Though bass have legions of followers throughout the Volunteer State, crappie hold a special place in the hearts of almost every angler in our region. Even the most avid bass angler will reach for an ultralight pole when the crappie are spawning, and who can resist a plate full of fried crappie fillets and coleslaw?
While every angler has their favorite crappie hole, there are certain bodies of water that produce more consistently than others, and it is a sure bet that at least one of the following hotspots is within driving distance of almost everyone in Tennessee.
For most anglers, catching crappie is a numbers game. While catching trophy slabs is certainly a bonus, filling a cooler with fillets is the goal for most panfish anglers.
Thankfully, gone are the days without creel and size limits, as keeper crappie are now spread more equally among all anglers. With size limits being in place in almost every body of water in the state, crappie are given every chance to achieve true “slab” status, and fish above 16 inches are beginning to become more and more commonplace.
Conditions for crappie reproduction and uninterrupted spawns have been ideal across the state over the last couple of years, generally speaking. Thus, crappie numbers are stable, with some lakes being virtual crappie factories. According to Patrick Black, TWRA Reservoir Program Coordinator, the top ranked crappie reservoirs are distributed from one end of the state to the other.
His analysis of the health of Tennessee crappie is based on angler success rate using the catch rates from 2015-2017, and, from this standpoint, crappie fishing in Tennessee is in good shape. He uses this viewpoint to rank our state’s top crappie lakes.
“From a numbers standpoint, it’s better to look at number of fish caught per hour of fishing, since total number caught relies heavily on angler effort,” he said.
Good crappie lakes come in two forms: The old “standbys” (lakes that are at the top of the list year after year), and “sleeper lakes” that might surprise some anglers.
KENTUCKY AND BARKLEY
According to Black, Kentucky Lake, certainly in the “standby” category, is hard to beat. Even with heavy fishing pressure, Kentucky continues to be a crappie factory according to creel surveys. Though anglers catch plenty of fish in shallow water during the spawn, fishing the many ledges and creek channels can pay big dividends, particularly during pre-spawn.
While focusing on fishing stake beds and sunken brush is one of the most popular methods on this lake, anglers with electronics should side-image along deep water bluffs until they locate crappie, and then “spider-rig” likely looking areas. Crappie are going to use the channels that run along many of these bluffs as corridors to their favorite spawning ground. Some of the biggest fish of the year can be caught using this method, and anglers are often away from the crowds, as this method has yet to gain a large following. While minnows fished this way produce plenty of fish, anglers can also use double-rigged tube jigs.
But there’s a “sleeper lake” in the area too, according to Black.
“Barkley is probably the most overlooked reservoir on the list. We sample it every year and the catch rates are always good, even though most anglers in the area target Kentucky. It’s definitely worth a shot,” he said.
While Kentucky Lake receives the most attention from professional and local anglers, Barkley has a crappie population that rivals its more popular cousin. You can use the same tactics you would on Kentucky, you’ll just be in more private surroundings. Lake access is good on both lakes.
In Middle Tennessee, Black gives Percy Priest the nod when it comes to numbers of crappie. If you are new to Priest, the boat ramps at Long Hunter State Park will put you in good crappie habitat. While normal springtime tactics will work during the spawn, trolling crankbaits has become extremely popular on this Middle Tennessee lake. Bandits in the 200 series are just the ticket, with pearl being a “go to” color for local anglers. Use your GPS to monitor your trolling speed, and once you begin to catch fish, maintain that speed.
There are also numerous guides in the area, and it might be a good idea to use one of these experts if you are new to the lake. With its proximity to Nashville, it does receive some pressure, but continues to produce great catches year after year.
Douglas Lake, in East Tennessee, was high on Black’s list of crappie hot spots.
There was a time in the eighties when crappie in Douglas were struggling. This was due in large part to overharvest, as crappie on Douglas tend to school in tight bunches.
Once they were found, catching hundreds in a short period of time wasn’t out of the question. Recent management, including a creel limit of 15, and a size limit of 10 inches, have brought this lake back to the brink of the good old days. This bowl shaped lake in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains has been a crappie mecca for generations, and it is worth the drive no matter where you are in the state.
While Douglas has little in the way of visible cover, anglers with a willingness to try new techniques will be rewarded handsomely. Prior to the spawn, expect crappie to be all along the first slight drop-off near a spawning flat. Spider rigging is deadly during this time — white, chartreuse, blue and white, and pink are local favorites. Use those same colors during the spawn and expect crappie to spawn in shale rocks that stick out of the bottom. Use a cork with a minnow or jig beneath, and fish these areas just as you would a lay-down.
There are numerous ramps on Douglas, and one of the best ways to locate fish is to look for large groups of boats fishing in a central location. Douglas is also a great lake to fish if you don’t have a boat, because there is a huge winter drawdown by TVA that leaves much of the lake bank exposed for those on foot.
Best Fishing Tips Ever-Terry Blankenship
TELLICO AND FORT LOUDOUN
For anglers near Middle and East Tennessee, Black indicated that angler catch rates are very high on Tellico and Fort Loudoun Lakes.
“Fort Loudoun and Tellico also produce good catch rates, at greater than two fish per hour, and would be worth trying,” he said.
Being side by side on the Tennessee River and the Little Tennessee River, Fort Loudoun and Tellico should be fished much the same, with very little difference existing between topography and water conditions. Crappie will spawn in the major creeks and sloughs, with jigs fished around blow-downs being the ticket.
For pre-spawn fish, look for brush in 12 to 15 feet of water, and use minnows or slow-roll tube jigs, with red and chartreuse and yellow and white being locally popular combinations. There are numerous boat ramps on both lakes, so access isn’t a problem. During times of heavy fishing pressure on both lakes, anglers would be well advised to leave the major creeks in order to get away from the crowds. The small sloughs and coves off of the main river channel get very little fishing pressure, and crappie utilize these areas for spawning.
Additionally, whatever you do, take some time to flip docks on both of these lakes. As you are doing this, spend most of your time fishing the shady portions under the docks, and any area where two posts are standing close together is a potential “hot spot.” Flip red and chartreuse or yellow and white tube jigs on 4-pound test line, and you are sure to get bit, with multiple fish being commonplace when you find the right dock. Some of the biggest crappie of the year come from docks on these two lakes, yet many anglers pass them by without a second look.
When anglers think of the top crappie lakes in the state, names like Reelfoot, Normandy, and Chickamauga automatically come to mind, and forward thinking leads us to believe that this will always be the case. One name that usually doesn’t come to mind is Melton Hill. More known for stripers and muskies, Melton Hill, near Oak Ridge, has gained a following among local anglers, especially. According to Black, Melton Hill is definitely worth some time.
“Melton Hill was only sampled one year in the last three years, and the estimates are based on a fairly low sample size,” he said. “Still, the catch rates from the sampled anglers were good and they may be worth exploring.”
Certainly, local anglers would love to keep their clear water treasure a secret, but word is getting out about this lake. One of the things contributing to the uptick in crappie angler success is the presence of vegetation. Not only do crappie spawn near blowdowns, but they have mats of vegetation that act as proverbial nurseries for their fry. If you go to Melton Hill, expect to see a narrow river (the Clinch) that flows according to the whims of Norris Dam. The sloughs adjacent to the river is where to focus your attention.
With such clear water, fish a little deeper than you normally would, even for spawning crappie, and use colors like white, blue and white, pearl, and chartreuse.
Additionally, there is a good population of shellcrackers in the lake, so be prepared for these “bonus fish,” as well. There aren’t as many boat ramps on Melton Hill as other lakes in the area, but good ramps are found on Edgemoore Road, at Carbide Park, and at Melton Hill Dam.
Crappie Fishing with Brad Chappell
CRAPPIE IN GENERAL
Forecasting crappie numbers, statewide, is the easy part. What is impossible is predicting the weather. Even the best of crappie lakes can be affected negatively by adverse weather conditions during the spawn. All anglers have heard the maxim that fish bite better in the rain, and this is certainly true of the crappie. Most of the time, during rainy periods, low light conditions occur, and barometer readings are at their lowest. Both of these things cause crappie to become aggressive and feed heavily, and when these conditions occur during the spawn, fishing can be at its zenith.
Additionally, when water conditions reach the proper temperature for spawning, anglers can expect a surge of spawning fish around the full moon. If you want to take time off work to crappie fish in Tennessee, the full moon in March and April is the time to do it.
As crappie fishing has evolved over the last thirty years, there is no doubt that management efforts have protected this resource. This year should be another banner year across the state. For crappie anglers, now is the most wonderful time of the year, so head to your favorite body of water and fill a cooler with Tennessee filets.