No matter where you live in the Volunteer State, you're close to great crappie fishing. (February 2006)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Reeling slowly and steadily to swim a lip-hooked minnow over the top of a brushpile, an angler anticipates a telltale tap on the line. The strike won't be much, but he knows well what to expect, so he'll be ready to set the hook with a quick snap of the rod tip. He's already pulled half a dozen keeper crappie from the same pile of brush. He'll work it until the fish stop biting and then look for fresh cover in the same basic depth range.
Crappie are among the most cooperative of Tennessee's major game fish species, especially during the spring, when they move shallow to spawn. Angling approaches are generally elementary, and spots that are likely to hold spring crappie often are obvious. Adding value for fishermen, crappie tend to congregate, so where an angler finds one, others typically are nearby. Fishermen commonly enjoy fast action once they find the right type of cover and depth for the day.
Crappie populations are somewhat cyclical, meaning numbers and average sizes within individual reservoirs go up and down based on past years' spawning and recruitment success. However, similar trends often occur on several lakes because conditions that lend themselves well to a good spawn on one lake often occur on others in the state or at least the same section of the state at the same time. Ups and downs generally are not as severe as they once were on many Tennessee lakes, partly because of a statewide 10-inch minimum size that keeps anglers from "catching out" poor year-classes while the fish are still young.
Tennessee anglers enjoy the benefits of proactive crappie management, both through habitat-improvement work and through stocking of crappie. Biologists in most states consider crappie populations to be self-regulating, so stocking young-of-the-year fish to supplement natural reproduction is uncommon throughout most of the country.
The end result of abundant natural habitat and good management is a tremendous amount of opportunity for crappie fishermen throughout Tennessee. We'll look at some of the waters that offer some of the very best prospects for the season ahead.
Anglers should enjoy the full fruits of 2003's outstanding year-class of crappie on Douglas Lake this spring. Fish from the best spawning recruitment year in 15 years will be 3 years old (the crappie will be more than 10 inches long) this spring, providing anglers an excellent opportunity to catch good numbers of quality crappie.
Trap-netting results from 2004 showed inconclusive results. Water levels were exceptionally high during the netting season, which likely affected the netting catch. The overall catch still was good, but the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) biologists did not find high numbers of first-year fish.
Fertile for a tributary reservoir, Douglas traditionally has been one of the best crappie lakes in the eastern part of the state. The crappie population had dipped severely during the '90s, but fishing has been substantially better during the past few springs. Last year, crappie were abundant because of the 2003 spawn, but most fish were shorter than the 10-inch minimum size.
A TWRA plan to bring back Douglas crappie fishing to what it once was includes encouragement of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to bring the lake to full pool by April 1 and keep it as stable as possible, supplemental stockings of white crappie, improvement of crappie habitat and improvement of a pond on Henderson Island for raising crappie to release into the lake.
Douglas' best spring crappie waters definitely are up its major creeks, where flats border deeper channels. "The Douglas Report," put together by TWRA fisheries biologists, suggests Flat, Muddy and McGuire creeks as prime areas for spring fishing.
The lake level is a major variable that affects crappie fishing (and annual crappie production). While winter drawdowns are somewhat less severe than in past years on account of a new plan put into place by the TVA, the lake often is well below full pool during much of March. In addition, Douglas impounds a massive watershed and the water can come up very quickly when hard rains fall in the mountains.
Trolling creeks is a good strategy for figuring out how far up the creeks the fish have moved and learning what depths they are using. Anglers' spreads typically cover a good range of depths until the fish reveal themselves. If the lake is at full pool and spring has hit full swing, the crappie will be in the willows.
The crappie limit on Douglas Lake is 15 fish. The statewide 10-inch minimum size applies.
Trap-netting results from recent years have shown a great year-class from 2003 and a good one from 2004 at Cherokee. Therefore, anglers can expect to find great numbers of crappie available, including plenty of keepers.
Like Douglas, Cherokee is extremely fertile for a tributary reservoir. That allows it to support a very strong forage base, which includes threadfin and gizzard shad and alewives.
The annual drawdown on Cherokee actually provides an advantage for crappie fishermen through the first part of spring. The TVA owns the lake basin, and when the water is below full pool, anglers enjoy shoreline access to much of Cherokee Lake, beginning from 20 different access points. Some banks are too steep to walk, but large sections of fine crappie waters can be accessed on foot.
A significant downside of big annual drawdowns is that cover rots very quickly when it goes back and forth between being submerged and exposed. Region IV fisheries teams continually enhance fish attractors and add other cover, but the wet/dry cycles constantly eat away the cover. As the water level increases each spring, the crappie will move into brushpiles and any other cover they can find, sometimes piling up in big numbers.
Crappie fishing is important on Cherokee. Creel surveys have revealed that nearly one of every five anglers who fish the lake targets crappie. With that in mind, the TWRA has stocked both white crappie and black-nose crappie into the lake several times in recent years, and they are working on developing a mini-impoundment in the German Creek area of the lake, which will be used to produce extra crappie for stocking.
In addition to the statewide minimum size of 10 inches, Cherokee is managed with a 15-fish daily limit for crappie.
Chickamauga was Region III'
s top trophy-crappie producer last year, based on results from the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program (TARP), where anglers earn recognition for catching fish that exceed pre-established minimum sizes. Black and white crappie alike must be 14 inches long to earn recognition, and Chickamauga had produced 10 TARP-award crappie through late last spring, landing it second in the state only to Kentucky Lake. Nine of the 10 trophy fish were white crappie. The largest was 16 1/2 inches long, which is a huge crappie.
The third reservoir on the Tennessee River, Chickamauga impounds 34,500 acres beginning northeast of Chattanooga and running into town. Broad flats bound the river channel through much of the lake's main body, and several creeks back into major embayments. The Hiwassee River, which forms the largest lake arm separate from the main body, serves up some of the best spring crappie fishing.
Whether up the Hiwassee or a smaller tributary, anglers do well in the creeks by using two basic approaches. One is to fish stumps and deadfalls along bluff banks, either by casting light jigs and letting them fall among the branches or by suspending jigs or minnows close to the rocks and the trees beneath slip-bobbers.
An alternative approach, which tends to work best early in the spring, is to troll atop channel ledges, especially where there are stumps or brush, and dragging minnows or jigs at a variety of depths. Fishermen have sunk excessive amounts of brush along creek channels (and the main river channel) throughout Chickamauga, so finding cover is not a challenge.
Chickamauga also has dozens of pockets and bays around its edges and as spring hits full steam, many of the lake's crappie will move up into shallow pockets, where they'll spawn around any cover they find. When the fish move shallow, it's tough to beat a float rig, whether it's rigged with a minnow or a jig.
Center Hill has been a perennial crappie hotspot ever since the TWRA began stocking blacknose crappie. The black-nosed fish, which actually are just color variations of black crappie, have always done well in this lake. In fact, with Center Hill having been the location for experimental blacknose stockings, anglers and biologists alike had high hopes of the stocked fish performing well all over the state because of their great success at Center Hill.
A 20,000-acre impoundment of the Caney Fork River atop Cumberland Plateau, Center Hill historically was a fine crappie lake. Through the late '80s and early '90s, though, fishing dropped off, whether because of poor production, increased pressure or both. Young-of-the-year crappie were stocked to supplement natural reproduction. Blacknose crappie were used so they could be identified and biologists could assess the effectiveness of stocking efforts.
Today, the blacknose crappie, which are stocked at an average rate of 250,000 fish per year, are Center Hill's trademark. Anglers travel to Center Hill for the purpose of catching crappie marked with a distinctive "racing stripe" down the nose. With the stocked fish typically performing well, the fishery is quite stable, and anglers catch all sizes of crappie. Center Hill had produced five TARP crappie, three of which were blacks, through late spring.
Center Hill's best crappie fishing begins in February and runs through April. During the spring, the fish move into creeks and pockets all around the lake, where they hold in laydowns and around stumps and rocks. Local anglers keep the fishing simple, casting to visible cover with minnows under floats. Early in the spring, many use slip-corks so they can suspend the minnows deeper and still be able to cast their rigs efficiently.
Center Hill is managed with a 15-fish limit in addition to the statewide 10-inch minimum size for crappie.
J. Percy Priest Lake
Middle Tennessee crappie fishermen can look for steady action from keeper crappie on J. Percy Priest Lake this year, according to Todd St. John, Region II fisheries biologist for the TWRA. He selected Priest over all other waters in the central part of the state because of an excellent spawning/recruitment year in 2003.
"There should be a lot of keeper crappie -- fish over 10 inches long -- available this spring and fall," St. John said.
Percy Priest gets extensive fishing pressure because of its Music City locale, but sustains high numbers of fish because of very high productivity. Typically anglers have to sort through a lot of small crappie to catch a mess of fish they can take home. However, numbers and quality both should be good this year.
While portions of Priest's crappie population will be shallow throughout the spring, veteran anglers depend on a core population of fish that are always available in middle depths, especially along creek and river channel edges. Anglers who know the locations of brush set up directly above the cover and fish vertically. Other anglers troll or drift to find the cover and the crappie.
During the spring, when many crappie do move shallow, shoreline anglers enjoy really good opportunities at Percy Priest. The Stewart Creek area, which was developed specifically with bank-bound anglers in mind, offers piers and fishing platforms that have a tremendous amount of cover sunk around them. Crappie pile up in the fish-attracting structure from mid-March through most of April and serve up fine fishing.
Kentucky Lake is without question the king of Tennessee crappie destinations. Beyond being huge and offering a tremendous amount of area for fishermen to work, Kentucky Lake is highly productive and yields fine crappie catches year after year. In fact, the population is the best in the state -- even during down years -- according to Region I fisheries biologist Tim Broadbent.
Anglers should expect to catch good numbers of legal-sized crappie in 2006, especially in the lower (northern) half of the lake's Tennessee portion, according to Broadbent. Crappie recruitment has been consistently good for several years in the Big Sandy area of the lake, and 2003 produced an especially good class of crappie, which will be legal sized this spring.
Kentucky Lake offers abundant high-quality habitat for crappie, including open-water flats, humps and ledges along the Tennessee River channel, and vast backwaters that are bounded by buckbrush, blowdowns and other fish-holding cover. Cover is especially abundant during the spring, when water levels tend to be high, which is the very time that crappie depend on shallow cover.
Kentucky Lake easily led all Tennessee waterways for TARP-qualifying crappie through last spring. Kentucky Lake's 20 qualifying crappie doubled the output of Chickamauga, which was second in the state with 10 recognition-earning slabs. Of Kentucky Lake's qualifying crappie, 18 were white crappie. While gradual clearing of Kentucky Lake's waters seems to be causing a gradual transition toward black crappie dominance in the lower part of the lake, the majority of the true "slabs" landed by fishermen are still white crappie.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has been tracking movements of both black and white crappie during the spring in one Kentucky Lake embayment for the past couple of years, using radio telemetry equipment to follow specific fish. Through the first half of the spring, biologists have found the crappie widely dispersed throughout the creek, with black crappie moving shallow and well up the creeks earlier in the spring than white crappie.
Because many anglers drift or slow-troll with jigs in middle depths, Kentucky Lake's shallowest crappie seemingly are underutilized during the first part of spring. By mid-April, the bulk of the crappie and crappie fishermen have moved shallow.
As the season progresses and spring gives way to summer, most fish move to the lower reaches of the creek and to the Tennessee River channel just outside the mouth of the creek. Movements become much less significant by mid-May. In fact, biologists doing the survey work often have found fish in virtually the same location from one week to the next during late spring and early summer.
Crappie fishing opportunities extend the entire length of Kentucky Lake. However, the lower section within Tennessee is more fertile than the riverine upper end and offers far more backwater habitat for crappie to use during spring and to escape to when the river is really rocking.
A reciprocal agreement between Tennessee and Kentucky allows licensed Tennessee anglers to fish anywhere south of the U.S. Highway 68/Kentucky Highway 80 bridge, excluding the Blood River embayment in Kentucky.
WHEN YOU GO
Tennessee's statewide crappie limit is 30 fish, with a 10-inch minimum size; however, there are numerous exceptions, some stricter and some more lenient.
For complete regulations, along with updated fishing reports and loads of other fishing information, check out