Bassin' Prospects in Mississippi

From the oxbows along Old Man River to the Tenn-Tom Waterway, the Magnolia State is filled with great bass waters. Here's a look at some of the best for this year.

By Robert H. Cleveland

A huge swirl about 40 yards down the Lake Lincoln bank got Pete Ponds' attention, so, kicking the power up a notch or two on his trolling motor, he headed that way.

"Check your knot and check your drag," Ponds said, a hint of excitement in his voice. "If that's a bass and not an alligator, it's a giant - and apparently, it's in a feeding mood."

The electric motor hummed as it pulled the 21-foot bass boat toward the spot where the commotion had been. Ponds looked down at his collection of 10 rods, different lures tied on each, and considered his options. He switched off from a lizard to a spinnerbait, and then, just as the boat eased into casting range, changed his mind and went with soft-plastic jerkbait.

Turning the power on the trolling motor back to low, Ponds scanned the area to look for cover that might conceal bass. A few feet from the point at which the swirl had occurred, a small twig stuck up - an indication that a bigger piece of a brushpile was probably underneath the surface.

"That's my bet," Ponds said. "I bet that fish is living in that brush."

He threw the lure about 10 feet beyond the twig and began working it back with a twitch-and-reel action, giving the lure a darting motion left and right. Just when the bait passed the twig, we both saw a movement in the fishing line. Reacting before I could say anything, he set the hook on the fish.

"Got it!" he said as the surface of the water erupted. "It's a good one."

Ponds was soon holding up a 7-pound-plus largemouth for the camera.

"That's a big fish for this lake just being restocked and reopened to fishing," he said, in reference to the stocking in 2000 and commencement of angling in October 2002.

In a short time, the 550-acre lake that is the centerpiece of Lake Lincoln State Park has jumped up near the top of the list of Mississippi's best bass fishing holes. Completely renovated, the lake has been made user-friendly by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. And the users are catching a lot of fish.

But it's the potential for 2004 and the years ahead that puts it in this roundup of the top bass lakes in Mississippi for this year. All of the lakes included are very similar, in that each is either part of the MDWFP system of state lakes or situated in a state park.

The others: Lake Columbia, at the Marion County Wildlife Management Area in south Mississippi; Lake Ross Barnett, near Mize in south Mississippi; Kemper County Lake, near DeKalb in east-central Mississippi; and Trace State Park, between Pontotoc and Tupelo in the northeast corner of the state. You'll be wise to include all five of these in your 2004 bass fishing plans.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

LAKE LINCOLN
As Ponds found out with his first fish on this 550-acre impoundment, the potential here is limitless. Protected in order to sustain the excellence of the fishing, Florida-strain largemouth bass abound here, according to MDWFP District 5 fisheries biologist John Skains.

"The Florida bass are just under 3 years old," he said, "but we've already started seeing some 4s, 5s and 6s, and even a few bigger, up to 8 (pounds). We've got a 14- to 18-inch slot, and we only allow people to keep one a day over 18 inches. We're hoping to recruit a lot of these Floridas into trophy range."

In 2003, bass fishermen reveled in catching big numbers of the protected-slot fish. "For entertainment, you can't beat it," said Billy Robinson of Jackson, a frequent visitor. "There were days when we were catching 30 and 40 apiece, and pitched them all back. When it's that good, you don't mind throwing them back - at least I don't."

Robinson added that any bass fisherman should be able to catch a bunch of fish within one or even two visits to Lincoln.

"They made the lake so user-friendly that you can't help but catch fish," he offered assuringly.

Those words make Skains pretty happy. "We did a lot of work in redesigning this place," the biologist said. "I can't tell you the number of trees we pushed down and moved out into the lake for fish attractors. And we just didn't push trees out there - we pushed them out to where they would do the most good. We've got brushpiles on the points, in the coves, on secondary points, on the edges of deep drops and around islands."

Plastic worms, spinnerbaits and crankbaits have all been smart picks on Lincoln since it reopened; fish do hold tight to the thick timber cover on sunny days, and worms are required to root them out. But on overcast days, when the bass are free to roam, spinnerbaits and crankbaits work well.

During our day on the lake, Ponds caught fish with the plastic jerkbait until the sun got up past the clouds on the dawn horizon. Then he switched to an 8-inch worm and spent the rest of the day working the brushpiles. The result: The touring bass pro, who ranges from his Madison home to fish all over the country, left Lincoln impressed.

"What a great place to fish and have so close to Jackson!" he enthused.

LAKE COLUMBIA
At the top of the list for big fish, but not for sheer numbers, is this 90-acre Marion County lake that, like Lincoln, is one of the latest MDWFP renovation projects.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see some fifteens coming from Columbia soon - and maybe some bigger fish," said Skains, who also oversees this lake. "I know there's been some 12s caught there in the last year."

Renovated and restocked in 1997 and 1998, the lake was reopened to fishing in 2000. Whispers about giant Florida bass swimming its waters, first heard in 2002, turned to hollers in 2003.

But numbers-wise, fishermen aren't bragging. On the other hand, they're not complaining, either - because they know that it only takes one cast to get a fish of a lifetime.

"It is not an easy lake to fish for a lot of folks, myself included, because the water tends to be so clear," said Tommy Sutton of Columbia. "I'm still looking for my big fish - but I think that's the lure of the lake. I haven't caught one of its trophies yet, but I've hooked and lost a big fish, and I've b

een there when big ones were caught. I saw an 11."

According to Skains, the most productive pattern for Columbia's lunker largemouths has been using live shiners. "There're a couple of guys who are going to Florida and getting shiners," he noted. "Golden shiners from south Florida They are bringing them back in aerators, using them on Columbia - and they are catching big fish. The good thing is that they are putting every one of the fish back. I am proud of them for that."

Skains and crew did a good job giving fishermen targets to fish, just as they did at Lincoln. A lot of brush was pushed into the channels and around other natural structure in the lake.

Sutton reports that a lot of his friends were having success with 12-inch worms fished in the deepest brushtops. "One of the great things about Lake Columbia is that it is small enough to fish in a few hours," he pointed out. "Being small also makes it easy for someone to learn. It only takes a few trips out there to know where every stump, top and channel is. I go out there looking for one or two bites, and I can make my circuit and be done in about two hours."

Skains says that the 14- to 18-inch slot limit in effect on the lake is letting the bass grow into trophy range, and the single-fish daily limit on bass of more than 18 inches should help protect that segment of the population enough to give the lunkers a chance to reach full potential.

If any public water in Mississippi is capable of pushing the 18.15-pound state record, it's at Lake Columbia. When? If not this year, very likely in the next two.

LAKE ROSS BARNETT
Let's not confuse Lake Ross Barnett with Ross Barnett Reservoir. That's the first thing you need to know about the 87-acre lake near Mize off state Highway 35.

Reopened to fishing in 1997 after extensive renovation and restocking performed by the MDWFP between 1994 and 1996, Lake Ross Barnett has matured into a fine fishing hole. Its Florida bass have not achieved the size of those at Columbia, but the lake's population has stayed plentiful and has given fishermen in the south-central part of Mississippi a dependable supply of entertainment.

The main reason for the success was the immediate protection given the segment of the bass population comprising the largest fish. As fisheries biologists had documented that 99 percent of the fish in the original Florida bass stocking were between 16 and 22 inches in length when the lake reopened, it was felt necessary to establish a slot, in force since then, that protects those fish. Only one fish per day per angler over 22 inches can be kept.

Though small, the lake features a lot of different types of structure for fishermen to target, including both natural and artificial varieties. Several main-lake points known as must-fish zones were sweetened by the placement of brushpiles, numerous channels were dug during renovation to create ledges and deep holes, and the original creek channels, which had silted in over the years, were redefined. Also, trees were knocked over and dragged into the lake along any bank making such an action possible.

"A lot of those thicker treetops have rotted and broken up now," said George Thomas of Jackson, who makes the hour-long drive at least twice a month. "It's a lot easier to fish them than it was when it first opened I remember, when it first opened, you'd go down there knowing you were going to break off at least a dozen or two fish a day in the thick trees. The tops still hold fish, but you stand a better chance of getting them out.

"My biggest fish is 10.4 pounds on my handheld scales, and I put her back in the lake last spring," he added, beaming. "I caught her on the same thing I've caught 90 percent of my fish on at Barnett - a 9-inch black worm with a blue curl tail. The other thing I use is topwater, because the topwater bite is good early at sunrise."

KEMPER COUNTY LAKE
For numbers, you'd have a hard time beating Kemper County Lake, near DeKalb in east-central Mississippi. On two recent trips, we averaged 50 fish a day, and left all of them swimming. (Actually, we had to - since 95 percent were in the 14- to 18-inch slot in force there.)

Unlike the three lakes previously mentioned, Kemper didn't see its improved fortunes arise from a renovation-and-restocking project. Kemper is successful because its waters are fertile and plentifully supplied with bream for forage that keeps the largemouths healthy. It's also a big lake - at 652 acres, the second largest of the MDWFP state lakes.

Opened in 1984, Kemper immediately became famous for its bream; bluegill and redear fishing at the lake became popular and attracted a lot of fishermen. Then, in 1994, a 14-pound, 4-ounce bass was taken there, making folks sit back and reconsider.

Over the past 10 years, more and more fishermen have been coming for the bass, which had teetered on the edge of overpopulation because anglers' attention was focused elsewhere. The lake was loaded with 12-inch bass, and fishermen slowly began to weed them out. The slot limit was initiated to protect the fish that survived to attain its lower limit of 14 inches, the hope being that they'd eventually grow past its 18-inch top end. And it's working - but what the slot has necessarily created as well is a large population of chunky bass between 14 and 18 inches that can't stand to have a crankbait or a spinnerbait come swimming past.

At the L-shaped Kemper, the dam is in the southeast corner. The north end, the shallow end, offers a lily pad field that yields up a lot of action in the spring and fall. When the pads are holding fish, the topwater bite on a buzzbait, frog or a soft-plastic weedless jerkbait can prove outstanding. The north end offers another cove loaded with stumps, which is also good in the spring and fall.

For the most promising fishing of the entire year, look to the banks on the long, straight stretch of the lake that forms the backbone of the L. Both sides have dozens of small and big coves that form erratic breaks in the shoreline - breaks that hold a lot of fish. Crankbaits and plastic worms fished on those points work like dynamite during the day, and a spinnerbait fished shallow on the points works well early in the morning.

TRACE STATE PARK
The last lake on our list is no newcomer. When fishermen in north Mississippi gather to talk about the most notable fishing holes in their part of the state, the 600-acre lake at Trace State Park, a favorite of pros and beginners alike, is usually included.

"The thing about Trace is that you know you're going to catch fish when you go," said District 1 MDWFP fisheries biologist Larry Pugh. "It is a really fine lake. Nothing outstanding - it just seems to provide quality action consistently."

Pugh, who oversees management of the lake, just shakes his head and laughs when asked about how it's managed to sustain such good fishing over the years.

"Thing about it is, up here in this area, fishermen have so much to choose from that no single lake is going to get beat to death," he observed. "With Tupelo as a center, and going out an hour's drive, fishermen have 10 small state lakes to choose from, a few National Forest lakes, three or four state parks, five or six pools on the Tenn-Tom Waterway and then Lake Pickwick. Each one is good, and everyone has a favorite, but they seem to like variety, so no one lake gets pounded."

Trace is a good choice for seeking out bass because it's actually two lakes in one: a big open-water lake on which skiing is allowed, and a smaller fishing lake that nobody would want to ski on even if they could - it wouldn't be safe. The sheer volume of stumps and brushpiles in the small lake would make it far too treacherous.

Yet the big lake's open-water sector produces as much fast bass action as does the smaller, "bassier"-looking side. Most of the bass come from natural cover like coves, channels, points and deep drops.

"Take a full tackle box or two, because every lure type can be productive," advised Pugh, an avid angler. "That's another thing I like about it, and I know that other fishermen appreciate."

For big fish, it's tough to beat soft plastics fished along the ditch and creek channels in the small lake and on the drops off shallow flats in the big lake. For numbers of fish, cover water with either lipless or conventional crankbaits, or beat the banks with worms or spinnerbaits.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To learn more about these five lakes, visit www.mdwfp.com, the Web site of the MDWFP. For Lake Lincoln and Trace, follow the prompts to State Parks. For Columbia, Ross Barnett and Kemper, follow the prompts through Fishing to State Lakes.

Each individual park and lake has its own page, so Web visitors can open maps and brochures online that will help them plan their trips. Several even offer topo maps.



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