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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Changes in management of Crappie in small lakes and preferred water conditions

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

In Kentucky, when anglers think crappie, their go-to waters are usually major reservoirs.

But in recent years biologists have found some inventive ways to increase the quality of crappie fisheries in small, state-owned lakes.

Crappie usually don’t do well in small lakes because they get off massive spawns, and the lakes become overpopulated with small, stunted fish.

That’s what happened at 92-acre Boltz Lake, in Grant County, so biologists embraced what they call an active management strategy, to correct the problems there.

Crappie are considered a “standing water” species and do best in lakes, and rivers with low-flow conditions. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

“The lake got out of balance,” said Central Fishery District biologist Jeff Crosby. “There was a huge crappie spawn and the lake became filled with 5 to 7-inch crappie.”

There were so many crappie in the lake that it affected bass and bluegill growth rates and reproduction.

The cure was twofold. First, predator fish, blue and channel catfish, largemouth bass, and saugeye were stocked. Then, a couple of thousand small crappie were removed, captured by electrofishing at night.

The crappie were placed in fish trucks and sent to Taylorsville Lake, to bolster the lake’s crappie fishery, which often suffers from poor reproduction.

With the crappie population in Boltz Lake thinned out, the remaining crappie experienced a growth spurt, and now anglers are catching good numbers of 9 to 10-inch crappie.

Biologists expanded the predator fish strategy by stocking saugeye, a walleye/sauger cross, in other lakes that have underperforming crappie fisheries. Saugeye like to feed on small crappie.

And at a few small lakes, luck played a part in the growth of quality crappie fisheries. Poor spawns led to lower densities, which in turn meant better growth rates.

Biologists now recommend that anglers fishing small lakes keep all the legal-sized crappie they catch, to help thin out populations.

Crappie a “Standing Water” Species

Crappie are considered a “standing water” species and do best in lakes, and rivers with low-flow conditions.

A prime example of a waterway where crappie fisheries are negatively impacted by periodic high water is the Kentucky River, which is impounded by 14 locks and dams.

At normal pool, the river is basically a series of small lakes, but extended periods of high water, and prolonged spring floods, have been shown to reduce crappie numbers by impacting spawning success. Spawning habitat out of the current is limited, and sedimentation from high, muddy water covers over crappie nests.

While poor spawning is a factor affecting the numbers of crappies in the Kentucky River, generally poor habitat has more of an impact. Crappie do best when they don’t have to fight the current. They need shallow flats of calm water, preferably with gravel, for optimal spawning.

Fish Attractor Program

At Benjy Kinman Lake a habitat improvement project was started after the year-end holidays, and when finished, about 1,300 Christmas trees, tied together and weighted down, will be added to the lake as fish attractors. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

Many lakes in Kentucky have fish attractor programs, which encourage crappie, and help anglers find fish.

The fish attractors include:

• Recycled Christmas trees weighted down with concrete blocks.

• Stake beds, which are arrays of vertical stakes grouped together in shallow water.

• Hinge cut shoreline trees cut partway through with their tops in the water.

• Piles of logs, larger tree trunks and branches weighted with concrete blocks.

• Stacks of pallets wired together and weighted.

• Various structures constructed of PVC pipe or plastic pallets, weighted down with concrete blocks.

Fish attractors are installed in dry lake beds, or dumped into shallow water on flats, during the winter drawdown.

Visit the department’s website www.fw.ky.gov, and search lakes with fish attractors, and there’s a list of lakes, and GPS coordinates, where fish attractors have been located.

Top Crappie Lakes

Here’s some details on Kentucky’s best crappie lakes in the Northeastern and Central 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 Northeastern Fishery District there is one lake to target:

Cave Run Lake is 8,270 acres in Bath, Menifee, Rowan and Morgan counties.

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

“Both species of crappie are present in the lake, but the fishery is primarily white crappie,” said Tom Timmermann, Northeastern District biologist.

Crappie from a big spawn in 2015 have reached 10 inches and it should be an outstanding year for crappie fishing, if water levels are normal. “Last year anglers were catching big bunches of nine-inch fish.”

A lot of the lake’s standing timber and other wood cover has died back, and the growth of rooted aquatic vegetation is weather dependent. “It’s hit or miss,” said Timmermann. “If we have floods in the spring very few weed beds develop.”

A large-scale habitat improvement project in 2013 tremendously benefitted crappie fishing.

Fish attractors, including large cedar trees, stacks of pallets and structures of plastic tubing, were placed at 100 different sites around the lake.

“Anglers who key on these brush piles can have good fishing all summer long,” said Timmermann.

In dry years, when there are lots of weeds, crappie tend to be more scattered around the lake Timmermann said.

If your target fish is black crappie, fish around weed beds.

In Kentucky’s Central Fishery District there are four lakes to target:

Benjy Kinman Lake is 88 acres in Henry County.

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

The lake is off Ky-389, across the Kentucky River from Gratz, Kentucky, in a unit of the Kentucky River Wildlife Management Area.

Facilities include a fishing pier, paved boat ramp (trolling motors only), and a carry down area for kayaks.

“The crappie fishery is dominated by white crappie, but there are some black crappie,” said Crosby. “As the population thinned out, growth rates improved.”

There are now good numbers of crappie between eight and 10 inches, with larger fish possible.

A habitat improvement project was started after the year-end holidays, and when finished, about 1,300 Christmas trees, tied together and weighted down, will be added to the lake as fish attractors.

Last year some piles of big rocks were dumped in the lake bed, and gravel was added to enhance the shallow spawning areas in the lake.

Boltz Lake is 92 acres in Grant County.

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

The fishery includes both white crappie and black crappie.

Crappie are abundant in the lake, with a majority of fish between eight and 10 inches, with larger fish possible.

• Herrington Lake is 2,500 acres in Mercer, Boyle and Garrard counties.

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

“It’s a good, quality fishery, but crappie numbers are low,” said Crosby. “The lake has both white and black crappie, and we have sampled 12 to 14-inch fish.”

Crappie reproduction is limited.

Anglers are advised to fish brush or fallen trees in upper half of lake, and floating wood debris in inlets on the main lake.

At Taylorsville Lake the crappie fishery is rated good to excellent, and there’s a 10-inch minimum size limit, and daily creel limit of 15 fish. The lake is filled with quality fish. (Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Taylorsville Lake is 3,050 acres in Spencer, Anderson and Nelson counties.

The crappie fishery is rated good to excellent, and there’s a 10-inch minimum size limit, and daily creel limit of 15 fish.

Since crappie reproductive success varies from year to year, the stocking of fish has been beneficial to maintaining a quality fishery. Beginning in 2009 the lake was stocked with crappie for five years, until 2013.

In 2015 there was a huge crappie spawn, the best since the late 1990s, and now the lake is filled with quality fish.

There are good numbers of crappie at and above the 10-inch minimum size limit.

“The white crappie population goes up and down, but the black crappie population is more consistent,” said Crosby. “Black crappie have a higher body condition and the best fishing for them is in the lower lake.”

The Ohio River

The Ohio River is 981 miles long from its headwaters in Pennsylvania to its confluence with the Mississippi River at Cairo, IL.

The Ohio River, which forms the northern border of Kentucky for about two-thirds of its length, is fed by nine major rivers, seven smaller rivers, and numerous small creeks.

Crappie fisheries are rated good to excellent, and there’s no minimum size limit.

Fisheries biologists trying to gauge the success of largemouth bass stockings in the Ohio River between Newport, in Campbell County, and Louisville, in Jefferson County, made an interesting discovery while sampling embayments — good numbers of eight to 14-inch crappie.

Fish shallow water areas closest to the river around downed trees, and submerged wood cover, and you’ll find crappie.

Not all areas are easy to reach, and public access is limited. To fish some embayments, anglers may have to pay launch fees at marinas, or get permission from landowners to carry down fishing kayaks.

“The Markland Pool is one of the best for crappie,” said Jay Herrala, Ohio River biologist. “We sample some good sized crappie in the lower end of the pool, in Boone and Gallatin counties.”

Embayments in these counties where quality crappie have been sampled include:

• Gunpowder Creek, in Boone County, off Beaver Road (Ky-338). A fee is charged to launch at Trixie’s Marina, telephone for launch fee and hours of operation (859) 384-0282.

Big Bone Creek, in Boone County, take Big Bone Road (Ky-1925) from Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, to a no fee public ramp at Big Bone Landing.

Big Sugar Creek is in Gallatin County, at the intersection of US-42 and US-127. A public ramp, the Sugar Creek Boat Ramp, with no fee charged to launch, is off US-42.

• Anglers with large boats can launch at the Sugar Creek Boat Ramp, motor out to the Ohio, and upstream for about a mile and a half to Paint Lick Creek. Steeles Bottom Road (Ky-1992) runs along the upper end of the Paint Lick Creek embayment, but there is no public boat ramp.

Craigs Creek, in Gallatin County. A no fee launch is available at Craigs Creek Boat Ramp on Knox Lillard Road, off US-42.

Next week: Evaluating crappie fisheries, creel limits and special regulations, seasonal movements of crappie, and top crappie lakes in the Western, Southwestern and Northwestern 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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