In February, Kentucky crappie fishing is either still locked in the depths of winter’s grip, or slowly climbing out of the cellar toward improving weather.
It’s a dice roll.
How the weather plays out is a factor that strongly influences the crappie spawning cycle, and how anglers should be prepared, beginning late this month on into early May.
Fish and Wildlife Department fisheries biologists encourage crappie chasers to begin the “hunt” for success well before the April spawn arrives. Using common sense when it’s safe to be on the water in late winter, anglers working deeper water over structure in late winter often catch some of the best quality crappie of the year.
“Lakes still down at winter pool in February and March tend to concentrate crappie on ledges, brushpiles, underwater humps and other habitat in large numbers,” said Paul Rister, KDFWR Western District biologist. “The water is still very cold, but crappie will take a minnow or jig fished close to the cover. They know the time to reproduce is getting closer, and they will begin feeding more as that time nears.”
As March rolls around, surface lake temperatures start responding to warmer afternoons. Black crappie are first to move, and in many reservoirs that variety dominates the population. Before long white crappie get the urge, and begin moving into creeks, following the blacks in transition to channel ledges with cover, submerged brush piles and stump beds off the bank, right on into the shallows around visible cover. This happens usually over a four- to six-week period, in conjunction with rising water levels.
KDFWR’s Kevin Frey is pretty fired up about some of the waters in his neck of the woods in terms of potentially good crappie fishing this spring. The eastern third of the state contains generally less fertile lakes, but biologists have learned how to make the most with what they have to work.
“We’re seeing good things in a number of waters, but I think my top two choices would have to be Fishtrap and Carr Creek lakes this spring,” said Frey. “But not necessarily for the same reason. Crappie in most eastern Kentucky flood-control reservoirs have to contend with a significant water level change right at the time they are going into spawning mode.”
Most larger reservoirs are starting to return to summer pool at the first of April, which is also when water temperatures are closing in the 60 degree mark and crappie are ready to get to the bank and make more crappie. Fishtrap Lake fluctuates some 22 feet, while Carr Creek comes up 11 feet from winter to summer pool.
On both reservoirs, the cover crappie will flock to in early and mid-April will be easy to mark, while the water remains low through March.
“If you can locate submerged cover along the main lake channel, or in a deep creek at winter pool, you can likely catch some crappie late February through early April that are staging for the April bank run,” said Frey. “A great bonus is that in late winter, walleye start becoming active and both these lakes have improving populations.
According to Frey, the month of March is a good time for crappie because the water levels are starting to stabilize, and fish can be patterned easier.
“Watch for the warm, sunny days to get March fish more aggressive and moving into shallow cover after a string of warmer afternoons.”
Once spawning or nesting starts, Frey says to look for fish from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 feet deep in either lake. The majority of crappie will be in that range around cover. If the lake is gaining elevation, crappie will move up to what’s available. The best scenario is when water level is held consistent in order for crappie spawn more successfully.
“Once May gets here, anglers can look for males on the nest about that same depth, and females will have moved out and suspended in more open water, perhaps slightly deeper but not much,” Frey notes.
On Fishtrap anglers can expect to connect with big white crappie and taking a 30 fish daily limit is doable. Carr Creek holds both white and blacks, well above the 9-inch minimum size limit.
Minnows and tube jigs in black, white and chartreuse are most popular on these lakes.
As most anglers know, the “hot or not” of crappie fishing on a lake each year is largely determined well before spring arrives — like three or four years before. Good, solid spawns and year-classes are what helps or hurts the fishing in later years.
“The crappie on Cumberland, most of which are black crappie, are doing exceptionally well,” said KDFWR Biologist John Williams. “The fishing this spring is potentially as good as I’ve ever seen it. The relatively recent return to normal pool levels, after long-term dam repairs, has ramped up numbers and quality of several fish species, including crappie the past two or three springs. In fact, the abundance of shoreline cover crappie will use from March into May could almost make it more difficult to fish efficiently.”
Crappie are going to come to bank when that water approaches 60 degrees. About any area of the lake with submerged trees, logs, stick-ups and other habitat along the shoreline should hold crappie. And Cumberland has a lot of this type of structure, which spreads out both fish and anglers.
One other lake Williams oversees, and believes will be good for crappie, is Cedar Creek near Stanford. This lake has shown steady improvement in quality, and Williams’ research is showing some fish are pushing 14 inches, though most are in the 10-inch range. Black crappie are more abundant and the biologist suggests starting earlier in this smaller lake for crappie to take advantage of fewer anglers on the water and finding blacks in the shallows sooner.
In terms of high-quality crappie waters, the western part of Kentucky, west of the I-65 corridor, has some of the best the state has to offer. Even in years when populations may be experiencing a down cycle, most of these waters are well worth some springtime effort.
The predicted leaders of the region for this spring, according to biologists, include Barren River Lake, Barkley Lake and the embayments of the Ohio River.
Last year, District Fishery Biologist Eric Cummins notes that Barren River’s crappie population included a good percentage of keeper fish, and that anglers who spent a little time dunking minnows should be pleased with the result. This year should be good as well.
“The average size of the whites is going to likely be bigger than blacks this spring, but the numbers of both are in excellent shape,” Cummins said. “Like anywhere else, fishermen need to be on the water for blacks in March, fishing shallow cover. Late in the month under normal conditions, into April, whites will move up looking for spawning sites and food fish that are also attracted to warmer water, or that get washed in or become available as the lake level rises.”
Cummins’ counterpart further west also reports good things on two major reservoirs.
“I’m pleased with what we’re seeing on Barkley and Kentucky for the spring run,” said KDFWR’s Paul Rister. “We’ve documented an upswing in numbers of crappie coming on into the quality size these two reservoirs are known for, and I think anglers will connect with those fish at a better clip this spring than last year.”
Rister notes that at times Barkley is tougher for crappie, but anglers are starting to adapt, using light jigs and small, jig-type spinners. If fish aren’t cooperating up close to the shallows, anglers should move out to the edges of creek channels and the tops of brush piles and fish attractors with jigs and small, flashy baits.
According to Rister, Kentucky Lake should continue to provide increasingly better quality fish this spring and for the next few years. He says fish deeper structure for whites in late spring and in the shallows for blacks in very early spring before and after nesting occurs.
A final waterway to consider — probably one most anglers overlook — is the Ohio River. The Ohio is laden with feeder creeks, embayments and backwater areas along its entire length. In terms of crappie pressure, it’s pretty light, but the fish are present in good numbers, with some decent size.
The shoreline brushy and woody cover back in the creeks, roots wads and stumps, blowdowns and slides, are excellent spots to find crappie when they come to the banks in April. The series of pools between the locks on the river are a good bit like a string of lakes, and there is sufficient access from either side of the river.
Cedar Creek Lake
We generally think crappie fishing requires having a boat to cover a lot of water and fish multiple spots on large lakes. That’s not necessarily true. In fact, one of the top spots for this spring includes a unique bank-fishing opportunity for crappie.
When the KDFWR bought the property for Cedar Creek Lake, the agency tried to anticipate creating opportunities for all kinds of fishing. A 300-foot-wide buffer around the shoreline exists to permit bank access. Also, cover was placed in the lake close to the shoreline to attract crappie March through May.
A good bit of natural cover is also fishable from the shoreline, and picking up bluegill and largemouth around brush and trees in spring is a real possibility as well.
One other tip is that on Cedar, crappie like being back around shoreline cover in less than 5 feet of water in the fall. Most anglers will be pursuing something else at the time, so it might be worth a day in October or November at this nearly 800-acre jewel.