If you're looking for big slabs this year in East Tennessee, here are two top picks for bringing 'em to your boat. (May 2006)
Crappie picks like Boone and Fort Loudoun reservoirs are far and few between. If you're willing to put in a little time on the water, you can boat plenty of eating-sized crappie along with a few topping 12 inches or better.
In recent years, the crappie angling has improved considerably in Boone, and in Fort Loudoun, the crappie fishing has always been excellent.
In the 1990s, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency took special notice of Boone's fertile water and decided to maximize the reservoir's potential. A 10-inch minimum size restriction and a 15-fish limit were adopted for crappie and the fisheries improved markedly. The TWRA stocked 300,000 crappie during those years to make them even better.
Once a yawner, Boone now boasts an excellent crappie fishery and anglers take home thousands of crappie every year.
"Boone is small compared with other reservoirs, but it does have a fair population of crappie," said Doug Peterson, a Region IV TWRA fisheries biologist. "For an eastern Tennessee water, it has a good population of black crappie along with plenty of whites. Fort Loudoun has both blacks and whites with the whites predominating."
In the early spring, crappie begin moving into shallow shoreline cover in Boone and Fort Loudoun to spawn. As the water begins warming into the 58- to 70-degree range, crappie start holding on shallow cover near deeper water. They make feeding forays into the shallows to look for minnows drawn to the sun-warmed weeds, flooded shoreline vegetation, rocks and woody cover. The males fan out saucer-shaped nests at the base of emerging vegetation and woody cover, and the females then move in.
"By the end of April, the peak of the spawn is over, though some fish may still be spawning by the first week of May. By May, crappie will be in the back of coves around fallen treetops and brush," Peterson said.
Once you locate them, springtime crappie in both lakes are easily caught. Start checking for active fish around flooded brush, downed trees and by docks that are located near deep water. Spawning commonly takes place up in the backs of coves where there is some protection from wave and wind action and where cover such as flooded shoreline brush, emerging plants, sunken logs, blowdowns and docks can be found.
Old creek channels and other distinct bottom structure act as crappie corridors up into the shallows. If you can find flats in the coves and in the backs of bays with good cover and deeper water within 20 or 30 yards, you're likely going to find the biggest crappie in the lake.
Biologists have installed a variety of fish attractors in both lakes. Brushpiles and stakebeds especially attract crappie that are naturally drawn to woody cover.
Getting back into the coves where the sun is warming the water near cover is key.
"I'd suggest the streams, especially Boone's Creek, Beaver Creek and White's Branch on Boone. Stay off the channels in Boone because both have cold water flowing into them," Peterson said.
Fort Loudoun has its own share of early-season crappie hotspots, according to Peterson.
"Places to target crappie are Ish Creek, Gallaher Creek, the Concord Park and I.C. King Park areas. Access is good in these waters as well as throughout the reservoir," Peterson said.
After the initial flurry of early-spring activity, crappie begin migrating back into the depths, at times holding out over open water and as deep as 20 feet or more. Boone and Fort Loudoun can both begin to stratify as early as April, but more commonly in May or later on in the summer. Look for crappie just above the thermocline. Oxygen is depleted below the thermocline and crappie won't be found below it.
This is the time to mount your electronic fish-finder. Suspended fish move in schools through the depths with no indication above water as to their whereabouts. They still relate to cover, though they are often stationary in the water column a short way from it.
The bite can be hot after spawning is finished and the fish have moved back onto deeper structure. Bridge pilings and bottom features you'll find with sonar can attract concentrations of crappie that are both huge and readily catchable.
"On Boone, I've caught white crappie anywhere between 7 and 17 inches," said Kenneth Harville, owner of Kenny's Tackle in Kingsport.
"The white crappie are usually the biggest and we're catching some big ones. I've had three that weighed in together at 5 1/2 pounds."
Harville recommends targeting spawning crappies in the back of the bays when they're spawning in mid-April and May.
However, at times, it's a hard bite on Boone, Harville said.
"The reason Boone can be a hard lake to fish in the spring is because the water fluctuates so much in depth. It's a mountain lake. We sometimes have a drawdown of up to 40 or 50 feet. Spawning crappie are shallow, and during rising water, they have to move up into shallower water again, and sometimes they just swim away and don't spawn at all."
When the water levels rise this much in a short time, anglers need to adjust their locations accordingly. High water floods new brush and creates spawning areas where there weren't any before. The downside is that a productive spot yesterday won't hold a single fish today.
Finding spring crappie is one thing. Tempting these careful, sometimes-paranoid fish into biting is another.
"It's hard to beat a live natural bait for spring crappie," Harville said.
Minnows are the preferred bait of local anglers, though Harville pointed out that hair jigs are used with success as well.
Traditional leadhead jigs tipped with minnows or tiny soft plastics imitate swimming minnows and also take plenty of papermouths. Small spinners will work wonders around shallow brush, stumps, docks and shoreline cover.
When the sun is high, think shadows. Though not as shy as bass, crappie will hold just out of the sun under docks, boats and overhanging trees and shoreline weeds.
Keep the jig at 1/16 ounce or smaller. Feathered jigs in white, yellow or chartreuse fished a foot off the bottom in shallow water ca
n be consistent producers, with or without a bobber.
Peterson recommends targeting slabs in 2- to 5-foot depths with jigs tipped with minnows. He agrees that jigs should be kept in the 1/16 to 1/32 sizes and no larger. White, chartreuse or green grub trailers are the ticket.
To cover more water, try tying on a second jig on your line a foot or two above the first one. Crappie tend to move up to strike a bait and fish may take the higher jig while ignoring the lower one.
Small minnows that are hooked through the back and just below the dorsal fin will stay alive and free-swimming longer than lip-hooked minnows. If you're jigging with a minnow, hook it through the lips.
Boone covers 4,520 acres in the upper part of East Tennessee.
Around the 122-mile shoreline of Boone, there are seven public boat ramps and eight privately owned marinas. Most of the area around the lake is highly developed and there is little public shoreline access. A handicapped-accessible fishing pier is situated at the Devault Bridge near Winged Deer Park.
The reservoir is located near Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City.
Fort Loudoun Reservoir is one of Peterson's top crappie picks and for good reason.
Of the 13 reservoirs sampled by electrofishing in 2005, Fort Loudoun had the largest number of crappie. The 2005 survey sampled 340 fish, which is not only a strong number, but it showed an improvement over the 137 sampled in the 2004 study. An angler survey in 2004 showed that anglers had taken 5,756 black and white crappie that year.
Of the eastern Tennessee reservoirs, Fort Loudoun ranks up near the top of the great crappie waters.
Fort Loudoun covers 14,600 acres, has 378 miles of shoreline and stretches for 60 miles through Knoxville. The reservoir is an impoundment on the Tennessee River and part of a recreational area that hosts over two million visitors each year.
Boater access is abundant throughout the length of the lake.
For more information, contact the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Region IV in Morristown toll-free at (800) 332-0900 from inside the state.
Lake maps are available by calling The Map Store in Knoxville at (888) 929-6277 or (865) 688-3608. Maps from the Tennessee Valley Authority are available at (800) 627-7882.
The Tennessee Valley Authority can be reached at (423) 239-2000.
Contact Kenny's Tackle at 3748 Highway 75, Kingsport, or call (423) 279-0113.
More fishing information is available online about fishing Boone and Fort Loudoun reservoirs at www.tnfish.org.