March 26, 2020
By John N. Felsher
Many anglers aim to have caught a 3-pound crappie, but few people really ever see one, as verified by a calibrated scale, in their lifetimes. True crappie enthusiasts might drive hundreds of miles for a chance to boat a giant crappie. A few Southern lakes stand out where anglers can likely achieve this lifetime goal.
Northern Mississippi habitually tops any "bucket list" of crappie destinations. Four U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control reservoirs combine for nearly 96,000 acres of prime crappie territory. Grenada, Sardis, Enid and Arkabutla lakes all produce good numbers of massive crappie. Enid even delivered a world-record white crappie weighing 5 pounds, 3 ounces.
"The four flood-control reservoirs are consistently among the best crappie lakes in the entire nation," remarked Keith Meals, a Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks biologist. "All four reservoirs had good to excellent spawns in 2015 and 2016 so they should produce some good fish this year."
Most people looking for big crappie head to Grenada Lake near the town of Grenada. The largest of the "Big Four" lakes, Grenada covers 35,000 acres during pool stage. Nicknamed "Home of the 3-Pound Crappie," Grenada produced at least one weighing 4 pounds, 13 ounces.
However, the smallest of the Big Four lakes frequently outshines Grenada and the others for holding giant slabs. On the Coldwater River, Arkabutla Lake spreads across 11,240 acres at summer pool near Hernando. Gerald Conlee set the state record for black crappie on Arkabutla in March 1991 with a 4.25-pounder. Anglers frequently catch crappie in the 3- to 3.5-pound range with an occasional fish exceeding 4 pounds.
"If I had to pick one of the Big Four lakes to catch a huge crappie, I’d pick Arkabutla," recommended John Harrison with JH Guide Service (662-983-5999, firstname.lastname@example.org) in Calhoun City. "The size of the crappie on Arkabutla is unreal. Arkabutla is not a numbers lake, but people have an opportunity to catch a crappie bigger than anything they’ve ever caught before. Many of my clients come here specifically to catch a 3-pound or larger crappie."
In the fall, the Corps draws down all four lakes to about a third of summer pool levels. The lakes usually reach winter pool levels by Dec. 1. During the drawdown, little remains of Arkabutla Lake except the main river channel and some deep water near the dam.
The drawdown makes running a boat hazardous—muddy water hides abundant stumps in the shallow lake—but low water also concentrates fish. This makes them easier to catch. During late winter or early spring, anglers enjoy their best opportunities to land a gigantic crappie in the remaining water. In February and early March, many anglers fish spider rigs along the old Coldwater River channel.
"Arkabutla is a special place where people can catch monster crappie," said Tim Blackley, a professional crappie angler from Hornbeak, Tenn. "For fishing muddy water, I like bright colors such as orange and chartreuse, pink and chartreuse, or lime and chartreuse. The water might be 6 feet deep, but the fish suspend 3 feet deep. I’ll spider rig with a 1/4-ounce jig tipped with a Strike King Joker. I also like tubes or a Strike King Mr. Crappie Thunder."
Although particularly muddy during the winter drawdown, Arkabutla typically stays stained most of the year. This is a blessing in disguise, as the turbid waters don’t receive as much pressure as Grenada or any of the other Big Four lakes. In cold, muddy water, crappie often hold extremely tight to stumps and other cover.
"In cold water, crappie are finicky and don’t want to bite," Harrison advised. "I always use smaller baits in cold, muddy water. In February or early March, I normally use a 1/32-ounce jig in orange and burnt oil, a brown color. With a single pole, I put the jig right in the cover and hold the bait as still as possible. In muddy water, people need to fish really slowly with a lot of patience to catch fish."
When late winter or spring rains come, the shallow lake can refill quickly. Rising water inundates willow thickets and other vegetation. As water warms, crappie move into that flooded brush in the back of creek channels as they prepare to spawn. Arkabutla crappie usually spawn in mid-March.
“I’ve caught spawning fish as early as March 1 and as late as mid-April still with eggs inside them," Harrison explained. "When crappie start spawning, I’ll go as far back as I can in a creek channel and look for willow trees. Big crappie go to the bases of willow trees way back in the thickets. I fish Bobby Garland plastics without minnows when jigging, but sometimes, I might put on a crappie nibble for scent. Any kind of a scent works really well in stained water."
Several launches allow access to Arkabutla Lake. Many people launch at Hernando Point. People can camp in various places around the lake. About 20 minutes from Arkabutla Lake, Hernando offers good accommodations. People who wish to fish more than one of the Big Four lakes might stay in Batesville, a more centralized location right on Interstate 55. For a delicious steak, head to the Como Steak House in the town of Como just north of Batesville.
Anglers fishing Arkabutla Lake can keep up to 15 crappie per day, each longer than 12 inches. Click for more specific regulations. Click for more lake and facilities information.
Called the "Crappie Capital of the World," Weiss Lake covers 30,200 acres on the Coosa River near Centre, Ala., and spills over into Georgia. The Chattooga and Little rivers flow into it. Managed as a hydroelectric power lake by Alabama Power, Weiss Lake produces many fish in the 2- to 3-pound range. The lake produced at least one crappie weighing 4.5 pounds.
"In the last couple of years, I have heard reports of several crappie larger than 3 pounds," reported Michael P. Holley, the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries district fisheries biologist in Eastaboga. "In 2010 and 2014, huge year-classes of crappie developed at Weiss. We’re still seeing those fish in our surveys so the likelihood of catching a 3-pounder is realistic right now."
The rivers create numerous large coves and deep channels. Although the lake drops to 62 feet deep in places, much of it remains shallow and stumpy. In addition, Alabama Power draws the lake down about 8 to 12 feet each winter. During the drawdown, fish congregate in deeper channels. Anglers often find large schools of crappie hovering where they can find abundant shad or other baitfish. Once anglers find the crappie, they can usually boat a bunch quickly.
"Sometimes, we run across a big school of 2.5- to 2.75-pounders,” advised Pat Trammell, a guide (256-523-1320, pattrammellfishing.com) from Centre. "We catch 3-pounders fairly regularly. In 2019, a client caught a 3.75-pound crappie. Weiss Lake is a place where someone could catch the crappie of a lifetime. Cherokee County sells more non-resident Alabama fishing licenses than any other county in the state, primarily because of Weiss Lake.”
To search for fish, Trammell usually long-line trolls at about .7 or .8 mph with 1/16-ounce Southern Pro or Bobby Garland jigs in blue or junebug with chartreuse tails. Sometimes, depending upon water clarity, Trammell will troll green or white jigs. During the winter drawdown, he recommends fishing the old river channels or Yellow Creek.
As the water temperature approaches 60 degrees, crappie move into the shallow flats to prepare for spawning. That typically occurs from mid-March to mid-April, with the peak in early April. However, excellent fishing for Weiss Lake crappie could continue through May and then resume in the fall.
"We call it March Madness with all the boats on the water at that time of year," Trammell quipped. "When we get some days with good sunlight, fish might move up to 4 or 5 feet of water, and we follow them as they move. We can go from 10 feet to 3 feet of water fairly quickly."
To make a great fishing lake even better, the state worked with the Weiss Lake Improvement Association and Alabama Power to build and deploy several artificial reefs. Lake managers also chopped down selected trees along the shorelines to create additional crappie habitat. State biologists also work with Alabama Power to stabilize water levels during the crucial two weeks in early April when crappie spawning peaks.
People can find accommodations in Centre and other nearby towns, or they can camp at several campgrounds in the area. Numerous motels and rental cabins dot the lake shoreline. Many people stay at Little River Marina and Lodge on the lake, where they can rent boats and eat at the grill, or at Weiss Lake Lodge in Centre.
Anglers fishing for crappie on Weiss for the first time might want to hire a guide. Besides Trammell, anglers could contact Darrell Baker at West Lake Crappie Guides, Mark Collins at Mark Collins Guide Servicel or Lee Pitts at Lee Pitts Crappie Service.
People cannot fish with more than three rods on Weiss Lake. Anglers can keep up to 30 crappie a day, each at least 10 inches long. For more specific information see outdooralabama.com/fishing.
Every crappie angler hopes to one day catch that enormous “bragging rights” wall-hanger. On either Weiss or Arkabutla, anglers could catch the crappie of a lifetime on any cast at any time.