Alabama waters consistently deliver quality crappie to anglers. Some years are good; others are great. Last year proved to be one of the average "good" years. Expect 2017 to be better.
"The 'good crappie lakes' don't really change," said Damon Abernethy, assistant chief of Fisheries for Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF). "It's a long list of the usual suspects. However, I can report that we had a real good year-class of crappie in 2014, which was needed. The last strong year-class was in 2010, and those fish are beginning to disappear from the fisheries pretty quickly now. A large percentage of the 2014 fish had not reached a harvestable size by spring 2016, so there were a few frustrated crappie fishermen out there."
However, by the spring this year-class should have reached a harvestable size, in quite large numbers, providing some excellent fishing across the state.
Until about 10 years ago, the upper end of the Alabama River was just another average riverine spotted bass fishery. Then word began to trickle out about the crappie in Jones Bluff Reservoir, which runs from Wetumpka to near Selma.
The size was impressive, with 3-pound fish caught regularly and seven fish, 20-pound tournament strings. National crappie circuits soon made yearly pilgrimages to launch from Cooters Pond near Prattville.
Wetumpka guide and tournament competitor Jonathan Phillips boats fish using a variety of spring techniques
"Sometimes I do it all on one trip," Phillips said. "In the pre-spawn, I do a lot of long lining. That possibility continues into late June before it fizzles out. Sometimes you can catch them as fast as you can reel them in."
A favorite summer technique that continues into fall, is vertical jigging. Phillips dances jigs into wood structure on the river and its tributaries with great success.
Millers Ferry is another Alabama River destination with a great crappie population.
"The Alabama River has really good numbers of the younger year-class crappie, 6- to 11-inch fish, as well as larger fish being caught now," said Gerald Overstreet, Overstreet Guide Service (251-589-3225) and tournament pro. "All of the creeks, sloughs, and the river are loaded with shad. Having the fish, baitfish and good habitat, I think 2017 will be an awesome year to crappie fish."
Overstreet's fishing repertoire includes many techniques, but a favorite is vertical spider rigging with a spread of rods near Camden.
The Coosa River remains one of the crown jewels of Alabama crappie fishing, with Weiss Lake being perhaps the most renowned crappie fishery in the state.
"Crappie fishing for the spring of 2017 should be fantastic," said Weiss guide Darrell Baker (www.weisslakeguides.com). "This past spring we caught a lot of quality fish, but we caught a ton of fish in the 8- to 9 1/2-inch range. All of these fish will be keepers in the spring."
Baker normally starts long-lining light jigs behind his boat in February. As fish begin to leave the spawning grounds, they recuperate on the first docks with suitable depth, anywhere from 8 to 15 feet. From April into June, Baker breaks out the limber pole and shoots jigs under the multitude of docks on the lake.
Downriver on the Coosa, trips on Neely Henry, Logan Martin and Lay offer some of the same potential. One lake that continues to emerge is Jordan, the last of the Coosa reservoirs, just north of Wetumpka.
"Jordan has been really good for me recently," Phillips said. "It's giving up more and more 2-pound fish."
Dan Dannenmueller, tournament pro from Wetumpka, says his trips have yielded similar results, particularly with black crappie.
"This year has been a banner year for 1.5- to 2- pound crappie, and I believe we will see more 2-pound-plus crappie (in 2017)," said Dannenmueller.
Mike Holley, District II Fisheries Supervisor for WFF, confirms the details about Weiss and the other Coosa reservoirs, saying the idea actually applies to most of the fisheries in his district, which includes the upper Alabama River.
"Weiss has been on fire (through mid 2016)," Holley said, "and should only get better next spring, as a large proportion of those 2014 year-class crappie will be longer than the 10-inch minimum size limit there. We have seen evidence of the strong 2014 year-class of crappie all the way down to Jones Bluff Reservoir on the Alabama River."
The Tennessee River spans the northern part of the state, with just about every mile of the fishery featuring crappie fishing. To the west, Pickwick has long been a go-to destination. Upriver, sister lakes Wilson and Wheeler both yield quality slabs, but the emergence of Lake Guntersville as a crappie venue continues to intrigue visitors.
Locals have long known that Guntersville is much more than just a bass lake. Now the news is beginning to reach the national crappie scene as well.
"My opinion of Guntersville is that it's probably the best-kept crappie secret in the South," said Kent Driscoll, Pro Staff manager for B'n'M Rods and a Pro Staff member for War Eagle boats. "This lake has got a fantastic population of crappie, and the cool thing is it's black and white crappie both. There are plenty of 13- to 15-inch fish in this lake."
Driscoll makes regular trips to Guntersville in the summer, when he pulls crankbaits in Browns, Spring and South Sauty creeks. While the locals binge on the winter bridge bite and troll the tributaries in late winter and throughout the spring, Driscoll saves his Guntersville treks for the post-spawn.
"When that water temperature reaches 85 to about 88 degrees, the crankbait bite can be incredible, as good as any lake that I visit," Driscoll said.
Farther down the Tennessee River, crappie guide Brad Whitehead (256-483-0834) normally favors Pickwick but found that Wilson Lake yielded more fish for him last year. He hopes to see Pickwick rebound in 2017.
Regardless of which lake he fishes, Whitehead can usually be found sidepulling, which is an efficient way to cover water and target winter, pre-spawn and post-spawn fish. Later in the year, Whitehead trolls but also loves the single-pole approach, vertical jigging on deep wood structure.
All of the Chattahoochee River lakes feature quality crappie fishing, but none as consistently as Eufaula.
"By far our most popular crappie fishery in southeast Alabama is Lake Eufaula," said Ken Weathers, District IV fisheries supervisor. "We sample the crappie population in Eufaula each fall by electrofishing, and last fall indicated an exceptionally abundant black crappie population, mostly 7- to 10-inch fish, with some in the 12- to 14-inch size."
Weathers notes that 2016 crappie fishing started off well, but tapered off due to water and weathers conditions. If weather is stable this year, both should produce this year, as the year-classes are in the lake.
Eufaula mayor Jack Tibbs, also the owner of Strikezone Lure Company, stays in tune with the fishing on the lake.
"I've had some opportunities to get out crappie fishing, and just about every trip is good," he said. "I've also been out with Ken Weathers and shocked and sampled what is in the lake. The great thing is we normally shock up fish from every year-class, and most of the time it only takes a few minutes to shock up a limit of 30 fish. I predict 2017 will be a great year for Eufaula crappie fishing. In general, the panfish population seems to be in great shape."
Unlike many fisheries that are dominated by trollers, Tibbs says a more traditional cast-and-reel approach is still prevalent on Eufaula. According to Tibbs, the fish stay shallow for an extended period, and anglers catch them with jigs or use the standard minnow-and-float combination.
Across the state, there are a number of waters that give up plenty of fish to anglers but are largely unknown outside their regions.
In addition to the Alabama River, Overstreet says one of his favorite places to fish for crappie is the lower Tombigbee River near Demopolis, as it has great structure and a limitless bait supply.
Typically, Overstreet trolls for Tombigbee crappie, but he also casts to the stumps and brush.
"Not many people know about the Tombigbee except those who are from the area," Overstreet said. "You can have days without seeing another fisherman up there."
In north Alabama, the hidden gems are the Bear Creek Development Authority impoundments located primarily in Franklin County near Russellville. For Whitehead, the BCDA lakes are ideal for bad-weather situations because of their diminutive size. Cedar is the largest at about 4,500 acres, while Little Bear offers about 1,500 acres.
"Those lakes are easier to fish when you have heavy winds and potential for bad weather," Whitehead said. "These lakes are really great for size but especially for numbers. I have a lot of clients who want meat — they like a 9- to 11-inch fish to eat — and typically that's what you're going to catch on the BCDA lakes. On a two-day trip, I will take them down there for numbers and take them to the Tennessee River for bigger fish. Even on a bad day, you are almost always guaranteed to catch fish on the BCDA lakes."
These lakes are just a primer for Alabama crappie fishing. Fishing opportunities abound regardless of the region. Other traditional hotspots — Lake Martin, for example — also maintain stable crappie populations. The many offerings create the only drawback to Alabama crappie fishing: which one to choose?
From The Bank
Rarely does bank fishing rival that available in a boat. That idea does not apply on Lake Guntersville, where the bridges, causeways and adjoining riprap provide reliable crappie hotspots.
When the bite is good, expect a crowd. Get there early — pre-dawn hours — for a choice spot, even in the coldest weather. The crappie begin to funnel through by Thanksgiving, a run that peaks in late winter or early spring. It continues to a certain extent year 'round.
The fish are easy to reach but not always easy to catch, requiring precise presentations and refined tackle. Reels typically feature 4-pound test, while crappie demand 2-pound line at times. Plastics on tiny jigs are the lures of choice.
In addition to Town Creek, ideal spots are available at Browns Creek (Alabama 69), but anglers sometimes bridge hop on Alabama 227, looking for the best bite at Short, Town and South Sauty creeks. — Greg McCain