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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Crappie a highly popular native game fish abundant throughout Kentucky

Editor’s note: This is the first article in the three-part series on crappie fishing opportunities in Kentucky.

It’s cold and snowy now, but a month to six weeks from now, avid crappie anglers will be gearing up for the upcoming spring spawn.

It’s the highlight of the year on the crappie fishing calendar, as fish staging in deep channels in lakes, begin moving up shallow in creeks, and eventually come to the banks in late March and April.

Crappie are abundant in Kentucky waters.

Oldtimers in Kentucky often referred to white crappie as “newlights,” perhaps because of the fish’s translucent, firm white flesh. (Photo from Iowa DNR)

Both the white crappie and the black crappie are native species and found throughout the state in a variety of public waters.

This includes major reservoirs, the backwaters of the Ohio River, the lower ends of its major tributaries, and a select few small, state-owned lakes.

The diet of crappie is mostly minnows and other small fish. They are strictly carnivorous.

Genus and Species

We know crappie by their scientific names, their genus and species, and common names, which vary by region in Kentucky, and throughout the Southeast.

Both species are members of the sunfish family, Centrarchidae, and can be distinguished from one another by slight differences in coloration and the number of dorsal spines.

The white crappie, Promoxis annularis, has silvery olive shading to darker olive green on its back. It usually has six dorsal spines, in rare cases five.

Oldtimers in Kentucky often referred to white crappie as “newlights,” perhaps because of the fish’s translucent, firm white flesh. Other common name heard in these parts are “slabs and papermouths.”

The black crappie, Promoxis nigromaculatus, is also silvery olive, with irregular or mottled black splotches over its entire body, and rows of dark spots on its dorsal, anal, and caudal fins. The black crappie usually has seven or eight dorsal spines that are equal in length to their anal fins.

The black crappie is called a “calico bass or speck” in some regions of the country.

The blacknose crappie is the result of a recessive gene in black crappie. (Photo provided)

Blacknose Crappie

The blacknose crappie is not a third species.

It’s the result of a recessive gene in black crappie.

This distinctive fish has been caught from several lakes in Kentucky including Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley, Taylorsville Lake, Laurel River Lake, Paintsville Lake, Carr Creek Lake, and Dale Hollow Lake.

The blacknose crappie is a naturally-occurring variant of the black crappie, with a pronounced black stripe from its nose to its dorsal fin.

Found in about 14 states, it was first noticed in the late 1950s in Arkansas’s White River.

Crappie Popular with Anglers

Crappie fishing has always been popular in Kentucky. Crappie are considered a top three species with anglers, along with black bass and panfish, which includes bluegills and catfish. It just seems these days more anglers are targeting crappie in the spring.

Advances in fish-finding technology and better tackle, combined with a greater understanding of crappie feeding habits and seasonal tendencies, have enabled anglers to find and catch more fish.

Anglers fish year-round, in all but the most severe weather. High, muddy water is what most often keeps crappie fishermen off our lakes in the winter and spring.

Arguably, some of the best crappie fishing of the year would be considered “pre-season,” during the late winter in major reservoirs when the fish are in tight schools in deep channels, as they begin to transition into the creeks.

If you have ever fished during this time of the year, you know the action can get hot — find a school of fish, and you can often catch one crappie after another.

Top Crappie Lakes

Here’s some details on Kentucky’s best crappie lakes, starting with the southeastern and eastern fishery districts, based on information from the 2019 Fishing Forecast, published by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and interviews with district biologists.

In this three-article series the best crappie lakes will be discussed, east to west, in all seven fishery districts.

In Kentucky’s Southeastern Fishery District there is one lake to target:

Lake Cumberland is 50,250 acres in Russell, Wayne, Clinton, and Pulaski counties.

The crappie fishery is rated good, and there’s a 10-inch minimum size limit.

The drawdown of the lake to make repairs to Wolf Creek Dam, which started in 2007, allowed many areas in the lake bed to grow up in trees. This created lots of habitat for crappie, when the lake came back up to elevation 705 in 2013, and elevation 723 (summer pool) in 2014.

Even though this “new” cover is dying back somewhat, it clearly benefitted crappie populations in the long run.

“The (added cover) really helped crappie numbers,” said Southeastern District biologist Marcy Anderson. “Anglers are really doing well, catching larger fish.”

There are moderate numbers of crappie, but good size distribution. Larger fish, 12 to 14 inches, are common, and crappie up to 16 inches are being taken, Anderson said.

In early spring fish minnows and jigs in headwater areas, including the mouth of Laurel River and Rockcastle River.

The summer bite is good on the main lake.

Lake Cumberland has a higher percentage of black crappie than white crappie in the upper lake (from Conley Bottom upstream), about 60 percent black crappie to 40 percent white crappie, according to creel survey data.

Anderson recommends Fishing Creek for white crappie, and said in the lower lake, “about 32 percent of the crappie caught by anglers are black crappie.”

In Kentucky’s Eastern Fishery District there are six lakes to target:

Buckhorn Lake is 1,230 acres in Leslie and Perry counties.

The crappie fishery is rated good, and there’s a 9-inch minimum size limit.

“It’s primarily a white crappie fishery,” said Kevin Frey, Eastern District biologist. “In the spring, the best crappie fishing is mid-lake, in Gays Creek and Leatherwood, up to Rush Creek.”

There are large numbers of fish from six to nine inches, with most of the legal-size fish from nine to 12 inches, with the occasional larger fish to 13 inches.

The lake has rooted, aquatic vegetation in the heads of larger coves.

In summer, July and August, there is often some very good fishing over shallow mud flats adjacent to main lake channel. Anglers cast or drift bait-tipped jigs or small crankbaits.

A majority of anglers keep all the legal-sized crappie they catch, according to creel survey data. Crappie are a harvest-orientated species. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

Carr Creek Lake is 710 acres in Knott County.

The crappie fishery is rated good and there’s a 9-inch minimum size limit.

“There are fewer numbers of crappie, but growth rates are good,” said Frey. “The number of keeper-size fish is holding stable. It’s the best lake for black crappie in the district.”

The lake offers good opportunities to catch big fish — 15 to 16-inch white crappie, and 13 to 14-inch black crappie.

Carr Creek Lake also supports a population of blacknose crappie.

There’s lots of good crappie habitat. “If you are fishing deadfalls and submerged brush piles in the spring, there’s a good chance you might catch a walleye too,” said Frey.

Dewey Lake is 1,100 acres in Floyd County.

The crappie fishery is rated good, and there’s no minimum size limit.

There are very good numbers of crappie, with majority of larger fish being white crappie.

Frey said he estimates about 60 percent of the crappie in the lake are white crappie and 40 percent black crappie.

Anglers at the lake target white crappie, and fish fallen trees and brush piles.

Most keeper-size white crappie are nine to 13 inches, and black crappie are seven to nine inches.

Frey recommends fishing shallow cover for white crappie in the spring, and deeper cover for black crappie in the summer.

In recent years, the amount of rooted aquatic vegetation has decreased, Frey said, due heavy ice in the winters, and high, muddy waters in the spring.

Fishtrap Lake is 1,131 acres in Pike County.

The crappie fishery is rated good, and there’s a 9-inch minimum size limit.

The lake’s crappie fishery is very similar to Buckhorn Lake, Frey said, with a higher percentage of white crappie.

There are good numbers of nine to 12-inches, and the possibility of larger crappie up to 14 inches.

Frey said the crappie fishery in the lake tends to go up and down in a five-year cycle.

“The population has been up in recent years and by 2020 it’s likely to be (rated) excellent again,” said Frey. “There’s been excellent recruitment the last couple of years.”

When the lake is clear, Frey suggests fishing sharp (channel) breaks from shallow to deeper water.

Paintsville Lake is 1,139 acres in Morgan and Johnson counties.

The crappie fishery is rated good and there is no minimum size limit.

“Anglers have good opportunities for both white and black crappie,” said Frey. “White crappie are the dominant species and fish up to 15 inches have been sampled.”

Blacknose crappie, obtained from Tennessee, have been stocked in the lake. The size range for black and blacknose crappie is eight to 12 inches.

The upper end of the lake offers the best crappie fishing, from Open Fork boat ramp, down to Little Paint Creek.

Good fishing can start early in the lake. “Crappie tend move up shallow when we get that first warm spell in March,” said Frey.

In the lower lake, fish weed beds, submerged brush piles and wood cover along the shore.

Yatesville Lake is 2,314 acres in Lawrence County.

The crappie fishery is rated good, and there’s no minimum size limit.

The first thing anglers notice about this reservoir is the tremendous number of wooded coves.

But, as is the case at many mountain lakes, the best crappie fishing early in the year is in the upper lake. Frey suggests fishing above Rich Creek early in the year.

The white crappie is the dominant species and most larger fish range from 10 to 13 inches.

Live minnows or shad are the go-to bait. Fish brushy areas and deadfall trees in the spring. Shallow mudflats are a good bet in the fall, during drawdown to winter pool.

Next week: Changes in how crappie fisheries are managed in small lakes, the crappie’s preferred water conditions, and top crappie lakes in the Northeastern and Central Fishery Districts.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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