February 01, 2021
By Jeff Sargeant
The South is without a doubt the best region in the country to find and catch the biggest crappie of your life. Long growing seasons and large impoundments with deep water and plenty of structure offer the perfect environs for growing giant slabs.
To form our list of the South’s top spots for the largest crappies, we called on fisheries biologists, top guides and pro crappie anglers. We also checked in with Darrell Van Vactor, head honcho at Crappie USA, who for more than 25 years has been sorting through this puzzle in an effort to schedule tournaments on the lakes where anglers can turn in the heaviest bags. Here’s what we found.
GRENADA LAKE, MISSISSIPPI
Van Vactor says—and almost everybody else agrees—that this reservoir in north-central Mississippi is currently at the top of the chart for anglers in search of that elusive 3-pound crappie to hang on the wall. "There are a lot of lakes where somebody might catch a 3-pounder now and then," says Van Vactor, "but Grenada is the only one that offers a pretty good chance on any given trip."
Grenada, on the Yalobusha River, is nearly 36,000 acres at full pool, though in winter it’s considerably less—and that’s key, says Keith Meals, who oversees the fishery for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP).
"Grenada, along with Sardis, Enid and other flood control reservoirs (FCR) in this part of the state, drop about 70 percent each winter. That flushes a lot of young-of-the-year crappie out and prevents overpopulation, which is the primary reason crappies don’t get large in a lot of lakes," says Meals.
"Additionally, the relatively low fertility of the lake slows gizzard shad growth, so they remain edible for crappies for several years, which keeps them well-fed," he continues. "And every few years we get major flooding, which puts water way back into the brush and makes ideal conditions for crappie growth, so all this goes together—along with tight harvest management—to grow big crappies fast."
The FCR lakes in this zone all have a 12-inch-minimum size limit, one of the largest anywhere, and the bag is just 15 per angler per day, one of the lowest bag limits in the South.
Meals says white crappies, which make up the vast majority of crappies in Grenada, reach 12 inches just after their third birthday. The 3-pounders the lake is famed for are typically 5 to 7 years old, and some of the giants are 9 to 11 years old and weigh close to 4 pounds.
In winter (and summer, too) the fish move to the submerged river channel and hang close to where the bait schools are located, typically over brush or rock outcrops. They school closely in winter—drop a GPS pin where you catch one and you may catch dozens, including lots of jumbos.
Meals suggests using larger minnows than the standard fatheads to catch the largest fish, or pulling crankbaits rather than tiny jigs to locate lunkers at depths of 15 to 20 feet.
"Choctaw Landing Ramp is dredged to the channel and has big crappies all around it in late winter and early spring, says local guide John Harrison (662-983-5999).
Carver's Point is well known for the number of stump fields in the area—and also for the number of giant crappies it produces in pre-spawn. Hugh White State Park is the place to stay if you can get a reservation. Visit the Mississippi State Parks website for more information. For gear, bait and updates, check with Collins Bait Shop in the town of Grenada (662-226-3581). The Dry Dock Bar and Grill at Gore Springs (662-294-1200) has loaded pizza for $10, as well as plenty of other choices.
LAKE FORK, TEXAS
This 27,000-acre impoundment near Quitman, Texas, is famed for producing whopper largemouths, but the same fertile waters and abundant bait that grow big bass fast also produce slab crappies. In fact, for years, Van Vactor took his annual winter vacation there to fish for crappies on his time off.
Lake Fork is deep, and during the winter months most the crappies are found in the 25- to 35-foot range, relating to the channel. Rest assured, there are plenty of big ones down there.
The one Lake Fork negative is that from Dec. 1 to the end of February, Texas Parks and Wildlife requires you to keep the first 25 crappies you catch, no matter the size. There’s no culling because they feel the deep water makes successful release less likely. The rest of the year the size limit is 10 inches, so you can sort through them for that 2-pound trophy.
Because the water is so deep, much heavier jigs than what are typically used for crappies are employed—a pair of 1/4-ounce heads fished in tandem is common. Guide Seth Vanover, a crappie and catfish specialist, advises seeking out points with at least 25 to 35 feet of water. He relies on his Garmin Livescope to find timber in these areas. The fish suspend at 22 to 25 feet, he says. Drop a 1/4-ounce jig down to their level, with or without a minnow, just barely shake it, then reel up your prize.
The Mustang Resort is one of several good spots to stay here, while AJ's Fish House in Alba is a popular spot for grub.
MILLERS FERRY, ALABAMA
This 17,200-acre impoundment on the Alabama River in west-central Alabama is more river than lake—barely a quarter-mile wide for most of its length—but its fertile waters and abundant shad population grow big crappies in a hurry. It’s also a lake that can be fished when more open waters are too windy and rough.
In winter, the big fish drop into the deepest channels and holes—up to 25 feet deep—often on the outside of sharp bends where they stack up on submerged logs and debris. Vertical jigging or lowering live minnows down to them will connect. Again, you’ll need 1/4-ounce jigs to keep the bait where the fish are at this depth; there’s almost always strong current flow in winter.
The area from Millers Ferry Marina (now closed) to Mill Creek is noted for producing monsters. Many days will produce a 2-pound crappie, says Gerald Overstreet, Jr., with Overstreet’s Guide Service (251-589-3225). Millers Ferry Campground (334-682-4191) near Camden is a good spot to overnight, and has a ramp for easy launch. There are several fast-food restaurants in Camden, and Hunters Run Restaurant (334-682-5037) is a good spot for a sit-down meal.
LAKES MARION AND MOULTRIE, SOUTH CAROLINA
These massive lakes on the Santee-Cooper river system in South Carolina provide endless fishing opportunities, not only for 2-pound crappies but also for whopper stripers, catfish and largemouths. Guide Dave Hilton (843-870-4734) prefers tight-lining minnows with long poles in winter. That means enough weight (up to an ounce) to keep the baits deep and put them right where you see the fish on the sonar. He says crappies drop off into 18- to 30-foot depths in a cold winter, seeking out any cover they can find or hovering under bait schools.
Hilton likes a jig that’s heavy enough to get deep, depending on the prevailing drift, and often tips it with a live minnow. There’s also a strong movement into the stump fields in the north end of Marion as mid-February arrives and the fish go into pre-spawn mode.
Blacks Camp between Marion and Moultrie offers a variety of affordable accommodations and has a restaurant with all the usual southern staples. Bells Marina near Eutawville has it all: motel, campground, marina and restaurant, as well as great crappie guides.
KENTUCKY LAKE, TENNESSEE
Patrick Black, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Reservoir Program Coordinator, notes that strong year classes in 2018 and 2019 on Kentucky Lake mean that crappie populations will be on the upswing for the next several years. He says the invasion of silver carp has not hurt crappie numbers, though there were two poor spawns in 2016 and 2017.
Guide Steve McCadams likes to target the deep sides of main-lake ledges or drop-offs at depths of 15 to 25 feet in winter.
"There are some stumps there, but the best fishing is on brushpiles in main-lake areas," he says. "Deep sides of ledges, humps and creek channels can all hold fish in winter. I sometimes use a bottom-bumping rig with two hooks spread 18 inches apart and about 18 inches above a 1-ounce sinker fished straight down. The sinker helps me feel the structure."
Buchanan Resort in Springville is located at the confluence of the Big Sandy and Tennessee rivers near Paris Landing State Park on Kentucky Lake. The restaurant there will happily prepare your crappie for dinner.