February 04, 2015
By Jeff Samsel
The warm, sunny days might have caused you to wonder, but the line of cars parked near the bridge tells you all you need to know. Crappie have moved shallow, and folks are catching them from the riprap that flanks the bridge crossing. A few folks always begin checking the fish early in spring, and when they start catching crappie, word travels quickly. A bunch of cars means that fish have been caught in recent days. Fortunately, you have a crappie rod and some jigs in the back of your truck.
The "crappie run," as it's commonly called when crappie move shallow to spawn, is a rite of spring for many anglers that's easy to understand. Big numbers of fish stray shallow to visible cover, making them far easier than normal to find and to catch. Fishing spots are dependable, producing good action every spring when conditions get right, and many excellent areas are accessible from the bank.
Georgia waters offer tremendous numbers of places where anglers can enjoy excellent crappie fishing. Crappie populations tend to be cyclical, though, so top waters vary from one year to the next. That said, some lakes support such fine populations overall that even during "down years" they out-produce most other waters. Considering current populations and perennial producers, several waterways should offer fine prospects this spring. Of course, don't limit your exploration. The truth is that there isn't enough space to discuss all of Georgia's fine crappie waters.
Lake Blackshear, an 8,500-acre impoundment of the Flint River, stands out as a land of plenty for crappie anglers. Beyond the simple truth that Blackshear yields excellent crappie action year after year, its fertile waters support both black and white crappie and the lake offers great variety of cover types at a good range of depths.
Because black crappie tend to stay shallower than white crappie and the two species commonly congregate in slightly different areas, having good populations of both species in the lake makes it easier to find fish on any given day. Similarly, plentiful brush and stumps along channel edges, atop flats and along banks, plus big numbers of docks all around the lake, allow many different techniques to produce well at Blackshear. In fact, dependability is one of Blackshear's real appeals.
"Blackshear has been pretty consistent recently with crappie production," said John Kilpatrick, Georgia Wildlife Resources Division biologist over the lake. "We expect more of the same in 2015, without any big changes."
Blackshear crappie typically average 9 to 11 inches in length. However, no one is ever surprised when genuine slabs — even 3-pound-plus fish — come from Blackshear's shallow waters.
During April, concentrate on shallow cover, especially cypress trees and dock supports, in backwater areas. A long crappie pole allows you to move quickly from one piece of cover to the next and place a jig or a minnow tight to the cover in search of fish. If you don't find fish close to the shallow cover, try slow trolling with a spread of minnows suspended under corks. As the season progresses and the fish finish spawning, many will move up under docks for the summer and you can target those fish by shooting jigs up under the docks.
The first of three big impoundments along the Savannah River, Lake Hartwell is best known among Georgia fishermen for its stripers and black bass. However, local anglers know that Lake Hartwell also serves up excellent spring crappie fishing.
Hartwell crappie fishing has been extra good for the past two springs, aided by a very strong 2010 year-class that had higher than normal numbers of large black crappie in the population. Unfortunately, that class is diminishing, and low numbers of small fish in 2013 trap-netting samples suggest that the number of harvestable crappie may be down in 2015. The good news is that those fish that remain in the fishery from 2010 should be quite large this spring.
Lake Hartwell offers nice variety for crappie fishermen. Creeks in the upper and middle parts of the lake generally carry a modest stain, and fish get quite shallow around docks and sunken brush during the spring. Farther down the lake, where the water is substantially clearer, deeper brush and the tops of flooded trees are more important. Many bridges and the adjacent riprap attract big numbers of crappie and make spring fishing very predictable.
Another appealing aspect of Lake Hartwell is that between state and county parks and recreation areas operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, shoreline access to all parts of the lake is outstanding. During the spring, when the fish move shallow, anglers working from the shore can find excellent action simply by casting minnows under corks around brush or other visible cover or walking the shore and casting a small jig.
Although Lake Hartwell's acreage is split between Georgia and South Carolina, a reciprocal agreement allows anglers properly licensed for either state to fish anywhere on the lake from a boat or from the bank.
Moving even farther north in Georgia, Lake Nottely isn't known as a crappie lake, and it doesn't support huge numbers of fish. However, the quality tends to be good and the current population contains even better than normal numbers of large fish.
Nottely, which covers a little more than 4,000 acres near Blairsville, is fairly fertile for a mountain reservoir. Because its steep side and shores are somewhat cover-barren, though, habitat limitations keep crappie numbers in check. The best habitat, and consequently the highest numbers of fish, is in the upper end of the lake.
The key to catching spring crappie on Nottely is to find and fish the best available cover, which during the spring means downed trees that span a range of depths.
"If you don't find them in the first place you look, don't hesitate to move," said Patrick O'Rouke, WRD fisheries biologist. If they're there, you should find them. Once you find fish, keep fishing, as there are likely plenty more where that one came from."
Lake Sinclair, which impounds 14,750 acres in Baldwin, Hancock and Putnam counties, has produced some of the best crappie fishing in the state for the past couple of years. This spring promises more of the same, except with even larger numbers of big fish likely in the mix.
Although the 2014 sampling has not yet been completed, the continued maturation of a large 2011 year-class should produce large numbers of 10-inch-plus crappie this spring, according to Steve Schleiger, WRD fisheries biologist over Lake Sinclair.
Schleiger points toward the backs of coves and waters adjacent to islands, which are scattered throughout Sinclair, for spring fishing and suggested trolling with minnows and/or crappie jigs. As the season progresses and fish move deeper, he suggests pitching jigs to deep treetops and to brushpiles at the ends of docks. Neither docks nor planted brush are difficult to find at Lake Sinclair, but finding brush with the fish around it sometimes requires a fair amount of searching.
Of special interest to crappie fishermen, fish attractor location data for Lake Sinclair can be downloaded from the Georgia WRD website (georgiawildlife.com) and is compatible with most major brands of fishfinder/GPS.
LAKE WALTER F. GEORGE
Pressed to pick a single place to send anglers for crappie in southwest Georgia, Kilpatrick's choice is Lake Walter F. George or Lake Eufaula as it is often known in Alabama. A 45,000-acre impoundment of the Chattahoochee River, Water F. George is divided by the Georgia/Alabama border.
Although he acknowledged that the fishing can be unpredictable, Kilpatrick described Walter F. George's crappie population as "spectacular."
"While normal year-class production can be quite varied in reservoir settings, Walter F. George offers relatively stable recruitment and excellent spring fishing," Kilpatrick said.
The entire lake is narrow and somewhat riverine in character, although the body gradually widens toward the lower end. Several large creek arms, along with parts of the main river, are bound by broad, shallow backwaters, where lily pads and other vegetation provide cover for crappie to use during the spring. After the spawn, many fish move to submerged timber along the Chattahoochee River and along several tributaries.
Early in the spring, when the crappie start moving into the creeks, trolling close to channel edges works well for finding groups of crappie and figuring out how shallow they have moved. Through the heart of spring, when a lot of fish move up into the weeds, a jig or minnow under a small float only a foot or two up and placed in gaps in the vegetation with a long crappie pole works extremely well. After the spawn, when the fish move into the deeper timber, it's tough to beat getting directly over the fish and working jigs with a vertical presentation.
Lake Walter F. George is covered by a reciprocal agreement between Georgia and Alabama, allowing any angler properly licensed by either state to fish anywhere in the lake, by boat or from the shore.
COOSA RIVER/WEISS LAKE
The Coosa River, which forms near Rome at the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula rivers and flows west toward Alabama, soon backs into Weiss Lake. Although the lion's share of Weiss Lake is in Alabama and no reciprocal licensing agreement exists, the Georgia part of the lake offers more than 2,000 acres of excellent water, and the river and lake together annually serve up some of the best crappie fishing in Georgia.
From the Mayo Lock and Dam, just west of Rome, to the border, the Coosa offers good crappie habitat along its edges and especially in backwaters, which become increasingly plentiful and broad as the river begins backing into the lake and the Brushy Branch embayment.
Unfortunately, Weiss crappie numbers actually won't be quite as high as they have been for the past few seasons because of strong year-classes that are beginning to diminish, according to Jim Hakala, WRD fisheries biologist over the Georgia portion of Weiss Lake.
"While there won't be as many, they will be of good quality," Hakala said. "Of course, Weiss anglers have a good shot at catching a trophy crappie just about any year."
The river's bordering backwaters and the Georgia's portion of the lake look like the crappie factories they are, with plentiful stumps and laydowns and cover of other kinds, and during spring the crappie tend to be exactly where it looks like they should be. Dipping jigs next to treetops and casting jigs or minnows under floats beside cover produce well most spring days. Trolling along channel edges produces well for pre- and post-spawn crappie.
Anglers working from the shore enjoy good success around the lock & dam and from the Brushy Branch access area.
Finally, don't forget about Lake Lanier. This big impoundment of the Chattahoochee River, located just outside Atlanta's northern suburbs, should serve up good opportunities for big crappie this year.
"We had a great class of crappie in 2009, and this class has been producing great numbers of big fish over the past year or so," O'Rouke said. "This spring should be the last crappie season that they're around in decent numbers."
Lanier is not expected to produce tremendous numbers of crappie this year, but the big-fish prospects make it worth highlighting. O'Rouke also noted that the 2013 year-class was very strong in Lake Lanier. Those fish will still be small this spring, but that class provides good promise for years ahead on Lake Lanier.
Sampling conducted by the WRD indicates that the best crappie populations in Lake Lanier are in the upper Chattahoochee River arm and in Thompson and Taylor creeks. During the spring, look for fish along riprap banks, beside shallow pier supports and beside downed trees. Before and after the crappie spawn, bridge crossings and brushpiles off the ends of docks tend to hold good populations of crappie at Lake Lanier.
Between parks, bridge rights-of-way and Corps of Engineer access areas, Lanier also has quite a bit of shoreline access, so spring fishing opportunities can be very good whether or not you own a boat. Just watch for the cars by the bridge crossings!