February 04, 2015
The poets claim that in the spring, a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love. Yeah, right, a love of crappie.
"Springtime is crappie time," said Steve McCadams, Kentucky Lake guide (stevemccadams.com) whose clients come from as far away as Texas and California to get a piece of the action. "We catch crappie year 'round, but springtime is special. If someone could take one, and only one, trip a year, I'd tell them to circle late March or early April on their calendar."
Tennessee is divided into three regions — East, Middle and West — with distinct geological features and equally varied fisheries. However a common denominator, crappie-wise, is that springtime is the hot time in each region.
"I'm biased toward Kentucky Lake," admitted McCadams, who has guided on the sprawling reservoir for over four decades. "I don't know of another fishery that produces as consistently as this one, in terms of both quantity and quality of crappie."
McCadams says there are several reasons why Kentucky Lake is so productive, and why he's confident about the prospects of another good spring in 2015.
"We have a good forage base, namely threadfin shad, that keeps the buffet open year 'round for several different age classes," he said. "So we have pretty good growth rates — it takes about three years for a crappie to reach 10 inches here, which is better than most lakes. That rapid growth rate continues through the crappie's life cycle."
Also, the lake is blessed with a moderate climate, good water quality and adequate habitat.
"Habitat is crucial to sustain spawning and provide refuge for young fish from predators," McCadams said. "Kentucky Lake has suitable shoreline cover consisting of buck bushes, willows and downed trees. Over the years, man-made fish attractors, such as brush piles and stake beds, have helped fill a void as the aging reservoir began losing natural cover like stumps and brush. The man-made stuff counters the natural aging process of the lake."
Kentucky Lake also has a good blend of aquatic vegetation, and there is not a great deal of fluctuation in water levels — all of which are beneficial to crappie. Despite the lake's widespread fame as a crappie paradise, drawing fishermen from across the country, it has been able to absorb the angling pressure.
"It's a good-sized lake," McCadams said. "And we don't have a major metropolitan city too close to us. It's hard-fished but not over-fished. If anything, in recent years the crappie fishing has got better."
McCadams' springtime tactics can be applied to most any crappie water. He uses both minnows and artificial lures — his favorite of the latter being a tiny feather jig — worked over and around stake beds and other submerged cover.
"With jigs you don't have to bother with live bait, but there are times when crappie will snub a jig and hold out for a minnow," said McCadams.
The key — what separates the pros from the amateurs — it being able to locate the cover.
How does McCadams do it? Simple: he puts out his own cover, primarily wooden stake beds, and records each spot on a hand-held GPS system. Using the coordinates, he can putter out to a stake bed and position his boat directly over it. He fishes it for a while, and then moves on to another spot.
He has dozens of such homemade honey holes marked around the Paris Landing area. Without the GPS info, it's impossible to find one of McCadams' stake beds in the vast expanse of open water.
McCadams is not being selfish by secreting his hot spots — he freely shares tips and information with the public through his Internet fishing reports and a weekly outdoors column he writes for his hometown newspaper.
"But, my first obligation is to my paying customers," he explained. "I want to make sure they catch fish, so I keep several spots reserved for them."
Another notable West Tennessee crappie haven is Reelfoot Lake. Nestled in the northwest corner, It is shallow and choked with cypress groves and lily pads, festooned with submerged logs, brush, old duck blinds and-man made fish attractors.
"It's a crappie haven," said Bob Sherborne (Hookemnow.com), who has fished Reelfoot every spring for 35 years.
"What I like about Reelfoot is that it's not just the state's greatest natural fishery (the lake was formed by an earthquake 200 years ago), it's also the most scenic and tranquil."
Because the lake is mined with underwater stumps and logs, it has few water skiers and personal-watercraft users churning the surface to a froth.
Of course, for a Reelfoot first-timer, hiring a guide could be worth the cost. A guide helps anglers navigate the shallows and canals, and also shares techniques. Numerous resorts around the lake offer spring fishing packages with optional guide services.
Then, there is the crappie Mecca of Middle Tennessee. Where's the hottest spot? Throw a dart at a map.
Percy Priest Lake and Old Hickory Lake
Two perennial producers are Percy Priest Lake and Old Hickory Lake, both located on the outskirts of Nashville. For the past 15 years guide Brian Carper (briancarper.com) has divided his time between the two.
"Conditions differ somewhat every year, depending on the weather, but typically by the end of March the water temperature is in the 58-68 range," Carper said. "That's when the crappie really get going."
Carper has a variety of tried and tested techniques, from trolling Crappie Magnets to casting jigs and dunking minnows under a float. It depends on the client's preference.
"To be honest, I enjoy watching a bobber," he said. "It's hard to beat a live minnow, and I prefer medium-sized ones over small or big ones. Drop them around cover and you'll catch crappie."
Whether dunking minnows or casting jigs, the key is locating cover, which takes experience.
"The only way to learn a lake is to fish it," Carper said. "Over the years I've located lots of brush piles and other natural cover, along with man-made fish-attractors. I know where the stuff is, and I can hone in on it with my electronics. I couldn't do without the electronics. It lets you zero right in, and saves a lot time. Instead of searching, you can start putting fish in the boat."
For those without the benefit of depth finders, fish finders and other modern gizmos, visible structure, such as protruding stumps and shoreline treetops, are crappie beacons.
"Once you find fish in a certain area, chances are they'll be back there about the same time next year," Carper said. "The more you go, the more you learn."
Percy Priest and Old Hickory, being urban-area lakes, are subjected to intense fishing pressure. Yet both continue to produce crappie year after year.
"I have to compliment the TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency), because they've done a great job managing the resource," Carper said. "They conduct surveys to monitor fish growth and populations, and do some stocking when necessary to supplement natural reproduction. Also, the 10-inch minimum limit that was put into effect several years ago has resulted in more fish and bigger fish."
Bobby Wilson, head of TWRA's Fisheries Division, says the agency stocks approximately 1.1 million crappie every year to supplement natural reproduction.
Additional Tennessee Hotspots
"Crappie populations tend to be cyclical, and can vary lake by lake, so that's our management approach," he said. "Every fall our biologists conduct trap/net surveys on various waters to monitor their crappie population, and we base our stockings on that information. Some lakes, like Kentucky Lake and Reelfoot, never need any help, while others like Percy Priest and Old Hickory usually can use some stocked fish."
In addition to Priest and Old Hickory, several other Middle Tennessee lakes are excellent crappie fisheries. Doug Markham, a TWRA spokesman, points to Normandy Lake and Woods Lake as a couple of prime examples. Center Hill Lake, colder, clearer and deeper, is a relatively well-kept crappie secret, with monster black-noses.
As on Reelfoot, a newcomer to these lakes should consider investing in a guide who knows the water. Old Hickory, for example, is notorious for its shallow mud flats and floating debris, and Percy Priest has submerged rock piles and rocky points that are hazardous to uninitiated boaters when the water is low.
A guide knows how to navigate, where to find fish, and how to catch fish, which translates to more catching and less searching. A guided trip is not only a good way to learn the lake and catch fish, but for those who make only a trip or two a year — during prime crappie season, for instance — it avoids the storage, maintenance, registration and other hassle of a boat's upkeep.
The lakes in east Tennessee tend to be colder and clearer, lacking the abundant natural crappie habitat found in many of the Middle and west Tennessee waters. And "spring" arrives a bit later in the cooler eastern region.
"It's all about water flow and productivity," said Wilson. "The conditions for crappie are not as favorable in east Tennessee, with some exceptions. Watts Bar Lake is a good crappie fishery, and so is Douglas Lake. And Chickamauga Lake (in southeast Tennessee) is excellent."
Watts Bar Lake, a Tennessee River impoundment, has produced big slabs for decades. The late Beecher Hedgecoth, a noted Watts Bar crappie fisherman, eagerly awaited Mother Nature's spring signal — dogwood blossoms.
"When the dogwoods began to bloom, the crappie began to bite," he said years ago.
In the early days, Hedgecoth fished from the banks. Like all successful fishermen, he located several prime spots — old stump rows and other submerged cover — and concentrated on them.
His favorite way to fish was to bait two or three rods with small minnows, 2 to 6 feet below a float, prop up the rods on forked sticks and sit back and bobber-watch.
Later on he began to experiment with artificial lures. One of his Watts Bar favorites was a hair jig — a "bug" as he called it — fished a few feet beneath a float. He would cast the rig near structure and slowly reel it in, giving the bobber slight jerks and twitches along the way. When the bobber plunged under, it was fish on.
Many anglers are similarly limited, like Hedgecoth in the early days, to bank fishing. The TWRA has sunk fish attractors near the bank and within casting distance of fishing piers to make them accessible to these fishermen. A white plastic pipe, jutting out of the water and bearing the TWRA's green-and-white logo, generally marks these attractors.
Beneath the plastic markers are wooden stake beds and other sunken structure, such as cedar trees, brush and old tires. The attractors hold crappie year 'round, but are especially productive during the spring spawn.
The technique is to fish as close to the attractors as possible, using lightweight line (6- or 4-pound test) to facilitate the inevitable break-offs. If you're not getting snagged occasionally, you're probably not fishing close enough.
State park lakes offer some good, and often overlooked, crappie fishing in the spring, with many of the spots accessible from the banks. One spring, just a few years ago, a buddy and I found a school of good-size crappie a just off the bank in Montgomery Bell State Park. We caught a dozen, moved on down the bank and found another school, and caught a dozen more.
Some state parks even offer boat rentals and bait, though a fishing permit may be required. Consult the individual park's website for details about fishing opportunities.
The same goes for the TWRA-managed lakes. Some of them hold huge crappie, which can be reached from the bank. Last spring a fisherman caught a 2-pound white crappie fishing from the bank at Marrowbone Lake.
Marrowbone, like many other TWRA lakes, has a fishing pier and docks with fish attractors scattered within casting distance. Minnows and small jigs, fished close to the structure, are best bets for spring crappie.
Regardless of what part of the state you're in, or where and how you choose to fish, springtime is crappie time. If you don't believe the experts, just ask the dogwoods.