Best Crappie Fishing in Kentucky

From the Purchase to the Northeast regions, here's where you'll find hot papermouth action this spring in Kentucky.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Paul Moore

The spring crappie run in Kentucky is heating up. It is a time marked on the calendar of thousands of anglers all across the state. Whether vertical jigging, trolling, casting or dunking minnows, crappie fishing hits its peak during the early months of the year. From pre-spawn right on through the actual spawning time, some of the best crappie fishing of the year occurs at this time before spring gives way to the heat of summer.

Spring, though, is not the only good time for crappie in our state. After all, Kentuckians can enjoy tremendous success for slab papermouths all year long by varying depths and tactics. Bluegrass State anglers are fortunate to have many lakes, rivers and ponds that produce some excellent crappie fishing. Papermouth enthusiasts from one end of the state to the other can usually find good success not far from home. This year should again be another good one for crappie anglers in Kentucky.

Obviously, some waters provide better opportunity with regard to number of fish or even the size of fish. Crappie populations also fluctuate through up-and-down cycles throughout most of our waters. Some years may provide excellent fishing, while others may see a downturn in success. Here's a look at some of the top spots across the Bluegrass State at which to target crappie during 2004.

Kentucky and Barkley lakes, located in the southwestern portion of the state and sprawling into Tennessee, can never be omitted when great crappie fishing is discussed. The twin lakes are regarded as two of the premier crappie destinations in the country. They typically provide excellent crappie fishing year after year.

Although the two lakes are separate, each with its own characteristics and individual nuances, they both share a common denominator - superb crappie fishing. Thriving populations of both black and white crappie yield some of the largest stringers and heaviest slabs in the state. Papermouths of 2 pounds are not uncommon.

Fall trap-netting is the basic tool used to estimate fish populations and make predictions about the future of the fishery. Western District fisheries biologist Paul Rister of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) said, "Based on fall trap-netting results, we should have an excellent crappie population for at least the next couple of years unless something unforeseen happens. There is an overabundance of fish over 10 inches in the lakes."

High water last spring on Lake Barkley had many anglers questioning the status of the spawn. All indications show a good spawn and a good population of fish over 10 inches. It takes three years for crappie to reach the minimum harvest length of 10 inches, so last spring's spawn should help the fishery keep a good number of fish over 10 inches for at least the next three years. On average, Lake Barkley tournament anglers have needed to catch 2-pound fish to win tournaments on the lake.

The KDFWR conducted a tagging study last spring to track crappie and attempt to determine patterns with both the black and white crappie. Although trap-netting showed a higher percentage of black crappie in the fishery, anglers have consistently caught more white crappie. This has been evident in creel surveys. Fishery biologists wanted data to help determine if anglers needed to change tactics to harvest more black crappie. The results were interesting.

One glaringly obvious difference is that black crappie move into shallow water much sooner than do white crappie. But most anglers typically will not start fishing in very shallow water until mid-April. Prior to then, most anglers are fishing deep water for suspended fish. The tracking effort shows black crappie moving into shallow water in early to mid-March.

Another important revelation in the study was fish movement after the spawn. Anglers catch huge creels during the pre-spawn feeding frenzy. Then as the spawn arrives and then subsides, fishing success usually diminishes as well. Most anglers surmise the crappie have moved back into deep water. Tagging reveals that most of the fish never leave the general area of the spawn until sometime in July when the water temperature rises significantly.

These initial aspects of the tagging study should help anglers better target crappie at the twin lakes this year. Additional studies have also been underway this past winter, which may reveal even more insight into the habits of the crappie.

At both Kentucky and Barkley lakes, anglers are allowed to keep up to 30 crappie per day that are 10 inches or greater.

Rough River Lake has looked real good for the crappie enthusiast for the past couple of years. This year should be more of the same. There have been no creel surveys conducted at the lake for the past five or six years, but trap-netting and conversations with anglers have indicated good promise for 2004.

The lake is located in Breckinridge and Grayson counties in the north-central area of a triangle formed by Owensboro, Elizabethtown and Bowling Green. Rough River Lake has "always been very popular for crappie fishing," according to Rob Rold, a fisheries biologist with the KDFWR. The lake averages around 5,100 acres during summer pool.

Recent trap-netting has resulted in catches of good numbers of crappie as well as decent-sized crappie. White crappie make up the bulk of the population at Rough River Lake. Only around 7 to 8 percent of the fishery includes black crappie.

There were very good numbers of crappie caught in the 1-year age-class during 2002 surveys. This indicates that the previous year's spawn was good and the survival rate was also good. This group of fish would be 3 years old this year.

It takes around three years for crappie at Rough River to reach the minimum size of 9 inches. All indications point to excellent numbers of fish over the minimum. Although there has been no official creel survey data collected, the average size crappie caught by anglers is estimated at around 9 1/2 to 10 inches.

Crappie are caught at the lake by a variety of methods including fishing with minnows, jigs, spinner-type baits and others. Spider-rigging and trolling are also highly effective. Spring success comes from fishing submerged brush and woody structure. Deeper areas of submerged structure often produce larger fish.

Taylorsville Lake has started to make a name for it

self as a good crappie spot. The 3,050-acre lake was impounded in 1983, but is perhaps just starting to see its best crappie fishing. Indications from the past few years have anglers anticipating 2004.

Taylorsville had some water problems in the '80s, which were partially due to drought conditions. Things started to improve in the late '80s and early '90s. The crappie fishery has been cyclic since then, but has been good the last couple of years. This year is expected to offer the same quality of angling, if not actually improving somewhat.

A creel clerk was hired to conduct angler surveys between March and October of 2003. This is something the KDFWR tries to do at least once every five years. Results look very good with many fish reported in the 9- to 11-inch range with an increased number of crappie exceeding 12 inches. This is "good news and something we haven't seen much of," according to Central District fisheries biologist Kerry Prather.

The wet years from '96 to '98 resulted in good spawns. This translates to good numbers of harvest-size fish within about three years of the spawn. Taylorsville has been producing many crappie over the minimum 9-inch size limit with the average going around 9 1/2 inches. There is a 15-fish creel limit imposed on crappie at Taylorsville.

Taylorsville receives a lot of fishing pressure. But there is also lots of habitat and an opportunity for anglers to find their own spots. The primary crappie forage in the lake is gizzard shad.

The crappie fishery at Taylorsville has primarily consisted of white crappie in years past. However, black crappie are on the increase at the lake as they are in many of Kentucky's reservoirs. Trap-netting in 2002 indicated close to 40 percent were black crappie.

Crappie anglers in the southeast have a tremendous fishery in a small package. Buckhorn Lake in Leslie County has been a consistent producer of good crappie fishing for the past several years, even though it is only around 1,250 acres in size. This should be another banner year at Buckhorn.

The growth rate in eastern Kentucky lakes is slower than that of their western counterparts. A 9- or 10-inch crappie in Buckhorn will probably average around 4 years old. Therefore, no length limit is in place on the lake. Nonetheless, the lake is known for good numbers of crappie and good-sized fish.

Crappie only have a four- to five-year average life span in the lake with seven years being about the maximum. Fisheries personnel have been questioned about the possibility of implementing a length limit on the lake for crappie. With the slow growth rate, natural mortality could claim as much as 50 to 70 percent of the crappie before they reach a set minimum length.

Creel surveys indicate that the majority of fish kept by anglers are in the 10- to 15-inch range. The lake has a good number of crappie that fall within that range, which is above average for eastern lakes. The latest creel survey indicated approximately 30,000 crappie caught with 13,700 of those being harvested. Of those caught, the mean length was 9.1 inches.

Buckhorn is subject to a major drawdown each year. In fact, boat access is usually very limited until April. During February and March, the lake will typically only have boat access at the dam.

One bright spot to the drawdown is it forces fish into the upper part of the lake and concentrates them there. Spring will usually find the crappie moving into the coves and creek arms among brushy cover.

Many anglers only chase slabs during the spring and then abandon crappie fishing during the hot months of the year. KDFWR fisheries biologist Kevin Frey says he sees some of the heaviest stringers of the year during July and August. Fish in the 13- to 15- inch range will usually dominate a 30-fish stringer during that time period.

The Leatherwood Creek area near the state park marina is a prime place for midsummer crappie, according to Frey. Anglers will find great success trolling jigs or minnow-type lures over shallow mud flats near the main channel. Other prime spots to troll are the Otter and Gays creeks areas.

Crappie chasers in the northeastern portion of the state do not have as many choices of large quality reservoirs as do anglers in other parts of the state. Both Grayson and Cave Run lakes have fishable crappie populations, but the latter is definitely the better choice. Grayson can be good at times in certain areas of the lake.

Grayson Lake, located in Carter and Elliott counties, is only a shade over 1,500 acres. It is a long, narrow reservoir with steep cliffs and little structure to support crappie. It is also subject to rapid fluctuations in water level.

Crappie do not grow well in Grayson. There are fair numbers of fish reported in fall samplings, but most are less than 10 inches. Crappie anglers at Grayson have the most success in the upper part of the lake around available brushy structure.

Cave Run Lake is a much larger reservoir and offers northeastern region anglers much more area to fish. The lake is approximately 8,270 acres. Size, structure, management and other factors make Cave Run the best spot in its part of the state.

Northeastern fisheries biologist Lew Kornman says the crappie fishery at Cave Run has been very cyclic. It will be up for two to three years and then down for two to three years. Kornman believes this year should be "pretty good."

Crappie don't grow too quickly at Cave Run. A 9-inch fish will probably be close to 4 years old. The average size caught is usually around 8 or 9 inches. With the slow growth, a 10- to 12-inch crappie is considered trophy-sized.

Anglers have complained at times about catching crappie in the 7-inch range. They have questioned why the KDFWR does not implement a minimum size limit. As with Buckhorn Lake, the slow growth rates coupled with Cave Run not being extremely fertile makes it impractical to impose a minimum size limit on crappie.

The crappie population has been up the past couple of years, though. There are numerous factors that can impact crappie numbers. Winter weather, spring rain, crashes in gizzard shad numbers or shad too big to eat can all play a part in the health of the crappie fishery.

Anglers should note that the increase in the black crappie population at Cave Run is really starting to pay off big dividends. Most of the black crappie are usually caught in the lower lake area around milfoil. Kornman said, "If you catch a black crappie, it will usually be a pretty nice fish."

The Minor Clark Fish Hatchery is very close to Cave Run Lake. In 2001, the hatchery had some "left-over" black crappie from a stocking project at Cedar Creek Lake. Some 18,150 black crappie were placed in Cave Run Lake during the fall of 2001. These fish averaged 3 1/2 inches at the time of stocking. Af

ter 2 1/2 years in the lake, these fish are starting to add considerably to the wealth of the lake's crappie fishery.

Another added bonus to fishing Cave Run is the fish attractors that have recently been placed in the lake. Discarded Christmas trees have been utilized as supplemental structure for crappie at key locations. The KDFWR has a map available to anglers that shows the locations of these brush attractors. For more information on this map, interested anglers can call the Northeastern Fishery District at (606) 784-6872 or send an e-mail to

These are but a few of the top spots across the Commonwealth for crappie in 2004. There are numerous other reservoirs, lakes, rivers and ponds that also offer excellent crappie fishing. In fact, the state-record crappie actually came from a farm pond. We are very fortunate to have such great and varied opportunities for crappie fishing in Kentucky. This year holds great promise once again for excellent angling; so let's get out there and get those lines wet!

More information can be obtained from the KDFWR at their Web site: An annual fishing forecast as well as links to recent fishing reports are available at the site. Other information can be obtained by contacting the seven fisheries district offices directly.

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