Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
It’s January. Old Saint Nick has gone back to the North Pole, and the New Year has finally arrived. Mississippi deer and duck hunters are milking all they can from the last few days remaining in the hunting seasons. And most of the Magnolia State’s crappie fishermen have their poles rolled and neatly stored in their garages.
Those anglers believe that crappie season begins when spring announces its presence with the white blossoms of dogwoods. But diehard crappie anglers like Paul Johnson and Rabbit Rogers from Brandon don’t let the freezing temperatures and sharp January winds deter them one bit. Dressed in warm hunting boots, thermal underwear, and as much insulated clothing as they can lay their hands on, these two crappie catchers consistently haul in coolers full of these succulent slabs.
“If you want to catch that once in a lifetime white perch, late winter can be the time to do it,” said Paul Johnson, president of the Magnolia Crappie Club. “In my opinion, January is one of the best months to go crappie fishing in Mississippi.”
When it comes to crappie fishing, no geographical region of the Magnolia State lacks for excellent lakes, and overall crappie action is good statewide. However, thanks to recent management actions and environmental conditions, crappie anglers can expect some of the best fishing seen in years at North Mississippi lakes. More harvest restrictions and greater education efforts were implemented in a concerted effort to preserve the trophy crappie action at many of the top Magnolia State crappie lakes.
White-perch anglers at Sardis, Arkabutla, Enid, and Grenada reservoirs have a new creel limit of 20 per person, and crappie must be over 12 inches long at all four lakes in order to keep them. Each angler can use up to five poles (except at Grenada, where the limit is three poles). The bag limit for crappie is 20 at the spillways of all four lakes; no length limit applies for those.
Lake Washington, over in the Delta, has updated restrictions as well. The creel limit for Lake Washington crappie is 30 fish per person per day with no more than five fish less than 10 inches.
Even Pickwick Lake and a section of the Tenn-Tom Waterway between State Route 25 and the Aliceville Lock and Dam have a 9-inch minimum length in place for crappie. These restrictions are the primary reason for the continued good prospects for the papermouths swimming these North Mississippi waters. With 52 percent of the state’s anglers targeting crappie, many people feel that these restrictions are not only warranted, but also beneficial.
While tighter restrictions may help improve the crappie fishery for this part of the Magnolia State, some environmental conditions could have just the opposite effect. In the four flood-control reservoirs, water levels fluctuate up to 24 feet each year. When spring water levels are high, flooded vegetation improves habitat and produces more young crappie for anglers two or three years later.
Unfortunately, the drought of 2007 marked the third straight year for below-average rainfall totals. Low water levels concentrate fish, resulting in higher harvest potential and congested boat ramps as anglers flock to what water remains. While the short-term effect of low water levels is better fishing, the long-term consequence can be a falling off of fishing success in subsequent years.
Now that we know what conditions are like at these North Mississippi lakes, let’s review each to see what techniques are most productive for cold-weather crappie.
This 50,000-acre impoundment near Iuka in the far reaches of northeast Mississippi is one of a number of lakes created by the damming of the Tennessee River. Known primarily for its giant smallmouth bass, Pickwick is fast becoming a crappie hotspot as well. With close to 500 miles of shoreline bordering Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, this lake is prime crappie habitat.
A new boat ramp and a larger parking lot at J. P. Coleman State Park should greatly improve access to Pickwick — great news for the 70 percent of all anglers there who target crappie.
According to Pete Walley of Tupelo, slow-trolling is the most productive cold-weather tactic for catching numbers of crappie at Pickwick. Walley prefers to use a tandem rig — two jigs on each line, tied about a foot apart. Using 1/8-ounce jigs, he doesn’t need a weight to keep the lures deep and within a foot or two of the bottom.
Keying in on depth contours on the lake bottom, Walley uses his electronics to locate either schools of shad or schools of crappie. After identifying several promising contour changes that are holding fish, he then uses marker buoys to lay out a trail to track while trolling. Walley has learned the contour changes of Pickwick Lake from years of fishing, but newcomers can get a head start by studying a detailed topography map of the lake.
A few of the more productive locations for late-winter crappie at Pickwick are Mills, Yellow and Indian creeks. Even though tube and hair jigs are the most popular choices for this time of year, most crappie anglers carry along a few live minnows for insurance.
With the majority of the lake in Alabama, an Alabama fishing license allows a crappie angler to fish from the Wilson Dam downstream to the Pickwick Dam. Fishermen possessing a Tennessee or Mississippi fishing license are only allowed to fish certain portions of the lake.
Unlike most of the state’s oxbow lakes, which at times are attached to the Mississippi River, the Magnolia State is blessed with several outstanding old oxbows that are now separated from the big river by the levee. Of these non-connected oxbows, Lake Washington is fast gaining a reputation as one of Mississippi’s premier cold weather crappie hotspots. Some of the largest crappie caught in recent years came from Lake Washington in January and February on large minnows.
At Glen Allan, just 20 miles south of Greenville on State Route 1, Lake Washington has been designated as a demonstration lake for nutrient reduction in support of anoxia reduction in the Gulf of Mexico. This 5,000-acre Mississippi Delta oxbow boasts seven boat ramps and so offers anglers easy wintertime access.
As is the case at most oxbows in January, fishing live minnows deep tends to produce the best stringers of papermouths here. Electronic gear is also beneficial for fishing this lake. All you have to do to catch crappie is find and fi
sh around the shad schools. The weather being cold, you’ll have the most luck fishing deep with a slow presentation.
This impoundment has a history of being muddier than the other flood-control reservoirs, but reduced sedimentation resulting from the Demonstration Erosion Control Projects in the Coldwater River watershed may have eroded that reputation somewhat.
The crappie seem to do better in the clearer water. According to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks’ 2007 “State of the State’s Freshwater Fisheries Report,” the average weight of crappie taken from Arkabutla was at 1.3 pounds higher than at any of the other flood-control reservoirs.
The better cold-weather fishing at Arkabutla can be found in the deeper water close to the dam, because of the lower water levels in the rest of the lake. One of the hottest spots in cold weather is the old gravel pit near the dam. If we get a period of warm January weather — which has been known to happen in Mississippi — try the small impoundment of water at the head of the lake between SR 51 and Interstate 55. This pool doesn’t drain out in the winter and warms up more quickly because of its much shallower depth.
“If you want to catch that once-in-a-lifetime white perch, late winter can be the time to do it.” – Magnolia Crappie Club president Paul Johnson
According to the locals who fish Arkabutla on a regular basis, jigs in bright colors such as hot pink or chartreuse-and-black work best in these typically turbid waters. However, if the water temperature if 40 degrees or less, then minnows might be a better choice.
SARDIS AND ENID LAKE
I’m combining these two flood-control reservoirs because of their similarities. Sardis Lake is six miles northwest of Oxford off SR 314; Enid Lake can be accessed by taking Exit 223 (Enid) off Interstate 55. Both offer decent opportunities for nice catches of crappie, especially during the winter months.
Because of proximity to Memphis and ease of access via a major interstate highway, these two lakes receive considerable amounts of fishing pressure during the spring and summer; during the winter, however, pressure is very low.
Threadfin shad were observed for the first time in Sardis Lake in 2006, possibly getting there through illegal introduction. As happened at Enid Lake several years back, the threadfins can cause problems for the crappie. Although these shad can reproduce themselves into abundance, they serve as poor crappie forage, as they tend to be thin and small in flood-control reservoirs.
According to the MDWFP’s Bureau of Fisheries, the growth and harvest rates for crappie are similar at Sardis and Enid. The data show little difference in the growth rate of white crappie compared to what was seen before the 10-inch minimum-length limit went into effect. Most white crappie are 1 foot in length by the age of 3. In the summer, the majority of white crappie caught by anglers will be 1 to 2 years old; most 3-year-olds are fished out the following spring.
This cycle repeats itself every year. Basically, a year-class survives fishing for only 18 to 24 months before it’s essentially eliminated. This makes the crappie fishing extremely vulnerable during years in which spawning is poor.
Back in 1995, around two-fifths of the crappie in Sardis Lake were harvested — about 11 pounds of crappie per acre. In 2006, close to 20 pounds of crappie were harvested per acre. Biologists are concerned that fishing methods may be influencing the crappie harvest. Trollers during the summer and fall months catch crappie at almost double the rate of stationary single-pole anglers.
According to recent data, the angler catch rate of fish per hour at Sardis Lake and Enid Lake was 2.4 and 1.7 respectively. The average size crappie kept by anglers was .8 pounds at Sardis and .9 pounds at Enid. In recent years, the angler catch rate has been increasing and the average size of the fish caught has been decreasing — not good news for crappie anglers at these two lakes.
Volunteers have been hard at work making much-needed habitat improvements at both these waters, creating a total of 400 Christmas tree shelters at Sardis, while at Enid Lake they’ve been even busier, constructing 120 crappie stakebeds and an additional 830 Christmas tree shelters.
The drought of 2007 marked the third straight year for below-average rainfall totals.
“January provides some unique opportunities for crappie fishermen on both Sardis and Enid,” said Keith Meals, the MDWFP’s North Mississippi fisheries biologist. “Fishing pressure is very low because of the low water levels. However, the low water level also means that the crappie are compressed into a smaller area, making them easier to find.”
Meals recommended that anglers focus on the deep water close to the dam and the river channel in the main lake. The riprap lining the banks of the dam absorbs sunlight and warms the surrounding water. This warmer water attracts and holds schools of crappie.
Chris Mullins, of Joiner, Ark., a B’n'M Pro Team member and avid longtime crappie fisherman, guides at Enid Lake. He agreed that the deep water is where you find and catch crappie in January.
“I start out in the deepest part of the lake looking for suspended crappie with my depth finder,” he offered. “I expect the crappie to be holding in anywhere from 10- to 25-foot deep water. Once I find the crappie, I start fishing for them with the live shiners on 12-foot B’n'M trolling poles. If I can’t get the fish to bite the minnows, then I start fishing jigs. If the fish don’t bite the jigs, I put minnows on the backs of the jigs. The real secret to catching crappie this month is to locate the crappie first and then figure out what kind of bait they’ll eat.
“I like to fish with Southern Pro 1/8-ounce jigheads, and I use a variety of colors. My favorite colors at this time of year are orange-and-chartreuse, red-and-chartreuse and black-and-chartreuse. I put eight different colors of jigs on eight different poles and then let the crappie decide which color they want and at what depth.”
Mullins also believes in using a depthfinder, a GPS receiver, and a good topographic map when fishing for cold-weather crappie. The combo of topographic map and depthfinder will help you to locate the fish, and the GPS receiver will make it possible for you to return to the same spot and catch crappie at a later date when the conditions are the same.
For the past few years, crappie tournaments have thrust Grenada Lake and its big slabs into the national spotlight. Many would argue that this 35,820-acre flood-control reservoir five miles east of Grenada off Interstate 55 is the top trophy crappie lake in the country; few would deny that it’s home to some monster white perch.
The main factor to keep in mind about Grenada is its status as a flood-control lake. Typically, this lake is 25 feet below its normal poo
l in January, leaving many of the better fishing spots high and dry. This is when a good topographic map of the lake is an invaluable tool.
“You have to look for crappie that other people can’t see, because with the lake this low, every piece of visible cover will have fish,” said Jim Dodd, of Hot Springs, Ark., who has fished for crappie for over 50 years. “Since the lake’s so low, the crappie will be concentrated in deep water around structure.
“One of the mistakes many crappie fisherman make is they believe if they locate structure, they will find crappie — but this assumption isn’t necessarily true. You must locate the crappie actually holding on the structure and see them on your depthfinder. Then once you have them pinpointed, you can try to catch them.”
Almost every crappie angler in Mississippi will hit his or her favorite fishing hole during the spring spawn. After all, some of the biggest stringers and largest slab crappie are caught this time of year. So why not beat the crowds by getting an early start on some of the finest perch-jerkin’ action to be found in the Magnolia State?