Whether young or old, Volunteer State anglers have a special place in their hearts for Tennessee crappie fishing. The sight of a cork slipping below the surface stirs the heart of even the most seasoned angler, particularly during the spring spawn.
With so many reservoirs and rivers to choose from, the decision of where to fish can be a bit overwhelming. However, TWRA biologists and managers can help narrow the choices, as well as pinpoint tactics that may put more slabs in the livewell.
Generally speaking, spring of 2016 was drier than normal across the state, resulting in substandard spawning conditions for Tennessee crappie fishing. According to TWRA Region 4 Fisheries Coordinator Bart Carter, above average rainfall usually results in an above average year-classes for crappie, with dry conditions producing a below average "crop" of crappie.
"I would suspect with the low reservoir elevations this past spring, crappie reproduction was low," said Carter. "They typically do well when the reservoir reaches full pool early, flooding good crappie nursery habitat. However, with crappie, their reproductive success is hard to predict and measure without doing extensive larval trawl surveys. And if there's not good reproduction, there's really not much we can do in large reservoirs with supplemental stocking. It doesn't seem to boost the population, except in small bodies of water."
With a dry spring, crappie may have struggled to find enough suitable habitat to spawn, perhaps resulting in a below average year-class. Only sampling and time will tell. Nevertheless, crappie anglers still have reason to be confident, as each region of the state has its own lakes to brag about when it comes to filling a cooler with slabs.
Tim Broadbent, Region 1 fisheries biologist, outlines a "good news, bad news" scenario for crappie anglers for this year.
"There have been two consecutive good year-classes produced on Kentucky and Barkley Reservoirs (2014 and 2015) and crappie fishing should improve this spring," said Broadbent. "This follows three consecutive years of poor recruitment from 2011-2013. There were poor weather conditions in Spring 2016 that affected angler success. On Reelfoot Lake, crappie fishing should be good with numerous good year-classes produced in consecutive years."
Broadbent considers a year-class successful if it survives from spring to fall. The potential bad news for anglers was that the 2016 conditions in west Tennessee were not conducive to good crappie recruitment.
According to Broadbent, crappie anglers should target Kentucky, Barkley, and Reelfoot Lakes, but shouldn't overlook smaller lakes, such as Graham and Herb Parsons.
Kentucky and Barkley Lakes are very big reservoirs, so first-time visitors shouldn't try to fish the entire body of water. Instead, do some homework by checking out discussion boards, talking to other anglers or stopping by bait shops. Then, pick an area and learn it inside and out. This will increase success, and reduce frustration.
Moving east toward Nashville, Todd St. John, Region 2 fisheries manager, echoes the sentiment of others across the state in regards to the arid spring.
"This spring was drier in middle Tennessee, and therefore, I would predict the 2016 year-classes to be moderate at best," said St. John.
The good news is that the TWRA is ready to step in where Mother Nature may have left a gap. Each year, the TWRA allocates 98,000 blacknose crappie for Normandy Reservoir and an additional 138,000 for Tims Ford, providing consistency to the fisheries. They are stocked annually because the stockings are proven successful and because natural recruitment of crappies is always low in both of these reservoirs.
"In middle Tennessee, Cheatham Reservoir near Nashville and Woods Reservoir near Tullahoma both had strong 2014 year-classes, which should provide very good crappie fisheries in 2017," said St. John. "Normandy Reservoir should also be good as hatchery allocation was met providing crappie abundance required to produce a good fishery."
For anglers that are used to fishing Percy Priest and Old Hickory, St. John notes that these two lakes many not live up to their usual expectations, as drier springs impacted both the 2013 and 2014 year-classes.
Local knowledge of these lakes may play a huge role in angler success, considering the tough spawning conditions of the past few springs, so angers might want to pay a visit to the local bait shop to ask how the fish are being caught before launching. While most anglers won't give up secret honeyholes, many will get others pointed in the right direction.
Anglers should consider spider rigging around stump beds and adjacent to spawning coves, as this is a good way to cover a lot of water until fish are located. At that point, small tube jigs in red/chartreuse or blue/white can be cast to productive areas.
Going down I-40 to Region 3, Fisheries Biologist Mike Jolley was more optimistic about the crappie outlook for one primary reason — blacknose crappie.
"Several reservoirs in Region 3 are consistently stocked with blacknose crappie, as well as some black crappie," Jolley explained. "Blacknose crappie are simply a black crappie with a genetic black stripe that runs from the dorsal fin forwards to the tip of the mouth. Blacknose crappie make it easy to identify stocked crappie when they are observed in the TWRA creel surveys."
Individual lakes in the region have been affected in different ways in recent years. Chickamauga, for example, has had mixed results in recent years, such as in 2014, when black crappie showed its second best spawn in the past 10 years, but white crappie had one of its worst.
"The good news is that black crappie represent most of the harvest of crappie in Chickamauga, and it has been very consistent with great crappie fishing opportunities over the past several years, and even nationally ranked as a crappie destination," said Jolley.
Watts Bar had a similar but different outlook in 2014, with white crappie having great success in the spawn and black crappie having a poor spawn. Of course, the TWRA supplements with black and blacknose crappie to make up for poor spawning years.
"There are some great crappie fishing opportunities in Region 3," Jolley said. "Along the Tennessee River, Chickamauga and Watts Bar reservoirs provide consistent opportunities for both black and white crappie species. Most success is realized in the months of March and April as pre-spawn and spawning conditions are realized."
Anglers near the Highland Rim, shouldn't forget the clear waters of Dale Hollow, but anglers should fish this lake a little deeper than normal, and use light line. Another potential destination, according to Jolley, is Center Hill.
Region 4 consists of the beautiful Smoky Mountains, where crappie anglers typically think of Douglas Lake in the spring. According to Reservoir Fisheries Coordinator John Hammonds, 2017 will be no different, but another lake could be considered a dark horse.
"The best crappie reservoir in Region 4 is, by far, Douglas Reservoir," Hammonds said. "It has fished really good the last few years, but slowed down this past spring (2016). However, I would predict that it will still be decent this spring, but not as good as it was in 2015."
Those familiar with Douglas Lake are well aware of how fluctuating water levels can affect this body of water, and the cyclic characteristic of crappie can be particularly vulnerable in these types of conditions. As such, anglers need to be prepared for the conditions.
"Tactics for that reservoir would be to use small flies tipped with minnows or grubs under a bobber," said Hammonds. "Fish shallow (2 to 3 feet) in early spring in creeks and large coves as well as flats and points. Also try fishing the upper end of the reservoir as the elevation rises in the spring. Tightlining and trolling seem to be successful in this reservoir as well.
Additionally, though anglers don't often mention it in the same breath as other well-known crappie lakes, Hammonds indicates South Holston may be a great choice this spring, as the reservoir has seen an increase in its crappie populations, as well as in size. Anglers can find fish schooled in treetops and other brush, and any cove or creek about the 421 bridge seems to hold crappie.
Unfortunately, news on Melton Hill and Cherokee isn't as good. Anglers can find success on both lakes, but neither is consistent.
"Cherokee used to be good several years ago, but it has struggled to produce good crappie fishing the last 10 years," said Hammonds. "Although certain times of the year, anglers will have success in the Poor Valley area."
Now regardless of where an angler lives in Tennessee, good crappie fishing is close. Additionally, spring is a great time to introduce children to fishing, whether a son, daughter or just a kid in the neighborhood, especially since crappie may hold attention once fish are found.
Just make sure reels are spooled with line, check the supply of jigs and floats, or get a bucket of minnows, and shake off winter's rust by enjoying one of Tennessee's favorite fish.
Adding In Bass
For Tennessee anglers looking for bass, Fisheries Biologist Tim Broadbent says you can't go wrong with Barkley, Kentucky and Pickwick lakes.
"Kentucky Lake gets the most attention, but I would not hesitate to bypass Kentucky and fish Barkley," Broadbent said.
Anglers fishing these lakes should use the presentations they would use on virtually any lake in Tennessee, as presentations are no different except on Kentucky Reservoir, where a lot of ledge and overbank fishing occurs.
Of course, anglers also need to be aware of the regulations on these lakes. There are only seven miles of Pickwick in Tennessee but there is a reciprocal agreement with Mississippi and Alabama up to but not including Bear Creek. There is also a reciprocal zone on Kentucky Reservoir with the state of Kentucky between the Highway 79 bridge and Edgar Evans Bridge.
Anglers fishing in Region 1 can have some great bonus fishing if they carry along a couple of bass rods as they crappie fish. Besides, you will need something to do after you reach your crappie limit. — Scott Carver