Big waters, such as Kentucky and Barkley lakes or smaller impoundments, are where you’ll find our best papermouth angling this spring.
Depending on the weather, it’s possible that crappie could already be up in the shallows on some Kentucky reservoirs, and after you finish reading this magazine, you may want to make a call or two and find out.
One of the toughest things to do when fishing for a species like crappie, where it’s best to do it during their spawning period, is judging when, exactly, to get out there. Often you just have to take your best shot.
“Sometimes you can miss it by two days,” said Paul Rister, western district fishing biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “And it can be pretty frustrating.”
Rister noted that crappie anglers have to be flexible to hit the timing just right. It could be anywhere from mid-March to early May, if you’re trying to catch crappie on the banks and in full feeding and spawning mode.
KENTUCKY & BARKLEY LAKES
On the two major crappie lakes in his region, Rister suggests anglers should be ready to go when three things happen. One is when water temperatures hit the upper 50s and low 60s. Most crappie will spawn within that temperature range. Second, if the water is rising slowly on Kentucky and Barkley, in this case, and expanding the territory where crappie like to spawn, you’ll have a “line” up. Third, try to catch a period when the water isn’t overly muddy.
One note anglers should keep in mind is now that Kentucky Lake, and Barkley to a lesser extent, has more black crappie than white crappie in the overall population. Black crappie tend to come shallow sooner, and stay there longer, before returning to deeper ledges and dropoffs. This fairly new development over the last few years in the makeup of the population has extended the better spring fishing, especially earlier than the traditional mid-April time frame. Some fishermen haven’t quite caught on to that yet.
If weather conditions like a mild winter occur, it’s much more likely crappie fishing will come on sooner than you might expect. So you have to watch for those kinds of things closely to be there in the “heat” of the fray.
“Last year, our trap-netting activities showed a decisive switch to black crappie as the dominant species, and that was confirmed by creel studies we conducted with anglers as well,” Rister said.
“We believe that there is still a better than average number of crappie in Kentucky Lake that are over the minimum size limit. Anglers should find plenty of keepers this spring assuming good weather,” he said.
Over on Barkley, the outlook is very good as well, with good size distribution in the crappie population and several strong year-classes available to maintain quality fishing.
“The fish are there, we just need a little luck with normal weather patterns to create the best fishing conditions for success,” the biologist said.
For anglers who may not be too familiar with these two large reservoirs, Rister recommends saving up $100 or $150, and hiring a guide for the first day of your trip.
“We get several calls each spring from anglers about their experiences, and invariably there are some who come to fish these lakes, stay three or four days and still have a very difficult time catching fish.
“On the other line, one of our staff will be talking to someone else who has slayed them over the same weekend, and is telling us about who their guide was and how great their trip was.
“Those who get someone to show them how to do it, what to look for and familiarize them with the water usually have a much better experience. And once you learn, you can do it on your own and come out on top most of the time,” Rister said.
The top two areas on Kentucky Lake for springtime crappie anglers are the Blood River and Jonathan Creek embayments. Both have oodles of submerged habitat, which can be located with a depthfinder without too much trouble. Fish generally start out on the flats at 10 to 15 feet. Crappie then gradually move into the banks as the water comes up, gets warmer and allows them to swim in no more than 2-foot depths over shoreline cover.
“Anglers tell us the black crappie can be caught in really shallow water, and using various techniques such as drifting and slow-trolling jigs about 2 feet deep over flats adjacent to the creek channel works pretty well, for example,” Rister said.
Before the fish get right up on the bank, white crappie will be found out in a little deeper water, around some type of cover, often along a dropoff where brushpiles have been placed. Spider-rigging or straight lining the deeper cover are two good methods to use in those situations.
Another tip for finding spring crappie on either lake is to look for any of more than 300 fish attractors that the KDFWR has placed in these reservoirs, anything from stakebeds to the newest thing going, an O-No Hang fish attractor. You may have seen them in stores or on television. Rister reports at least one electro-shocking trip, actually for largemouths last fall, rolled up about 30 crappie around one of these new, ball-shaped attractors. One-third of those fish were keeper size, he mentioned.
“We’ve got these new attractors, marked as experimental, tied on underneath about 60 buoys in the two lakes.
“There are four or five balls under each buoy that have sticks poking out in all directions around the ball; we’re investigating how well these types of attractors are working for fishermen,” he said.
“We’ve got wording on the attractor markers asking anglers to give us a call and let us know how they do around these things.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of habitat out there for crappie, and anglers shouldn’t have too much trouble finding it, and hopefully some good fish associated with it, too,” the biologist said.
“I suspect this year should be pretty good on Kentucky and Barkley, if anglers are watching the weather, and be aware that the black crappie will be on the move sooner than what the white crappie have done in years past,” he concluded.
NOLIN RIVER LAKE
If you have a little time free this spring, and aren’t too far with our blessed gas prices to get to Nolin, biologist David Bell reports that crappie fishing looks pretty darn decent.
According to his latest check, he’s seeing good numbers of 8- to 10-inch crappie in this 5,700-acre reservoir in n
orthwestern Kentucky. Anglers should consider taking a look for themselves this spring.
Nolin is a fairly deep lake, which can get fair amount of fishing pressure because of its proximity to the Louisville metro area. It still seems to perform pretty well, though, for crappie in the spring.
One trick to success on Nolin is finding cover in the right depth range when the water temperature gets in the mid-50s. The major tributaries feeding the lake hold a good number of fish, and those creek channels with some underwater cover or irregular cuts will be where crappie hold in March. In April, fish will move up on woody structure along the banks, where a jig with a twistertail or minnow will provide solid hits.
Early on, fish 8 to 15 feet deep, and probe the dropoffs along channel contours. It won’t take long to come across some debris on the edges, where fish will stack up over cover before rushing the bank to do what they do this time of year.
As water temperatures head beyond 60 degrees, move into any shoreline cover you can find, and cast along stickups, flooded bank vegetation, and even stumpbeds. Take hard looks in Brier Creek near the dam, in the tributary creeks on Conoloway, and farther upriver where the next major arm at Rock Creek comes in.
Fish ought to be in less than 8 feet of water when you find 60-degee surface temperatures, and along cover close to the bank, such as blowdowns. Watch what other anglers are doing, and when you see them connecting, find similar surroundings and drop anchor. It’s sometimes amazing how consistent fish behavior is and the depths and cover preferences they choose throughout a reservoir.
If you’re looking for somewhere good down in the heart of the Bluegrass State, you might want to check out Taylorsville Lake in Anderson, Spencer and Nelson counties. It’s our fourth choice of a spot that gets high marks for crappie this spring.
Biologist Kerry Prather is noticing a switch over to more black crappie in this lake, too, like what’s been seen in Barkley and Kentucky lakes.
There’s only a 9-inch size limit on crappie in Taylorsville, and Prather reports he’s “got a whole lot more” fish at, or above 9 inches out there waiting to be caught. With less rainfall in the last couple of years, the remnant black crappie population in some lakes is beginning to stretch its legs in the clearer water conditions. White crappie like more turbid, dingy conditions in order to thrive, but some lakes haven’t seen their usual water color in the spring in recent times.
“Actually, we’ve had a pretty good spawn of both black and white crappie the past couple of years, and we expect those year-classes to provide good fishing this spring and maybe for another year or two,” Prather said.
“Timber cover is the primary habitat spring crappie will use, and over a few hours, anglers should be able to come up with their 15-fish limit if they work several spots.
“Once you determine how far down they are, you should look for other cover in that same range. Unless there’s a great difference in water color or temperature, you should find fish at about the same depth in any of the embayments on the lake,” Prather noted.
If you’re going to connect with crappie on Taylorsville, then fishing woody cover is most often the ticket you’ll need to cash in. Old trees in creeks and inlets will hold a lot of fish when they come shallow. Taylorsville has a lot of lumber in the water.
Get in there with minnows in Little Beech and Big Beech embayments, and move around until you find where they are. Fish around cover in the head of Ashes Creek, which is off to the right when you come out of Settler’s Trace Marina. Remember, the characteristic of black crappie is to stay closer to the surface, so instead of starting deep and working up, you may want to try an opposite approach.
Live bait is tough to beat, but small jigs can sometimes be quicker and more effective. Have two or three colors of twistertails or jigheads in your tackle box to experiment with until you find what works best. Fish with the lightest weight you can. Smaller weights and sizes of trailers tend to catch both aggressive and less active fish sometimes, and make the fight a little more exciting on lighter tackle.
Using a combination jig tipped with a minnow also attracts hungry crappie, and these lures can usually be worked fairly easy through submerged tree limbs in 5 or 6 feet of water. Remember to approach cover as quietly as possible, and if you find a few fish in a given location, come back again later in the day. Crappie move in and out of cover, so if you take a few fish out, often others will take up the available habitat before the day is over.
One other little 1,200-acre hole of water that biologist Kevin Frey recommends this spring is Buckhorn Lake in southeastern Kentucky. Buckhorn doesn’t get a lot of attention on the crappie circuit, but Frey’s most recent fish study information suggests the lake’s papermouth population is in excellent condition.
More so than the lakes in central and western Kentucky, eastern reservoirs experience a pretty heavy drawdown in the winter. This confines and concentrates fish in the main-river channel. Wherever there may be cover along that channel, you can bet fish will be on it. If you go before the actual spawn hits, you can still find crappie with a little patience and persistence. On Buckhorn, Frey said fishing along the main-river channel is the place to catch more and bigger crappie through April.
It’s a little different than fishing right on the shoreline in bushes and stickups, or around vegetation the water level may have temporarily overtaken. Eventually, as the lake level rises, crappie will move out onto the flats and into the bank cover, but most are going to be on a ledge or dropoff somewhere along the river channel in March and April.
Frey reports “good distribution and numbers” of crappie are available, and that fishing tends to be best in the upper portion of the lake during early spring.
Drifting a jig or minnow along the ledges of the channel, paying attention to spots where it changes directions or turns, is a good approach to locating feeding fish. Look for spots along intersections of where creeks come into the lake. Close to the mouths of Coal Branch, Langdon, Bills, Trace and Wilder Branch, when the water is up enough, are good spots to find crappie.
As the spring wears on, Frey said crappie transition to the mud flats to feed on schools of shad. He reported they still remain in pretty shallow water along ditches, ledges and drops associated with the main channel, even into the heat of August. If you’re out there before the lake starts filling back up, you should be able to identify a few places where crappie will come to when the lake level allows. Fish locator equipment would be handy to find schools and cover out on the feeding flats. Be sure to drop some jigs down into those spots.
These are five of the better spots to give crappie a try this spring. Remember, don’t always rely on the notion that spring spawning runs are going to hit around mid-April every year. Nature just doesn’t work that way. Watch the weather and water temperatures every few days starting in mid-March, and if black crappie are what you’re after, be ready to go a little earlier than you might have in the past.
For complete size limit and creel limit laws for all Kentucky waters, pick up a copy of the 2020 Kentucky Sport Fish and Boating Guide at your local license vendor. Any new laws for this year will be included in this guide. You may also want to request a copy of the 2020 Kentucky Fishing Forecast from the KDFWR at (800) 858-1549, or simply go online at fw.ky.gov and review or download both publications under the “Fishing” tab on the state’s homepage.