February 02, 2018
Triangle lakes are tops for numbers and sizes, but anglers can find decent North Carolina crappie fishing from the Appalachian foothills to the coast.
Fortunately for anglers, the Tar Heel State offers a cornucopia of gamefish species.
Without taking sides about which is most popular, it's clear one combines availability, decent sizes, skill to find, a delicate touch to land, doesn't require expensive tackle, and anglers of all ages love to chase them. Not only that, they provide great table fare.
Largemouth bass and giant catfish probably grab more headlines and mountain trout are more glamorous, but it's difficult to beat crappies. They are everyone's fish and found in 90 percent of North Carolina's waters.
Here's a look at the state's top 2018 crappie fishing venues with observations by N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission regional fisheries biologists.
PIEDMONT SLAB ZONE
The best crappie lake in North Carolina in the state's top crappie region has changed in 2018.
Last year Jordan Lake's 14,000 acres in District 5 (Chatham County) were rated at the apex because of a huge shad forage base, plus a 10-inch minimum-size limit and 20-fish-per-angler creel. Those factors combined to let anglers take home fish and also relieved pressure at the popular reservoir, giving its black crappies the chance to reach slab sizes.
"But (District 5) Harris Lake's catch rates (during the last WRC sampling) were a little better than Falls (of the Neuse) and Jordan and its fish sizes were bigger and more consistent," said District 3 supervising fisheries biologist Kirk Rundle.
Harris covers approximately 4,000 acres in Chatham and Wake counties.
However, Rundle noted a lake may not hold the crappie crown for long.
Falls Lake's 12,410 acres rate second in Rundle's book, with Jordan a tick behind. A long (26 miles) lake and part of the Cape Fear Basin flowing southeast almost from Butner's town limits in Granville County to the outskirts of Raleigh, Falls hasn't received as much fishing pressure as Harris because it's three times larger.
"Falls seems to be pretty consistent," Rundle said. "It has good numbers and decent-size fish. The catch rates are above average for the piedmont."
To rate lakes, WRC biologists set trap nets for one week and then calculate a daily catch average for crappie.
"The average (catch) fluctuates at Falls, but it's been five to 17 per night," he said. "The last (sample) was 15 to 16 per night."
Sampling at most North Carolina lakes is five to seven crappies per night.
Jordan rotated from first to third in 2018. It's in District 5 although just a few miles northwest of Harris Lake. The nutrient-rich Haw River and New Hope Creek flow into Jordan, providing a zooplankton food source for crappie fry.
"The best (lake for crappie fishing) in District 5 is Jordan," said D5 assistant fisheries biologist Kelsey Lincoln.
After setting nets in several locations, biologists often count 900 crappies per night at the 13,500-acres lake.
"Typically Jordan has a lot of medium-size fish, but we get a decent number of larger crappies," Lincoln said. "Forty percent (of snared crappies) are near harvestable (10-inch) size. I think the (size) limit and 20-fish per day creel have helped Jordan's crappie grow larger than most lakes."
The Tar River Reservoir, 1,860 acres and 3 miles south of Rocky Mount, ranks fourth. Untypically, it has a 50-50 mixture of white and black crappies. White crappies prefer dingier water than black crappies, so it's rare to see the two types doing well in the same lake. The Tar Reservoir held the North Carolina state record white crappie for years with a 3-pound, 12-ounce fish.
BEST OF THE REST
Two lakes partially inside North Carolina's border rate fifth and sixth.
John H. Kerr Reservoir (aka Buggs Island) is a 50,000-acre impoundment shared by Virginia and North Carolina and is No. 5 on the list for 2018. The North Carolina-Virginia border splits the lake on an east-west axis.
Although best known for largemouth bass and striped bass, Kerr has eye-popping slabs. Each year anglers land a few 4-pound fish and thousands weighing 2 pounds or more. Most come from submerged trees, mainly sunk in feeder creeks and coves. The trees hold prespawn crappies during February and March.
Big females stage at trees in 10 to 25 feet deep water during February. Small jigs (1/16- to 1/32-ounce) allowed to free fall to trees, then steadily retrieved, generate strikes.
During March Buggs crappies favor docks with ends over deep water, such as those Bluestone, Buffalo, Butchers, and Eastland creeks on the Virginia side. Fortunately the two states honor each other's fishing licenses.
The other top dual-state crappie fishery is sixth-rated Lake Wylie, south of Charlotte. February and March prespawn crappies here favor deep brush piles and docks in Crowder and Mills creeks. Guide Jerry Neeley of Bessemer City (704-678-1043) likes to use crappie minnows or "shoot" small jigs underneath docks.
Wylie is in North and South Carolina, but the two states don't share reciprocal fishing licenses.
Randleman Reservoir, a fairly new impoundment of the Deep River in Randolph County, ranks seventh.
"It has a good crappie population," D5 biologist Lincoln said. "The fish aren't extra-large sizes, but it has 10- to 12-inch crappies."
If an angler wants to catch crappies without worrying about sizes, High Rock (8th) and Tuckertown (9th) fit that bill.
"We dropped the (creel) and size regulations at both lakes," said D6 biologist Troy Thompson. "These lakes have a lot of 7- and 8-inch crappies, although some angler reports indicate they're getting bigger."
The theory behind taking more crappies out of the lakes is to create less competition for food, thus increasing the sizes of individual fish.
Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina's largest "bay" lake, is an unusual body of water in Columbus County and rates 10th.
"It's a good spot for crappies," said D4 fisheries biologist Michael Fisk. "We surveyed crappies in 2015 and 2016 and got 10 fish per hour."
January, February and March are the best months to fish the southeastern North Carolina lake for crappies because summers are brutally hot. Local anglers say white perch have exploded in the lake and often intercept lures and minnows before they can reach crappies.
Lake Mattamuskeet at No. 11 is another large bay lake (in Hyde County). It also has a short window of opportunity for catching crappies.
Although averaging just 2 to 3 feet deep across its 50,000 acres, anglers find crappies during March and April in a pair of 10- to 12-foot-deep canals — the Main Canal near the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office and Rose Bay Canal at the lake's western side. Crappies reach 10 to 12 inches, which is large for the eastern part of the state. The season, set by the Fish & Wildlife Service, runs March 1 to Oct. 1.
Massive Lake Norman (50 square miles north of Charlotte) ranks 12th.
"Norman has a good number of crappies with the majority longer than 8 inches (minimum-keeper size)," said D7 assistant fisheries biologist Thomas Johnson. "Most live at the upper end of the lake."
Many eastern Tar Heel slab chasers fish local rivers. The Waccamaw River, flowing out of the lake to the South Carolina line, joins the list at No. 13.
"The (14th-rated) Northeast Cape Fear River between Burgaw and Wilmington has some nice crappie," Fisk said. "It has a couple of deep-water creeks that are good spots."
Two piedmont lakes — Hyco and Mayo — rank 15th and 16th, respectively, and from a crappie-fishing perspective, are interchangeable.
"There are a lot (of crappies) in Hyco and Mayo lakes (Person County)," Lincoln said. "Bigger fish are spread around the lakes."
Oak Hollow Lake (High Point's 800-acres water reservoir) surprised with its good crappie numbers and sizes and rates 17th statewide.
"(WRC sampling technicians) always have had good luck at Oak Hollow," Lincoln said. "The fish that were trapped all had decent sizes and were in good shape."
Another smaller lake (540 acres) that's seen a crappie resurgence is No. 18 Cane Creek Reservoir in Orange County, an Orange Water and Sewer Authority lake.
"Although it's probably been since before 2010 we did our last survey (of Cane Creek's fishery), it's like a trophy fishery," Lincoln said.
The lower Roanoke River area (ranked 19th) — including the Cashie River and Chowan River feeder streams such as Bennett's Creek, the Wiccacon and Meherrin rivers — has 10- to 11-inch crappies. These streams have a 10-inch size limit and 20-fish creel.
The Neuse River upstream from New Bern rates 20th.
"Crappie numbers have gotten a little better at the lower Neuse," said D2 fisheries biologist Ben Ricks. "But the whole river has 10- and 11-inch fish."
The upper Tar River (rated 21st) northwest of Washington and flowing through Tarboro and Greenville "is about the same as the upper Neuse," he said, "lots of 10- and 11-inch fish."
Lake Hickory (22nd) once was the shining light for crappies, but unexpected and unexplained population crashes have occurred. WRC stockings of threadfin shad and crappies have done little to alleviate the problem.
"Last fall (2016) Hickory had low numbers (of crappies) but good sizes," said D7 assistant fisheries biologist Thomas Johnson. "The lake has had two population declines and not yet rebounded to historic levels."
A small new Yadkin impoundment, 150-acre Lake Hampton (23rd) holds hope for the future.
"It probably has the highest density of any district crappie lake," he said. "But now 90 percent of the crappies are 8.7 inches in average size."
Yadkin County has built a new reservoir not yet open to fishing that will supply water to Hamptonville and Yadkinville, Johnson said.
"But we saw tons of threadfin shad there in the spring," he said.
Lake James (24th) in District 8 has some older, large fish, but not a lot of crappies, said D8 biologist Chris Wood.
"Average sizes are 9 1/2 to 10 inches," he said. "We're also getting fish up to age 9, but the bulk is age 2, which is good. Many of last year's younger fish already have hit the minimum (keeper) limit (8 inches)."
Lake Rhodhiss (25th) crappies follow the same pattern, Wood said, and he expects more catchable fish in the future. However, alewives and walleye limit crappies' expansion.