The first warm days of February foreshadow spring crappie fishing in Tennessee. What kind of season can anglers expect this year? (February 2010)
Dragging lines slowly with an age-worn johnboat, two old-timers watch three poles apiece, waiting for one or more tips to bend toward the water. Along a nearby riprap bank, dozens of shore-bound anglers of every age sit staring at bright-colored bobbers. Not far away, two fishermen in a modern bass boat work a line of docks, using ultralight spinning outfits to cast jigs around the pilings and close to brush that has been sunk at the ends of the docks.
Reelfoot Lake's fertile waters are less cyclical than most crappie fisheries. During early spring, longtime Reelfoot guide Billy Blakely typically either spider rigs over sunken timber or fishes jigs under floats around vegetation.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.
The techniques and the appearances of the anglers vary, but the objective is the same: to catch crappie. Although crappie can be caught 12 months of the year in Tennessee, the spring "crappie run" brings a spike in fishing effort that is apparent from even a glance at any parking area near a bridge.
The fish begin moving shallower with the first warm, sunny spells that foreshadow spring, and the migration progresses as days lengthen and spring-like temperatures become more frequent. Word travels quickly as action begins picking up, and crowds soon assemble at popular access areas.
With the best crappie fishing just barely around the bend, now is an ideal time to look at fisheries in all parts of the state and to consider which waterways should serve up the best slab-catching action this spring. Good crappie fishing can be found in all parts of Tennessee. That's partly because of the sheer quantity of lakes and rivers in the state, but another important factor is the management work done by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
The TWRA's proactive approach to crappie management, which includes a 10-inch minimum size for most waters and an active stocking program on many lakes, helps lessen the population dips that commonly occur in crappie populations. Stocking, which is done to supplement natural reproduction and to maintain year-classes for reproduction when conditions are good, helps substantially on some reservoirs but has minimal positive impact on others. Generally speaking, if stocking crappie might help, TWRA stocks.
Early forecasting of crappie fishing prospects can be challenging. Fall trap-netting surveys had not been completed when this issue went to press, and those samples provide the best annual snapshot of crappie populations and the most complete look at the success of the year's spawn. Still, biologists know long-term trends and have results from other types of samples, including creel surveys. Plus, they typically get a lot of casual information from conversations with anglers. With that in mind, let's take a look at crappie fishing expectations for all parts of the state, beginning with West Tennessee.
The bad news about Kentucky and Barkley lakes is that several years of sub-par spawning success in both lakes have resulted in a forecast of lower-than-normal numbers of crappie available this spring. The good news is that lower-than-average numbers on these two big reservoirs still equates to excellent fishing compared with many places. The other good news is that there are some very large crappie being caught in both lakes. The big fish remain from good spawns in the first part of this decade.
Recruitment on both reservoirs was down for five years, due in part to the recent drought, according to TWRA Region I fisheries biologist Tim Broadbent. Because of much improved water levels and greater stability in water flows in 2009, Broadbent is hopeful that trap-netting surveys will show good spawning success in '09, and that this will be the beginning of an upward swing.
Although there are significant differences between Kentucky and Barkley lakes in their topography, fertility, structure and cover, both are large, riverine reservoirs, and a canal connects their lower bodies. Water levels and water-flow dynamics tend to be similar, therefore, and that normally equates with similar spawning success.
Broadbent notes that while he has heard some talk from a small contingency of anglers about the idea of lowering the daily crappie limit on Kentucky and Barkley lakes from 30 to 15, the TWRA is happy with the way the current limit is working.
"Dropping the creel limit would not improve the fishing," he said. "The majority of the fishermen don't bring home a limit of crappie anyway."
While Kentucky and Barkley lakes' crappie populations are cyclical and vary quite a bit both in numbers and size structures from one year to the next, Reelfoot Lake is incredibly stable. Size structures do vary some from year to year, but Reelfoot's fertile waters always support high numbers of crappie.
Biologists were unable sample Reelfoot's crappie population in 2008 because of prohibitively low water levels during normal sampling times. However, angler success remained as good as ever. Average sizes have actually increased over the years on Reelfoot, according to Broadbent. "Where crappie used to average around a quarter pound, now they average more like a half pound."
Because of the extreme abundance and variety of cover throughout Reelfoot, crappie can be caught a lot of different ways at different times. The most dependable approach and that used most often by lake regulars is to spider rig with two-hook rigs and minnows over flooded stumpfields in the middle of the lake.
Broadbent noted that the TWRA does not do any targeted crappie sampling on Pickwick simply because the Tennessee portion of the lake does not offer sufficient crappie habitat to justify the sampling efforts. A partial reciprocal agreement among the three states that border Pickwick does provide anglers plenty of crappie waters, and the fishing can be very good in some of the creeks, but the TWRA does not track or actively manage the crappie fishery.
For fine crappie action in the middle part of the state, Doug Markham first suggests fishing two Nashville-area reservoirs. Markham, who handles public information responsibilities in Region II for the TWRA, said that Percy Priest and Old Hickory continue to produce very good crappie fishing year after year.
Percy Priest, a relatively fertile impoundment of the Stones River, actually went through a few years of lower-than-average crappie recruitment; however, angler catch rates have remained good throughout that period.
The TWRA does some crappie stocking in Priest to aug
ment recruitment during poor years, which likely has helped keep the fishing good, according to Markham. Anglers may notice more black-nosed crappie in their catches than once would have been the case because those are the fish that the TWRA most often stocks.
Biologists' surveys indicated that 2008 was a much-improved spawning year, and these fish will begin showing up in anglers' catches (although they won't be large enough to harvest) this spring. If trap-netting shows that last year's recruitment matched 2008, anglers will be able to catch crappie off any bank in Priest for the next few years, Markham said.
Old Hickory, a long, riverine impoundment of the Cumberland River, is very accessible to boating and bank-fishing anglers alike and is a consistent crappie producer. Making things even more interesting, Old Hickory serves up some extra large fish.
"Old Hickory is a lake that can produce some big fish," Markham said. "You will catch a lot of 10- and 11-inch fish, but it is not surprising to hear anglers speak of 13- and 14-inch fish if they can find cover holding a healthy school."
Markham noted that while local anglers often focus on deep structure to catch crappie throughout the year, in the spring numerous boathouses and docks provide excellent cover for pre-spawn fish, and an abundance laydowns all over the lake provide good targets to fish around.
Markham said that Cheatham, Woods, Tims Ford and Normandy also serve up very good crappie fishing action at times, and it's worth noting that Tims Ford produced an 18.75-inch giant, which was the largest black crappie submitted to the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program (TARP) through fall 2009.
Anyone who questions the quality of the upper Tennessee River as a crappie fishery needs only to look at TARP records. The program awards anglers who catch fish that meet predetermined minimum size standards for various species, and the minimum size for a black or white crappie is 14 inches. Both Watts Bar and Chickamauga lakes show up repeatedly in the listings for both black and white crappie. The black/white balance is roughly equal in Watts Bar. Chickamauga, which sits one pool downstream and is more fertile than Watts Bar, has produced twice as many award-earning white crappie as black crappie since the inception of the program.
A high number of crappie in the Tennessee River impoundments has also been evident to fisheries biologists in recent years, as crappie have been showing up in electro-shocking samples, even when the sampling is done to target largemouth bass.
Most of the best spring fishing in both Watts Bar and Chickamauga occurs in the dozens of creeks, cuts and coves that border their main bodies. Creek channel edges, bridge pilings, riprap banks and downed trees all hold fish during the spring, and anglers can do well by simply casting minnows or jigs under corks to visible cover.
Region III also includes an important piece of Tennessee's crappie management history. Blacknose crappie were first stocked by the TWRA in Center Hill Lake, and the stocking remains an important part of the management plan on Center Hill and on Dale Hollow. In part due to the stockings, both lakes offer surprisingly good crappie fishing year after year, and anglers who fish these lakes regularly expect to see the telltale black racing stripe on many of the crappie that they catch.
The blacknose crappie, which are actually just a strain of black crappie that have a distinctive nose marking, were extra important when the TWRA first began analyzing the benefit of stocking. The stocked fish were easily recognizable at all ages, without any tags or special equipment, and that allowed the agency to study whether the stocked fish were being recruited into the populations and the amount of impact they were having.
While stocking crappie has not proven beneficial in all lakes -- as many anglers certainly hoped it would be after the plan worked so well at Center Hill -- the stocked fish continue to provide a major boost to the populations on Center Hill and Dale Hollow, and these waters have become steady producers of big crappie.
Because of their extreme clarity, these lakes have to be approached a bit differently than most Tennessee crappie fishing lakes. The fish still relate to shoreline cover during the spring, but they commonly will be 10 or 15 feet beneath the surface instead of holding just a few feet deep. A good approach for making these fish bite is to fish a jig or a minnow on a slip-float rig, with the float set to suspend the offering at the desired depth.
Arguably the biggest crappie fishing story in East Tennessee concerns a lake that is not kicking out large numbers of crappie. Douglas Lake, which impounds 30,600 acres along the French Broad River, typically is one of the top few crappie lakes in the entire state, based on creel surveys.
"Right now it is not even close," said John Hammonds, the TWRA biologist who manages the lake, noting a lack of significant natural reproduction in the lake since 2003.
TWRA has stocked crappie in Douglas on an annual basis throughout that period, seeking to lessen the population downturn. However, it's impossible for the TWRA to grow and stock nearly the number of young crappie that would have to be stocked to significantly impact the total population in such a large reservoir. Numbers of legal fish, therefore, will be low this year, as they have been for a few years.
There is a bit of good news related to Douglas crappie, however. Biologists found decent numbers of crappie fry during June seine net sampling this year. Fall trap-netting provides a better indicator of the amount of natural reproduction that occurs in a year. However, if the trap-netting shows that 2009 was indeed a good year, based on crappie growth rates in Douglas, catch rates of 6- to 8-inch fish will improve this year, and many of those fish will hit keeper size by next year.
Similar to Douglas, Cherokee and Norris reservoirs have seen downward trends in crappie numbers in recent years because of poor reproduction. The good news at Norris is that crappie stocking efforts seem to be bearing fruit in this lake. The TWRA has stocked more than 100,000 crappie per year in Norris since 2004, and those fish do appear to be joining the population and benefiting the fishery.
"Given poor reproduction indicated by trap-netting, Norris is the one place stocking may be helping the most," said Jim Negus, the TWRA biologist over Norris. "Adults are showing up in the creel, gill nets, and electro-fishing, so they have to be coming from somewhere. Since they are not showing up where they traditionally did via trap-netting, stocking is a suspected source."
The "top spot" selection for Region IV would have to go to Fort Loudoun, which is highly fertile and offers plenty of fine habitat for the crappie. The lake contains both black and white crappie, and both have shown up in increasing numbers in shocking surveys during recent years. Both varieties grow to large sizes in the lake's fertile waters.
Brush and other cover are plentiful along the edges of Fort Loudoun, and during the spring, even anglers who are unfamiliar with the lake can do well by casting to visible cover in virtually any creek or cove. Pressure is one area of concern, Negus noted. Fort Loudoun's has been No. 1 in the area for several years, and folks know it, and in time heavy fishing pressure can take its toll.
A final note of interest in Region IV is that South Holston Lake has shown a substantial upward trend in recent years and currently supports one of the best crappie populations in East Tennessee. Since 2004, biologists have seen a five-fold increase in catch rates while conducting electro-shocking surveys. South Holston is cold, clear and infertile -- far from a typical crappie lake in character -- but the population is currently in good condition.
Before You Go
Before heading for any crappie waters this spring, be sure to visit the TWRA's Web site, tnwildlife.org. The site offers easy access to complete fishing regulations, current fishing reports, shoreline access listings, on-line license sales and much more. Tennessee's statewide crappie limit is 15 fish, with a 10-inch minimum size; however, there are several exceptions on individual bodies of water, so it's important to check the regulations.