Photo by Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
We were just pulling out of the boat ramp at Neshoba County Lake when I decided to test my casting ability with the new Bigfoot Scum Frog lure. Out in deep, open water, I launched an arcing, rainbow-like cast across the lake. It went downwind, of course, to make it easier to throw the non-weighted frog. It landed with a splat about 20 yards away.
Satisfied that I could cast the toad, I started reeling it real quick back across the lake. Its legs literally ran across the surface. giving it a buzzbait-like action.
The water erupted under the frog, which quickly disappeared.
“What was that?” said my fishing partner for the day, Fisheries Chief Ron Garavelli of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
He was still tying on his lure when he looked up at the sound to see me bowed up against the first fish of the day.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “You got hit on a frog right there in open water in 6 feet of water? On a frog?”
I had been lucky, being caught by surprise. It caused me to hesitate the necessary seconds it took for the fish to completely take in the soft-plastic lure. When I set the hook, I made solid contact and the fish was mine.
Within a few seconds of launching on the 137-acre lake, I was holding a 4-pound largemouth by the lip and was digging with a pair of needle-nose pliers to remove the hooks.
“Guess we did it right,” said Garavelli, speaking of his agency’s renovation and restocking of the public lake near Philadelphia. “First cast, first fish! Yeah, that’s a good sign.”
Not only was it an indication that the two of us were going to have a good day on the lake, but it was also an indication that 2007 should be a year of bass fishing to remember in Mississippi.
Anytime the state opens or reopens a lake to fishing, excellent bass fishing follows for years to come. You can multiply that times three in 2007. The MDWFP opened its newest lake, Calling Panther, in March of 2006 and reopened, renovated and restocked Lake Tom Bailey in October of 2005 and Neshoba County Lake in October 2006. All three are on our list of must-fish stops in 2007. Toss them in with a couple of older hotspots that produced excellent fishing in 2006 and this should be a great season.
LAKE CALLING PANTHER
We’ll start our preview at Lake Calling Panther, the 500-acre lake near Crystal Springs in Copiah County, which many fishermen predict will be the next public challenger to the state record of 18.15 pounds.
The opening of this lake, built in the rolling hills of southwest Mississippi just 30 miles from Jackson, was long anticipated, and for good reason. The terrain in which it was carved was ideal to create a great bass fishery, and the MDWFP biologists did just that.
“Everything a bass needs to grow, it’s got at Calling Panther,” said District 5 biologist John Skains, who oversaw the lake’s building. “There’s deep water, and I mean deep. There’s some 40- and almost-50-foot-deep water on the lower end, but that’s not what’s critical. A lot of the lake’s backwater areas in the coves and on the lake’s upper end have 20 feet of water that is loaded with standing timber.
“There’s all kinds of natural structure, too, from long points and coves to flats and creek channels and ditches. Our bream population is plentiful, so there’s good forage so the fish can grow.”
The myriad types of cover and structure provide fishermen with a test of their ability, but also a lot of choices. In the learning process of 2006, reports of success included about every kind of pattern you can imagine — deep cranking on rockpiles, flipping timber, topwater. You name it, and on any given day three or four patterns worked.
But the lake isn’t that easy to fish. The very same abundance of hiding places can make for a frustrating day.
“You have to love it that on any cast, you know you might be hooking up with a monster,” said bass pro Pete Ponds of Madison, who filmed an ESPN2 “Day on the Lake” episode on Calling Panther last June. “I couldn’t find any big fish that day, but I caught about 15 keepers. Then on my next trip, I caught two over 7 pounds. The more you go, the better you’ll learn, and I really feel this lake has more potential than any other public lake in Mississippi.”
Already, the lake has produced several fish over 9 pounds for fishermen, and an electro-shocking boat turned up an 11-pounder. Those fish could have been no older than 3 years.
“I couldn’t believe how quickly the fish put on weight,” said Kallum Herrington, the lake’s manager. “When you see fish getting to 10 pounds in that short a period of time, you have to believe the potential is there to develop a trophy bass fishery for years to come.
“What’s going to help is the abundant cover these fish have in which to hide. For the next few years, until a lot of this timber falls in, it’s going to be hard for fishermen to get at them.”
But, as Garavelli said, the timing of the continued growth of the Florida-strain of bass and the continued decay of standing timber should coincide to produce outstanding fishing beginning this year and lasting many more.
“As these fish start reaching maturity, a lot of this dense cover will be gone, giving fishermen more access to them,” he agreed. “Plus, we’ve got protective limits to help ensure that the lake keeps producing big fish.”
To ensure more recruitment of bass into the trophy range, the lake opened in 2006 with a slot limit that protects 16- to 22-inch fish. All fish measuring in that slot have to be immediately released. Each angler was allowed to keep seven fish a day, but only one of those could exceed 22 inches.
“For that to work to produce more big fish, we need fishermen to take some of the smaller bass out,” Skains pointed out. “The last thing we want to do is for the bass to become overpopulated, which would stunt growth.”
LAKE TOM BAILEY
At Lake Tom Bailey in Toomsuba, between Meridian and the Alabama line, the MDWFP has a management plan in place to do exactly the opposite — create an overpopulation of bass that will limit trophy potential.
“We’re managing Tom Bailey to create a trophy bream lake,” said biologist Larry Bull. “That means we want to develop a bass population that will be dominated by small fish that will feed on small bream only. I know that bass fishermen won’t understand or like the sound of that.”
Well, for now they should. In the first few years of the lake’s reopening, Phase 1 of the management plan actually creates a great bass fishery. It won’t last for very long, but for 2007 Tom Bailey should be a must visit.
A 234-acre lake, it shouldn’t be hard to learn in a trip or two.
“You don’t have to look too hard to see where you want to fish,” said biologist Clay Ready. “We did a lot of work during renovation to create cover and structure, plus we have a lot of vegetation that we really didn’t plan on. You can launch at the ramp and immediately see two or three options.”
In the spring of 2006, one pattern emerged quickly following the spawn.
“We had a heck of a run on bass on plastic frogs,” Bull said. “We had a couple of guys who kind of stumbled onto it when they saw fish moving around the shallow vegetation. They pulled out frogs and had great results.”
Bass up to 6 pounds were common in the catch, which means the lake is producing some good fish quickly.
“But, again, understand that this is not our long-term goal,” Ready emphasized. “It’s great to start with for bass fishermen and it will last a few years. But we’re working hard to create a high population of small bass, not big bass. We’ll always have some big bass, but not like we will for the first few years. There’s a 15-inch minimum length limit on bass. That is not to promote recruitment of bass to trophy length, but to protect the small fish which will dominate the population.”
Spring and fall topwater fishing is the top bass attraction at the lake, but there is ample opportunity for deeper fishing in the channels cut by the agency during the renovation process. Also, in the late spring, fish for bass around the many gravel beds built for bluegill spawning areas. Fishermen had excellent luck catching bass that congregated around the beds to feast on young-of-the-year bream. Spinnerbaits and soft-plastic jerkbaits worked really well.
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