North Carolina crappie fishing has been blessed with above-average successes for years, but 2017 could be the best in a decade.
The northeastern section of District 1 finally has overcome the effects of 2011's Hurricane Irene. That storm dropped tons of water as it sped north, flooding backwaters of rivers and creeks. When water that had been stripped of its dissolved oxygen flowed out of swamps toward Albemarle and Currituck sounds, the death cloud smothered all types of game (and non-game) fish, including crappies. It has taken five years for game fish to rebound.
It is not known how Hurricane Matthew affected fisheries. Preliminary indications were that low-oxygen events were less severe than with Irene, but biologists are studying the situation.
Several lakes have seen an increase in white crappie, which are more tolerant of murky waters than black crappies. One N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist believes conditions have improved so much a new state-record white crappie may be landed in 2017.
Last March angler Lorene Smith of Rockwell caught a High Rock Lake white crappie that weighed 4 pounds, 4 ounces on uncertified scales. It would have eclipsed the current N.C. record of 3 pounds, 15 ounces. She released the fish alive because it was an egg-laden female.
Other lakes (mostly in the Triangle area) regularly produce 1- to 3-pound crappies.
Here's a look by from WRC fisheries biologists at Tar Heel State crappie prospects for 2017.
Katie Potoka didn't hesitate to answer a question about her district's top crappie venue.
"The best places are Lake Mattamuskeet's Main and Rose Bay canals," she said. "We sampled (crappies) in 2015, and the fish are fast-growing, averaging 10 to 11 inches (in length)."
The National Wildlife Refuge adopted a new rule in 2015 that should help crappies to grow even more.
"We call it the '10-10 Rule,' " she said. "Fish will have to be 10 inches long and you can only keep 10 crappies per person."
The Chowan River that forms boundaries for Hertford, Bertie, Perquimans and Gates counties is a hurricane-recovered stream.
"The (Chowan) creeks at Holiday Island, Bennett's and Catherine's creeks are good for crappies, and a lot of people fish the Wiccocan River (that joins the Chowan near Harrellsville)," she said. "People also fish as far north as Tunis Landing (north of Cofield)."
Bennetts Creek forms Merchant's Mill Pond, a famous North Carolina fishing destination.
Most Chowan crappies average 10 inches, and Potoka said "there are bigger fish than that, but you'll also catch smaller fish."
The Pasquotank and lower Neuse rivers, plus tributaries such as the Cashie River, also are top crappie venues.
Most of the top crappie spots in District 2, which encompasses the central coast from Greenville to Wilmington, include rivers and mill ponds. Again, biologists do not have a comprehensive acessment of last fall's hurricaine, but up until then, crappie prospects were as follows.
"The lower Neuse River is pretty good but doesn't have a lot of big fish," said biologist Ben Ricks. "The Tar River is about the same."
River Park North, an oxbow off the Tar River in Greenville, is the region's best crappie venue.
"It's fairly good," Ricks said. "A couple of ponds near its center have decent-size fish."
Bear Creek Lake (east of Goldsboro), also has "good-size crappies," he said.
"The Boney Mill Pond (east of Wallace off N.C. 41) has crappies from 1 to 1 1/2 pounds," Ricks said.
District 3 biologist Kirk Rundle helps manage three of the state's top black crappie lakes and the state's best impoundment for white crappies.
"Shearon Harris, Butner-Falls and Jordan are pretty good, but a unique place is the Tar River Reservoir (near Rocky Mount)," he said. "It's held the state record for white crappie in the past."
A 3-pound, 12-ounce white crappie caught here in April 2010 was No. 1 until April 2013 when Joey Boretti landed a 3-15 white crappie from a Wake County pond.
"I think it's possible someone will catch another state-record crappie from the Tar River Reservoir," Rundle said. "There's a niche for them there; they tend to do well. We've found (similar-size fish) there (while sampling)."
Jordan Lake has recovered from a threadfin winter kill several years ago (that devastated its summer black crappies) and once again cranks out 1- to 2-pound fish. Shearon Harris has 1- to 1 1/2-pounders.
Lake Waccamaw is the major crappie haven in District 4, a 10-county area wedged into North Carolina's southeastern corner.
The bay lake (approximately 9,000 acres) is a springtime delight, filled with 1- to 1 1/2-pound fish, but tough to fish during summer's heat.
"Fishing is best in spring because the water's cool," biologist Michael Fisk said.
The Northeast Cape Fear River is the region's sleeper stream "because people don't associate it with crappies," he said. "But you can have 20- to 25-fish days. It has fish up to 1 1/2 pounds (14 inches)."
Best crappie haunts include sunken treetops and underneath floating vegetation.
"The same pattern shows up at the Black, Waccamaw and Lumber rivers," Fisk said.
Triangle-area anglers enjoy the best venues of N.C.'s crappie waters because they have three top lakes to fish.
"Jordan and (Shearon) Harris are neck and neck in my book," said Freddie Sinclair, one of the Research Triangle area's top crappie guides. "They really produce good crappies."
Known mostly as the state's top big bass lake, Shearon Harris also has developed a strong crappie fishery in recent years, Sinclair said.
"The lake's always had the numbers, as many as Jordan, but the fish weren't quite as big," he said. "But now Harris's fish have gotten a little bigger."
During the springs of 2014-15, to win Harris crappie tournaments took a seven-fish resume that averaged slightly less 14 pounds — a 2-pounds-per-fish average.
"Jordan's the same way," Sinclair said. "During spring tournaments a lot of teams weigh in seven crappies close to or more than 14 pounds."
Although not as many crappie anglers fish at Butner-Falls of the Neuse, a lake that stretches across 14,000 acres from northern Durham to the Raleigh city limits, it's not because fish are small or few in numbers.
"Falls Lake gets more pressure than the other two from north-Durham and Raleigh anglers," he said.
Boat trailer hauls also are a little farther to reach Falls Lake.
"But in the spring, you can get on a bunch of good-size fish, 2 pounds and more," Sinclair said. "It's enough to pull in a lot of anglers."
Lake Mayo in Person County, Randleman Reservoir and Asheboro's Lake Lucas have good numbers and sizes of black crappies.
Badin and Tillery of the Yadkin River chain of lakes have supplanted High Rock and Tuckertown as prime crappie destinations.
"(The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission) dropped the catch limits for High Rock and Tuckertown because of stunted fish," said district biologist Troy Thompson. "(The limit) was eight fish and now it's open. The crappies average 6 to 7/12 inches now."
Cane Creek, a small lake 9 miles south of Waxhaw in Union County, probably has the best crappie fishing in District 6.
"Our last sample in 2013 showed that the average fish is over 11 inches, which is a pound-sized crappie," Thompson said.
Lake Thom-A-Lex has become an anomaly. Once a premier crappie spot, "it's stunted worst of all," he said. "But it has a lot of white crappies and anglers catch a few giants, but most there seems to be a bottleneck and few grow to bigger sizes."
Because Lake Norman is so large (31,880 acres), WRC biologists partition it into three sections for electro-shocking studies.
Veteran WRC biologist Kin Hodges said he's been lucky to have Norman's upper one-third in Iredell County.
"It's the best (part of a) crappie lake I work at," he said. "Most of the fish are in the 10-inch range with some larger, but not a lot. The Iredell section is more productive than any place at Norman."
The largest crappies in D7 swim in relative small W. Kerr Scott Reservoir near Wilkesboro.
"It has 3- and 4-pounders, but almost no mid-size fish and a bunch of small ones," Hodges said.
Lake Hickory once was the region's best crappie lake, but its population crashed after an upswing of white perch and alewives and inconsistent threadfin shad stockings because of demands at other lakes.
Crappie numbers drop dramatically the farther west one goes in North Carolina, mostly because of increasingly mountainous terrain where rainfall rushes across granite surfaces toward larger streams, also with rocky bottoms.
District 8 isn't the worst region in the state for crappies, but it's close.
"We don't sample other lakes in the district because, well, they just don't have that many crappies and the ones they do have tend to be small," WRC biologist Chris Wood said.
Actually, D8's best crappie impoundment, Lake Wylie near Charlotte, has most of its acreage in South Carolina (which doesn't have a reciprocal-license agreement with North Carolina). Wylie also lies at the end of the Catawba River chain of lakes and closely resembles a typical piedmont impoundment.
"Wylie has plenty of crappies and bass," Wood said. "It's got some nutrients in it for threadfin shad that the crappies eat."
But Lakes James and Rhodhiss, the first two Catawba River impoundments, are on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains and feature clear, deep water with little sustenance or good crappie habitat.
"Actually, fertility kind of goes back and forth at Rhodhiss," Wood said. "Crappie fishing can be decent some years on the Catawba side, but it's cyclical.
"Our last survey in 2016 showed a lot of white perch in the lake."
District 9 in the far-western corner of North Carolina is the most difficult place to find crappies in North Carolina.
"Tell people to go somewhere else," said WRC biologist Powell Wheeler. "We don't have any outstanding crappie fishing out here."
The only place, he said, to catch a crappie is Lake Junaluska, 200 acres of deep, clear water in Haywood County. The United Methodist Church has a large conference center on its shoreline.
"Junaluska has a very dense crappie population, but most of the fish are small," Wheeler said. "A 9-inch-long crappie is the biggest you'll find."
But trout anglers love D8 that has six hatchery-supported, one delayed-harvest and six wild-trout streams.
THE MYSTERY OF HICKORY
Tar Heel state anglers and the Wildlife Resources Commission's fisheries division have watched Lake Hickory, once a premier western crappie lake, go up and down like a yo-yo.
Crappie numbers have swung wildly from decent to disastrous. WRC biologists don't know exactly why but have been trying to get the 4,223-acre lake on an even keel with baitfish stockings.
"(The problem) began in 2006," said District 7 biologist Kin Hodges. "We stocked aggressively and increased crappies in the lake 50 percent by 2014 when we (net trapped) 150 per week. Then (even with stockings) it dropped to 45 a week then bottomed out at 20 fish."
Hodges said the problem began when anglers introduced alewives and white perch into the lake. Spotted bass appeared in 2008.
Inconsistent threadfin stockings and baitfish die-offs have hurt. But Hodges documented threadfin stockings increased crappies from 2007-2014.
"We always ask for 80,000 threadfins, but we've been getting from 20,000 to 110,000 per year, mostly from an exchange program with Tennessee," he said.
Hodges remains puzzled as to which factor has affected Hickory's crappies the most.
"The 2014 samples tell us something else is going on," he said. "It could be water quality, shad die-offs, perch, alewives or spots.
"We're planning more studies because right now we just don't know the answer."