Bassin' The Tenn-Tom
September 30, 2010
As it slices across northeast Mississippi, this waterway offers some varied options for bass anglers. Join the author in touring the impoundments along its course.
By Robert H. Cleveland
Actually, it is doable, if you don't mind passing through seven locks along the way and taking a week's worth of camping equipment and supplies. You could fish your way south down the Tenn-Tom Waterway for 150 miles, from its starting point at the Yellow Creek arm of Pickwick Lake to the Alabama state line south of Columbus, without ever taking the boat out of the water.
If you schedule the trip for May, you could enjoy a total of 30,000 acres of fishable water on seven different sections of the river that offer a variety of bass fishing challenges.
So, hey, what do you say? Let's do it - at least vicariously. We've got the best guide available for our trip. It's Larry Pugh, the District 1 (northeast) fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, who holds a master's degree in fisheries biology and is a master with a rod and reel. Part of his job is to manage the fishery on the Tenn-Tom, and his No. 1 recreation is fishing it.
"If you're going to make a trip like that, May is the time to go," Pugh said. "The river is just right. The fish are through spawning and have that distraction out of the way. The water temperature is still in the 70s, so the bass are still shallow and there's an abundance of great bass habitat to hit."
Let's hop aboard Pugh's bass boat, start in Yellow Creek and go fishing.
Fisheries biologist and bass angler Larry Pugh displays the kind of largemouth bass that the Tenn-Tom can yield. Photo by Robert H. Cleveland
YELLOW CREEK AND THE CANAL SECTION Yellow Creek is one of the major Mississippi coves off Pickwick Lake, the headwaters of the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and is a great jumping-off spot.
"It's got great potential this spring, and May is a great month on Yellow Creek," Pugh said. "Last fall, we had the best shad population we've had in the past six years. The bass should have enjoyed a feast and should be in excellent shape in the spring."
Pugh suggested tying on a topwater lure, like a stick bait, and heading for the secondary points in Yellow Creek.
"Always in May, start on top on the points," he stressed. "The fish will be moving out from the spawn and will hold on the points. Do the topwater thing as long as it lasts, which, depending on cloud conditions, can be limited to the first hour of sunrise (clear days) to all day (cloudy). Once that pattern slows, you want to move out to the deeper water on the ends of the points and fish with Carolina-rigged plastics for smallmouth. That time of year, it's hard to find a smallie in less than 12 feet of water.
"Another thing we do is fish the boat docks. It's an overlooked pattern in Yellow Creek. Once the sun is up, the bass move up on the docks, and you can find some good bass on a 1/4-ounce jig. Good fish, too," he noted.
Spend a half-day on Yellow Creek and save some time for the 35-mile canal that connects it to Bay Springs Lake, the first of the pools on the Tenn-Tom Waterway.
"Especially if it's a rainy day, and we get a lot of those in May," Pugh said. "The canal is just a long dug-out channel with riprap banks on both sides, and in several places there are run-outs that carry run-off from heavy rains out of the hills, bringing forage with it, into the canal. After a heavy rain, you can get in one of those run-outs and throw a crankbait or a spinnerbait and actually whack them. You can find a big school and catch them till your arm hurts."
Pugh pointed out that your catch will be split equally between spotted and largemouth bass, but expect to have some striped bass up to 10 pounds and some white bass take your lures too.
But the best thing about the channel is that lead it leads us to Bay Springs Lake.
BAY SPRINGS LAKE At 6,700 acres, this impoundment is one of the most misunderstood lakes in Mississippi because it is so unlike any other bass water in the state. It is deep and clear, and the bass here don't act the way bass do in most of the state.
Except in May!
"If I had to pick a month to fish Bay Springs, it would be either February for the pre-spawn or May for the post-spawn," Pugh said. "You catch the biggest fish in February before they spawn out, but you catch more on the most enjoyable pattern in May. If you commit to it and stay with it all day long, regardless of sun and cloud conditions, you can wear them out on topwaters."
Here again, stick baits or chugger-type topwater baits are best.
"Get in the major coves. Bass spawn in the backs of these coves, but in May they're done with that and the water is still plenty cool; they won't start moving back to the main-lake points and deep summer holding areas," Pugh noted. "The big sow largemouths stay shallow in the coves on the secondary points, flats and even on the fish attractors."
Piney Grove, on the west side, and Five Fingers, on the east, are two of the top coves for this fishing.
Pugh also said that if all else fails you can move out to the main-lake points, take out a finesse worm and take advantage of Bay Spring's seemingly endless supply of spotted bass.
"You can do that all year long, every day, and that is why our catch rates on Bay Springs are always so high," he explained. "Not only are there lots of them, but there are also big spots - giant spots - in the lake."
Bay Springs, like Yellow Creek, had a fantastic supply of forage shad for bass last fall. Pugh said they were the perfect-sized shad, too.
"It's a good lake now, and our fall electro-fishing collections turned up a lot of fish up to, but not quite, 9 pounds," he said. "What excites me is that the conditions are right for good things to get even better. The best days are ahead for Bay Springs."
With that description, we're tempted to spend an extra day - or several days - here, but we're on a time schedule on our trip, and we can always come back, so let's go south.
THE ALPHABET LAKES When the Tenn-Tom was first impounded in the mid-1980s, the five small pools between Bay Springs Lake and Aberdeen Lake that make up the
area known as the Canal Section were not given names. Instead, they were called Locks A, B, C, D and E (south to north). Since then, they have taken on the names of the nearest towns and communities, and they have earned their own fishing reputations. Some are good, some are not so good, and some that were once very good are now sub-par.
Lock E, also known as Saucier (pronounced Saucer), covers 851 acres beginning below the Bay Springs Lock. You can run the length of it in 10 minutes in a modern bass boat, but Pugh doesn't recommend passing through that fast. Instead, he suggests stops along the way to enjoy some of the finest spotted bass fishing in the world.
"The entire Tenn-Tom is good for spotted bass, but Lock E is the best on the system, and the best spot on Lock E is the upper end below the dam," Pugh said. "The Canal Section is a 46-mile-long stretch that was basically cut through the hills. The banks on the upper ends of each pool are basically vertical bluffs with clear water 15 to 25 feet deep. You take a finesse worm or a grub on a jighead, use light line on spinning tackle, and bounce the lures on the bottom. You find the right spot, and you can get a bite every time. Like Bay Springs, Saucier has the potential of producing trophy-class and even record-class spotted bass. Six-pound spots are not rare and even some 7-pounders are being caught every year."
The pools at locks A through E share one similarity. The upper ends are all channels with spotted bass, and the lower ends are more spread out and open, with backwaters. At Saucier, that lower-end fishing is concentrated in Red Bud Creek, which offers traditional largemouth structure like laydowns and stumps, but the spotted bass fishing on the upper lake overshadows the backwater action.
For better largemouth fishing, lock through to the next pool, a 2,000-acre impoundment known as Beaver.
"It is my favorite of the five canal lakes, because it offers a variety of possibilities," Pugh said. "Don't go there for quality bass; go there for quantity, and be prepared to fish a number of different patterns. It has two distinctive, different habitats in that the upper end is spotted bass in the channel and the lower end is spread out and offers several pockets and bays with clear water and traditional bass structure that is perfect for topwater fishing in May.
"You have to go there and find the pattern within the pattern to take advantage of its full potential. For instance, you may find that the ledge pattern is the best, but there's one particular type of ledge with a particular type of cover that is producing.
"The lake has a lot of bass, but the population is heavily skewed toward 11- and 14-inchers. You can stay busy."
Locking down brings us to Lake C, also known as Fulton. It is also Pugh's least favorite.
"It is the least productive of the lakes, and that's sad because a decade ago it was one of the best for quality and quantity," he said of the 1,650-acre pool. "There are some habitat issues from a biological standpoint. The lower end and its backwater areas are filling up faster (with silt) than in any other pool. It is extremely shallow, too shallow to hold fish in what used to be great areas.
"Fulton was once used as an experiment for Florida bass stockings back in 1989, and it worked. A lot of 8-pounders were caught in the following years, which made it popular, but that ran its course. With the habitat like it is now, Fulton is not a good place for somebody new to fish."
The next stop is Lock B, called Smithville, and at 2,700 acres the largest of the alphabet lakes.
"I like this one a lot, and the catch rates here are the best on the waterway, at one bass per hour," he said. "A lot of people catch them faster than that once they figure out the shallow grass pattern on the lower end of the lake. The lower end of Smithville is influenced by Bull Mountain Creek, the biggest tributary of the alphabet lakes. It is clear and free-flowing.
"In May, the lower end of Smithville starts showing the flowery tops of the water willows, a type of vegetation that grows in big patches that form distinct edges in three feet of water," Pugh continued. "In May, bass will be relating to those edges and you can wear them out. Early-morning periods and cloudy days call for a spinnerbait or topwater around the grassbeds. Sunny days, the fish move right on the grass, and it's easy to target bass by pitching a worm or other Texas-rigged soft plastic in pockets in the grass. Look for the water willows with any other irregular feature, like a log or a stump, and concentrate there."
Moving down, Lock A, or Amory, is next in line.
"Use your time somewhere else," Pugh advised. "It's got fish, but the people who catch them are the people who have been fishing there for years."
Creel studies on the pool reflect half the fishing pressure and catch rates found on other lakes in the alphabet group.
If you are going to spend any time on this 914-acre lake in May, throw soft-plastic jerkbaits around grass in the sloughs on the lower end of the pool.
ABERDEEN LAKE Now we enter the river section, where the Tenn-Tom was carved along the valley of the winding Tombigbee River. The channelization left a lot of old river runs and some great bass fishing in three main fishing pools along the waterway.
The uppermost is Aberdeen, which, at 4,100 acres, is one of the premier May destinations for bass fishermen in the state of Mississippi.
"Outstanding in May," Pugh described. "Bring a push pole. You'll need it because you will be spending your time in the sloughs off the old river runs and they are shallow and filled with cover."
After the spawn, the bass at Aberdeen don't move out of the bedding areas, because they don't have to.
"Everything they need or want is there - food, habitat, cool water," Pugh noted. "Why would they move?
"All Aberdeen is a couple of old river runs with a bunch of connected sloughs," he explained. "The best sloughs are Vine's Branch, Buzzard Wing and Moccasin Creek. The best old river run is Becker's."
The key is finding the sloughs or river runs with the best concentrations of feeding fish and then identifying the productive pattern, such as whether the fish relating to grass are eating better than those on timber. Take buzzbaits and spinnerbaits and stay with them all day long, Pugh said.
"In May, stay in the sloughs because every one of them looks, smells and sounds like bass water."
COLUMBUS POOL The next lake downstream is the most-fished and largest on the system. In spite of its 8,900 acres, Columbus Pool is a place in which to expect company - lots of it - when fishing.
"We get twice the effort on Columbus than in Aberdeen, but there's a lower catch rate, which is natural, and also a better distribution of size in the population," Pugh said.
That size distribution also includes more larger bass.
There are three distinct patters for fishing the lake in May. First, you can target the gravel pits across from the East Bank launch ramp on the lower end.
"The pits are full of water willow," Pugh said. "It's everywhere and the fish relate to it, but there's a lot of people fishing it.
"The best lures are spinnerbaits and plastics. I stay away from topwaters because these are gravel pits and the water drops quick off the edges of the grass."
The second place to stop is Tibbee Creek, the largest tributary and most popular area.
"Take a buzzbait and spinnerbait and stay with them all day long in May regardless of the conditions," Pugh said. "Target the laydowns and stumps in the bends of the creek channel."
Finally, the old river runs on the upper end of the lake are places to fish.
"Often overlooked are the old Buttahatchie Creek and McKinley Creek cutoffs," Pugh noted. "You won't catch as many fish up there as you will in the pits or Tibbee, but the size will be better. Old river runs are a lot like lakes within lakes, each with its own isolated bass population. You will be fishing grass and brush, and some timber, and you want to throw spinnerbaits, jigs with plastic trailers and Texas-rigged plastics."
ALICEVILLE LAKE We end our journey one-third of the way down Aliceville Lake. Only a third of the 8,300-acre pool is in Mississippi, but there are two good areas to fish in May on that portion of the impoundment.
"Start at the Pratt's Camp area of Hairston Bend, a old river run that makes a big loop off the old channel," Pugh said. "There's a lot of grass and brush in the river run and some sloughs and backwaters. Throw spinnerbaits.
"But save most of the time for Pumpkin Creek, and fish either in the creek itself or in any of the five or six big coves off the creek. Last May I caught a lot of quality fish on a fluke.
"These pockets fill up with submerged vegetation, like hydrilla and milfoil," the biologist continued. "The water can be clear, and when it is you will want to be there."
For more information and maps on the Tenn-Tom Waterway, contact the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority at (662) 328-3286 or write to P.O. Drawer 671, Columbus, MS 39703. Information is also available via the Internet at www.tenntom.org.
For updated water conditions and elevations on these lakes, go online to: //water.sam.usace.army.mil/ ttmfram2.htm.
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