Tenn-Tom Time For Bass

The pools along this northeast Mississippi waterway can provide some interesting angling at this time of year. Let's take a tour along them. (May 2007)

Biologist Larry Pugh lips a spotted bass hooked on a drop-shot worm rig just downstream of Lock D on the Tenn-Tom.
Photo by Robert H. Cleveland Jr.

It was surprising to see what was swimming up with my spinnerbait stuck in its jaw, the golden willow-leaf and smaller silver Colorado blades shining in the clear water as they bounced with every turn of the fish's head.

"That's a spot -- a huge spot!" I started hollering at my fishing partner. "No wonder it felt like I was reeling in Moby Dick! I haven't seen a spotted bass that big in years -- decades -- maybe never."

Biologist Larry Pugh jumped down off the front deck to get a closer look, and to help land the fish. "We grow the biggest Kentucky spotted bass in the state up here; didn't I tell you that?" said Pugh, the District 1 fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks in the northeast corner of the state.

Among the many waters he oversees in the area is the Tenn-Tom Waterway as it flows south out of Pickwick Lake down through the northeast corner of the state before it exits into Alabama south of Columbus.

I was quickly becoming a firm believer. The spotted bass was still fighting to get away from the boat, but it was a battle that, fortunately for me, it would not win. Finally tuckered out, the spot came in on its side, and Pugh lipped and lifted it up.

"That's not even a big one," he said. "It's a good one, but I wouldn't call it big by Tenn-Tom standards."

The fish, weighing in at just over 3 pounds, was released back into the Bay Springs Pool, the uppermost lake on the Tenn-Tom. "You want a really big one? We need to move to another part of the river and fish just for spots," he said. "Right down there below the Bay Springs Dam is where the next state record will come.

"Just another reason why the Tenn-Tom is such a great fishing destination. It has so much to offer, top to bottom."

While the Tenn-Tom may never have turned into the economic boom that was expected from shipping, it did become a recreational success, especially for bass fishing. Its 150-mile run through Mississippi offers over 30,000 acres of fishable waters, ranging from narrow river channels to flooded backwaters in eight different pools.

Of all the times of the year to fish the Tenn-Tom, Pugh said, May could very well be the best month to visit.

In addition to great largemouth fishing, the waterway has the potential for trophy and even record spotted bass, and offers the state's only smallmouth bass opportunities. In one stretch of the river, you can never be sure exactly which of the three you will find tugging on your line.

Let's take a quick trip down the waterway with Pugh as our guide and see what it has to offer. We'll start on the upper end, where the "mystery" bite is concentrated.

THE HIGH COUNTRY

The Tenn-Tom has its beginning on the Yellow Creek arm of Pickwick Lake, exiting into the 35-mile man-made channel that connects to Bay Springs. The upper part of the Tenn-Tom is referred to as the "Divide Section," since it runs through the very bottom of the eastern Continental Divide and the highest elevations in Mississippi.

"Yellow Creek at Pickwick is not to be overlooked," said Pugh. "It has outstanding fishing, and offers an array of challenges for fishermen. You can work deep points and secondary points. You can flip boat docks. There are riprap banks. I promise you there's a pattern there that fits your fishing style, especially in May.

"My favorite is still tying on a topwater bait early in the morning or on an overcast day and fishing secondary points and the backs of pockets. Once the spawn ends, the fish move out of the backwaters and start holding on points or along riprap. They feed pretty heavy in May, putting on some of the body weight lost during the spawn. In late April and early May you might still have some in the pockets, so you can look for beds, but most of them will be done and on the points."

Once the sun gets up and bright, you can forget the topwater altogether, but Pugh suggests giving the fish a chance to slam a lipless crankbait like a Rat-L-Trap or a midrange crankbait before moving out to fish deep.

"They will move out and go deeper with the sun, but you can work the points going out with Traps and Bandit 200s," Pugh said. "They are active, and will bite. And here's a tip for you: Don't come to Pickwick or Bay Springs without a supply of Bandit 200s in the root beer pattern."

The smallmouths will now have gone to the deeper main points, and will be holding in water 12 to 20 feet deep. A Carolina-rigged worm or a Bill Norman DD22 -- in the root-beer pattern, if you can find one -- is your best bet.

One other option is the most obvious cover to target in Yellow Creek: boat docks. A 1/4-ounce jig flipped or pulled around and under boats produces some big bites.

The channel to Bay Springs looks plain enough: a 35-mile run through a canal lined with riprap. But Pugh warns not to let its looks fool you -- because it can be productive.

"Especially in May," he emphasized, "it is probably the best month for the canal. Fish are scattered along the riprap, since, really, that's all they have. But when we get a heavy spring rain, there are a few areas where fish concentrate, and that's when you can put a hurt on them."

Heavy rains activate a few natural run-offs that pour into the channel, pulling fish in to feed on what the entering current brings. "This is one of those times when you never know what you are going to catch," Pugh noted. "You can throw a crankbait in a runout and catch equal amounts of spotted bass and largemouth bass, but you also can get a big striper or a white bass. If you want action, it's the way to go."

Legendary bass angler Bill Dance likes to fish the upper end of the channel at night in the summer with a black spinnerbait. "You run down from Yellow Creek and fish the riprap in that first stretch, and it's some of the best night-fishing you'll find anywhere," he said. "We slow-roll a spinnerbait down the rocks, and the big spots and a smallmouth or two will whack it."

The canal next leads us to Bay Springs, a 6,700-acre pool that has gained in popularity as fishermen came to understand it. It is atypical for a Mississippi water: deep and clear, yet with wonderful shallow backwaters to prowl. In May, there is no wrong pattern -- deep or shallow -- on top or in 30 feet. It's Pugh's favorite month.

"Bay Springs largemouth spawn in April, and are usually done by May, but the water hasn't warmed enough to send them deep immediately," he said. "The big sows stay shallow longer on Bay Springs than anywhere else in the state, and that makes May a great month to get in the backs of the pockets and coves and fish topwater baits and plugs."

Don't get hung up on any kind of pattern, either -- bass don't. They may be on secondary points, or on flats, or on the banks in the backs of the coves or on fallen trees or even artificial fish attractors.

"The only consistency is that they are hungry and will bite," Pugh said. "They are shallow, and they will explode on a topwater. The two best areas are the big coves known as Piney Grove and Five Fingers."

Piney Grove is on the west side of the pool, while Five Fingers is to the east. "You can catch all the spotted bass you want fishing the deep main-lake points any time of the year," Pugh continued. "The lake is full of spotted bass. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to catch them, either."

On windy days, work the wind-blown banks, concentrating on any of the abundant fallen timber with spinnerbaits. On calm and sunny days, move out and work the points with either a drop-shot or a Carolina-rigged worm, and don't be afraid to fish as deep as 25 to 35 feet.

"They stack on those points like crazy," Pugh said. "Later on in the summer, the bigger sow largemouth move out there and join them. That is the summer pattern here -- fishing real deep."

FISHING THE CANAL

Leaving Bay Springs, we enter one of the best-kept bass secrets in the state, and one that Pugh is reluctant to discuss. Lock E, or Saucier (pronounced "saucer"), is the first pool on the 46-mile stretch of the Tenn-Tom known as the "Canal Section."

"Saucier is so good -- but it is also so small that I hate to give it a lot of publicity," the biologist said. "It can be overfished so easily that it could be ruined."

The attraction here is trophy spotted bass, with maybe even a smallie turning up now and then. "I'm betting that the state's next record spotted bass will come from below the Bay Springs Lock and Dam at Saucier," Pugh said. "In the last two years, I've verified several 7-pounders, and it's only a matter of time until a record comes out of there."

To claim that title will take a spot of 8.25 pounds or larger. "But what people don't know is that it is becoming a smallmouth fishery, too," Pugh added. "There aren't many of them in there, but the quality is unbelievable. There're some big ones there."

Saucier consists of just 830 acres, most of it in the short canal leading to the next lock. It is the shortest stretch of the five-leg canal section. You can run the length of Saucier in 10 minutes.

The record potential exists in the first mile or two below the huge Jamie Whitten Lock and Dam that forms Bay Springs Lakes. "The upper part of Saucier is a narrow channel with steep bluff banks and deep, clear water," Pugh said. "Perfect spotted bass habitat is what it is, and they do well there. You have to learn to fish light tackle and bounce a small grub on a jighead or a drop-shot worm rig with spinning tackle and work them in current."

All of the five pools in the Canal Section, formed by locks A at the south end through E at the north, are essentially the same, but differ in their depth as you move south. All are narrow channels with deep water below the locks and shallower depths with more backwater on the lower ends above the next lock and dam.

All are home to spotted bass below the dams, and are better for largemouths on the lower ends. Saucier is the best for spots, and locks D (Beaver) and B (Smithville) are the best for largemouths. Locks C (Fulton) and A (Amory) are the toughest. Local knowledge is a must on C and A.

"But you can catch fish at Beaver and Smithville," Pugh said. "They both have good bass populations. They are not trophy fisheries. You go to those lakes for action -- and they will give you that. Most of the fish measure 11 to 15 inches, but there's enough of them to keep you real busy. If you can find the right pattern on any given day, you can wear yourself out."

At Beaver, Pugh suggested, spend at least half the day working the upper end for spotted bass in the waters below the lock. A drop-shot worm bounced off the bottom is tough to beat.

After the sun gets up, especially in May when water temperatures are still cool, run to the lower end and look for largemouths. The lower Beaver backwaters have abundant natural structure, like ledges and stumprows, that holds fish.

At Smithville, spend less time chasing spotted bass and concentrate on the high numbers of hungry largemouths on the lower end. Look for flowering vegetation in or very near to 3 feet of water. "Water willows have always been the top pattern on Smithville in May," Pugh said, "and that hasn't changed. On a cloudy day or at sunrise, you can work the edges in 3 to 4 feet of water with spinnerbaits and topwaters, but when the sun is up and bright, that's when it's best. Sun moves the fish right up into the vegetation, not around it. You can flip and pitch worms or jigs right into the holes and pockets in the vegetation and work them over."

Pugh said that Smithville, the largest of the Canal Section pools at 2,700 acres, is rarely crowded. The main reason for the lack of traffic brings us to the final section of the waterway.

THE RIVER SECTION

The last three pools on the Tenn-Tom's southern swing through northeast Mississippi make up the "River Section." They are three of the four largest. From north to south, those pools are Aberdeen at 4,100 acres, Columbus with 8,900 and Aliceville, which covers 8,300 acres, only about a third of which are in Mississippi. These pools created in the winding Tombigbee River bottom and the connecting channels total about 21,000 acres of water.

Aberdeen is the least fished of the three, and for that reason receives Pugh's recommendation for May. "Get ready to go shallow, because that's where the fish will be," Pugh said. "They finish the spawn in April, but they never leave the shallow backwaters -- and I'm talking push-pole shallow."

Aberdeen is the best of the bunch in spring because it is little more than a couple of old river runs with a lot of connecting sloughs that create clear pockets off the usually dirty channel. The old sloughs and their pockets are loaded with natural cover, both standing

and laydown timber.

"Spinnerbaits and buzzbaits have always been famous on Aberdeen," Pugh said. "Hasn't changed. And neither has the importance of identifying the correct pattern. This is a lake like no other, in that no matter where you go, there is one pattern on any given day that you have to identify. Are they on standing timber, or laying logs? Are they on the wood near grass, or near deep water? There will always be one exact pattern."

Get to know the names Vines Branch, Buzzard Wing and Moccasin Creek: Those are the sloughs you need to find. And if you like river fishing better, find Beckers. According to Pugh, it's the best of the old river runs.

Columbus, the biggest, is also the most heavily fished. In addition to local traffic, it has been home to many national, regional and state bass tournaments. But the crowds usually stick to the gravel pits on the lower end and to the pool's largest tributary, Tibbee Creek. Both are outstanding areas, but expect big crowds: It seems as if everybody is fishing the abundant vegetation in the pits using plastics and spinnerbaits, or amid the stumps and trees in Tibbee with spinnerbaits, jigs and buzzbaits.

"That's why I like to fish the old sloughs and river runs on the upper end, and the feeders like Buttahatchie and McKinley Creek cutoffs," Pugh said. "There aren't as many bass there as in Tibbee or the pits, but the average size is better."

Aliceville is mostly in Alabama, and the Cotton State segment is the most heavily fished part. But the Mississippi end of the lake does have two areas worth a day of exploring: Hairston Bend and Pumpkin Creek.

"The Pratt's Camp area of Hairston is good, but Pumpkin Creek is still better," Pugh said. "Both have a lot of vegetation that hold fish in May, but Pumpkin has the best. It has milfoil and hydrilla, two submerged grasses that hold a lot of big fish."

Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com

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