Photo by Eileen Davis
Welcome to April in Tennessee — where there are so many outdoors options and so little time. Being a total outdoorsman means making timely decisions. There are pre-spawn bass begging for your attention and turkeys doing their mating ritual across the state.
But it’s also one hot month for catching Volunteer crappie, and here are three waters that feature must-fish quality.
Sure, you can find largemouth bass and big catfish at Kentucky Lake, monster smallies and walleyes at Dale Hollow, as well as saugers and largemouths at Douglas Lake, but these three waters share a common bond. All three are excellent crappie destinations that demand your springtime attention, and crappie fishing doesn’t get much better than it does in April on these lakes.
REDUCED LIMITS IN A NUTSHELL
In August 2006, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) proposed to reduce the crappie creel limit from 30 per day to 15 on many of the state’s reservoirs. This proposal was based on data collected by TWRA biologists over the last 25 years and concerns expressed by crappie anglers in recent years.
Since the mid-1990s, TWRA biologists have documented a steady decrease in catch and harvest rates from what were historically some of the best crappie-producing reservoirs in Middle and East Tennessee.
“Fishing pressure is higher and anglers are more efficient due to innovations in technology and communication,” said Mike Jolley, a Region III TWRA biologist. Many anglers realize this and have been requesting more stringent regulations for crappie. Since 2000, TWRA has received numerous requests from anglers to reduce the crappie creel limit.
The agency said the crappie fisheries in Middle and East Tennessee typically exhibit boom-bust cycles because water levels during the spawn fluctuate from year to year. One of the major reasons that TWRA would like to see the creel limit reduced is because biologists fear that the “boom” years may be more infrequent in years to come.
“Most of these reservoirs have less habitat and lower fertility than they have had in the past,” Jolley added. Studies have linked pre-spawn filling of reservoirs and stable water conditions during the spawn with successful crappie spawns. Additionally, much of the preferred crappie spawning habitat will not be available during the spawn because it will be “high and dry.”
These changes have TWRA biologists concerned because they are uncertain of the effects they will have on crappie recruitment. When conditions are not right during the spawn, weak (poor recruitment) or missing (failed recruitment) year-classes can result. In recent years, failed recruitment has been documented on several Middle and East Tennessee reservoirs. Biologists suspect that complete recruitment failure did not occur in the past when population levels were higher. The reduced creel limits will not apply to West Tennessee fisheries like Kentucky Reservoir and Reelfoot Lake. These fisheries normally have better recruitment than East Tennessee reservoirs.
“We index crappie recruitment by counting the number of young-of-year crappie, shorter than 5 inches, that we catch in our trap net surveys each fall,” said George Scholten, TWRA Reservoir and River Fisheries coordinator. “Recruitment in our West Tennessee reservoirs is more consistent and normally higher than recruitment in Middle and East Tennessee reservoirs.”
In East Tennessee, when crappie recruitment is high, fishing is normally good three years later.
“The problem is that recruitment is inconsistent in East Tennessee. When we get a good year-class of crappie, it can be cropped off efficiently by a small number of anglers if liberal creel limits are in place,” Jolley said.
According to TWRA creel surveys, the reduced creel limit will affect relatively few anglers because only a small proportion of anglers are routinely harvesting over 15 crappie per day. Many East Tennessee reservoirs already have a 15-per-day creel limit for crappie. The TWRA and many local anglers feel that the reduced creel limits have had positive results on these crappie populations.
“In 2000, we proposed the 15-per-day crappie limit for Dale Hollow and Center Hill for many of the same reasons — recruitment was low and catch trends were declining,” Jolley added. “We feel the reduced creel limit has resulted in more consistent harvest and anglers have expressed nothing but support for this change.”
In 2001, the 15-per-day creel limit was enacted on five other reservoirs that were experiencing declining catch trends and low recruitment. Since then, crappie catch and harvest has rebounded.
The TWRA reminds anglers that they can still catch and release as many crappie as they want.
“If anglers really want to take home more than 15 crappie a day, they can always take a kid fishing,” Scholten remarked. “That would double the number of fish that they could put in the freezer, plus it would make the kid’s day.”
Scholten said he doesn’t anticipate any crappie regulation changes for Kentucky Lake in 2007 either, but it’s too early to rule them out. The recent crappie creel limit reduction in 2006 did not apply to Kentucky Lake (the creel limit is still 30).
Scholten said that, unlike many other Tennessee lakes, Kentucky Lake has never needed to have its crappie population enhanced through stocking, because recruitment is relatively consistent and high enough to sustain the fishery. High fertility and available habitat are likely some of the major factors that contribute to the quality of this crappie fishery.
As good as this lake is, Scholten said Kentucky Lake is usually in the top three across the state when it comes to crappie fishing, but it’s not always number one when it comes to angler harvest rates. Barkley and Reelfoot lakes are consistently high, but other fisheries rank high when strong year-classes move through.
At the instruction of Guide Garry Mason, I cast a Charlie Brewer Slider Grub in the direction of an unseen stakebed that the veteran Kentucky Lake angler knew was there. Slowly reeling the bait back, I felt a slight thump and set the hook with a raise of the rod. That began a good day of spring fishing on one of the state’s best waters, a day that would produce crappie over 2 pounds.
Mason said the size of the lake’s crappie is what makes Kentucky Lake a top destination. And then there is the number of fish as well. Another major plus is the structure of the lake, as you can just about go anywhere and find fishable water.
The seasoned angler said a water temperature of 62 to 63 degrees will get things going and crappie moving into shallow areas. If that gets them going, a water temperature in the low 70s is April prime time. Once the surface temperature rises, Mason said the baitfish move shallow and the crappie follow them, and there are plenty of baitfish to feed the fertile crappie population.
A pretty day can be just as good for crappie success, but Mason said the key is to fish before a front. He really likes high-pressure days just before an incoming front with little wind.
Like the crappie, structure is not limited at Kentucky Lake either. The lake is full of stakebeds and crappie find them and relate to them. Mason has also placed several of the Porcupine Fish Attractors in key areas as well. The waters around Paris Landing State Park and Buchanan Resort are some of the best. There are good ramps at both locations.
You can fish crappie holding in brushpiles at times, but he said stakebeds are key for catching the big ones. His biggest reason for liking stakebeds is because he does a lot of casting for crappie, and jigs work their way right through a stakebed.
In April, 2-pound crappie are common, and the occasional 3-pounders show up as well. The average crappie at Kentucky Lake in April will weigh from 1 1/4 to 1 3/4 pounds. He noted that one 3-pound, 14-ounce papermouth was boated last spring.
Mason’s top lure for plying his way around and through stakebeds is a 1/16-ounce Charlie Brewer Slider Grub. Top colors are white with a chartreuse tail, June bug with a chartreuse tail, Tennessee Shad, and chartreuse multi-sparkle.
In the first part of April, Mason said you can find crappie holding in stakebeds in 8- to 12-foot depths. About midmonth, they’ll move as shallow as 4 feet. Mason has been guiding on Kentucky Lake for 35 years and has fished the lake all of his life. You can fish with him by calling (731) 593-5429 or (731) 693-7770.
DALE HOLLOW LAKE
Dale Hollow is one of the lakes across the state that has been stocked successfully with crappie. Scholten said the lake has been stocked annually since 1995, with an average of 285,000 blacknose crappie each year. The agency plans to continue stocking blacknose crappie in Dale Hollow because these fish account for approximately half of the crappie harvested from this reservoir in recent years.
Scholten said Dale Hollow ranks in the middle as far as angler harvest rates, but these fish are by no means lacking in quality. For example, last year, the average size of the crappie harvested from Dale Hollow was larger than crappie harvested from any of the other reservoirs mentioned here, including Kentucky Lake, Barkley, Reelfoot and Douglas lakes.
About five years ago while fishing a smallmouth tournament with the Float-N-Fly on Dale Hollow Lake, my bobber was buried off a hump just like a big smallie would do. What my partner netted was a 3-pound crappie that would have excited any angler. It wasn’t the fish I was looking for, but I took notice. Since that time, we’ve boated several big crappie with the same technique. We weren’t even targeting them — they just live here.
Guide Jim Duckworth knows about the size of Dale’s crappie, too. The lake’s crappie are a little-known and often overlooked treasure, but Duckworth said if you can fish Center Hill you can fish Dale Hollow. You just have to keep the clear water in mind. That means staying back as far as you can off the fish.
Duckworth said Dale Hollow is a key destination in the spring just because of the size of the fish. In the clear water, he likes to use fluorocarbon line like Berkley Transition Gold. With this type of line, you can see the subtlest strike, but the crappie can’t see the line.
The veteran angler said to slow roll a Blakemore Road Runner Pro Series with a willow leaf off ledges and let it fall. Duckworth also likes red and white tubes with chartreuse 1/8-ounce jigheads as well. The more colors you can throw at them the better. He also fishes his lures on his 8-foot Float-N-Fly rod. The clear water means the crappie hold deeper than at most lakes. You can make long casts with the longer rod and stay off the targeted fish. Cast up on the ledge and let your lure fall into 15- to 20-foot depths.
Duckworth said the mid- to upper section of the lake is best in April, and you can use accesses at Cedar Hill Resort and Holly Creek. Once the water temperature reaches 58 degrees, crappie will start looking for pre-spawn areas. That makes ledges near flats productive areas. The best days to be on the water are the cloudy ones with a little wind to break up the clear surface. Duckworth said a nice drizzle is a great thing as well.
The veteran angler has been guiding on Middle Tennessee lakes for 32 years and can be reached at (615) 444-2283. You can also visit his Web site at JimDuckworth.comwhere you’ll find eight of his DVDs on crappie techniques.
Douglas Lake may not be known for the size of crappie like the other waters we’re discussing, but it’s definitely the comeback king across the Volunteer State. Scholten said Douglas is an important fishery, and the agency is doing what it can to make sure it remains strong. They reduced the creel limit to 15 per day on Douglas in 2001 as part of a crappie recovery plan. In addition to the creel reduction, this plan called for fish habitat improvement throughout the reservoir and increased stocking efforts.
Scholten added that since 2002, almost 200,000 crappie have been stocked and 58 acres of fish habitat were improved or added. Since this plan was implemented, catch rates have more than doubled, and in 2003, young-of-the-year catch rates were the highest on record for Douglas. In the angler success category, Douglas ranked fourth in harvest rates last year, behind Barkley, Reelfoot and Kentucky lakes.
Fortunately, I’ve experienced the Douglas Lake comeback in recent years and some of that time has been spent in the boat with Douglas crappie veteran Roger Swatzell. He loves to use a float and fly for them in shallow water, and that’s right up my alley. Swatzell fishes it just like I do for smallies and it’s just as exciting when they’re in the mood — and in the springtime, they are. The best news is you can put a bunch of them in the boat in a hurry.
For Swatzell, Douglas Lake is about crappie numbers and plenty of them. Unlike nearby Cherokee Lake, he said Douglas is a “point lake,” and you just fish it differently. In his words, in the spring, it’s super great for point fishing.
The longtime crappie angler said water temperatures in the low 60s are important, but he watches lake levels as much as anything. Both drive the
crappie action on Douglas. As the lake starts to come up, the fishing gets better, and you want to be on the water once it reaches the 960 to 970 level. The level and warming surface temps put the crappie on the banks and in shallow water.
Once they start hitting the bank and associate themselves to shallow points in the Indian Creek and Muddy Creek areas, Swatzell could care less what the weather is doing. He said it doesn’t really affect the bite once they’re where he can find them. Any slate points will work going back into the creeks as long as they’re not overly steep. The best ones have gradual falls.
It’s a standard fly-and-minnow situation fished under a float for Swatzell — the basic Float-N-Fly technique. He puts about 5 to 6 feet of line between the fly and float for this shallow-water tactic. Swatzell said to cast up on the bank and jig it back with the float to the target area until you locate holding crappie. His boat is usually in 8 to 10 feet of water. The ramps at Muddy Creek, Swann’s Dock and Walters Bridge are good access points.
Swatzell has been hitting Douglas Lake hard since 1971 and said he used to be a bass fisherman until he discovered the lake’s immense crappie action. Now, it’s crappie exclusively for him.
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