The Magnolia State's Top Bass Waters
September 30, 2010
Pick any corner of Mississippi and you'll be close to some promising places for casting a line to black bass. Here are some of the spots offering this year's best options!
Under the rising sun, a peaceful Mississippi morning is disturbed by the clacking of blades and the sputtering of water: Churning over the shallows and through the shadows, a buzzbait runs across the surface of the lake. The repetitive sound is hypnotic -- until . . .
Water suddenly erupts from below the lure, splashing several feet in the air and shattering any semblance of peace. A giant bass has smashed an angler's buzzbait, and the hookset rocks the boat; the battle's on. The fisherman calls in his excitement to let his partner know that he's engaged with an irate bass.
"Get the net! It's a big one!" he hollers.
As the fish makes run after run to reach cover, the water continues to boil. But the 7-foot medium-heavy rod and 20-pound braided line are too much for the bass, and it's eventually pulled alongside the boat and into the net. Pictures are taken, high-fives shared.
Just another among thousands of magic moments shared by anglers each year in the Magnolia State -- and a memory to last a lifetime.
A wallhanger? It could be, if that's your dream. Or, if you prefer numbers to trophies, perhaps just one of several bites on the same day.
Whether it's quantity or quality that floats your boat, you can find it for sure in the bass-rich Magnolia State. The purpose of this story is to help you plan another great year of bassin' in Mississippi.
These top spots have a lot to offer, and so merit inclusion on anyone's annual fishing agenda. Presented in geographical order, they've been chosen to include all areas of the state and to provide a mix of various types of waters. Rest assured: Dozens of lakes could have been listed -- so many to choose from, so little space. But these will certainly do.
BAY SPRINGS LAKE
No discussion of bass fishing in Mississippi would be complete without some mention of the Tenn-Tom Waterway, but rarely do you hear this 6,700-acre impoundment mentioned.
Bay Springs Lake is unique to Mississippi -- and that's part of its attraction. It's only one of two smallmouth fisheries in the state, and the only one entirely within its borders; it also contains top-quality largemouths. Yet its biggest attraction may be its trophy Kentucky spotted bass. It's without doubt Mississippi's best destination for spots.
Combined, all three of the bass represent the prime promise of Bay Springs: an opportunity to catch a boatload of fish on any given day.
Fishing patterns vary, but the lake's design promotes main-lake points and secondary points in its bigger coves. "That's where the majority of the spots and the bigger largemouths are taken most of the year," said Larry Pugh, the newly-appointed assistant chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, who spent the previous decade in the northeast corner of the state. "It is one of the few lakes in the state where you can talk about fishing main-lake points and be talking 35, 40 or even 50 feet. And that's how deep some of the bigger spots are caught in the summer."
But in spring, the fishing moves to the coves and pockets, into which the fish move up to spawn. One secret of the locals in March is to fish slowly in the mouths of the big coves with a suspending jerkbait like a Rogue. Big female bass of all three species suspend in those areas and fall prey to that lure.
The lake also has a lot of standing timber and stumpfields in the backwater areas that provide good largemouth action throughout the year. Finding the cover close to a deep drop, like a creek channel, is essential, but not hard-- the lake is extremely deep, so finding that pattern is easy.
Robbie Bridges of Jackson makes at least two trips a year to Bay Springs, where he targets the trophy spotted bass. "Even if I'm fishing a tournament on Pickwick Lake," he said, "I will make the 45-mile run down to Bay Springs because I have confidence that I can catch a five-bass limit over 10 pounds every day -- just on spots. It's usually heavier. Most of the guys will take Pickwick and as large as it is, it can get crowded. But on Bay Springs, only a few of us have all 6,700 acres to ourselves -- and there are so many ways to catch fish."
According to Bridges, it's important for first-time Bay Springs fishermen to perfect their skills with a shaky-head worm rig and a drop shot. "Those are the No. 1 patterns year-round on the lake no matter which species you target," he said.
That this 200-acre National Forest Service lake off the Natchez Trace remains a relative secret to most bass fishermen in Mississippi is amazing.
Sitting in the Tombigbee National Forest about 30 miles south of Tupelo, Davis enters 2009 as the place to go for the best chance at a bass of a lifetime. It was restocked with Florida-strain bass in 2000, and that stocking is fully mature; it's a lunker hotspot in its prime, giving up fish of more than 10 pounds.
Just how big are the bass at Davis Lake? "In our electrofishing sample last spring, we found 10 fish that weighed at least 10 pounds," said Rick Dillard, a biologist with the Mississippi office of the National Forest Service. "The largest we shocked was 12 pounds, 7 ounces. This was just a sample, mind you, which represents only a small part of the bass population.
"The amazing thing to me was that four of these fish were less than 22 inches long! Imagine that: 10 pounds and under 22 inches. The cool thing about that is that the slot limit for bass on Davis Lake is 18 to 22 inches" -- which is to say that all bass between those marks must be immediately released. The importance of that is obvious: About 40 percent of Davis Lake's trophy 10-pounders are protected.
The biologist went on to note that at a typically well-managed bass fishery, a good average for a 22-inch bass is about 6 pounds.
The lake record of 13 pounds, 4 ounces was caught in 2007. "Add another year or two of growth to that 7-year-old bass -- well, you can easily see the lake's potential," Dillard said. "We do get complaints from Davis Lake, but it's usually about how slow the bite can be. But the same people always come back with 'When I do get a bite, it's usually a good one.' Four-pounders have a calming effect."
The lake is extremely clear, which makes the March and early April be
dding period an ideal time to sight-fish for big females on the beds. The lake's numerous shallow pockets and shallow upper end offer prime bedding areas.
During the rest of the year, one top pattern involves fishing the south side across from the boat ramp and campground, where a creek channel runs close along a steep bluff bank. Also, some deep brushpiles hold fish here.
ROSS BARNETT RESERVOIR
An oldie but a goodie, this popular 33,000-acre lake is hard to beat in Mississippi for numbers. Trophy bass aren't as rare as they used to be, either.
"But still," said bass pro Pete Ponds of Madison, who cut his teeth on the lake before hitting the national tour, "when you talk about Barnett Reservoir, you're talking about a place where you can go for quantity. I have always believed that Barnett was a great place to learn to fish. It offers so many different ways to catch bass, and it's a year-round bite.
"Obviously, the peak for numbers is late spring through early fall -- and, yes, that includes the summer. Once the fish move out after the spring spawn and form schools on the deep drops, they stay for months. And unless the same school gets pounded over and over, they will bite."
Shannon Denson of Brandon asserted that prime time for "some serious numbers of bass" is late April and all of May. "As soon as the spawn is over, the fish pull out to the first drops off the spawning flats," he stated. "It'll start with a trickle of fish, and once you start finding them out on that drop, you can count on it. A week or two later, there will be hundreds of them on that spot. You can sit in one place and wear yourself out on bass. I'm not saying you're going to catch a monster, but you will catch a good mix of 12- to 20-inch bass."
More of Barnett's trophy bass are caught on frogs than on any other lure -- probably because that's the easiest bait to fish amid lily pads. "Flipping a jig around the pads would do the same thing," Ponds said, "and I think newcomers to the lake from other areas of the country would certainly do that. But the frog became so popular here because it was so productive, and because it allows you to cover so much water."
LAKE CALLING PANTHER
This 500-acre lake near Crystal Springs about 30 miles southwest of Jackson is turning out to be every bit the trophy lake that it was anticipated to become. Open only three years now, it's already producing fish over 12 pounds, and should top 13 this year.
At the same time, though, the lake is developing a reputation for numbers -- so much so that MDWFP biologists increased the daily limit to 30 per day to encourage some reduction of the younger fish in the population. Only one fish over 20 inches is allowed per day.
With each year that passes, Calling Panther becomes user-friendlier, too; at least half of the standing timber -- which once made it impossible to see across the lake in some areas -- is now gone. "You can at least cast now in more areas," said Brian Broom, a lake regular from Crystal Springs. "It's still pretty tough to fish, because the timber that fell is still there -- only now it's laying down. There are still a lot of places that bass can get that we can't. They got plenty of time to grow and reach maturity."
The best time for finding trophy fish is the spring, when the bigger females are moving up into the shallow coves. That season produced a run on 12- to 12 1/2-pound fish last season. A bream fisherman caught the lake record on a Beetle Spin spinnerbait in the back of a cove.
For numbers, the best bet is to fish the open banks with worms or small spinnerbaits in spring and fall. The smaller bass move up to feed on small fry and minnows.
My best session there took place on an early-fall day that saw me working a 4-inch worm on a shallow drop-shot rig. Never moving off a 200-yard stretch of bank between the boat ramp and the dam, state fisheries director Ron Garavelli and I filled a 48-quart ice chest with 12- to 14-inch bass.
SIMPSON COUNTY LAKE
Surprised? You shouldn't be. When you're talking about sites to which you can refer those out for trophy bass, it only makes sense to include the lake that produced the biggest bass reported on public waters the year before.
Simpson County Lake -- off U.S. Highway 49 between Magee and Mendenhall -- is that place. At only 76 acres, it's hardly intimidating, and is fairly easy to fish.
The confirmed 13-pounder and unconfirmed 14-pounder were said to have been caught on live shiners. The lake's official record, a 13 1/2-pound specimen, was caught in 1999 on a worm fished in a creek channel.
"I caught two over 10 down there last year and I had one break me off I know was bigger," said John Denson of Jackson, who loves the state lakes and makes regular trips to Simpson, Calling Panther and others. "Both of the 10s are still there. I turned them loose.
"I usually fish a 9- or 10-inch worm in either junebug or tequila sunrise, and no matter what time of year it is I'm going to be close to one of the creek channels. I have never done good on big fish without being close to a drop there."
When his 12-year-old son John Jr. is along, the senior angler changes his pattern entirely. "We can take a 6-inch worm or craw worm and cast the cover on the banks and catch a limit of 12-inch bass, which John Jr. loves," Denson said. "About the only time that doesn't work is the middle of the summer. But in the fall or spring, it's automatic.
"You can cover the whole lake in two hours with a trolling motor."
TURKEY FORK LAKE
Another small, relatively unknown locale that shouldn't be missed, this 90-acre National Forest Service lake near Richton in southeast Mississippi is horribly under fished.
"I wish I knew why it doesn't get more pressure," said Larry Clay, a recently retired Forest Service biologist, "because it certainly is a good lake. I love it. With Davis Lake and our new Okhissa Lake, you don't hear anything about Turkey Fork and that's just wrong."
"That's OK with me," said Jimmy Turner of Laurel, who hopes the pressure stays off the lake. "Normally when I go to Turkey Fork, even on the weekend, there're rarely more than one or two other boats on the whole lake. I can fish the entire lake, one end to the other, and never feel crowded, even though it's small."
Clay likes the lake's pleasing mix of quality and quantity. "You make the call," he said. "You can choose either trying to pinpoint a couple of quality bites, and even a 10-pounder, or you can go for numbers and fish to eat.
"If you want quality, then you want to think about targeting this lake in pre-spawn in late January or February. The big sow bass move up on warm days in January and then stay shallow later in February."
For quantity year 'round, take small crankbaits or small worms an
d fish the shallow cover along the banks and the creek channel. "You won't have any problem catching 12- to 15-inch fish," Clay said.
His favorite? "Definitely the fall," he offered. "In October, when the weather starts to cool, the bass move up out of the creek and move into the several brushpiles that we placed along the edges of the creek. You can take a worm and patiently work those, and it's a good bet you're going to get a chance to catch at least one big fish a day, along with a lot of medium and small fish, too.
"It's a great lake," Clay concluded. "One of the best in south Mississippi."