer and fall,” Neeley said. “I’ve been fishing Wylie for 50 years, and it seems like it’s been going downhill the last five years. However, in the spring, you can catch some really good-sized fish.”
Neeley said during September 2009, he and a partner fished Wylie and tried 35 places where they normally caught their limit but didn’t land a fish more than 8 inches in length.
Those catch rates are reinforced by Dorsey’s WRC samples at Wylie.
“We’ve kind of found the same thing that (Neeley) mentioned,” Dorsey said. “Of the fish we sampled, 86 percent were over 8 inches in length. But we didn’t sample many (2.7 fish per 24 hours) in the nets.”
“Spring’s a different matter,” said Neeley, who launches his boat at the North Carolina side (Buster Boyd Access) and usually fishes to the north. “There’s a couple places you can go and catch big crappie at Wylie.”
Three of those places — Crowder’s, Mill and Beaverdam creeks — are at the South Carolina side of the lake (North and South Carolina don’t share a reciprocal Wylie fishing license agreement, so anglers need separate fishing permits to fish the entire lake).
“But there’s another creek up past (Buster) Boyd that has nothing but great big crappie,” Neeley said. “Last spring (2009), a friend in a tournament called me, and I told him which creek to go in. I told him to stay there all three days. He did and landed a couple of 2-pounders and finished second. I caught a 3-3 and a 3-2 crappie up there two years ago.
“I’ll still fish Lake Wylie in the spring because I can put clients on some big fish, just not a lot of them,” Neeley said.