Cold-Weather Crappie Hot at Weiss Lake
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The fog that unexpectedly settled over Weiss Lake was of the pea-soup variety, yet that didn’t deter Terry Whaley. Actually, Whaley probably could find his crappie fishing holes blindfolded, although that would have made the boat ride a little too adventurous.
Whaley, one of numerous fishing guides who call the lake home, pre-dates the birth of Weiss, an Alabama Power Company hydroelectric impoundment in Cherokee County.
“I grew up crappie fishing on this lake,” Whaley said. “I was here before the lake was. The lake was flooded in 1959. I fished the river before the lake was here. I know where all the structure is.”
Whaley said it didn’t take long for the anglers to have success when the water in Weiss became navigable.
“It was almost immediately,” he said. “There was an abundance of fish. Weiss may be known as the ‘Crappie Capital of the World,’ but we’ve got a lot of other fish. We’ve got largemouth bass and spotted bass. We’ve also got striped bass, white bass, yellow bass and catfish.”
Whaley and I then proceeded to catch every one of the aforementioned species, although the two crappie subspecies, white and black, were our targets. Weiss is known for its spring crappie fishing, but Whaley insists right now is the time to catch a box of fish.
“The colder it gets, the more the crappie will move out on the ledges,” Whaley said. “December, January and February are the best months to fish. The only reason we don’t have a lot of people fishing then is we have a lot of fronts come through. The fish are easy to catch, but the people don’t want the bad weather. If you can get out there, you can catch them.”
Whaley said the crappie get into the spawning mood when the water warms to about 62 degrees, which is usually some time around the middle of March.
“Before then, they’ll really feed up, which is why they’re so easily caught,” he said. “They’ll move into shallow water. They’ll move right up on the bank in the spring, and you can catch a cooler full on a jig. People fish the docks and brushpiles in April and May and catch a lot of fish.
“That’s why a lot of people don’t fish for them in deep water this time of year. They think they should be in the shallow water, but they are out on the deep ledges.”
After the spawn is finished, the crappie transition away from the banks and settle into areas with 7- to 8-foot depths for about a month or so. As the lake heads toward summer pool, the crappie will start moving to the deeper ledges about mid-May.
“When it gets really hot in the summer, the water temperature will start hitting the low 80s,” Whaley said. “That’s when we start doing most of our fishing at night. You can go out on the lake at night and you’ll see lights everywhere out there.”
Thereasa Hulgan, Executive Director of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, said Weiss Lake drives the economy in the county to the tune of about $18 million. Only one other activity surpasses it in economic impact.
“Of course, Weiss Lake is our No. 1 tourist attraction,” said Hulgan. “Fishing has been the dominant tourist activity for a long time, and that’s especially true in the spring when the crappie fishing is so active. We also have a short season in the fall where we have a lot of fishermen.
“So many businesses depend on the fishermen to make ends meet. Tourism is No. 2 in economic activity, behind only agriculture. So fishermen provide a very vital role in our economic activity. Our marinas, bait shops, lodging facilities, campgrounds, RV parks, and restaurants appreciate all the fishermen and how it helps our local economy when they visit.”
Hulgan attends a number of outdoors-related travel shows in the fall to pitch the fishing at Weiss. Apparently that effort is paying off.
“According to the state (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources), we sell more out-of-state fishing licenses than any other county in the state,” Hulgan said. “We attend a good many shows up north, plus being this close to Georgia and Tennessee, we bring a lot of those fishermen into our area as well.”
Whaley said the bulk of his customers in the spring are from points north, where ice fishing is the norm until later in the spring.
“We get a lot of people coming down here in the spring from Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana because it’s too cold to fish up there,” said Whaley, who fished with and worked for the late legendary angler Tom Mann when Whaley was flying helicopters at Fort Rucker in southeast Alabama many years ago. “They want to learn how to catch them down here because two or three weeks later, they’re catching them up there.”
But this time of year, the fishermen are concentrating on the ledges on the edge of the river channel, where much of the structure has been partially exposed because of the drawdown to winter pool.
“There are a lot of good channels and a lot of ledges to fish,” Whaley said. “The Coosa River runs through it. Most of the channel is 20-30 feet deep. The fish will be right on the edge where there is structure.
“The best way to catch them right now is what we call ‘bouncing the bottom,’ where the weight is on the bottom and you come up about 6 or 8 inches and tie on a snelled hook for a minnow,” Whaley said. “You want your weight just off the bottom. The other way we fish this time of year is what I call ‘casting a cork.’ We use a long rod, a 9-foot rod, and we’ll cast a jig 8 to 10 feet deep under a cork. We catch a lot of fish that way. It’s a real light rod with plenty of action. It’s a real forgiving rod so you don’t rip the hook out.”
Black crappie caught in Weiss are under a consumption advisory by the Alabama Department of Public Health. The advisory calls for people to limit their consumption of black crappie to one meal per week. There are no restrictions on the consumption of white crappie. To determine the subspecies, count the number of dorsal spines. Black crappie have seven or eight dorsal spines, while white crappie have six.
“I don’t know any people who eat crappie 52 times a year,” Whaley said. “Nobody I know is worried about it.”
Because there is so much pressure on the crappie fishery at Weiss, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division instituted a 10-inch minimum size limit on Weiss, while the remainder of the state has a 9-inch minimum length limit. The daily limit for crappie is 30 per person.
“The average catch for two people is 30-50 fish this time of year for a half-day trip,” Whaley said. “We probably catch more black crappie, but the bigger ones are white crappie. They’re all mixed in together, so it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.”
Visit www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater/where/reservoirs/weiss/ for more information on fishing Weiss Lake.
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) The two fish held by Weiss Lake guide Terry Whaley have different coloration, which might lead some to believe one fish is a white crappie and one is a black crappie. However, both are white crappie, as determined by the number of dorsal spines. White crappie have six dorsal spines, while black crappie will have seven or eight. The recent fall fishing day on Weiss started with an unexpected blanket of fog, which finally burned off about mid-morning.