Though there are some ups and downs, Tennessee crappie fishing again looks great for 2018; there are plenty of options.
While crappie populations are often cyclic, the TWRA does excellent management work to keep crappie available to anglers.
Longer days, more sunshine and warmer nights are combining to loosen winter’s grasp and the water temperature is slowly edging upward. That means shallow water areas are soon to be teeming with crappie moving toward their annual spawning locations.
Crappie are not quite the same as other fisheries. A lot of sport fish species stay fairly consistent from year to year and changes typically happen gradually over a period of time. That is not always the case with crappie.
Although the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency does a great job of managing the state’s crappie fisheries and supplementing down years with stocked fish, crappie populations are just naturally more cyclical than many other fish.
Even so, the 2018 outlook for crappie fishing in Tennessee is fantastic and there are numerous lakes, large and small, at which to fill the cooler with slab papermouths.
Great crappie fishing is expected for this spring, according to Mike Jolley, TWRA fishery biologist overseeing Chickamauga, with fall trap-netting surveys showing consistent spawns.
“In Region 3, Chickamauga offers the best opportunities for crappie fishing currently within the Tennessee River reservoirs,” said Jolley. “Good spawning success, available preferred crappie habitat and ample forage, gizzard and threadfin shad, have ensured a viable population. Several new fish attractors were installed over last winter and these sites can be found on the TWRA website.”
Black and white crappie are both present in the population, but black crappie are most abundant. Richard Simms (www.sceniccityfishing.com) has been fishing the lake since his youth and has been guiding professionally on the lake for many years. He says he has seen a shift in the population dynamic over the years. White crappie were most abundant when he was a kid, but now he would estimate the ratio of black crappie outnumbering white crappie at about a 60/40 split.
Average size varies year to year based on spawning, but an angler might catch three short fish to one legal fish, 10 inches or greater. Simms primarily guides for crappie from late February through early April, with the peak of success often occurring during the last two weeks of March, but that varies due to weather patterns.
An average trip results in plenty of keepers and when the season peaks, the action on Chickamauga is phenomenal.
“Our crappie fishing peak hit the last week of March when 45-fish limits, for three people, were routine,” said Simms. “One morning we caught our 45-crappie limit in 1 hour and 10 minutes, which is a keeper every 90 seconds. That’s the fastest I’ve ever caught a 45-fish limit.”
There are plenty of legal fish available at Chickamauga, evident by TWRA surveys and results from angler creels. Fish in the range of 10 to 12 inches are very common and larger fish up to 14 inches are caught frequently. Even larger crappie, measuring 15 to 16 inches, are caught occasionally.
KENTUCKY & BARKLEY LAKES
“These two reservoirs usually mirror each other with recruitment, growth and mortality of crappie,” said Michael Clark, fishery biologist in Region 1. “Each reservoir experienced poor recruitment from 2011 to 2013, and also in 2016. However, recruitment was good in 2014 and 2015, and crappie anglers experienced better success this past spring.”
Clark expects anglers to have good fishing opportunities available this spring “if weather and water conditions cooperate.”
The biologist says that crappie experience good and poor populations in reservoirs and these fluctuations can be caused by anything from weather to water levels to drought conditions. Population changes in large reservoirs are a natural occurrence and cannot be predicted.
“Crappie experience high mortality from year to year,” said Clark. “So, when recruitment rates are low, angler success is impacted a few years later. We were obviously in a down period with crappie, but the population appears to be improving and if weather conditions cooperate, fishing success should improve over the next year.”
There are plenty of short fish in the population, which makes the catch rate higher and the day more fun, but there are also good numbers of keepers with limits certainly possible. While white crappie are still in deeper water, look for black crappie to move shallower and be found along rocky shorelines. Anglers drop minnows and jigs to the white crappie, but casting has become more commonplace for shallower black crappie. Casting action is very good early in the spring with curly-tailed jigs or Blakemore Road Runners.
By late March and early April, both species are found shallow, especially near the many buttonball bushes. Other great locations are stake beds and brush piles. Some crappie stay on shallow to medium depth cover all summer, but others move out on the drops and flats along creek channels.
CENTER HILL RESERVOIR
This lake is considered almost a “put and take” lake, according to guide Jim Duckworth (www.jimduckworth.com) due to the lack of natural reproduction. The TWRA has been stocking blacknosed crappie in the lake since the 1990s to provide better fishing success. Biologist Mike Jolley says the forecast for this spring is good and consistent as realized over the past several years.
“Currently there is an ongoing drawdown that has limited some preferred habitat for crappie,” said Jolley. “The lack of woody debris and aquatic vegetation are also limiting factors for the crappie populations at Center Hill. Typically, spring water fluctuations will have negative impacts on the crappie spawns, although Center Hill crappie struggle with this anyway, thus the stocking project. Forage base is ample to sustain the crappie population there.”
The crappie fishery at Center Hill is comprised of black, white and stocked blacknosed crappie. White crappie are the least abundant. Anglers regularly catch papermouths from 8 inches through 13 inches, with larger fish up to 2 pounds fairly common. Larger fish to 3 pounds turn up in creels occasionally. Duckworth says Center Hill has some of the biggest crappies in Middle Tennessee, but they are also the hardest to catch due to the clear water. It is very common for crappie to be 30 to 50 feet deep.
Al Barteletto, creel clerk for Percy Priest, reports good catches of black and white crappie, containing both legal and short fish. However, biologist Lyle Mason says annual trap-netting sampling indicate weak year-classes in 2016 and 2017.
“Weak year-classes are typical for crappie populations following strong year-classes,” said Mason. “The strong year-classes in 2014 and 2015 should provide good fishing through 2018.”
According to Todd St. John, TWRA biologist, Priest has traditionally been a very good crappie fishery since impoundment. The success of anglers primarily depends on good spawns of white crappie from three years previous.
“Recent years with below average spring rainfall have resulted in a shift from predominantly white crappie populations to a more evenly distributed population of white and black crappie,” said St. John. “Trap net samples from J. Percy Priest Reservoir indicated a weaker 2015 white crappie year-class. The 2014 and 2015 black crappie year-classes, however, were stronger. Therefore, the J. Percy Priest fishery is predicted to be average in 2018.”
The fishery has a somewhat limited size structure with most fish being in the range of 8 to 11 inches, with most fish being right at 10 inches or just over. Average weight is just over 1 pound. Larger fish are less abundant due to several reasons, not the least of which is being located near Nashville.
OLD HICKORY LAKE
This is another reservoir close to Nashville and as such, receives a lot of fishing pressure. Nonetheless, it typically provides some very good crappie fishing, albeit not a lake producing many quality fish. Most legal fish caught average about 1 pound or less, but fish up to a 1.5 pounds are fairly common.
Old Hickory has natural populations of white and black crappie and the fishery is supplemented with stockings of blacknosed crappie. Stockings of black and white crappie have largely been unsuccessful in Old Hickory with very limited recruitment. However, Todd St. John says trap-net sampling indicated a moderate year-class of white crappie in 2014 and a strong year-class in 2015. These fish provide an above average catch rate of sub-legal fish last year, so more of these fish should move into keeper size this year.
CORDELL HULL LAKE
Blacknosed, black and white crappie are all present at Cordell Hull, but the latter are most numerous. Most fish caught by anglers range between 7 and 11 inches, but there are fish up to 13 inches present.
“Fluctuations in aquatic vegetation abundance have often dictated preferred habitat availability at Cordell Hull for crappie and other game fish,” said Jolley. “High water flow years (2017) typically eradicate much of the vegetation, while drought years (2016) promote growth of aquatic vegetation. Spring water fluctuations could also affect crappie spawning success.
Much of Cordell Hull is riverine, so preferred embayments with sluggish water are not as numerous as some other Tennessee reservoirs, which offer optimal crappie spawning habitat. Some of the best crappie habitat available for anglers at Cordell Hull are large laydowns in some of the sloughs and embayments.
BEST OF THE REST
The crappie fishery at Dale Hollow Lake is similar to that of Center Hill in that it offers good numbers of fish and decent quality, but it is very difficult to fish due to very clear water. For much of the year, anglers must target brush and other cover or structure in deep water. The availability of aquatic vegetation is a plus for anglers.
Parksville Reservoir may not often surface in conversations on Tennessee crappie fishing, but it is up and coming. Jolley says the reservoir has been stocked with blacknosed crappie for three years and these fish are now reaching legal size.
Reelfoot Lake has experienced some poor spawns over the past few years and it has impacted success. Michael Clark says recruitment improved in 2013, 2014 and 2016 and that should make a difference this year with many of those fish at or above legal size this spring. Fishing was improved last spring and good fishing is anticipated this year if water and weather patterns cooperate.