Crappie fishing should be hot this year in Tennessee. For some ideas on where to go to catch them, read what our experts have to say. (February 2008).
Photo by Mark Fike.
Crappie fishing should be hot this year in Tennessee. For some ideas on where to go to catch them, read what our experts have to say.
by Ed Harp
Tennessee has always been one of the better crappie states around. It's blessed with a huge number of natural lakes, manmade reservoirs and rivers. Each offers, in its own right, a unique opportunity to catch a heavyweight stringer full of them.
Most of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) personnel predict a bright future for the state's crappie fisheries. They believe that with proper management Tennessee's waters will continue to produce for years into the future.
However, a word of warning is in order here. The drought of 2007 is having a devastating effect on some fisheries and an unknown effect on others. If the dry weather continues through 2008, many of our fisheries will be in bad shape. Many of them have already been affected.
As of this writing, the effects of the drought are manageable. The low water didn't happen until after the spawn in most fisheries last year. The majority of the fish will survive. That's the good news.
But then again, if it continues, it may be the beginning of some very tough years for anglers -- and for the fish. Only time will tell.
And so, with the length and severity of the drought still unknown, let's take a close region-by-region look at the 2008 crappie fishing opportunities in the Volunteer State.
Region I, on the west side of the state, is home to the best crappie fisheries in Tennessee -- Reelfoot Lake, Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake.
Lake Barkley, a relatively young (1966) Tennessee River impoundment covering 58,000 surface acres at normal pool, has the best catch rate of the three, according to George Scholten, Reservoir and River Fisheries Coordinator for the TWRA.
He reports that the year-classes for 2003 and 2005 were especially strong. That fact showed in 2006 when the TWRA collected creel data. It showed good catch and harvest rates for both white and black crappie with anglers releasing as many fish as they harvested.
That's really good news for 2008. The classes of 2003 and 2005, most of which were released because they were small, will be reaching maturity and ready for the frying pan in February and March of 2008. A fair number of them will be 10 inches or better.
Barkley is somewhat shallow, with a wealth of stumps, flats and other crappie-attracting habitat. The lake supports a fairly good weed growth and it's getting better. There really isn't a bad place to fish in it. Spring and fall are especially productive, but there's enough deep water to allow for some summer and winter fishing. (Cont.)
Launch your boat from the most convenient ramp, motor to the nearest creek or inflow and start fishing any brushpiles, stumps or laydowns you encounter. If that's not your style, pick a set of docks, or an area near a marina in relatively shallow water, and look for one or two out of the thousands of brushpiles that have been set out by local anglers. Once you find them, have at it.
Now, all this doesn't mean Barkley crappie jump in the boat. You still have to catch them. Traditional methods are the most popular with local anglers. A 2-inch minnow, weighted with a split shot or two, under a bobber will work fine. Thin-wire hooks are a necessity.
If you're looking for huge, trophy-sized slabs, try small in-line spinners or tiny, ultralight crankbaits. Balsa wood minnow imitations are very popular and account for many of the bigger crappie caught from these areas each year.
Reelfoot is next on our list. This sizeable, natural lake has been producing high numbers of big crappie for decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
Blue Bank Resort professional crappie guide Billy Blakley (731/538-2212) has fished Reelfoot for years. "The water's down (in 2007), but it really hasn't hurt anything. We caught good fish around a pound or a pound and a half all year and 2008 looks to be even better for us. I'd say it'll be one of our best years ever," he said.
Fishing Reelfoot is largely a matter of fishing stumps and cypress trees. Of course, in Reelfoot, that's about like telling someone to fish the water. There are thousands of stumps and at least that many cypress trees. But it's also true that there are crappie everywhere. The trick is to find the big ones.
The best strategy is to hire a guide -- every stump and every cypress tree may look the same to you, but they don't to the fish or the local fishing guides. If a guide is not an option, your next best choice is to slowly drift or motor around, fishing minnows, until you find a magic spot. Then, when the bite slows down there, drift and motor some more. A day of this and you'll have a mess of crappie.
The third hotspot for 2008 crappie action on the west end of the state is Kentucky Lake.
The Tennessee waters of this massive lake offer some serious crappie fishing for those anglers willing to do their homework.
One of the best spots is Ginger Bay, just south of the state line. Head south and it'll be the first big bay off to your left. This hotspot is best described as one brushpile and stakebed that covers several acres. There are so many that it's almost impossible to tell where one starts and the other stops. They literally touch in some places.
Nevertheless, Ginger Bay crappie fishing is fantastic in the spring and the fall. According to most local anglers, including longtime Tennessee professional fishing guide Bobby Gentry (www.bobbygentry.com), old-fashioned, traditional methods work best here. Small minnows under a bobber should be your mainstay.
Move around if the bite isn't what you want it to be. At times, Ginger Bay crappie can be very particular about where they want to live. Bait placement is critical. Moving your minnow less than a foot can make all the difference in the world.
On down a ways you'll find Panther Bay and Dry Fork Bay. Both fish much like Ginger Bay. They're covered over with brush and
Most Kentucky Lake crappie run around 9 or 10 inches, but there's always the chance for a giant. Many times, they school by size. Catch a 9-incher and chances are the others you catch will be close to that. If you want a monster for your wall, keep moving until you find him. Be patient.
Region II, in the middle of the state, has some respectable crappie-fishing opportunities. The better locations are Percy Priest and Tims Ford. Percy Priest will give you numbers, Tims Ford will give you size.
Percy Priest, just a short ways outside Nashville, is not a difficult lake to fish if you follow the right formula -- and that's what it is, a formula.
During the winter, the Corps of Engineers will typically
drop the water about 10 feet. Most of the shoreline cover and structure will be exposed. Then, beginning in early spring, they will allow it to rise, ever so slowly, until it reaches normal pool. (They have very precise controls over the water levels in this lake.)
The crappie tend to follow the water up the bank as spring progresses. Savvy anglers fish brush and rock before it is completely covered and then fish it after it's covered. At times, the fish will hold at 2 feet; other times, they'll be closer to 5 feet.
A local technique -- quite effective, as a matter of fact -- is to flip and pitch minnows, weightless, into this structure. Find a likely looking spot, then toss your minnow out and let it swim around, freestyle without being encumbered by a sinker or a bobber. If the crappie are in an eating mood, you'll know soon enough.
Tims Ford is very different and must be fished differently. Start your search on this one in Kitchens Creek or Graves Branch. Both are well-known local hotspots, easy to find, close to the state ramp and have produced stringers of eating-sized crappie for years. Kitchens Creek is located along the south shoreline, Graves Branch along the north.
Travel as far back into them as possible before you start fishing. It's usually best to fish out of these creeks rather than into them.
Follow the channel, carefully fishing every stick, stump and laydown you encounter. Pay particular attention to those located near channel swings or drops, and especially to those with a little grass around them. This is about fishing thoroughly, not covering water. Miss a stump and you probably missed a fish.
February and March are the prime months on Tims Ford.
Deep, clear Dale Hollow is the place to fish in Region III if you're looking for big, slab-sized crappie.
"I've got to say that spring is good here, but fall is better, a lot better," said local guide Donnie Felton (www.donniesguideservice.com). "It seems like the big ones bite better when the water is cooling down, rather than when it's warming up. I don't know why, but that's the way it is."
By big crappie, this man means 15 inches or better. When he talks about cooling water, he means late October through early December -- 60 degrees or lower.
Felton recommends anglers fish isolated stickups and flooded bushes along the steep bluffs in water between 10 and 25 feet deep. "The clear water keeps them a little deeper here than in other lakes, so you have to get your minnow down at least 10 feet and let it swim around, right inside the bush. You'll lose many of them (hooks, minnows, crappie) that way, but I don't know any other way to make them bite."
This is slow, place-by-place fishing. Big Dale Hollow crappie aren't very sociable in the fall. They live one or two to a bush. If you catch the second one, it's time to move on.
Other lakes in this region that deserve a close look include Chickamauga, Cordell Hull and Watts Bar. Any of the three are capable of producing a fine stringer, but one in particular, Cordell Hull, deserves special mention.
According to both Gentry and Felton, it's a better fishery than it's given credit for. "You can catch a ton of crappie from Cordell Hull if you know what you're doing. I'm not criticizing anyone, but you've got to fish this lake right to catch them. They aren't easy, that's for sure, but they're there," Gentry said.
When asked what fishing right means, Gentry replied, "Begin at Defeated Creek. It's near Carthage. There's heavy brush near the bridge that always holds a few good fish. Early in the year, Defeated Creek warms up quicker than some of the other areas. That sparks quick weed growth that attracts them like a magnet."
He goes on to opine that there's really no reason to ever leave this creek. It flows for several miles and has a steep-sided, deep channel. There are weeds and brush everywhere. Most of it holds fish.
Gentry's second choice on Cordell Hull is Grandville Marina. Not too far from it, there's a group of brushpiles. You can find them with your electronics if the water's up, or see them from a boat if it's down. A short minnow, under a bobber, will catch a stringer full if they're there.
Cordell Hull's dam is another spot worth your time. There's a lock there that collects drift and other debris. To keep the lock clear, the drift is pushed away onto a riprap bank less than a mile from the lock. Dunk weightless minnows into the holes in the drift. If it's too heavy, make your own hole in it and then come back in an hour or so to fish them.
Regardless of which of these areas you fish, keep in mind that Cordell Hull is a Cumberland River impoundment. The water's cold. That affects the fish. You should always look for the warmest water around.
Mike Jolley, TWRA Region III reservoir fisheries biologist, suggests anglers consider Center Hill, Watts Bar and Chickamauga as well. "They aren't as good as some of the others, but they aren't bad either. Mostly there are plenty of crappie in them, but size can be a problem. They aren't as big as we'd like," he said.
The best venue in Region IV, on the east side, is probably Douglas Lake. It's one of the most popular crappie destinations in the state, and for good reason. It's been producing eating-sized crappie for a quarter century.
But Douglas has been hit hard by the drought. The water is at an all-time low. At normal pool, it covers about 30,000 acres; because of the drought, it's probably less than half that size. Nevertheless, it still offers Volunteer anglers on the west side of the state a fair opportunity to go crappie fishing.
The TWRA has placed fish attractors throughout the lake. Some of the most fruitful are around the islands, not too far from the dam. Any of the 20 or so attractors in the area will hold crappi
e on any given day. Some will hold fish today but not tomorrow. Others may hold a school for a week.
The best way to fish them is to start shallow and work your way deep. (Again, depending upon the drought conditions, there may, or may not be, deep water available.)
Tuffy minnows, under a bobber, should be your first choice of weapons. After that, you may want to switch to small jigs or tiny plastics depending upon what the fish tell you. If you're looking for a giant, try tossing a shad-colored deep-diving crankbait.
Douglas crappie are notoriously depth sensitive. Don't ever forget this. A slight depth change -- sometimes as little as 6 inches -- can make a big difference in the weight of your stringer at the end of the day. And don't be shy about changing colors either. Sometimes that's all it takes to turn them on.
If you're looking for someplace different, try the area around the Spring Creek Access Ramp. It's roughly northeast of the dam and north of a long series of attractors. At times, this can be trophy territory. Cast a small in-line spinner or a tiny minnow-type crankbait in a fan pattern around your boat.
This is not a numbers game. But the ones you do catch will be enormous. Crappie over 2 pounds are caught every year in this area using this technique. Even bigger ones are possible, though not likely.
The Tennessee crappie outlook for 2008 is strong. Take advantage of it.