Kentucky Lake's Slabs Of Spring

Here are some tips on targeting Kentucky Lake crappie from guide Garry Mason, who has fished the lake for more than four decades. (March 2010)

Veteran guide Garry Mason does most of his spring fishing at Kentucky Lake by casting Slider Crappie Grubs over submerged stakebeds and brushpiles.
Photo courtesy of Garry Mason.

When Garry Mason talks about Kentucky Lake crappie, people listen.

A veteran of four decades of fishing this vast Tennessee River impoundment and one of the lake's best known and most respected guides, Mason has learned the ways of the Kentucky Lake crappie. He has sought and caught crappie using many different techniques through the years and has figured out the methods and the types of areas that produce the most fish for him.

Kentucky Lake produces so many fish that any angler who gives the crappie a serious shot during the spring is apt to put at least a few fish in the boat. That said, the lake is huge, covering 160,000 acres (110,000 in Tennessee), so narrowing the focus can be a real advantage to any angler. By following the straightforward advice of a lake veteran, an angler can severely shorten the learning curve and jump right into catching crappie.

Mason said that Kentucky Lake's crappie population is in the best shape that he recalls for a long time, and he believes the 10-inch minimum size has really increased the stability of the crappie population on the lake. "We are looking at a really good spring, with good catches and plenty of quality crappie," he said.

Vast and productive, Kentucky Lake always yields some slab-sized crappie. However, the current population includes larger-than-normal numbers of heavyweight fish because of very strong year-classes through the first half of the 2000s.

Kentucky Lake's crappie population contains both black and white crappie. Early in the spring, Mason and his clients catch white crappie almost exclusively. As the season progresses, black crappie become a more significant part of the mix, and by late spring, he catches roughly equal numbers of both species.

Mason does most of his crappie fishing with a casting approach. Using a 7-foot B'n'M crappie rod and a spinning reel, he casts a Charlie Brewer Slider Crappie Grub rigged on a 1/8-ounce Slider head, counts the bait down to the depth he wants to fish and then reels slowly and steadily. Time has taught Mason that a Slider Crappie Grub on a 1/8-ounce head falls through the water column at roughly 1 foot per second, so if he thinks the fish will be 8 feet deep, he'll count to eight before he begins his retrieve.

Mason's overall favorite Slider color combination is White/Char­treuse. Other effective colors include Chartreuse Multi-Glitter, June Bug/ Chartreuse, Baby Bass and Trout. Generally speaking, he favors light colors for bright days and dark colors for dark days, but he has found that White/Chartreuse produces crappie under all conditions.

Mason doesn't consider his bait quite ready to fish until he sprays it with Garry Mason's White Lightning Fish Formula Scent. "It really makes a big difference," he said, "especially on those days when the bite is a little bit slow."

The depth ranges and types of areas that Mason probes vary according to conditions, which can run the gamut during the month of March. Beyond the obvious variables of wonderfully warm to very cold spells that occur during early spring, the lake level impacts both crappie movements and the amount of cover that's inundated. Typically, the lake will remain at winter pool at the beginning of March, but often it will rise a couple of feet during the course of the month. It normally reaches full pool by the middle of April.

Through most of March, Mason usually will begin looking for fish over stakebeds and brushpiles in 8 to 12 feet of water, counting his baits down to just over the top of the cover. Ideally, he wants to tick the cover from time to time with his presentations. If he doesn't find fish at his starting depth, he'll explore cover that's a little bit shallower or deeper.

Stakebeds and manmade brushpiles offer the most important cover on Kentucky Lake, especially when the water is below full pool and the fish are out from the banks. A very old lake, Kentucky has minimal natural cover remaining in it. Fortunately, fisheries managers and fishermen together have added thousands of brushpiles and stakebeds to the lake, and the planted cover is widespread and generally not difficult to locate.

Early in the month, Mason focuses on main-lake points, points just inside the mouths of creeks and bays, and creek-channel dropoffs within the same zones. As the month progresses, the fish will migrate gradually up the creeks, continuing to use the same types of cover along the channel edges. Mason fishes for crappie almost daily during March, so staying with them typically is fairly easy for him.

Visiting anglers sometimes have to do a bit of searching to find the cover and to figure out the best depth and how far up the creeks the best concentrations of crappie have moved. That said, crappie are extremely abundant throughout Kentucky Lake, and they do not all migrate at the same time. Therefore, even if the biggest group of fish is a one-third of the way back in a creek, an angler is apt to find fish and enjoy a great day by working drops near the mouth of the creek.

Toward the end of March or the beginning of April, many of the fish will push much shallower, especially in the backs of the creeks, coves and bays.

"By the first of April, the crappie might be only 3 or 4 feet deep," Mason said.

For shallow fish, Mason sometimes adds a float to his Slider rig. That allows him to keep the bait in the strike zone but to work it slowly around shallow cover. As the water nears full pool, more cover also gets inundated, and the fish will relate to flooded willows and other natural cover.

One of Mason's favorite early-March patterns is actually a shallow approach. Instead of looking deep, as many anglers would expect so early in the year, under certain conditions Mason will actually look for the crappie in extra shallow water. On bright, sunny days, he'll seek stakebeds that are positioned so shallow that the tops of the stakes are out of the water. He has found that the minnows will move onto sun-warmed flats and into that cover and that the crappie will follow.

He'll rig a Slider grub with a float, positioning the float only a foot or so above the jig and will cast the rig past the stakebed and work it back slowly over the cover. "The fish will usually all be in one part of the stakebed that time of year, so when I catch one I'll try

to make several more casts over the same area," Mason said. "Often I'll catch five or six crappie from a stakebed before I move on to the next one. I've had great days in very shallow water when the air temperature was in the 30s."

Mason noted that there's no reason to be on the water at first light on a brisk morning for this approach. It gets going only after the sun has had time to warm the shallower water and typically is best around mid-afternoon. The action also falls off late in the afternoon, after the sun dips beneath the trees and quits warming the water.

Mason suggested that Eagle Creek, Bass Bay, Birdsong Creek and the Big Sandy River arm of Kentucky Lake are areas that traditionally produce excellent spring crappie fishing. However, he was quick to note that good crappie fishing can be found all over the lake and that figuring out where the fish are within any given creek generally is more important than targeting a specific creek.

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