March 26, 2019
By Frank Sargeant
Alabama offers a whole lot of choices when it comes to crappie fishing because just about every wet spot in the state has either black crappie or white crappie, and many have both.
The action this spring should be particularly good for slab hunters in many waters as the last of a big 2014 year-class works through the many lake and river systems. The survivors of this hatch are now thick-shouldered 14-inchers and up, and spring is prime time to find them as they come to the shorelines and feeder creeks to spawn.
And, the warm and fertile waters in most of the state routinely turn out big numbers of eating-size crappies over 9 inches long, so whether you’re a trophy hunter or just want to enjoy some tasty fillets, Alabama has a lot to offer.
In District 1, the northwest counties, fisheries supervisor Phil Ekema reports Pickwick is a top choice, with loads of fish 10 inches and up spread across its 43,000 acres, which sprawl into both Mississippi and Tennessee. Bear Creek and Yellow Creek are famed tributaries that load up with crappies (and crappie fishermen) during late March and early April, but there’s good fishing year around.
The usual vertical jigging tactics do the job on brush piles and stake beds during the spawn, but before and after, many anglers slow-troll 1/16-ounce jigs, underspins or crappie-sized crankbaits along the edges of the creek channels, which are the travel routes to and from the spawning areas.
Also on the Tennessee River, Lake Wheeler has lots of good crappie water from Decatur on downstream towards the dam, where the lake spreads out into thousands of acres of shallow backwaters. A lot of the spawning cover in Wheeler, particularly in the Flint Creek area, is giant lotus lily pads and other vegetation rather than brush. If you prefer to fish woody cover, First Creek, Second Creek and Elk River all have plenty, and attract a lot of fish from mid-March to mid-April.
In District 2, the northeast, the forecast is for the usual good action on Weiss Lake, the “Crappie Capital of Alabama,” famed not only in the state but nationally as a spot to catch lots of crappies. The winding impoundment, 30,200 acres on the Coosa River near Gadsden, rarely fails to produce in late winter and spring. The lake had a particularly strong year-class in 2014 and survivors from those fish will be five years old this spring, likely over 14 inches long. Most of the catch, though, will be 10-inchers; lots of pressure keeps the larger fish trimmed off.
Guide Mark Collins, who fishes crappies almost daily on Weiss, says his favorite method for locating fish anytime outside the spawn is long-line trolling with 1/16- to 1/32-ounce Jiffy Jigs along the drops, humps and river channels. Collins says fishing is good from January through May on pre-spawn, spawning and post-spawn fish, and again starting in late September into early December on the ledges and deeper creeks. Fishing slows in the coldest part of winter and in the heat from June through early September.
Quick Tip: Vertical presentations are one of the go-to methods for shallow crappie on brush in the spring.
Lake Guntersville, the state’s largest lake at 69,000 acres, is famed as a bassing spot, but it also has really good crappie fishing in spring. Captain Mike Carter stops chasing largemouths for a few weeks each year and breaks out the ultra-lights for some fast action at creek mouths upstream from Scottsboro.
“The water goes from about 4 feet down to 10 feet and more where these creeks come into the river channel, and those fish really stack up on that edge right before the spawn and right after,” said Carter. “We get them back in the creeks starting in early March and on through April, too.”
Also at Guntersville, the numerous causeway bridges are often hotspots prior to the spawn and just after, particularly when there’s current flow. Usually that flow is caused by opening the dam gates, but also sometimes caused by heavy rains or by sustained winds.
Take a look at Google Maps around the perimeter of the lake and you’ll see numerous choices at Brown’s Creek, North Sauty, South Sauty, Town Creek, Spring Creek and others. Some shore anglers bridge-hop, testing a number of these spots until they find one that’s turned on. The bridges tend to concentrate swarms of shad, which in turn concentrate the crappies — to say nothing of largemouth bass at times. Trolling crappie-sized crankbaits between the bridges and the spawning areas is a good pre- and post-spawn tactic, as you can catch the fish coming and going.
In District 3, west-central Alabama, supervisor Jay Haffner reports Demopolis Reservoir looks like a hotspot this spring, with a large number of black crappie 9 inches and longer showing up in recent sampling.
“Demopolis used to be all about white crappie, but in the last few years it has had a lot more black crappie. We’re not sure why — water quality has been the same for many years.”
Demopolis is a 10,000-acre impoundment on the Black Warrior-Tombigbee river system, narrow and frequently murky with rich farm runoff, which makes it productive of bait and crappies. There are endless backwaters and feeder creeks, and any one of them can get red hot during the pre-spawn beginning in February and continuing to post-spawn in late April.
Haffner also said, however, that Lakes Gainesville and Aliceville, which have been good crappie spots in the past, are not likely to be a great choice this spring.
“There are lots of fish in both lakes, but not so many over 9 inches yet,” said Haffner.
He says that Bankhead and Holt Reservoirs, upstream on the Warrior River, have good numbers of larger crappie, but they’re tougher to fish because they don’t have a lot of shallow cover.
“You can catch them on tree tops and blowdowns during the spawn, but the rest of the year, these lakes require a good depthfinder and plenty of scanning,” said Haffner.
On the plus side, the fish in deep water bite well except in the dog days of summer, and there’s less competition from other anglers than on many Alabama crappie waters.
“Anglers on these lakes often get some nice fish in fall, and again in late spring well after the spawn is over,” he said.
Tip from crappie pro brad Chappell
In District 4, southeast Alabama, it’s all about 45,000-acre Lake Eufaula, says fisheries supervisor Ken Weathers.
“Eufaula has been our best lake in this area for at least the last 15 years,” said Weathers. “We don’t get big fish very often, but we get thousands of keeper-sized starting late February and on into early April.”
He said the fishing is best in a typical spring with moderate rains and generally calm weather.
“If we get a cold, wet spring and flooding, the fish get hard to find,” said Weathers.
He notes that daytime fishing slumps as soon as June arrives, but many anglers still get their limits by fishing at night under lights suspended just off the surface.
Eufaula is shared with Georgia, but if you have a valid fishing license from either state you’re legal to fish both halves of the lake.
Also in District 4 Conecuh, Gant and Point A, north of Andalusia, are small but productive, and they get little pressure. Weathers also says Lake Frank Jackson, east of Enterprise, is another sleeper in winter and early spring for anglers who drift around dam with jigs and minnows.
From District 5 in the southwest, biologist Tommy Purcell says 27,000-acre Millers Ferry on the Alabama River is probably tops, with good numbers of crappies over 12 inches and some over 14 inches.
The usual spring bite along the shorelines takes place in March and early April, but a largely overlooked fishery exists in the deepest channels and holes, up to 25 feet deep, where some whopper crappies stack up in treetops in the coldest days of winter, when vertical jigging or lowering live minnows down to them will connect.
Lake Claiborne, a smaller impoundment of about 5,900 acres downstream, was even better in numbers but not in size. It gets less pressure than Millers Ferry, which has a reputation as a lake where 2-pounders are not rare. Both these lakes fish best in relatively dry springs, when the water stays within the normal banks and does not allow the fish to spread into the flooded brush along shore, notes Purcell.
“The flooding is good for recruiting new year classes, though,” said Purcell. “Two or three years after a spring flood we see a whole lot of keeper-size crappies.”
He said the Mobile Delta is also good crappie water, with five major rivers and countless winding creeks meeting before flowing into the saltwater of Mobile Bay. The crappies tend to be well upriver beyond brackish areas.
SHOOTIN’ THE DOCKS
In many lakes around Alabama, “shootin’ the docks” is a favorite way of fishing in late spring. As the water warms in April and May, a lot of crappies move under the shade of docks, and one of the few ways to get them is to use the spring of an ultra-light rod and an educated bail finger to “shoot” tiny jigs far back under the decking.
Docks with 4 feet and more depth are usually best, but when water temperatures are in the 60s and low 70s any dock with 3 feet may hold fish. Those adjacent to aquatic weed cover are often particularly productive.
It takes a bit of practice, but it’s fun and productive — keep the rod tip low to the water, use 4-pound-test mono, nothing heavier, and point the rod tip at the spot where you want the lure to land. Get the tactic down and you’ll be amazed at how many crappies you can pull out from under some docks. Busy marinas are often among the best spots. (Take plenty of jigs, though — it’s impossible to practice this tactic without getting stuck frequently, and every now and then a largemouth gets in on the act and ties the tackle into a pretzel.)
GROWTH RATES IN ALABAMA CRAPPIES
Crappies in the Cotton State display a surprising variation in their growth rates, mostly depending on the available forage, according to biologists with the ADCNR.
The fastest growing fish in the state appear to be those in the Tennessee River system, where a seemingly endless supply of baby shad and other baitfish feed them year around; a one-year-old crappie here may be as much as 9 inches long, according to fisheries supervisor Phil Ekema.
Growth for white crappie is very rapid with the mean length of 1-year-olds reaching 10 inches. White crappie reached a legally harvestable length of 9 inches in 0.96 years.
Black crappie grew at a slightly slower rate, averaging 8.5 inches at age 1. It took black crappie an estimated 1.39 years to reach a harvestable size of 9 inches.
On the other hand, crappies in the river systems of the southern part of the state generally had slower growth rates, taking between 2.5 and 4.5 years to reach 9 inches, with some exceptions. Crappies live up to 7 years in Alabama waters, considerably less than in northern waters, where they sometimes reach 12 years or more. But Alabama crappie do grow more rapidly.
White crappie here as elsewhere generally grow faster than blacks, reach larger sizes, and live longer. The state black crappie record is 4 pounds, 5 ounces, while the white crappie record is 4 pounds, 9 ounces.
A REMINDER FOR MINNOW FISHERMEN
Fisheries managers across Alabama are concerned about the possible invasion of Asian carp into state waters. Crappie anglers, who use tons of live minnows, can help avoid the issue by never releasing leftover bait into the lake — tiny Asian carp have been found mixed in with standard “fathead” or tuffy minnows in recent years. Instead, take unused bait home, freeze it, and use it as a “sweetener” on your jigs for trolling or drifting next time out.