The year 2018 was an up-and-down one for Arkansas crappie anglers. Heavy rains kept Natural State lakes and rivers unusually high from early February through April. February precipitation in Little Rock, for example, was 10 inches above the 30-year average, making it the wettest February on record. April was the wettest in six years.
This was a good-news, bad-news situation for crappie-fishing enthusiasts. While high water created unfavorable conditions for crappie fishing throughout much of spring 2018, that same high water inundated thousands of square miles of shallow spawning habitat for crappie and provided excellent nursery habitat for crappie fry. In many areas, the 2018 spawn was the best in years, producing a new year-class of fish that will continue growing and providing great angling opportunities for years.
High water also released tons of nutrients, which led to massive plankton blooms in many waters. Shad, an important food for adult crappie, feed heavily on plankton, a fact that led to a superb shad spawn in many waters last year as well. The young shad were easy pickings for hungry crappie, which gorged on the bounty and thus headed into autumn and winter in excellent physical condition.
As a result of all this, given proper conditions, we also can expect to see a superb crappie spawn in 2019, as big healthy slabs lay better-than-average clutches of eggs that will hatch and generate yet another excellent year-class of fish. Anglers will likely see lots of small crappie on stringers in 2019, but this year should begin several years of outstanding crappie fishing in many Arkansas waters, not only for numbers of fish, but for trophy-class slabs as well.
Back when this article was written, it was impossible to forecast what weather conditions anglers will face when they’re ready to go fishing this spring. But on those days when it’s nice enough to spend some time on the water, the following waters are among the scores where crappie catching should be outstanding. For up-to-date conditions, check the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s (AGFC) weekly fishing reports by visiting the AGFC website and clicking the “weekly fishing report” option under the fishing dropdown menu.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER OXBOWS
Over hundreds of years, as the Mississippi River has changed its course, big U-shaped bends have been left behind. These oxbow lakes provide great year-round crappie action and are worth visiting any time you’re looking for a back-to-nature setting in which to enjoy some first-rate slab hooking. Standard crappie baits like jigs and minnows almost always produce, and fast-paced action is the rule, not the exception, on most visits.
Three of the largest oxbow lakes — Horseshoe, Midway and Chicot — are among the top east-Arkansas crappie hotspots year after year.
Horseshoe Lake near Hughes stands out because it has a 50-crappie daily creel limit. No other Arkansas lake outside the Mississippi River levee allows anglers to take as many crappie, and few have as many crappie to give up. Anglers fishing around the bases of the 2,000-plus-acre lake’s shallow cypress trees often are first to reach their limit. Others dab jigs or minnows around boat docks, downed timber and underwater brushpiles. They catch ice chests full of filleting-size crappie as well.
Toward evening, boat after boat will return with limit or near-limit catches. Few fish are what anglers consider slabs (2-pound crappie are rare), but as far as numbers of crappie, Horseshoe has as many as any lake its size. Fishing is best in spring, but you can expect better-than-average action year ’round. Access is via Arkansas Highway 147 off Interstate 40 just west of West Memphis.
Midway Lake, just a few miles south of Horseshoe, covers 1,000 more acres of productive crappie habitat. Cypress trees, buckbrush and willows line the shore, and big crappie are plentiful. Prime fishing areas include the Big Killdee and Little Killdee, two buckbrush-covered points on the east side. There are stands of cypress trees near the south end; and a deep-water run passes through the middle of the lake in open water. February, March and April are considered the best crappie months by most local anglers, but fishing can be excellent during all seasons.
Midway is accessible from U.S. Highway 79 between Marianna and Hughes. Turn off 79 onto Arkansas Highway 334, then just follow signs about six miles to Midway Lake Fish Camp where there’s a pay-to-launch ramp.
At 5,300 acres, Lake Chicot in Chicot County is the state’s largest natural lake and also one of Arkansas’ most popular crappie-fishing holes. Visiting anglers will find an extraordinary population of 1- to 2-pound-plus slabs.
The lake was divided into upper and lower portions by a dam constructed in 1948, and the lower end is where most crappie are caught. The lower lake has always had a good population of big crappie, but before a lake renovation project was completed in the mid ’80s, few people fished there because the water was so muddy. After the renovation, the water cleared tremendously, and many more folks now visit, especially in spring when big “specks” are on their spawning beds.
Lake Chicot sprawls alongside Lake Village in the state’s southeast corner and can be accessed from several points on U.S. Highways 65 and 82.
I can’t write about Arkansas crappie hotspots without including Lake Greeson, a 7,000-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment near Kirby west of Hot Springs. This reservoir has frequently been listed as one of the nation’s top crappie hotspots thanks to the number and quality of fish it gives up year after year.
Consider, for example, a recent spring trip I enjoyed there. Together, three friends and I caught and kept more than 60 crappie, each tipping the scales at more than a pound. About a third weighed between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 pounds. That’s one heckuva mess of good eating.
Many folks believe Greeson crappie fishing isn’t much good in February and March before the panfish start moving shallow to spawn. But that’s not the case. The fishing can be extraordinary in late winter, with savvy anglers commonly catching their 30-fish limits.
In later weeks, fishing traffic gets heavier as crappie move from deeper water to beds in shoreline shallows. You’ll see lots of anglers casting ultralight rigs toward nearshore cover then, but the best fishing usually centers around Greeson’s many manmade fishing attractors. You’ll have little trouble finding these bamboo and cedar crappie condos, which are marked with buoys or signs on the adjacent shore.
Crappie Fishing with Brad Chappell
Dozens of smaller lakes in north Arkansas serve up wonderful spring crappie fishing for anglers in the know, including Fayetteville, Sequoyah, Elmdale and Bob Kidd. For the best crappie fishing, however, you must get out on big waters, specifically the Corps of Engineers impoundments in this region.
One of the best is 22,000-acre Norfork Lake at Mountain Home. When considering trophy-sized slabs, this reservoir stands near the top of our Ozark Mountains waters, with lots of 1 1/2- to 2-pound crappie, and a few even bigger. If you know your stuff, a 15-fish limit is a cinch to catch. Crappie must be 10 inches or longer to keep, a fact that has helped make this an outstanding fishery.
Many Norfork anglers catch their limits by fishing the hundreds of fish attractors installed in the lake. Each is composed of 30 or more bundles of trees and covers an area approximately 40 feet wide and 300 feet long. The bundles were sunk along a contour line that corresponds to the depth at which the thermocline usually forms (25 feet deep), with a target elevation of 525 feet above msl (mean sea level). Fishermen can figure out how deep the attractors are by logging on to the Little Rock District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, clicking the “Norfork” link on the right, then clicking the “Norfork Lake Water Levels” link on the left. Then simply read the current lake elevation and subtract 525.
All the Norfork fish attractors are marked with special buoys, and all attract astounding numbers of big crappie. Find a buoy, work a jig or minnow in the brushpile below, and a limit of crappie is almost sure to follow. Remember, however, that crappie less than 10 inches must be released.
Best Fishing Tips Ever-Terry Blankenship
ARKANSAS RIVER POOLS
If you focus your fishing in areas that don’t have too much current, you might catch a few nice crappie anywhere on the Arkansas River’s 320-mile length in the Natural State. But the best slab-hooking tends to be in some of the river’s bigger pools and oxbows.
One where spring fishing tends to excel is 50-mile-long, 35,000-acre Lake Dardanelle on the south side of Interstate 40 at Russellville. There are numerous access points, but my favorite place to fish is at Lake Dardanelle State Park. Near the park’s fishing tournament weigh-in pavilion is a covered, barrier-free fishing pier, a popular facility for bank-fishing enthusiasts, sightseers and photographers because of its sweeping view of the lake and 1,350-foot Mount Nebo to the south. Casting a jig or spinner near brush fish attractors around the pier will almost always produce a few crappie, regardless of the time of year.
With a boat, you can explore many other top-notch areas as well. Some favored by local anglers include the Spadra Creek and Little Spadra Creek arms just south of I-40 at Clarksville, the Shoal Bay area near New Blaine on Highway 22 and waters around Shiloh Park on U.S. 64 just west of Russellville.
Just upstream from Dardanelle, the Arkansas River reaches its northernmost point in a sweeping bend. This big bend was called “Aux Arc” by early French explorers and it is from the French that Ozark Lake and the nearby city of Ozark received their names. Formed by the completion of the Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam in 1969, the lake reaches 36 miles westward to Trimble Lock and Dam near Fort Smith. At normal navigation pool, there are 10,600 surface acres and 173 miles of shoreline to fish, much of which is bristling with crappie in spring. Most anglers entice their quarry with jigs or minnows, but I’ve found that small deep-diving crankbaits bounced off riprap rocks in the backwaters work wonders for enticing slabs.
And, finally, let me suggest a visit to the Coal Pile, a backwater area near the river’s lower end in Desha County. This beautiful backwater offers ideal crappie habitat, with plenty of cypress trees, logjams, rocks, channels and flats to fish, and thanks to recent work by the AGFC, there’s now easy access from Highway 212 near Pendleton. Most folks come to sample the lake’s legendary bass fishing, but the Coal Pile harbors plenty of slab crappie, too. A visit during the spring spawn is sure to put a smile on your face if you’re savvy to oxbow angling. Good luck!