The Differences in Crappie Fishing Rivers and Lakes with Scott Williams
Story and photos by John E. Phillips
Editor’s Note: The Alabama State Championship was held the first weekend in May, 2016, on the Alabama River near Prattville and at Lake Jordan, 40 minutes away. Both places hold plenty of crappie in them. Scott Williams of Cochran, Georgia, and his dad, Billy Williams, won the championship by fishing Lake Jordan. Here are the critical aspects that Scott Williams says produced the win.
“The Alabama River has more white crappie in it that tend to be bigger than the black crappie in Lake Jordan,“ Scott Williams explains. “A few ounces often determines the winner in a tournament. But black crappie tend to survive better in hot weather and are heartier in live wells. Lake Jordan’s water was 2 or 3 degrees cooler than the Alabama River’s water. My dad in pre-practice caught several Lake Jordan crappie with roe still in them, making them heavier than the already-spawned-out white crappie on the river. So, we decided to fish the lake.”
From this tournament, the Williamses learned that water temperature, the timing of the spawn and the targeted species play major roles in the decision of whether to fish lakes or rivers for crappie at certain times.
The Role Current Plays
The Williamses have found that the primary difference in fishing success on a lake or a river is the way current affects crappie. Rivers have some type of current running at all times, so river crappie will be more predictable in how they act, and where they’re positioned than lake crappie. Lake crappie receive intermittent current, depending on when the dam or the power plant at the head of the lake decides to release current, and how strong that current is. In a river throughout most of the year, crappie usually will hold anywhere there’s a current break along the river channel or a major creek channel and let the current bring the bait to them.
“In lakes, the crappie generally will hold on the edges of drop-offs or deep water close to shallow flats, especially during spring or summer,” Williams reports. “In lakes you need to find edges, humps, brush piles and/or ledges with eddies that break the current for the crappie. Since crappie don’t like to fight current, in lakes when the current’s running strong, crappie usually prefer to be close to but not necessarily holding on structure. Once the current starts running, the crappie only have to move a few feet to reach a current break or an eddy. However, river crappie, because they deal with current constantly, more than likely will be holding much closer to cover or an eddy area. Other places to find river crappie are at the bends of a river, where the current hits the bank, forcing it to slow down before it continues to travel on down the river. Or, the crappie will be behind sand bars that break the current and produce an eddy on the back side of the sand bar.”
The Effect of Water Temperature and Muddy Water
In January and February, river crappie will move from the mouths of creeks further up the creeks, searching for shallow water when they’re waiting on the water to warm up. Then they’ll move into shallow water and spawn. On a lake, the spawn will start on the north end of a lake because warmer water will be there. In a river system, the water temperature will remain about the same. Wherever you pinpoint crappie spawning in creeks that feed the river, you can travel 5-10 miles down the river and find crappie spawning in the same places in other creeks.
“In the Southeast where I primarily fish, you rarely ever see a difference in water temperature for miles and miles down a river, but in a lake, the water temperature may be drastically different on the north end of the lake as compared to the southern section of the lake,” Williams says.
The drainage systems that form the river you’re fishing also play a major role in water temperature and when and where crappie will spawn. For instance, since the Mississippi River starts in the far north of the U.S. and runs all the way to Louisiana, the water there in the spring generally will be cooler than a river system that starts and ends in Louisiana. The Mississippi River crappie generally will spawn later too.
In the Southeast, crappie in rivers often will move off the main river channel and into creeks to get into back waters with their shallow spawning flats to spawn much earlier than lake crappie. Lakes don’t have those big, shallow, backwater areas that rivers do. Rivers are fed by many creeks, making the river water much dirtier and warmer than lake water after a rain. River water also for the most part clears up faster than lake water.
“Remember dirty water doesn’t bother crappie as much as it does fishermen,” Williams mentions. “Crappie are accustomed to living and feeding in dirty water. Even when a lake muddies up, you often can go the lake’s north end and find clear water. In a lake or a river, muddy water serves as an ambush point for crappie to attack bait. If you fish the edges of muddy water, oftentimes that’s where most of the crappie in a lake or a river will be concentrated.”
The Impact of Brush Piles
“When I put out brush piles in rivers, I’ll use up to about 300 pounds of weight to hold each brush pile in place, due to the strong current in rivers,” Williams explains. “In a lake, you don’t have to use as much weight in a brush pile. Identifying places to put brush in lakes is much easier than in river systems, because in lakes, you can put brush out on points, ledges, flats and other bottom breaks not generally found in rivers.
“Lakes often home many more current breaks than river, and the bottom terrain is usually much different than that in river systems. I generally sink hardwood trees in 16 feet of water, whether I’m fishing rivers or lakes, since that’s the depth I’ve learned where crappie want to hold in the hot summer and the cold winter months.
“To catch crappie consistently, consider changing your tactics to fit the type of water you’ll be fishing. If you’re accustomed to fishing rivers and beginning to fish lakes, understand the differences in rivers and lakes, and how crappie that live in them react to various water, weather and current conditions and the types of places where they’ll choose to hold.”