Here's a guide to what are likely to be some of the best crappie-fishing destinations across the state this season. (January 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
It seems like nearly everyone -- man, woman, child -- likes to crappie fish. That really shouldn't come as any great surprise if you think about it for a moment, however. Crappie are plentiful, bite aggressively and taste great. That's about as good as it gets.
Moreover, it doesn't require much expensive tackle to catch a mess of them. A simple rod and reel, or an old-fashioned cane pole, hook, bobber and a pail of minnows will get the job done. If you have a boat, that's fine, if you don't, that's fine, too. There are plenty of bank spots around that'll accommodate you, your kids, your family or your friends.
And you can catch them just about anywhere in North Carolina. Every region of the state has at least a few good spots.
The Piedmont Region has the lion's share of publicity in the state, and with some justification. There's an abundance of good crappie waters here, both lakes and rivers, any of which will give up a limit of papermouths, along with plenty of giants that'll secure your braggin' rights for the season.
The Coastal Plain Region is no slouch either. The inland fisheries are on the rebound and now offer respectable, if not extraordinary, crappie opportunities.
And don't look down your nose at the Mountain Region. It may not be as good as the other two, but it still offers anglers several good choices, especially if you're willing to think differently about your crappie fishing.
With all of those things in mind, let's take a closer look at what's available for 2008.
THE PIEDMONT REGION
There are so many good places in this region that it's hard to know where to start. If you want high numbers, with a reasonable population of big ones thrown in, Badin, High Rock and Tuckertown reservoirs on the Yadkin River-Pee Dee river system should be at the top of your places to visit.
All three are more or less centrally located and within easy driving distance of Raleigh, Charlotte and Winston-Salem. Because of this, they're heavily fished, but the resident crappie population doesn't seem to mind, or if they do, they don't show it.
"They have the size and natural reproduction to withstand the fishing pressure they receive year after year," said Christian Waters, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) Piedmont Region fisheries supervisor. "As far as numbers go they are some of the best we have, and really some of the best in the state."
Badin is by far the best of the three for big (defined as 12-inch, more or less) crappie, at least by reputation. There's more wood, in the form of laydowns and sunken brushpiles, within its waters than in the other two. Both major arms of this reservoir support vast expanses of weed growth that holds baitfish, and consequently, crappie, nearly all year.
Many of the bigger slabs are caught on crankbaits -- narrow-bodied, shad-colored wooden floaters are especially effective -- along with bigger safety pin spinnerbaits. Work these baits around and through any wood you can find. Pay particular attention to those places where weeds are growing, the more the better.
Crappie are notoriously color sensitive. Their preferences can change from day to day or hour to hour. Always try a different color before you leave a good-looking spot.
When it comes to numbers (defined as limits of fish up to 9 or 10 inches) however, you're better off looking toward High Rock or Tuckertown. The best bait in either of these reservoirs is an old-fashioned minnow, impaled on a shiny hook and held down with a small split shot. Suspend this rig under a bobber. It's been working for decades on these lakes and will likely continue to work for decades more into the future.
If you're looking for giants (defined as 12- to 15-inch fish, or better), Waters suggest fishing either B. Everett Jordan Lake on the Haw River or Falls of the Neuse on the Neuse River. Both have well-deserved reputations as big crappie producers.
"Jordan is definitely a big crappie fishery. Our samples have shown that for years," Waters said. "The Falls (Falls of the Neuse Lake) is good, too, although there may be some decline there, at least that's what we've been hearing. We're going to sample it in 2008 and we'll know for sure then. But even if it has declined somewhat, it's still going to be good."
Jordan covers nearly 14,000 acres at normal pool. It's located just west of Raleigh and a short ways south of Chapel Hill.
Both the New Hope River Arm and the Haw River Arm produce their fair share of slabs. Many artificial fish attractors have been placed throughout the lake. They're marked with buoys and aren't hard to find. Public fishing around them is encouraged. They frequently hold huge numbers of eating-sized crappie, although it can get crowded at times. Many are placed close to the bank to facilitate shore-fishing opportunities for those without a boat.
For anglers with a boat, around-the-clock launching facilities are available at Farrington Point, Ebenezer Beach, Robeson Creek and Poe's Ridge.
The Falls is also big, 12,410 acres at normal pool and elevation. The dam is 28 miles below the confluence of the Eno and Flat rivers, on the Neuse River. Its river heritage is important. It offers a backdrop to fishing this impoundment.
The old channels, along with the debris that collects in them, are home to many of the resident crappie. They tend to relate to these structural markers even when they move shallow in the spring and fall to reproduce and feed. For the really big fish -- giants -- try crankbaits or spinnerbaits around wood. For limits of keeper crappie, go with minnows.
Sharon Harris Lake, also near the center of the state, has a reputation as a fine largemouth bass fishery. That tends to overshadow its qualities as a crappie fishery.
"Sharon Harris is overlooked by a lot of anglers because Jordan and the Falls are better known. But it's a real good crappie lake -- plenty of good-sized fish," Waters said.
Standing, flooded timber and old stumps seem to produce best. Minnows are the bait of choice with most anglers.
Kerr Reservoir -- called Bugg's Island in Virginia -- is, of course, always a top choice, especially for anglers living along the N
orth Carolina-Virginia border. It's massive -- covering some 50,000 acres above the dam on the Roanoke River. Most, if not all, of those 50,000 acres is high-class crappie water.
Nearly every shoreline, tributary and inflow have a few laydowns, stumps, drift and greenery. The crappie are everywhere. Catching 10 to 15 per hour all day long is not impossible in the spring. Now, it's true, they aren't always as big as you might like -- 9 inches is about average -- but still, if you're looking for a mess for supper, this is the place to fish.
As this is being written, there are size and creel restrictions on some of these lakes. They are being reviewed. The 2008 rules will be available by the time you read this. Check before you go fishing. There's a joint licensing agreement on Kerr between North Carolina and Virginia in place at the present time. Check to make sure it's still in effect for 2008.
THE MOUNTAIN REGION
The Mountain Region isn't the best place to crappie fish, but it's not as tough as many anglers believe.
"Generally, crappie fishing in this region is related to location. The higher the elevation and the smaller the body of water, the lower the crappie productivity will be here," said Mallory Martin, NCWRC Mountain Region fisheries supervisor. "As a general rule, the best public waters are to the east."
Lake Hickory in Alexander County and Lake Rhodhiss, located in Burke and Caldwell counties, are two of his top picks.
"Both of these reservoirs have good populations of crappie with reasonable size. They're big enough, and low enough, to maintain those populations despite fairly heavy fishing pressure or natural reproduction problems caused by a poor spawn every few years," he said.
Most anglers do best fishing live minnows here, no matter if they choose to fish from a boat or from shore.
He also points anglers toward Fontana Lake. Located about 35 miles west of Bryson, this 11,600-acre impoundment is a perennial hotspot for crappie anglers seeking both numbers and size.
As strange as it may sound, one advantage to fishing Fontana is its lack of suitable crappie habitat. Because the crappie don't have very many preferred places to live, finding them is mostly a matter of finding suitable habitat. Of course, finding their homes is not the same thing as getting them to bite. That's another matter.
Most anglers concentrate their efforts around the artificial attractors that have been placed in the lake. Other likely places include bridge pilings and long, sloping points with wood -- usually stumps. In fact, anywhere you can find wood, you'll likely find crappie.
The forage base -- shad -- is unusually stable in Fontana. Winter die-offs are rare. Because of that, live minnows or shad-imitating lures usually work best. Fontana crappie can be very color sensitive. At times, a seemingly insignificant change in lure color can make a big difference.
No list of Mountain Region crappie venues would be complete without a mention of Lake Chatuge. Located on the state border with Georgia, this one has offered anglers solid crappie fishing for decades.
Chatuge is a big-fish lake. Recent sampling showed an astounding average crappie size of 1 pound in its waters. It's also easier to fish than most mountain reservoirs. The banks are not so steep and there are usually plenty of laydowns, drift and other wood along the banks to hold crappie and serve as visual targets for anglers. Four government agencies construct and maintain artificial attractors in this lake that add to the habitat.
Slab-size fish are usually harvested with live minnows, small jigs or tiny crankbaits. In the spring and fall, try a small, brightly colored spinnerbait.
An often-overlooked crappie fishing opportunity, according to Martin, is the many municipal and county water supply reservoirs in this region.
"Some of them are restricted, but others are open to the public. They're great for crappie, but many anglers don't realize that," he said. "Many can be fished from the bank."
One municipality that Martin specifically recommends is Winston-Salem. "The municipal lakes and supplies are real good. The crappie fishing is great. The numbers are often very high and the size is acceptable. It's an excellent place to fish for a few hours with kids. Make sure you ask first though."
Several of the venues in the Mountain Region have specific rules and regulations applicable to them. Check before you fish.
THE COASTAL PLAINS REGION
Crappie fishing in the Coastal Plains Region of North Carolina is predominantly river fishing, pure and simple. That makes for bad news and good news.
The bad is that the hurricane damage that the region suffered from the late 1990s through 2003 is still affecting the fishing. The surge and resulting washouts and oxygen depletions have had a devastating effect on the fisheries.
The good news is that Mother Nature is a tough old woman. She repaired the damage much quicker than many fisheries biologists ever predicted.
"The northern rivers are coming back. It looks like most of the fish were moved by the water rather than killed by it. Crappie numbers are up, although the size is still not what we'd like to see," said Chad Thomas, coastal fisheries research biologist for the NCWRC. "But they grow fast. We're positive about the next few years.
"If we continue to go without any hurricane damage for another couple of years, the fisheries will be as good as before. We have an 8-inch minimum size limit and a 20-fish creel limit in place throughout the region as a precaution, though."
Two of his top picks for hot crappie action are the Chowan and Perquimans rivers, along with their tributaries. Both are in the northeast corner of the state, just above the Albemarle Sound. Thomas reports that hurricane damage to these systems was minimal. Little damage was done to the fisheries.
Most anglers have their best luck drifting minnows in the current near wood or weeds. "It's a great way to fish, very relaxing and rewarding," is Thomas' description of the time-honored Tar Heel technique.
In the same corner of the state, the Yeopim River comes highly recommended. The hurricane damage was slight. It's thriving as a result. Savvy anglers fish the deeper holes and channel drops where they can find some stumps, laydowns or drift. Again, live minnows are the bait of choice with local anglers.
Farther south, near the middle of the coast, anglers seeking bigger crappie may want to look at the Neuse and Tar rivers. According to Thomas, both rivers support high populations of 10- to 12-inch crappie. "They can be shallow in places, so anglers should be careful, but the holes and cuts hold goo
d numbers of good crappie. They're great places to fish."
Thomas specifically recommends Turkey Quarter Creek, Pitchkettle Creek and Pine Tree Creek off the Neuse for numbers. Tranter's Creek, a tributary of the Tar River, is also good if you're looking for a limit.
"The southern rivers aren't so good," Thomas said. "They haven't produced, historically at least, as well as those in the north or even the middle part of the state."
Still, there's a decent fishing spot or two around. The Cape Fear River may be the best. It's 200 miles long, flows past Fayetteville, Elizabethtown and Wilmington, and then finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
The inland stretches of Cape Fear usually produce the best fishing. Look for holes, cuts, tributaries and inflows that are not affected by tidal movements. Areas with heavy weed growth and wood are normally considered prime. Early spring, immediately before the spawn, is the best time to fish it. Fall is probably your next best opportunity.
Like his colleague in the Mountain Region, Thomas suggested anglers look closely at municipal water supply ponds and lakes. Often they are underappreciated and underfished. In many of them, the crappie grow to gigantic proportions and then die of old age. Access is tightly restricted at many of them. Ask before you fish -- but do ask, and do fish.
A technique that has proved effective in these small bodies of water is suspending a tiny jig under a bobber. Toss this rig out, let the jig settle, and then pull it back with repeated soft twitches. Make sure you allow the jig to drop down in the water column from time to time. You don't want to pull the jig along the surface. That's almost always a waste of time.
There's an 8-inch minimum size limit and a 20-fish creel limit in the Coastal Plains Region. It's enforced.
No matter where you live in North Carolina, there are plenty of crappie waiting to claim a spot on your supper plate. Don't disappoint them.