Local experts say precise depth control is the key to finding early-season crappie on these two excellent Tennessee lakes.
Cobby Hayes holds up a typical Dale Hollow crappie. Photo by Ed Harp.
By Ed Harp
Early spring in Middle Tennessee offers some of the best and most varied crappie fishing in the state. To the north is Dale Hollow with its deep, clear, cold water; to the south is Old Hickory with its shallow, warmer, stained water. These are very different bodies of water and yet both are capable of producing limits of early slab crappies.
Dale Hollow, long known for its smallmouth fishing, also has an excellent population of white, black and blacknose crappies. (For those not familiar with blacknose crappie, they are black crappie with a distinct, wide black stripe running down their nose and under their mouth. They are native to the White River in Arkansas and are stocked in Dale Hollow, as well as other locations throughout the state.)
According to Cobby Hayes, an "amateur" whom many consider the best crappie angler on Dale Hollow, early spring will move these fish from their deep winter haunts in the main lake to their pre-spawn staging areas. When asked about early spring crappie fishing on the lake, Hayes replied, "This is the time to catch a limit of big ones."
These staging areas are typically drops, cuts and channels in the 20- to 25-foot depth range with wood - lots of wood. The most productive areas will be near or in the creeks that lead to the spawning flats that will be used in April and May. Dale Hollow has literally thousands of brushpiles that fit this description.
Hayes does not believe that any single area of the lake or any one creek necessarily outproduces any other. He points out that the controlling factors are depth, structure and cover. Regardless of where he is fishing, Hayes looks for water 20 to 25 feet deep in the vicinity of a spawning flat with a brushpile or treetop lying on the bottom.
That said, he does admit to spending a lot of time in Mitchell Creek, near the dam and Irons Creek, a few miles up the lake. To fish either of these creeks, he launches from Horse Creek Resort and Marina or Holly Creek Marina.
To find these spots an angler must pay his dues. He or she must spend some time with the depthfinder, searching out brush at the proper depth. Even with his experience, Hayes rarely takes his eyes off the screen. As he says, "It's my underwater eyes."
Once he locates a suitable spot, Hayes begins preparations to fish. Decades on the lake have engrained into his mind the need to exercise depth control with your bait or lure. Hayes appreciates and understands that if he is not fishing at the proper depth, he is wasting his time.
For instance, if the fish are holding at 23 feet, Hayes will fish at 23 feet, not between 20 and 25 feet like so many anglers. He reasons that fishing is not horseshoes: Close does not count. Under no circumstance does he fish below the crappie. According to Hayes, a crappie will never, not ever, look down to feed.
Interestingly, the only time Hayes considers water temperature to be significant is when it begins to approach the 50-degree mark. This temperature will trigger a serious migration to the spawning flats.
There are a number of ways to control depth, but perhaps the most commonly used is the old-fashioned countdown method. Simply measure your line to control your depth.
An easy and accurate way to do this is as follows: Place the butt of the rod handle under your right armpit. With your right hand, hold the line coming off the reel, between your thumb and index finger. Then with your left hand, strip line off the reel at a predetermined length. Measure the strips of line carefully so that each is exactly the same length. This will place your bait at the same depth each time you drop it.
While this may sound easy and simplistic, it requires practice and concentration to be successful. It must be precise; an error of just an inch or two on each pull will result in your fishing at the wrong depth.
Some anglers use a slip-bobber; others use a line marker of some sort. The key is precision depth control, regardless of the method you use.
Hayes recommends light equipment. His rig consists of a high-quality rod, 5 1/2 to 6 feet in length, with a lightweight open-face spinning reel. He generally spools up with 6-pound-test clear or green monofilament line. This equipment will result in more strikes in the clear water and, if your drag is properly set, will handle crappies up to 18 inches with no problem.
Hayes will occasionally use a float to hold his bait in place, but more frequently he will deadline. That is, he just lowers his minnow or jig to the desired depth without a float. If he is using a minnow, he will add split shot as necessary to keep it down.
Bait and lure selection are fairly standard at this time of year. According to Hayes, you cannot go wrong with minnows; as he puts it, "That's what they eat."
On the other hand, he will admit that at times jigs seem to produce as well as minnows or perhaps even better. He recommends small, brightly colored hair jigs. Something in the 1/32- to 1/8-ounce range is about right. Red, orange, chartreuse and pink are his colors of choice.
If you locate a school of big fish and they are not biting, move on. Successful anglers, including Hayes, rarely fish a spot more than 30 minutes if the fish are not active.
To the south is Old Hickory, a very different lake. Old Hickory is shallow, at least shallower than Dale Hollow; its water is warmer and stained.
The crappie habitat is also quite different. Professional angler and guide Mike Tanksley of Stressbuster Fishing Tours points out that, unlike Dale Hollow, Old Hickory supports heavy lake development. There are literally hundreds of houses surrounding the lake, according to Tanksley. This is the key to early-season crappie on Old Hickory.
With these houses come boats. With boats come docks, private ramps and boathouses. The owners frequently place brush in front of the docks for their fishing enjoyment. You may as well enjoy it, too.
According to Tanksley, a favored technique for February and March crappie is to search out brushpiles and treetops in 8 to 12 feet of water off the ends of docks and boathouses.
He, like Hayes, believes that precise depth control is the first and most important step in catching a limit of slabs.
Tanksley achieves this with a very different approach, however.
He begins with a homemade tackle combination designed and developed through years of experience on this Middle Tennessee impoundment. He begins with a fly rod, 9 feet in length. To this he attaches a small, ultralight open-face spinning reel spooled with 8-pound-test monofilament line. To his line he attaches a small gold hook, small split shot and an old-fashioned quill float.
Tanksley's bait preferences are very specific, having been developed over three decades of searching out crappies on the lake. He uses live bait - minnows - when the current is slack or the water is rising. Under these conditions, after selecting his brushpile, he carefully approaches it with his custom rig. Once he is within flipping or pitching distance, he drops his minnow "right down the middle of the brush" to provoke the fish.
If, however, water is being pulled through the lake and there is a fairly strong current, his bait choice is very different. Then, and only then, he selects a Beetle Spin in the 1/8-ounce size in a bright color, "the brighter the better," and works the lure over, around and through the brush. Tanksley believes the success of the Beetle Spin is due to vibration of its blade and its simple design.
He also agrees with Hayes that rather than worry about a specific area or location on the lake, an angler would be well advised to locate brush at the proper depth. Once that has been accomplished, success will follow regardless of the name of the area of the lake you are fishing.
He does, however, have a favorite location: Drake's Creek near the dam at Hendersonville, Tennessee. His attraction to the area is the concentration of brush and wood at the proper depth for early-season crappie. There is also a fine launch facility, Saunders Ferry Park, at the mouth of the creek. It is open to the public.
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For up-to-the-minute information on Dale Hollow, guide recommendations, equipment or lodging, contact Dale Hollow One Stop at (931) 243-2636.
For complete information on Old Hickory or to book a trip, contact Mike Tanksley, Stressbuster Fishing Tours, (615) 478-2919) or email him at email@example.com.
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