March 25, 2019
By Richard Hines
In Kentucky, crappie get so much attention that every spring in many lakes it seems like “standing room only” as anglers pursue these papermouth delicacies. However, as you fish across Kentucky, you may notice varied success rates and average sizes of crappie.
Yes, a crappie is a crappie, but not all lakes are created equal, at least in productivity. If you were wondering why one lake has a 9-inch size limit while another lake has a 10-inch size limit, it’s because of differences in productivity and habitat quality.
Compared to other fish, crappie are relatively short-lived, rarely reaching five years of age, which makes growing slab crappie and assuring there will be plenty left to spawn each spring a difficult job.
In this article, we’ll review some of the better places to fish for crappie, and how local populations are doing.
Anglers will find plenty of cover on Lake Cumberland and among all the lakes in Kentucky, Cumberland has demonstrated the importance of quality fish habitat and what happens when there is a lack of good cover. For the last 20 years, anglers were complaining about lower numbers of crappie. However, starting in 2007, habitat began improving for crappie.
Anglers may not have realized it, but when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowered the lake for repairs to the dam, woody vegetation began growing on the “new” shoreline. During the six-year drawdown, hundreds of miles of shoreline that had been devoid of cover for fifty years grew up in a wide range of woody cover. The result was increased numbers and larger fish.
As the lake returns to the normal cycles of drawdowns and flooding, cover will again begin disappearing over time. However, there’s still good news for 2019 as anglers will find numerous stickups, and woody cover around most of the lake.
Marcy Anderson, Southeastern Fisheries Biologist said, “The outlook is still good for Cumberland, especially on the upper end of the lake.” The upper sections have plenty of shallow water and large flats that are perfect for spawning crappie, and the fish population has had a resurgence because of woody cover.
On the Cumberland, some crappie can be picked up around smaller coves or in the upper segments of streams, especially where residual woody cover is available. Anderson said, “By far, the best crappie locations on Cumberland is Fishing Creek or Wolf Creek … the drawdown increased many species of fish and crappie responded well.” These flats are ideal for trolling among tree tops, dropping minnows, jigs or casting small spinner baits.
When the first age class came on after the initial flooding following the long drawdown, it really demonstrated how important habitat can be. Overall, Anderson said, “It’s not as good as it was a few years ago but crappie numbers are still better than during pre-draw-down years and the 10-inch size limit and 20-fish creel limit should help boost numbers.”
Interestingly, Lake Cumberland has seen a shift in species. In the 1990s, crappie on Cumberland were predominantly white crappie, but since that time biologists are seeing an increase in numbers of black crappie. This shift is the result of increased water clarity on the lower end of the lake. Although this change is occurring lake-wide, Anderson says biologists’ annual trap net surveys are still showing Fishing Creek and Wolf Creek are remaining predominantly white crappie.
Tip from crappie pro brad Chappell
Jeff Crosby, Central District Fisheries Biologist said, “Taylorsville has been on a high but may be coming off just slightly.”
Regardless, biologists are expecting 2019 to be productive and that should be no surprise, as Taylorsville consistently remains one of the most productive lakes in the state. Recent changes for Taylorsville include moving the size limit to 10 inches for crappie, which will give some additional protection for the 2015 year-class.
Crosby said, “If we have a really good spring, many of these 2015 age class fish should push into the 10-inch range.”
Crosby added that, “What I am worried about are the fish from the 2016 and 2017 age classes, which were not very good due to bad spring conditions.”
It’s the kind of things fisheries biologists worry about, but you can’t control the weather. Crosby said, “Overall we are hoping that increasing the size limit to 10 inches will allow us to keep a few more adults in the system to allow for additional spawning down the road.”
Growth rates for crappie are on the upper end of the scale — in fact, one of the highest in the state — so the rate the fish grow is not a problem at Taylorsville, but high production can be.
Crosby said, “the problem is crappie were blowing through the system so fast, they were never able to spawn — they were being harvested before they had a chance.”
From hatch to cooler was happening too quickly partly due to black crappie that are running about a year behind white crappie in growth. When you get higher numbers, competition increases to the point that fish don’t grow as well. Ironically, as crappie numbers go down growth increases.
Crosby said, “It’s a numbers game and we are always trying to find the population level we want.”
That may sound like it’s easy to remedy, but when you add variations in weather, lake levels, and angler harvest, it’s certainly a moving target.
CAVE RUN LAKE
Finding crappie on Cave Run gets down to locating woody cover in the upper ends of the lake. Small jigs tipped with a minnow or small crankbaits pulled along shorelines among the best methods on what many consider to be the best crappie lake in Northeast Kentucky.
Fisheries Biologist Tom Timmerman said, “The lake was really high in 2015 — we had eight days over the 760-foot elevation, which put the lake 30 feet above summer pool. Then in May, Cave Run was still 15 feet above normal summer pool.”
What happened was the perfect scenario for crappie production. The long-extended flood period occurred during the peak spawning period, and that allowed fish to not only get off a good spawn, but the extended flood provided fish plenty of woody cover. Survival was high among young fish and, overall, crappie were in the best shape they had been in years.
Timmerman expects the crappie age class from 2015 will provide a good harvest by the spring of 2019 as well as into the fall of 2019. Timmerman indicated that this age class should be pushing through the system and although this age class will be in the 2019 harvest, some may be missed. Apparently one thing that really dictates the size of crappie anglers catch each year is the amount of harvest.
While Cave Run is a large lake, Timmerman said, “It actually acts more like a smaller lake, at least from the standpoint of crappie. The larger the harvest the bigger the fish are in the long run.”
Large numbers of crappie can almost eat themselves out of house and home on some lakes. That’s why it’s necessary to keep population levels down, which in turn keeps growth rates increasing, resulting in larger fish.
KENTUCKY AND BARKLEY LAKES
These neighboring lakes always seem to have similar trends and 2018 was no different. Western District Fisheries Biologist Adam Martin said, “Both lakes are doing great because we had a good age class in 2015, which contributed to good catch rates in 2017 and 2018, and we are expecting this age class to do well in 2019.”
In 2017, KDFWR Fisheries staff conducted creel surveys on Kentucky Lake and found that catch rates were more than double that of any previous creel survey.
Martin said, “We had great reports during January and we did not even start our creel surveys until February, so we missed the best fishing.” Regardless, this survey was still a record.
In the spring of 2017, anglers may have heard reports of “skinny crappie” as anglers and fishing guides alike were reporting the problem. Fisheries staff did investigate reports and found numerous crappie with this problem. Martin said, “We do our trap net surveys in the fall each year and check relative weights that are compared year to year.”
Biologists did determine weights were lower, but not as low as they had seen in the past years. A review of records indicated that this was the sixth lowest average crappie body weight on record. Many anglers were speculating that the lower weights were due to the invasion of Asian Carp; however, lower records were noted in the “pre-carp” years.
Last year, fisheries staff did find reduced numbers of shad, but shad are notorious for large die-offs due to cold weather and other factors. At this point biologists are not sure if the lower numbers of shad is due to the recent invasion of silver carp or routine fluctuations in shad populations. One thing for sure is that shad experience die-offs and no matter the reason, those die-offs can impact crappie.
By far the most productive area on the Kentucky section of Kentucky Lake is Blood River and Jonathan Creek. Barkley is running very similar conditions, production and catch rates. Martin said that the fall trap net surveys are indicating that Barkley also has very solid numbers. He also said that Crooked Creek is consistently the best embayment on the lake.
When asked which lake in his district was the best, Western District Fisheries Biologist Rob Rold said, “We have two lakes in the district that are running almost identical — Rough River and Nolin.”
One year Nolin may be a little shy on numbers, but size is good; a year later it flips back and Rough is leading the pack. It only makes sense that these two lakes would be so close since they have almost identical watershed conditions as well as structure and topography. Rold said, “Crappie are not a long-lived fish when compared to many other fish. It seems that three years is about it.” Although biologists occasionally see some four- or five-year-old crappie in their samples, those fish are rare.
Rough River Lake would be a good choice for late spring fishing, as trolling small crankbaits along the deep drop-offs may pick up post-spawn crappie.
BARREN AND GREEN RIVER LAKES
Two other lakes that mimic each other are Barren River and Green River Lakes. The similarity of these lakes make management relatively; both have implemented a 9-inch size limit.
Fisheries Biologist Eric Cummins said, “our surveys show that Green River Lake is a high numbers lake while Barren River tends to have the larger crappie.”
Biologists are not increasing the size limit because it seems the big fish hold up, at least on Green, which has a sizable population of black crappie that tend to grow slower compared to white crappie.
During his career, Cummins has seen the increase in black crappie at Green River and he said that in most cases only a few black crappie are reaching 10 inches. The bulk of the black crappie seem to be dropping out of the population before they are harvested. Barren seems to be following the same trend, and to maximize harvests the 9-inch size limit is being maintained on both lakes.
Cummins said, “This year anglers should find Barren in good shape this spring and crappie in the 10 to 12-inch size range should be better than average.”
With the wide range of lakes and surrounding topography from east to west it is easy to see how Kentucky has such a variation of crappie sizes and numbers. Fortunately, the Department of Fish and Wildlife continues collecting statewide data on this important fish, which allows biologists to customize regulations that fit each situation. Allowing crappie to reach 10 inches on one lake may increase production or angler harvest, but the same regulation may not work on another lake because of habitat or productivity constrains. The deeper lakes characteristic of those found in central and eastern Kentucky should not be compared to those of western Kentucky. No matter how hard you try, the physical characteristic of a lake restricts the habitat and habitat restricts production — which means you need to be adaptable for all situations.