February 28, 2012
It's never hard to find volunteers in Tennessee, but that's especially true during the spring if you happen to be looking for help to catch crappie. That's also true regarding help eat crappie when you are done with the catching, cleaning and cooking. To many anglers, warming days signal the onset of some of the most fun fishing of the year.
Tennessee undoubtedly ranks among the top states in the nation for its crappie offerings. That comes in part from the simple fact that the Volunteer State is loaded with places where crappie find easy living. Strings of major impoundments along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, plus numerous tributary reservoirs, collectively offer hundreds of thousands of acres of crappie habitat. Add hundreds of miles slow to moderate-paced rivers, and both black and white crappie find seemingly endless fine places to call home
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency doesn't settle for the "good" fishing that would naturally occur, though. Instead, they actively manage the state's crappie waters to make them even better. The agency effectively utilizes some strategies that the broader fisheries community once deemed useless for crappie, and in doing so they have established national trends.
Size and numbers limits, which vary in different parts of the state, are designed to maximize opportunities. Thus, anglers allow thee fish to spawn a time or two before they can be taken home. It also lessens the allowable harvest in less fertile waters.
Meanwhile, the agency stocks juvenile blacknose crappie to supplement the population in lakes that offer habitat for adult fish, but lack sufficient recruitment during normal years. They also monitor crappie populations, conduct targeted research projects, add cover to lakes to enhance habitat and do various other special projects to help provide the best possible fishing.
(RELATED: Six Surefire-Tactics For Pre-Spawn Crappie)
Although fishing can be good all over the state during the spring, with a general common denominator of the fish straying shallower and biting well, some lakes definitely are better than others. Also, different waterways fish very differently.
Let's examine a half a dozen lakes that offer especially intriguing prospects the spring, looking briefly at the best ways to catch crappie from each.
The toughest thing about crappie fishing at Reelfoot Lake is trying to figure out where not to place your baits. Shallow and cypress laden, this lake looks as "fishy" as anywhere you'll ever visit. Fortunately, looks are not deceiving. Highly fertile, full of food and packed with cover, this northwest Tennessee lake produces outstanding action for multiple kinds of fish, with crappie leading the way.
Reelfoot will not produce many genuine slabs, but for dependable action from quality fish, it would be pretty tough to top. The crappie fishing is remarkably consistent from one year to the next, and no supplemental stockings are ever needed. Whether it gets served drought conditions or floodwaters, Reelfoot seems to take care of itself.
Reelfoot crappie can be caught a lot of different ways, especially during mid-spring. Many fish move extra shallow and get around the edges of the cypress trees and lily pads. A fun approach at that time is to work with a single long pole in hand, keeping the boat just out from the cover. Pitch either a jig or a minnow under a float into every little pocket along the edge of the trees or the pads. The offering doesn't need to stay in any given spot for long. If the fish are there, they tend to be in ambush mode, and they will come and get it. Be forewarned, though, occasionally the fish that charges out from the pads will be a 6-pound largemouth, instead of a crappie!
The most popular approach throughout the seasons at Reelfoot is to use a "spider rig," with several poles set in holders and oriented off the front of the boat and lines going straight down from the tips of the rods.
Armed with special two-hook rigs that are weighted to stay vertical, spider riggers move their boats very slowly over big stump fields. Lines are normally set to keep the rigs barely over most of the stumps because the crappie are more inclined to move up than down in the water column to feed. There are stumps at all levels almost anywhere in Reelfoot, though, so getting snagged is just part of the process.
The crappie limit at Reelfoot Lake is 30 fish, with no minimum size. A Reelfoot Preservation Permit is required in addition to a Tennessee fishing license. For complete fishing information and to plan a Reelfoot trip, visit www.bluebankresort.com.
Blue Bank offers rental boats at a very reasonable cost or as part of lodging package, because Reelfoot's stumps can be pretty hard on boats and many anglers choose to leave theirs at home.
Tennessee's biggest reservoir could make a good claim as the state's best overall crappie lake. Both black and white crappie abound in this giant Tennessee River impoundment. Numbers of jumbo crappie have been slightly down the past couple of years, but the total number of quality fish available remains outstanding. A serious slab is always a possibility when you're fishing at Kentucky Lake.
Finding Kentucky Lake crappie sometimes calls for some searching during the spring. The fish are in transition as they work though the stages of the spawn. Complicating things, the temperature, level and color of the water all impact the fish's movements, and all three can vary dramatically during the spring. Warmer water tends to push fish farther back in the bays, and stained water pushes them shallower and tighter to cover.
That said, if Kentucky Lake is not at full pool or a even a little above full, there is very little cover along the edge and the fish are forced to use stake beds and brush piles out away from the banks, sometimes out in the creek channels.
Your eyes will tell you a lot about where to begin looking and the sort of strategies to use. You can also shorten the search some by visiting a couple of bait shops and asking questions. Between Kentucky Lake's immense size and volatility of the fishing, time spent asking around is time well invested. The folks who sell the minnows hear all the reports and see what others buy. They want you to catch fish with those minnows, so you'll want to come back the next day and to return for plenty of future trips.
If the water remains fairly cool, riprap that has deep water near it typically will hold fish. Otherwise, fish will mostly be around creek channel edges near the mouths of the bays. They will continue relating to channel edges as the season progresses. They'll just move up the channels and use the tops of the drops. Trolling a combination of jigs and minnows is a good way locate fish.
Good spring crappie action can be found within bays off all parts of Kentucky Lake. The Paris Landing area, close to the Kentucky border, is a good place to focus efforts because there are more bays and backwaters in this part of the lake than farther south. That makes it more practical to move from one area to another and to duplicate patterns once you find out how far back into the bays the fish have moved.
A reciprocal license allows Tennessee anglers to fish as far north as the Eggners Ferry Bridge in Kentucky with a Tennessee license. The Kentucky Lake limit is 30 crappie, with a 10-inch minimum size. For more information, visit www.fishtalelodge.com.
J. PERCY PRIEST RESERVOIR
Because it's so close to Nashville and offers good access to great fishing, J. Percy Priest Reservoir gets a lot of fishing pressure. That doesn't seem to hamper the crappie fishing, though. Highly fertile, Priest is another one of those really consistent lakes that produces first-rate action year after year.
In addition to supporting a predictably good crappie population, Priest offers exceptionally good opportunities for fishermen to find the fish. Dozens of fish attractors, including stake beds, brush piles and various synthetic structures, are marked clearly with buoys. These structures help concentrate the crappie in places that are easy for even a casual angler to find. Making a good thing even better, the TWRA created four deep-water fish attractors last spring by sinking 30 or so Christmas trees in each place, all in about 20 feet of water. The deeper sites aren't marked by buoys, but the GPS coordinates are available from the TWRA's Web site.
During the heart of the spring, a lot of fish will move extra shallow and get around downed trees, boulders and other natural cover, especially in the backs of coves and in well-defined pockets off the main lake. A single jig fished on a long pole works well for catching these fish. Plenty of crappie will remain on the attractors almost all the time, though, so an angler can find success by simply going from buoy to buoy and slowly swimming jigs.
Priest also offers really good bank access from several Corps of Engineers recreation areas and parks. Three recreation areas — Cooks, Stewarts Creek and Viverett Creek, — include piers or fishing platforms with fish attractors within easy casting distance. There are also cleared spots along the shore.
Anglers fishing these areas during the spring would have a hard time beating the simple strategy of dangling a live minnow a few feet beneath a float, casting it near cover and waiting for the cork to dart under.
The Percy Priest crappie limit is 30 fish, with a 10-inch minimum size.
CENTER HILL RESERVOIR
The original site of blacknose crappie stockings in Tennessee, Center Hill Reservoir continues to benefit from those plantings and still produces fine fishing year after year. Because of its depth and clarity, this Cumberland Plateau reservoir can be a challenging destination at times. During the spring, though, the fish move shallower and relate to visible cover, creating easier than normal fishing for most anglers.
Early in the spring, the fish will hold on stumps or sunken brush near the mouths of major creeks. Slow-trolling works well for finding deeper fish over open-water structure. As the season progresses, the fish will move into the creeks and hold first around sunken treetops in middle depths. At that point, electronics are very important because some of the best brush piles aren't visible from above the water. A slip cork works nicely for suspending minnows or jigs directly over the brush at a controlled depth.
Eventually the crappie move to the backs of the creeks and get around deadfalls and other shoreline cover. Center Hill is slower to warm than many other Tennessee reservoirs, so the best shallow fishing typically doesn't occur until May. By that time the lake normally is at full pool, flooding plenty of cover. Unfortunately, ongoing dam repairs make water levels a little more difficult than normal to predict. When the crappie do move shallow, effective strategies include working the backs of the creeks and probing cover with a long pole and a jig, or using an ultralight rod to cast a float-and-minnow combination close to the edges of the cover.
The Center Hill crappie limit is 15 fish, with a 10-inch minimum size. For guided fishing, visit www.jimduckworth.com.
Despite being in the northeastern corner of Tennessee, where mountain lakes are mostly infertile, 4,500-acre Boone Lake is quite the opposite and supports big numbers of fish. Traditionally, Boone has not been an important crappie lake. However, in recent years the crappie population has improved, a trend biologists attribute in large part to more restrictive harvest regulations.
The most recent electroshocking efforts have shown a higher percentage of 10-inch-plus crappie than has traditionally been the case at Boone.
Boone supports both black and white crappie, with blacks being more prevalent. The TWRA also stocks blacknose crappie every year, but neither angler catch reports nor biologists' samples have clearly evidenced that the blacknose stockings have substantially added to the crappie population.
Boone's shoreline is heavily developed, so much of the best crappie fishing cover exists in the form of boat docks and brush piles that have been sunk around those docks. Learning to get baits way up under docks, whether by "shooting," reaching under docks with a long pole or some other means, provides a big crappie fishing advantage. It's also important to remember that not all docks are created equal and to pay careful attention to things like dock structure, channel orientation, water depth and nearby cover around any dock that produces fish.
A large fishing pier at Winged Deer Park offers excellent fishing access to boatless anglers. The crappie limit at Boone Lake is 15 fish with a 10-inch minimum size.
Moving even farther east, Watauga Lake lies tucked between mountains near the North Carolina border. This lake is deep, clear, beautiful and is far better known for trout and smallmouth bass than for crappie.
Watauga's crappie fishing has shown steady improvement in recent years, however, seemingly aided by annual stockings of blacknose crappie. Numerous fish attractors, which are replenished regularly by TWRA or TVA crews and volunteers, help concentrate the crappie, thus providing improved fish-catching opportunities for anglers.
Part of what makes Watauga an extra appealing pick for spring crappie is that an abundance of public land surrounds the lake. There are plenty of good places for camping and for shoreline fishing. Those offerings include a fishing pier at the Rat Branch Access Area.
More so than almost any other kind of fish, crappie lend themselves to a bank-fishing approach when they move shallow to spawn during the spring.
Like most tributary reservoirs, Watauga gets drawn way down during the winter, so spring crappie locations vary according to the level of the water. When the lake is at full pool, the best fishing will found around willows, shallow planted brush and other shallow cover in the backs of creeks. If it remains down, the crappie relate to stumps along creek channel ledges and to deeper brush.
No matter what kind of cover the fish are using, Watauga crappie call for more of a finesse approach than is the case on most other Tennessee reservoirs. The clear water causes the fish to be fussier and to stay a little deeper overall.
Long casts, light line and small subtle offerings like hair jigs under floats or small live minnows tend to out-produce more "in their face" approaches with heavier line and bold-colored jigs and crankbaits.
The TWRA Web site gives GPS coordinates for a dozen fish attractor site at Watauga. The crappie limit for this lake is 15 fish, with a minimum size of 10 inches.
For area information, visit www.johnsoncitytn.org.