Barkley, Cheatham, Old Hickory, Cordell Hull…Crappies in the Cumberland

By Vernon Summerlin

Dave Woodward picks crappies off the wood along banks of Lake Barkley’s upper reaches by casting small jigs, but his best catches come from the lock walls below and above Cheatham Dam

Dave Woodward picks crappies off the wood along banks of Lake Barkley’s upper reaches by casting small jigs, but his best catches come from the lock walls below and above Cheatham Dam

  Two of the four lakes along the Cumberland River chain in Tennessee are known for crappie – Old Hickory Lake and Lake Barkley. Cordell Hull and Cheatham Lakes also have strong crappie populations but they don’t get the fishing pressure nor has the word gotten out – just the way local anglers like it.

            Let’s start where the fishing is known to be the best among the four reservoirs and head upstream.

Lake Barkley

            Lake Barkley has a crappie fishery that rivals Barkley’s big sister, Kentucky Lake. TWRA creel and netting reports show a very strong crappie population with a about a 50-50 mix of black and white crappies. The best crappie fishing is between Cumberland City and the Kentucky state line. This 35-mile mid section of the lake has many stumps providing abundant crappie habitat. Pay special attention to Guices, North and South Cross, Lick, Hickman, Dyers and Saline Creeks. The bays and around the islands at Dover offer the best crappie fishing, especially when the water warms and the fish move shallow.

Johnson Fishing

            In winter, tight-lined minnows along the banks and channel ledges produce good eating slab crappies. Anglers say the smallest minnows are best – unlike in Kentucky Lake where they devour shiners (maybe it isn’t the crappie but the anglers’ choice that makes the difference). Check with a local bait shop to see which minnow the fish prefer.

Doug Markham from Nashville poses with a new friend he hauled out of Old Hickory Lake near the 109 bridge.

Doug Markham from Nashville poses with a new friend he hauled out of Old Hickory Lake near the 109 bridge.

            David Woodward of Nashville and I fish the headwaters of Lake Barkley, below Cheatham Dam. We began fishing there together in the 1970s. We did well working the vertical concrete walls of the lock and drifting minnows below the spill gates. In winter they stack up along these walls on both sides of the dam.

            As the water warms, in February and March, crappie start moving up the creeks, and by the time they move into the bushes in spring they seem to hit the jigs better than minnows.

The author prefers fishing tailwaters year-round to hook up with slabs. The areas below dams have many fish-holding features like rip-rap, creek mouths, vertical walls and locks.

The author prefers fishing tailwaters year-round to hook up with slabs. The areas below dams have many fish-holding features like rip-rap, creek mouths, vertical walls and locks.

Cheatham Lake

Next upstream reservoir is Cheatham Lake. David Woodward knows the lake better than I do and the best techniques. He uses the Kentucky double-hook, bottom-bouncing rig – a one-ounce bell sinker at the bottom with two drop lines 16 and 18 inches from the weight, respectively, and hooks range from number one to 2/0. He also casts jigs for wintertime crappie.

Johnson and Sycamore Creeks are hot areas in the winter into spring. Crappies also follow the same pattern as they do on Barkley – holding on banks and main channel ledges.

            Crappie fishing below Old Hickory Dam, Cheatham’s headwaters, can be very good. Crappies move up to hold along the quiet side of the seam when there is a discharge. Place your minnow or jig in the vortexes, or eddies, along the seam and keep your boat moving along with the vortex. These eddies hold food and provide slack current for crappie. The fish concentrate in the mouth of the lock too.

Old Hickory Lake

            Fishing pressure is light in the upper reaches of Old Hickory and heaviest near and below the 109 Bridge where they have better habitat. This time of year locating deep pools along bluffs pays off. I suggest you drift a double-minnow rig (described above) or a double-jig rig along the bottom of the pools. Keep in mind that crappie won’t stay in much current so probe eddies, tops of deadfalls along the shore and around the islands. And don’t overlook docks and boathouses. The owners of these structures usually create crappie cover within casting distance. Using your sonar, make several passes looking for brush. Mark the cover with a buoy or GPS and start fishing.

            Station Camp, East Station Camp, Spencer, Cedar and Drakes Creeks are the largest in the lower section of the lake but many of the small bays off the main channel can be more productive. If I had to choose one best spot on lower Old Hickory, I would have to say Spencer Creek takes top crappie honors.

            David Woodward, with his decades of experience fishing the Cumberland River, says Old Hickory and Cheatham are his favorite lakes. “Crappie will take your small jigs and minnows as they do in other waters,” says David. “Your opportunities are numerous along the banks of the creeks in the lower end of Old Hickory where you find downed trees and stumps. High water frequently re-supplies the banks with crappie cover.

             “Crappies roam the deep channel banks in Old Hickory and Cheatham. I locate submerged trees on the channel with my sonar and you are likely to find crappie there. Crappies also hold in the bends a lot in winter. I fish brush and submerged trees along the outside bend of the channel with a minnow-tipped jig. I move it slowly among the branches. If I don’t get a hit within a few minutes, I move on to another likely spot. The channel has so many places for crappie you need not spend much time in one area. When you find crappie you will usually find many in one school.”

Cordell Hull Lake

            Cordell Hull Lake, the farthermost reservoir upstream on Tennessee’s portion of the Cumberland River, offers excellent crappie angling for those willing to look for them. Darryl York from Carthage says, “My favorite species to fish for is crappie. I fish Defeated Creek near Cordell Hull Dam, and Martin and Indian Creeks at Granville. I also fish some sloughs but mostly I fish the three creeks.

             “I fish trees that stick above the water, and limbs and bushes. I think that the milfoil is good in the spring, but in the winter I fish mostly trees in about 30 feet of water. I cast 1/32-ounce jigs on 2- or 4-pound-test line on a 6½ -foot ultralight spinning rod. I use chartreuse jigs for crappie year-round.”

            He says there’s no hurry to get on the lake in the winter. “I get started around nine o’clock and I’ll fish about 30 trees a day. I’ll catch two or three fish from a tree and that’s about it. They seem to spook real easy in winter. I may come back to a tree later if I catch some off it.

            “I back off from the tree about 30 feet and cast into it, letting the jig settle to the bottom with the bail open, and then reel it back real slowly. Sometimes they hit it on the fall, but nine times out of 10 they hit when I come up through them. They won’t chase it.”

Darryl sometimes uses minnows on a hook with a little splitshot for weight and fishes it the same way as his jig technique. Sometimes he adds a slip-float and fishes down to 20 feet. He claims he has his best luck using the smallest minnows he can find.

            There you have Crappies in the Cumberland – just pick a place and drop a line.