Our 2009 Papermouth Prediction

Write it down: This season will be the first in a line of outstanding crappie-angling years in the Natural State. Here's your guide to finding the action -- and staying on it -- in 2009.

Crappie guide Jerry Blake of Action Fishing Trips helps Michelle Sutton of Wynne with a big spring crappie caught in west Arkansas' Lake Greeson. Photo by Keith Sutton.

To be certain, 2008 was an up-and-down year for Arkansas crappie anglers. Heavy rains kept the water in Natural State lakes and rivers unusually high throughout much of the year, with two hurricanes -- Gustav and Ike -- dumping more than a dozen inches on parts of the state in late summer. When this article was written, almost all the state's top crappie waters still were brimming and in places -- particularly the eastern Delta -- big rivers continued overflowing their banks.

This is a good-news, bad-news situation for crappie-fishing enthusiasts. While high water created unfavorable conditions for crappie fishing throughout much of 2008, the flooding experienced in much of the state during spring and summer inundated thousands of square miles of shallow spawning habitat for crappie and provided excellent nursery habitat for crappie fry. In most areas, the 2008 spawn was one of the best in years, producing a new year-class of fish that will continue growing and providing great angling opportunities for years to come.

High water also released tons of nutrients into the water, 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 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 an incredible crappie spawn in 2009, as big healthy slabs lay better-than-average clutches of eggs that will hatch and generate yet another superb year-class of fish. And while anglers are likely to see lots of small crappie in 2009, this year should begin several years of outstanding crappie fishing in many Arkansas waters, not only for numbers of fish, but for fat trophy-class slabs as well.

Here's what you can expect in different regions of the state this year.

The Delta Region encompasses much of the flat, low terrain in eastern Arkansas, including the state's biggest river floodplains along the Mississippi, White, St. Francis, Cache and other rivers. Without a doubt, this is one of the state's most popular crappie-fishing areas.

The northern half of this region is where most of 2008's floodwater collected and lingered longest, especially adjacent the streams just mentioned. This created ideal spawning conditions for crappie, allowing fish to nest in vast areas that have been dry two years in a row and creating conditions conducive to the survival of many more crappie fry, which found sanctuary from predators in the dense cover inundated by floodwater.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission fisheries biologist Jeff Farwick reported that northern Delta waters produced an incredible year-class of crappie just three years ago, and the fish that hatched then are now reaching trophy size, just as another wave of newly hatched crappie is about to join them. (Continued)

"This area had an outstanding spawn and excellent growth because all that terrestrial area was inundated," he said. "Shad had a wonderful spawn as well."

If water levels aren't excessively high, anglers can expect some of the best fishing this year in the large oxbows along the Mississippi River, including (north to south) Island 40 Chute and Dacus lakes near West Memphis, Horseshoe Lake near Hughes and Midway and Whitehall lakes in Lee County.

Another hotspot, one increasingly popular with anglers hoping to catch a mess of jumbo crappie, is Old Town Lake southwest of West Helena. This Mississippi oxbow is separated from the main river by a levee and drains into Big Creek. Fishing conditions are not highly influenced by any river, and water levels are generally stable -- a definite advantage for visiting anglers. The lake is at the town of Lake View on state Route 44 in Phillips County.

Old Town offers excellent fishing year 'round, but fishing during the spawn is extraordinary. As the water warms in April, crappie fishing gets hot. It's not uncommon to take a 30-fish limit of crappie that weighs 40 pounds or more. The lake is extremely shallow -- less than six feet throughout -- and most fish are taken on minnows and jigs fished around the bases of cypress trees and in brush and treetops.

The southern half of the Delta largely escaped the floodwaters that covered much of northeast Arkansas, but it's a rare year when crappie fans can't find superb fishing for their favorite fish anyway, regardless of water levels and weather conditions.

One consistent hotspot is Grand Lake in Chicot County, a body of water fisheries biologist Diana Andrews includes among the region's best crappie lakes. "It's been a tremendous crappie lake," she reported, "and when we've done samples, we've caught hundreds of crappie there. It's highly productive."

Because Grand is only 2 1/2 miles long with a surface area of 900 acres, it lends itself well to fishing from a small boat, a fact that draws many anglers who want to avoid the big boat traffic common on many waters. Like most Mississippi River oxbows, it has broad expanses of open water with little cover and structure except near shore. Crappie often are caught on jigs or minnows fished around stands of cypress trees along the east bank and in scattered pockets of buckbrush. A high bank skirts the west shore, and along this edge of the lake, anglers can find deep water where crappie often hold in summer and winter. Trolling through open water is a good method for finding slabs when they have abandoned cover along the banks. The lake's one boat ramp is adjacent state Route 8, four miles southeast of Eudora.

Oxbows aren't the only productive Delta crappie waters. Others to consider for your 2009 fishing itinerary include AGFC lakes such as 280-acre Lake Hogue near Weiner and 600-acre Lake Poinsett near Harrisburg. Crappie are abundant in both waters, and 2-pounders frequently anchor the stringers of anglers who catch a limit.

The same conditions that should make fishing superb in many Delta waters also should work their magic on bottomland lakes in this south Arkansas region. Some of the best fishing, no doubt, will be on Felsenthal Reservoir, which lies within 65,000-acre Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in Union County. The Saline and Ouachita rivers here experienced timely overflows du

ring last year's crappie-spawning period, boosting the number of young-of-the-year crappie and setting the stage for some fast action in 2009. Plenty of trophy-class slabs also lurk here.

Savvy crappie anglers should be able to find good crappie fishing practically anywhere on this 15,000-acre impoundment, but some of the most popular crappie fishing spots are the Pereogeethe and Eagle Lake areas on the refuge's north end, the Marais Saline Lake area on the east side above the route 82 bridge, and the Shallow Lake area in the refuge's southwest quadrant. Boat ramps are located at Pine Island, Shallow Lake, Jones Lake, Pereogeethe Lake and Eagle Lake on the refuge, and at Crossett Harbor, Grand Marais and Felsenthal Lock and Dam adjacent to the refuge.

Lake Columbia near Magnolia also should be red-hot this year. It's not the best lake for anglers hoping to catch a limit, but what it lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in size. Visiting anglers often report catching 10 or more 2-pound-plus crappie each during a day's outing, a fact that makes this 3,000-acre Columbia County lake one of the best in this region, despite relatively light fishing pressure.

Good fishing areas in Columbia include the flooded timber covering about half the lake, submerged brushpiles and ponds, and along the old creek channel traversing the lake bottom from northeast to southwest. Fish shelters have been sunk near the fishing piers to improve bank-fishing action. The lake is six miles northwest of Magnolia on state Route 344.

Other prime Coastal Plain waters to consider for 2009 include White Oak Lake between Camden and Prescott, which should harbor some trophy fish from a strong year-class three years ago, and 280-acre Tri-County Lake just east of Fordyce, which tends to produce large numbers of crappie year in and year out.

Crappie fishing in the Ozark Mountains region of north Arkansas definitely fits the mold of "good news, bad news." The good news is most lakes in this region experienced a superb crappie spawn in 2008. The bad news is that many of these lakes have minimum length limits on crappie, and it's likely most crappie caught by anglers won't be large enough to keep during 2009.

According to biologist Ron Moore, 28,220-acre Beaver Lake near Rogers in the northwest corner of Arkansas is a case in point. "There will be a lot of small crappie in the lake this year," he said, "but it might be a year where there are a lot of sublegal fish caught. In 2010, however, those fish should have grown to where they exceed the 10-inch minimum length limit."

A similar situation exists on two other large north-Arkansas U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs -- Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes. There hasn't been a good spawn on either lake since high water in 2003, a fact that has led to declining numbers of fish in recent years. Fisheries biologist Ken Shirley reports, "The crappie from the 2008 year-class should be about 5 to 6 inches long by spring 2009 and should reach 10 to 12 inches in 2010. Fishing should be good on both lakes in the coming years, and thanks to the huge infusion of food last year, mature crappie also fed well and have grown at their maximum rate. That means we now have a lot of (sizable) fish that were 6- to 9-inch fish last year." On both these lakes, crappie shorter than 10 inches must be released immediately.

On Bull Shoals and Norfork, many anglers catch their limits by fishing the 600-plus "brushpiles" or fish attractors that have been installed. 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). On Bull Shoals, the target elevation is 630 feet above mean sea level (msl), and on Norfork, it's 525 feet above msl. Fishermen can figure out how deep the attractors are by logging on to the Corps Web site (www.swl-wc.usace. army.mil/white_basin_intermediate.htm), getting the current lake levels and subtracting the above elevations.

All the Norfork and Bull Shoals fish attractors are marked with special buoys, and all attract astounding numbers of crappie. Find a buoy, work a jig or minnow in the brushpile below, and a limit of crappie is almost sure to follow.

Last year's high water contributed to good crappie spawns in many Ouachita Mountains lakes in western and central Arkansas, including two perennial favorites, 3,550-acre Lake Nimrod south of Russellville on the Yell-Perry County line and 2,900-acre Blue Mountain east of Booneville.

"We probably saw a good year-class produced in both reservoirs last year," said assistant district fisheries biologist Frank Leone. "And we already had a good crop of 2-year-old fish in Blue Mountain that should lead to good spring fishing. Those fish will be 9 to 12 inches long in 2009, right about the size you want to start harvesting."

Another lake in this region I can personally recommend is Lake Greeson, a 7,000-acre Corps impoundment near Kirby west of Hot Springs. I fished this lake in spring, summer, fall and winter last year, and while crappie fishing was tough on some of those trips due to constantly fluctuating water levels, every visit produced at least a few slabs in the 16-inch, 2-pound class. Most trips produced limit catches for me and my family and friends.

Extremely heavy rainfall shot the very low lake level to extraordinary heights at times last year (a difference of more than 30 vertical feet), inundating thousands of acres of crappie-spawning habitat. No doubt, as a result of that, Greeson's crappie population will experience extraordinary growth. Greeson receives relatively little fishing pressure compared to other lakes in the region, however, and there's already plenty of carryover of big crappie year to year to keep slab-hooking action at top levels whenever conditions are conducive to good fishing. Savvy anglers who visit during prime times and fish around the hundreds of cane-and-brush fish attractors placed by local guides under the guidance of the AGFC should catch several fish 2 pounds or better, and lots more in the 1- to 1 3/4-pound range.

Greeson is one of the few Arkansas lakes where you can hire the services of a good crappie guide. And having fished with two of these guides, I can recommend them without reservation. For more info, contact Jerry Blake at Action Fishing Trips, (501) 844-9028, www.actionfishingtrips.com, or Darryl Morris at Family Fishing Trips, (501) 844-5418, www. familyfishingtrips.com.

Many backwaters and impoundments along the Arkansas River from Ft. Smith to Little Rock serve up excellent crappie fishing, a trend that should continue in coming years thanks to ideal spawning conditions along much of the river due to high water last spring.

In 35,000-acre Lake Dardanelle, however, one of the most popular crappie waters in the western half of Arkansas, something is happening that has biologists a bit puzzled. Water conditions should have led to an excellent spawn last year, but, according to biologist Frank Leone, that wasn't the case. "That's the only lake that's down," he said, "and we're trying to figure out wha

t's going on with the crappie population there. We're not seeing a lot of adult fish, a fact that has some anglers complaining."

Biologists think part of the problem may stem from a lack of forage in the lake. The shad population, which feeds most crappie, has fallen dramatically in recent years, which could have created a corresponding decline in crappie numbers. At this time, however, AGFC biologists are still trying to determine the exact cause.

The good news is Lake Dardanelle seems to be the only dark spot in a bright future for Arkansas crappie anglers. While high water may have put a damper on crappie action much of last year, the months ahead should hold many outstanding days of fishing for those who love America's favorite panfish.

(Editor's Note: Autographed copies of Keith Sutton's The Crappie Book can be ordered by sending a check or money order for $18.03 -- s&h is included -- to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders, go online to www.catfishsutton.com.)

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