With the weather warming, Alabama crappie are getting ready to spawn, which means anglers are getting ready to catch them. Here are a few places you should consider this year.
By Greg McCain
Alabama anglers rarely lack opportunities to crappie fish. From one end of the state to the other, both large and small lakes feature good crappie fishing.
Of course, good is relative. At the least, most Alabama lakes are good in an average year and can be exceptional at their peak. The traditional favorites, such as Weiss, Martin, Eufaula and Millers Ferry, remain go-to stops, but many less-publicized fisheries offer quality slabs as well.
According to state fisheries biologists, Alabama anglers can anticipate a strong class of fish spawned in 2014, especially on the Coosa River, with those crappie mostly in the 12- to 14-inch range.
COOSA REMAINS STRONG
Weiss and Jordan, bookend crappie fisheries on the Coosa River in east-central Alabama, rank among the best spots in the state. Weiss, in fact, continues to enhance its reputation as the "Crappie Capital of the World."
A traditional favorite that draws anglers from across the country, Weiss enters the state out of Georgia near Centre. Like any fishery, the lake cycles from good years to that type of fishing that is potentially ahead.
"Right now, I would send them to the 'crappie capital,' and that would be Weiss," said Mike Holley, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division District II supervisor. "2014 was a phenomenal year, the highest year-class numbers we've seen since we started sampling the lake. We used to judge our year-class numbers by the 96 year-class, our previous best class we've sampled in that lake. In 2014, we saw about two times as many young-of-year fish as we did in 1996."
Anglers discovered those fish last year as keeper fish — 10 inches is the minimum on the lake — and those crappie should start growing to trophy proportions this year.
"It should be just a phenomenal fishery," Holley said. "By the time they get to 4 years old, you should see some really good fish coming out of Weiss on a regular basis."
BLACK CRAPPIE ON JORDAN
To the south near Wetumpka, Lake Jordan continues to yield better-than-average crappie, although the overall population is not as high as on Weiss. Jonathan Phillips of Team Phillips Guide Service (334-391-9735) puts his clients on big blacks on a regular basis.
"In peak months, you're looking at pound-and-a-half fish as the norm up there," Phillips said. "They are plentiful with some 2-pound fish as well."
Phillips spends most of his time longlining during the pre-spawn and the spawn, switching to other trolling tactics and vertical jigging later in the year. In general, Jordan is a deep-water crappie fishery.
"It's deeper than most of the lakes on the Coosa chain," Phillips said. "I'd say you normally target fish early in the year from 12 to 20 feet. Later, you will find them that deep or even deeper. I've caught them out to 35 feet on Jordan."
Damon Abernethy, assistant chief of Fisheries for WFF, lives on Jordan and has adapted to the deep-water nature of crappie on the lake.
"I tried the typical shallow approach of casting jigs at stumps and laydowns, and I finally gave up crappie fishing for a while," Abernethy said. "What I knew just didn't work. It was only when I learned to fish deep that I consistently begin to catch fish."
Abernethy now finds fish on electronics — saying 18 to 22 feet is the optimum depth year 'round — and vertical jigs over wood structure. Both Phillips and Abernethy generally target the lower half of the lake for crappie.
"They really, really wad up on Jordan," Abernethy said. "The schools can be so big they look like shad on the graph. They don't appear to ever leave the deep water."
The biggest crappie on Jordan are likely remnants from an excellent spawn in 2010, while another good spawn from 2014 has good keeper-size fish into the lake now.
TOMBIGBEE OFFERS CHOICES
In west Alabama, the Tombigbee River enters the state near Pickensville. Although typically overlooked, the Tombigbee lakes continue to yield good numbers of fish.
Alabama shares portions of Alice-ville with Mississippi. Further down the chain, Lake Demopolis gets the benefits of the fertile waters of the Tombigbee with the somewhat clearer waters of the Warrior River. Other lakes in the chain are Gainesville and Coffeeville.
"We have a couple of year-classes that are really supporting the fishery," said Jay Haffner WFF District III supervisor. "Those fish are now 2 and 3 years old. That should maintain the good fishing in 2018."
The Tombigbee generally features a shallow bite, especially late winter and in spring, with water that is often stained from agricultural run-on. The backwater areas yield good crappie around wood structure and grass.
"It can be very good at times," said Gerald Overstreet with Overstreet Guide Service (251-589-3225), who fishes mainly on the Alabama River, but makes several trips to the Tombigbee each year. "One thing that is different on the Tombigbee is there is more cork-and-minnow fishing around stumps and trees. A lot of people like that type of fishing more than trolling."
Even though the crappie fishing is strong on the Tombigbee, Haffner says to expect the fishing to get even better in the years ahead. The 2016 spawn was excellent, and those fish will be entering the fishery in the next few years.
Any discussion of Alabama crappie fishing would be incomplete without mentioning the Tennessee River. Pickwick is the traditional go-to lake in the chain, which spans the width of extreme north Alabama. However, Guntersville is an emerging giant in crappie circles.
Wheeler does not get as much attention but offers some unique opportunities, especially in the winter. The lake, which runs from near Rogersville over 60 miles upstream to Guntersville Dam, features a little bit of everything, deep water on the lower end, massive feeding flats and numerous tributaries. Most of the crappie fishing takes place from Decatur down to the dam, a stretch of about 25 miles.
Keith Dodd (256-679-1826) is a guide on Wheeler and spends a lot of time on the lake. He believes it will be good again in 2018. He really likes trolling — swapping between spider rigging and longlining — in the fall and through early winter.
The winter is a good time to fish the lake, as crappie follow schools of bait into shallow water, especially when a couple of days of sunshine have bumped water temperatures up a few degrees.
According to District I Biologist Phil Ekema, the best thing about Wheeler is it stability; anglers generally catch keeper fish and are happy. The lake is consistent. Anglers can expect to catch fish in the same places every year.
The traditional crappie favorites around the state should remain strong. Other waters, however, are simply not known as crappie producers. Smith Lake falls into that category.
Part of the Warrior system between Jasper and Cullman, Smith is an anomaly in Alabama, a gin-clear, ultra-deep highland reservoir best known for spotted bass and stripers. However, a handful of locals know the lake as a good producer of crappie.
"It's a sleeper lake, hands down," Haffner said. "I've been in this part of the world for 26 years and only in the last 10 years have I discovered just how good crappie fishing is on Smith. This system does not crank out of the numbers of the fertile water like Aliceville or Demopolis reservoirs. But for skilled crappie anglers that know how to use their electronics, Smith can be excellent, particularly in the fall, winter and early spring."
With depths of 100 feet or more being common, the lake can be intimidating for anglers. However, crappie on Smith act a lot like in other lakes; they find their comfort zones around structure in 18 to 30 feet of water.
"This is deep, clear water," Haffner said. "It just doesn't look like Millers Ferry or Demopolis. But I've seen some spectacular catches of crappie by these grizzled fishermen in the depths of winter when everyone else is deer hunting."
In east Alabama, Wedowee is somewhat similar to Smith. While Martin gets most of the attention on the Tallapoosa, Wedowee — officially R.L. Harris Reservoir — in Randolph County produces as well.
"In our most recent sampling, we saw great numbers of really big crappie, especially on the south end below Highway 48," Holley said.
In addition to the many popular big lakes in the state, there is also good crappie fishing to be found in the many smaller public lakes. In his district, Holley points to Clay and DeKalb county public lakes, especially from late winter through early summer. Most of the public lakes — find them at www.outdooralabama.com — in the state range from just a few acres up to 180 acres and are fairly shallow, meaning production wanes during the heat of the summer.
"People should take advantage of these public waters," Holley said. "The crappie fishing can be very good in most of them."
The recently renovated DeKalb County Public Lake near Sylvania in northeast Alabama is a perfect illustration. Last spring, anglers did really well on crappie. There are enough lakes that anglers could actually take a crappie pilgrimage and venture to a new location just about every day. The only difficult part is where to start. Fish a traditional hotspot or try to awaken one of the sleepers. Target an expansive impoundment or a tiny public lake. Make the decision, and a wealth of crappie fishing awaits any Alabama angler this year.