Upstate Small Lake Bassin'
September 30, 2010
Casting for largemouths in smaller waters is at its best in May in the northern reaches of Mississippi. Here's a look at the action on some public ponds in that region. (May 2009)
Robbie Bridges' eyes sparkled when he first saw Davis Lake.
"This looks interesting," the avid bass fisherman from Brandon said. "You say this lake is loaded with lunkers? If that's so, then we ought to have some fun."
His excitement wasn't dulled by his lack of knowledge, or experience, on the lake in the Tombigbee National Forest just off the Natchez Trace near Houston. What he saw thrilled him.
"What is it, about 200 or 225 acres?" Bridges asked.
The answer was 200.
"Subtract over half of that, at least, because of the season, and we've got about 75 or 80 acres of fish-holding possibilities," he said. "We should be able to learn what we need to know on the fly."
That's exactly the attraction of small-lake bassin'. Eliminating water and learning the available fish-holding cover doesn't take that long.
Being a tournament bass fisherman, Bridges is used to dealing with major lakes and reservoirs hundreds of times bigger than Davis. When he pre-fishes for a tournament on those big waters, he can spend as much as a week just learning how to get around and much more when it comes to learning the nuances.
Not so at Davis and several other outstanding public lakes in the northern part of Mississippi. Bridges needed just 10 minutes to motor around Davis, and another 10 or 15 identifying likely fish-producing patterns.
"You don't even need a map," he said. "You like having contour maps to find the creek channels, but that's not absolutely necessary. I can eyeball the likely paths of the channel coming out of the upper end and running along that steep bluff bank on the south side.
"But this being April, I think we'll just head into those coves and see what happens."
Only 20 minutes had passed when Bridges made his first cast.
It took five more to put the first fish in the boat. The 2-pounder wasn't near what we'd come looking for, but it certainly served as proof of the value of the smaller lakes.
We scored and we scored quickly, and anybody who bass fishes can appreciate that kind of success.
Regrettably, a cold front arrived several hours earlier than expected, ending our day a few minutes after that first fish with a wicked display of lightning.
We raced back across the ski area, where running on plane is allowed, made it to the boat ramp and had the boat on the trailer when the bottom fell out accompanied by a lightning bolt that hit a nearby tree.
"Another advantage of small lakes," Bridges noted. "Can you imagine what it would have been like had we been or a reservoir or a river, miles from the ramp and the safety of the truck today? That would have been hairy."
Northeast Mississippi is loaded with many opportunities for fishermen who prefer small lakes.
"It's actually a lot like a golf course," said Larry Pugh, a former fisheries biologist for the region who now serves as the state's Assistant Director of Fisheries. "This course has several great holes -- fishing holes -- that are ideal for fishermen who like new challenges and like weekend trips.
"You can come up here and base out of Tupelo, for instance, and there are nine or 10 lakes, 250 acres or less, to choose from. Not all of them are great trophy bass lakes, but most of them either offer a good shot at a big fish, or if not, they offer the opportunity to catch numbers of smaller fish. Pick your poison."
Of course, Push said, there are a handful that offers both, quality and quantity. We chose those to include on our list of the top five small lake bassin' hotspots in north Mississippi.
Any discussion of small bass-fishing spots in Mississippi must begin with this lake, which remains the jewel of the National Forest Service waters in the state. The newer and much-bigger Okhissa Lake in southwest Mississippi probably gets more attention, but right now, it ranks No. 2.
"Davis Lake is still a man's best bet at catching a bass of a lifetime," said Rick Dillard, a biologist who heads up the Forest Service's wildlife-related recreation projects in Mississippi. "We restocked the lake in 2000 with Florida bass, and that initial stocking is reaching the peak of its maturity, which means there are some monsters out there."
Dillard has seen them. In his electro-shocking sampling in 2008, he found 10 fish over 10 pounds, including the largest at 12 pounds, 7 ounces.
"But here is the kicker to that. Four of those 10-pound fish were less than 22 inches in length. Imagine that, 10-pound fish under 22 inches," he said. "And it gets better. We have an 18- to 22-inch slot on the lake (all fish between 18 and 22 inches must be released immediately), so that means the lake is producing 10-pound fish that have to be released!"
Davis Lake, which is about 30 miles south of Tupelo on the Natchez Trace, is certainly worth a visit any month of the year, but the late spring is an excellent time.
"I know there are a lot of people who prefer March and April, when the fish are either just before going on beds or are on the beds," said Larry Clay, a former Forest Service biologist, who retired in 2008. "Give me May."
Clay likes this month because it provides an excellent topwater bite early and late, and also because the big sow bass coming off the beds find intermediate cover to stage before moving to the deeper cover during summer.
"You get that good active topwater or spinnerbait bite early, and then you just move out to the brush, slow down and start using the soft plastics to entice them," he said. "You follow that pattern, slow down and locate the best cover, and you have a good chance of eventually catching that big old wallhanger you've waited your whole life for."
Davis Lake has a developed side on the north with a boat ramp, campgrounds, offices and day-use facilities. It is the shallow side of the lake.
The south side is undeveloped, and offers the kind of scenic beauty you expect from a national forest, and the solitude that is outstanding for fishi
ng. It is where the big coves are, plus it offers the deep contours and cover that are summer homes to the big fish.
TRACE STATE PARK
Off State Route 6 near Pontotoc, about 10 miles west of Tupelo, is one of the best-kept fishing secrets in the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks system.
The fishery is actually two lakes in one, connected by a channel just off the corner of the dam of the bigger lake. The combined acreage of the two lakes is under 600, small enough to be easily learned.
The main lake is the only one open to skiing, and is a good fishing lake. The smaller lake is actually the better springtime bass-fishing lake.
"It offers everything you'd want in the spring," Pugh said. "There are some ditch and creek channels that you need to find that run through some stumpfields, but you also want to look at the coves and the points they provide.
"There's a good topwater bite along the edges of both lakes in May, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and there's a good chance to catch quality fish doing that. But it's also a great lake to back off and throw something like a Senko worm off those points and drops off the banks."
As is the case with all lakes managed by the MDWFP, Trace has some well-placed brushpiles, fish attractors that offer excellent midday fishing. In May, on one trip, outdoor writer David Rainer of Mobile caught a 10-pound bass on the smaller lake on one of the piles right in the junction of two creek channels. That same day produced steady action for quality fish in the 2- and 3-pound range on lizards on brush in 5 feet of water.
Before moving from Tupelo to Iuka, long-time bass guide Roger Stegall used Trace as an alternative when weather made fishing impossible at Pickwick Lake.
"I spent a lot of days there in the late fall and winter, and a few in the summer when we were dodging storms, and I always had success deep cranking this one deep ledge in the big lake across from the dam in a corner of the lake," he said. "We had one day when a client and I put 10 fish over 5 pounds in the boat in an hour."
TIPPAH COUNTY LAKE
About an hour west of Tupelo near Ripley is a lake that burst onto the scene, basically out of nowhere, in the mid-1980s when a local fisherman set a new state record for largemouths at 14 pounds, 12 ounces.
"Ever since, fishing pressure has been steady on the lake," Pugh said. "It still attracts a lot of fishing activity, but most of it is for bluegills or redears. But it's a mistake to overlook Tippah for bass. It still produces several fish a year over 10 pounds, and is loaded with smaller fish, too.
"It is definitely one of those lakes you can go, and once you learn it, you can find quality and quantity."
Tippah is 145 acres of fishing bliss, sitting near the foot of Woodall Mountain, Mississippi's highest elevation.
"It is loaded with good brushpiles, shallow flats and it even has an old roadbed," Pugh said. "But here's something you may not know. In the last couple of years, we've started seeing more shoreline vegetation, and in May, it has produced a heck of a topwater bite along that vegetation.
"It's still a good place to flip and pitch the shoreline cover in May with soft plastics, but I've gotten to where I like the vegetation most of all."
The lake has an old creek channel that still retains some definition, and there is a lot of deep brush along its path. Tippah also has four well-defined coves with shoreline cover. Those coves also create points with strategically placed cover.
On a trip in May 2007 to chase bluegills and redears during a full moon, I couldn't resist throwing a worm into brushpiles placed at the junction of two creek channels on the upper end of the lake. My reward was a 4-pound bass on the second cast.
As good as the above lakes in northeast Mississippi are, Pugh has more positive things to say about this 450-acre lake near Starkville off U.S. Highway 82 in Oktibbeha County.
Its size puts it on the borderline of small lakes, but it fishes small.
"I know the catch rates don't show it, but you have to include this lake, because when we do our population surveys, it rates right up there with any lake in our statewide system," Pugh said. "It is absolutely loaded with bass between 3 and 6 pounds, and they're getting bigger, because not a lot of them are being caught.
"The main reason I think is that it just doesn't get a lot of fishing pressure. There are so many choices so close to Starkville, like the Tenn-Tom and then all of these other lakes, that it just doesn't attract that many boats. But if somebody would spend a little bit of time and learn this lake and all the great patterns that exist, they wouldn't believe the combination of quality and quantity it holds."
Oktibbeha is a wide-open lake, which makes it intimidating to many fishermen, but it has plenty of structure. Pugh recommended the piers and fallen timber on the southeast side of the lake, which has some private homes along the bank that were there before the state got control of the water.
Other good targets are the brushpiles along the creek channel that runs the length of a long, narrow cove on the north side near the lake offices and day-use facilities.
At 99 acres, this lake near Aberdeen in Monroe County is an easy study.
"I can't think of another lake anywhere that a fisherman can go to, launch his big or small boat (idle speed only) and fish the whole lake as quickly as you can Monroe," Pugh said. "For a small lake, it sure offers a variety of patterns that can keep you on your toes."
No. 1 in May, Pugh said, is fishing the plentiful shoreline cover.
"Of course, you want to start with topwater, and that is your best chance to pick up a big one," Pugh said. "I say that, but would add that size is not really why you'd want to go to Monroe. The lake just doesn't have that many big fish. It does produce a trophy now and again, but the big attraction there is its dependability at producing a good number of decent fish. By that, I mean fish 13 to 15, or even 16 inches.
"Those fish are plentiful in May when you go around the edges of the lake with small soft plastics in the shoreline cover. You can make a full lap of the shoreline in a couple of hours."
A good starting place for that kind of action would be to cross the lake from the boat ramp to the opposite west bank and then turn south toward the dam. That bank is loaded with MDWFP-placed brushpiles.
While those five are our top choices, they are by no means t
he entire list. Just within 10 miles of the heart of Tupelo are three more lakes to try.
Elvis Presley Lake on the northern outskirts of the town is 322 acres of water overstocked with bass.
"It is typical of over-populated lakes," Pugh agreed. "You can go there and with limited skill and a boat, you can expect to catch plenty of 12-inch fish. It's full of them. But it rarely produces a quality fish."
Avid bass fisherman Ed Houston of Tupelo said he likes it because he can take his children and their friends and get a limit nearly every time."
On the opposite side of town is Tombigbee State Park and its 100-acre Lake Lee. Pugh likes the lake for its seclusion and serene fishing, and also because it produces.
It's a good lake for a quick trip of a couple of hours. Take a lot of soft plastics to fish the ample shoreline cover. The lake is good about producing fish in the 18-inch range up to 6 pounds, but, of course, produces smaller 12-inch fish.
About 10 miles north of Tupelo at Saltillo is Lake Lamar Bruce, a bream-fishing hole that also offers surprisingly good bass fishing. The bassin' hits a peak after the first of the panfish spawns in April or May, when the bream fry become plentiful.
"You don't have to hunt hard to find them then," Pugh said. "You see them swirling through the fry, like bass on a big reservoir chasing shad."
Contour maps, fishing information and nearby attractions are available regarding most of these lakes through the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Web site at www.mdwfp.com.