February 04, 2015
Tar Heel state anglers itching to have something to do during late winter/early spring know they can find action by soaking crappie minnows or slow-trolling tiny jigs.
That's because the dinner bell is always ringing for black and white crappie, which are storing energy for the April/May spawn.
North Carolina has many bodies of water that hold crappie. The species' presence almost always is determined by water clarity (white crappie) or dingy water (black crappie). Although black crappie do not reach the lengths of white crappie, they're usually heftier (the state-record white weighed 3 pounds, 15 ounces while the record black weighed 4 pounds, 15 ounces).
For the 2015 season, North Carolina Game & Fish Magazine explores the state's crappie waters with key information provided by top guides and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission fisheries biologists.
DISTRICT 1: RECOVERING
The best early-spring crappie fishing in northeastern counties is in the Northwest and North rivers along with Indiantown Creek, said Jeremy McCargo, the WRC's district fisheries biologist. "Indiantown Creek also has yellow perch along with crappie," he said.
"The Northwest River crappie have good sizes (average 10 to 11 inches in length) and that's probably true for all District 1 waters, with the exception of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers."
The Chowan and lower Roanoke continue to rebound from the effects of a large fish kill caused by 2011's Hurricane Irene. But McCargo said those rivers are rebounding.
"In the Chowan around Holiday Island area, crappie fishing has picked up well, and the Cashie River (Roanoke tributary) typically has good crappie fishing," he said.
The Cashie has a 10-inch minimum-size limit, which creates less pressure on black crappie.
"The Lake Mattamuskeet canals also had good-size fish and numbers last spring," McCargo said.
Almost all Albemarle Sound feeder streams now have decent crappie numbers, including the Pasquotank, Perquimans, Little and Yeopim rivers.
DISTRICT 2: TRY NEUSE OXBOWS
Biologist Ben Ricks said Irene's bad effects on crappie still exist.
"Since the hurricane, things have been kind of slow, although they're turning around at the lower Neuse," he said. "The same can be said for the Tar River."
Some of the mill ponds have robust numbers of crappie as well. Riverpark North in Greenville, a 48-acre oxbow off the Neuse, may be the best. "We just sank some fish habitat structures out there, which ought to help crappie fishing," Ricks said.
Better crappie numbers in the Neuse's lower tributaries is the best news for anglers.
"Even with bad water (caused by Irene), crappie always seem to find a refuge and rebound," he said. "It was a surprise to collect (trap nets, electro-shocking) some decent-sized crappie after the (hurricane's) fish kill."
DISTRICT 3: FALLS JUMPS TO NO. 1
After Jordan Lake and Shearon Harris Lake swapped the title of "North Carolina's top crappie lake" the last few years, the third Triangle-area lake jumped to the forefront in 2014.
"Our last sampling (October 2013) was phenomenal," WRC biologist Kirk Rundle said.
Biologists' crappie trap numbers usually vary from 1 fish per trap per night to 17 per night. But at Falls of the Neuse lake, Rundle said the average was 28 crappie per night.
"We got 612 crappies total," he said. "The sizes weren't as good as Shearon Harris, but they still were good — 95 percent were greater than 8 inches and 42 percent were greater than 10 inches. And we caught several longer than 12 inches (1 1/2- to 1 3/4-pound fish). Most were 8 to 11 inches."
Harris Lake continued to have more hefty crappie when Rundle's crews did surveys, with several "right at 14 inches." "Overall, Harris crappie had good relative weights," he said.
With a score of 100 considered perfect, Harris' fish averaged 91. "[The "score"] covers crappie lengths, and [whether] they're plump and healthy," Rundle said.
A poor score (75) would indicate "skinny" fish, he said. "If a score were 110, though, that would indicate a reservoir could support more fish," he said.
The Tar River Reservoir (1,859 acres inside Rocky Mount's city limits) is a real trophy lake and 25 percent of its slabs are white crappie. The last sample study showed a catch rate of seven fish per night, "but they get a little bigger in this lake," Rundle said.
The state's No. 2 white crappie (3 pounds, 12 ounces) came from the lake in 2010.
"Forty percent of the fish there are longer than 8 inches, but only 8 percent were greater than 10 inches," Rundle said. "But if I wanted to break a state record, I'd fish Tar River Reservoir and hope to land a big white crappie."
Lake Gaston at the North Carolina-Virginia border has fewer crappies but bigger fish. "We catch more fish that are 10 inches or longer, but catch rates are low," he said.
Because 8-inch-or-longer crappie tend to be at least 2 years old, a low catch rate of typically large fish indicates slow growth rates.
EXPERT TIP: TIGHT-LINING, 50-50 RULE FOR SLABS
Freddie Sinclair, a Triangle-area crappie fishing guide, likes to "tight line" small baitfish on naked hooks or tip 1/48- and 1/32-ounce jigs with minnows using the 50-50 rule."How deep I run my baits depends on the time of year and where crappie are staging," he said. "For example, if they're 20 feet down, I run my baits 10 feet deep. That's the 50-50 rule." His favorite crappie spot in 2014 was Jordan Lake after he plied Shearon Harris' waters the previous two years. "We had the (2012) fish kill at Jordan that got a lot of crappie, so I went to Harris a lot," he said. "Then things got better at Jordan." Tight-lining involves a weighted jig (or sometimes a split shot above a hook), a minnow and paying out 10 to 15 feet of 6-pound-test line from six to eight 12- to 16-foot-long crappie poles, then engaging a trolling motor to move at .5 to .8 mph."You want your line almost straight down, so you troll slow," Sinclair said. If fish are shallow, he reels in line or trolls a little faster. — Craig Holt
DISTRICT 4: River City
The lower southeastern corner of the state has only two decent-sized lakes for crappie anglers: Waccamaw and Sutton.
Most slab hunters go to the Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear, Black and Lumber rivers to find crappie.
Sutton Lake (1,100 acres, New Hanover County) has a decent crappie fishery that's best during winter and early spring. The Cape Fear River often floods Sutton through Catfish Creek. Anglers have caught flathead catfish and flounder at Sutton Lake.
Lake Waccamaw (8,938 acres, Columbus County) is a Carolina bay lake. Spring is the best time to fish here. It's full of crappie.
The Northeast Cape Fear River (also New Hanover County) is a strong crappie stream.
DISTRICT 5: A VOTE FOR JORDAN
Jessica Baumann, the District 5 biologist, is willing to put Jordan Lake against Falls Lake as a top crappie venue.
She may be correct, but many anglers will wait until spring to make that call. Jordan still appears to be recovering from a 2012 fish kill.
"It's been nice (in 2014) to have fishermen calling and telling me Jordan Lake crappie have come back," she said. "I still think it's the No. 1 crappie lake (in the region and state)."
Crappie guide Freddie Sinclair of Clayton agreed. "Last (2013) fall people were catching good-size crappie, the kind of crappie Jordan was famous for," he said. "That continued into the spring (2014). So I think the lake's crappie have just about recovered from the (2012) kill."
Baumann said Mayo Lake (Person County) has "really nice crappie." Once the WRC switched to gill nets (instead of trap nets) because of excess hydrilla, the catch rates and sizes of crappie proved outstanding.
Randleman Reservoir (Randolph/Guilford counties) also has lots of crappie, although fewer trophy fish (12 inches and longer) are in the lake.
Asheboro's Lake Lucas (300 acres) has an abundance of crappie and some studs, Baumann said.
DISTRICT 6: YES TO THE YADKIN
The Yadkin River's High Rock, Tuckertown, Badin and Tillery lakes are each good crappie venues.
But High Rock's Flat Swamp Creek is the place to be during spring for slab hunters as they should benefit from the big year class of 2010.
Anglers such as Lexington guide Maynard Edwards use the tight-lining technique, which he calls "strollin" (slowly trolling) to find and land large crappie at "The Rock."
He also fishes Tuckertown, Badin and Tillery using the same techniques with the same success.
Many fish should be in the 10- to 14-inch range in 2015.
Lake Thom-A-Lex (650 acres, Davidson County) is filled with lots of crappie, but not many large fish.
DISTRICT 7: NORMAN HAS HAWGS
Lake Norman, surprisingly, is the top-rated crappie lake in District 7, said WRC biologist Kin Hodges.
"The upper end of the lake, upper Iredell County above the N.C. 150 Bridge, is in District 7 but that's where most of the crappie are," he said. "Down near the dam productivity drops off."
For years, the huge impoundment north of Charlotte (32,510 acres, the largest lake inside the state's borders) has had the best catch rates and more 10-inch-and-longer crappie than any district water body. "We've heard of a lot of 14- and 16-inch fish," he said.
Hodges rated Lake Hickory (4223 acres, Alexander and Catawba counties) as the region's No. 2 crappie lake. "It's been rebounding after a population crash that started in 2000," he said. "We dropped to 0.5 crappie per night in trap nets by 2006."
Since 2007 restocking efforts, 20,000 to 100,000 crappie fingerlings annually from the WRC's Watha and Table Rock hatcheries have boosted the lake's catchable crappie.
Lookout Shoals, another Catawba River impoundment (1,305 acres, Alexander/Catawba/Iredell counties), is not a good crappie lake, although striped bass fishing is excellent. It's scheduled to be stocked with crappie fingerlings after renovation of Amstrong hatchery and expansion at Table Rock.
Belews Lake (3,863 acres, in Forsyth, Rockingham, and Stokes counties) has a low density of crappies although some locals know where to find them.
W. Kerr Scott Lake (1475 acres, Wilkes County) has large numbers of crappie, but every two or three years anglers will land 2- and 3-pounders.
"To (the WRC), W. Kerr Scott has got a schizophrenic population of crappie," Hodges said.
DISTRICT 8: JAMES IS TOPS
The best large impoundment for crappies in District 8 is Lake James. At 6,812 acres, it's the second largest mountain reservoir, trailing only Fontana Lake.
South of Asheville in Burke and McDowell counties, it's yielded catch rates of 3.6 to 7.45 fish per night and sizes from 3.3 inches to 14 inches.
"Historical surveys show an 82-89 (health) score," said WRC district biologist Chris Wood. "Ninety is a good score so James' crappie rate moderate."
A large growing population of white perch (competition for food), plus the presence of alewives and blueback herring (that eat crappie and other species' eggs) may have hurt James' crappie and have "hammered" the lake's walleye, Wood said.
Lake Rhodhiss (3,060 acres, Burke/Caldwell counties) is another Catawba River lake, a riverine body, known more for big striped bass than crappies.
"Trap nets show an average 10 crappie caught per net night," Wood said. "The mean (average) length of Rhodhiss crappie is 8 1/2 inches, but the sizes and rates vary, probably because of (varying) year classes.
"The lake is dominated by a lot of small crappie, less than 250 millimeters (9.8 inches), even though it's got a great forage base of threadfin shad. For some reason, it seems like we get a strong year-two class, then fishing drops off and rebounds the next year. Seventy-four percent (in the last survey) were less than 3 years old."
Rhodhiss has white perch that compete for food with crappie.
DISTRICT 9: SLIM PICKIN'S
The same reason far-western corner mountain counties grow few white-tail deer applies to crappie — poor habitat.
Most mountain impoundments are clear, scenic and nice water sports venues, but they're extremely poor in nutrients because the water that fills them comes from feeder streams that flow over rocks.
Try to grow organics on a rock. Nutrients sustain small plants that grow in upper water columns, which small baitfish feed upon and gamefish eat the baitfish. Few nutrients means little forage and slow-growing gamefish, especially crappie.
A handful of high-country lakes have white crappie mixed with the black.
Waynesville's Lake Junaluska (200 acres, Haywood County) has thousands of 8-inch average-size crappie, but it's tough to get protein from an 8-inch fish.
Lake Lure (700 acres, Rutherford County) is private-access and has some crappie but its better known for smallmouth bass and rainbow trout.
Fontana Lake (11,000 acres, Graham/Swain counties) is dominated by smallmouth, walleye and trout with a few crappies caught along the shoreline each spring.