Summer Bass on Ross Barnett

What are the bass up to on the state's most popular fishing hole in July? Let's have a look to see if we can put you on some fast bass action!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Robert H. Cleveland

Anglers are flipping to vegetation, deep-cranking or Carolina-rigging along the ledges. They are casting surface lures at schooling fish until their arms feel like they will fall off. Others are targeting points and cuts up the river following heavy rains. Some even drag plastic frogs across Pelahatchie Bay's big pad fields, looking for the monster bite.

Welcome to summer on Barnett Reservoir, 33,000 surface acres of bass-fishing opportunity in the heart of Mississippi. Located just minutes from downtown Jackson and within easy driving range for about a fifth of the state's population, The Rez - or The Ross or The Big Lake, pick your favorite name - continues to be a productive fishing hole with a myriad of patterns for finding bigmouths.

This year, there are more of the big bigmouths for bass fishermen to catch. Despite the heavy pressure exerted on The Rez throughout the year, biologists report that the bass population is thriving and growing, in both size and number.

"Our 2002 electro-fishing surveys were very good," said Tom Holman, who, as District 4 fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), oversees the agency's management and electroshocking efforts on The Rez. "Our fall and spring catch rates were up, both for young-of-the-year and the larger sizes. We were particularly pleased with the significant increases we saw in the preferred and memorable ranges."

A "preferred" bass is over 15 inches, while "memorable" ones stretch beyond 20 inches. While the memorable bass, which should weigh over 5 pounds, still make up a small percentage of the overall population, Holman's shocking boats saw an increase in their catch of between 60 and 80 percent over the previous year, and their catch rate was at the highest level recorded in the last five years.

Holman's 2002 report was finalized in January. In February, at the first bass tournament held on the lake, fishermen had other evidence. The biggest bass in that first event weighed over 10 pounds.

Not all the good news, biologically, involved big fish. Apparently, 2001 and 2002 were good years for bass production, thanks to a weed problem that plagued fishermen throughout the past two seasons.

"Last year will be remembered as the year the weeds ate the reservoir," Holman said. "A lot of vegetation spread throughout the upper reservoir, choking off backwater areas. Fishermen complained about it, but there appears to have been a benefit from it. The young-of-the-year bass had plenty of room to spread out and hide in the vegetation."

The increased survival rate should lead to continued good bass fishing for several years.

But enough about science - let's talk fishing. For a lake that once earned the nickname The Dead Sea, The Rez is producing again.

"The last two years have produced some of the best bass fishing we've had in decades, and I just see it getting better," said Shannon Denson, a successful local tournament angler. "The vegetation caused some problems for fishermen who have always concentrated on backwater spots upriver, but once they adjusted, I think everyone was catching more fish."

The lake is primarily broken into four areas for fishing purposes. The first is Pelahatchie Bay. The Rez's only major feeder, Pelahatchie Creek forms a cove, cut off by an earthen causeway that has only about a 50-yard-wide opening to the main lake. Because of the causeway, the bay is like a separate lake with its own bass population.

The next portion is the main lake. Beginning at the dam and going north about eight miles to State Route 43, it is purely an open-water fishery.

Then comes the upper lake, which starts at the S.R. 43 bridge across the Pearl River arm and goes about 15 miles upriver to Ratliff Ferry. The first few miles give fishermen a combination of open water, but in a riverine environment.

Finally, the upper river area from Ratliff Ferry to a lowhead dam at the beginning of The Rez provides a purely river-fishing experience.

Because of the different environments, each area calls for a different assortment of patterns for finding and catching fish, regardless of the season. Summer is no different.

"The key thing to remember about Barnett and any big reservoir-type fishery in the summer is that once the bass return from the spawning areas, they form and stay in large schools," Denson said. "They always have at Barnett and they always will, and that's true in all four areas. We have schools in the bay. We have schools on the main lake, and we have them above 43. This is a schooling lake, especially in the summer months."

Let's look at the popular summer patterns area by area.

PELAHATCHIE BAY
A favorite of many anglers during the spring and fall because of its abundance of shallow spawning and feeding areas, the bay is not a popular summer hole for bass fishermen looking for a lot of action. It is, however, a good spot for anglers who are looking for a few quality bites a day.

"On tournament days, you see a lot of people heading to Pelahatchie Bay around 10 or 11 in the morning after they have hit some of their schooling places," Denson said. "When they're down to adding a kicker fish or two, that's the place to go and hit the pad fields."

Because of its unique environment that enables the bay to retain its own permanent population of largemouths, it was chosen in the late 1980s and early '90s as the site for a Florida bass release program. Money raised by fishermen helped the state grow thousands of Florida-strain largemouth fry to advanced sizes of 4 to 5 inches before the fish were released. This increased the survival rate.

Over the past four years, a new lake record of 12 pounds, 7 ounces was caught, and numerous double-digit-sized bass have been reported as well.

As the original Florida bloodline became mixed with regular northern largemouths, the first- and second-generation crosses have also done well.

"Definitely, if you're looking for a big bass, the bay is the place to go," said Tim Loper, a national touring pro from nearby Terry who caught a 10-pounder in the bay on a frog last summer. "It's an ideal situation in the summer for a tournament fisherm

an. If he can get a limit early and then go to the bay, he has several things working in his favor.

"There are the big fish, the sun has had a chance to get up, and there are the giant pad fields that have points close to deep water and the creek channel. When the sun is high, the big fish move inside the pads for shade, forage and cooler water. I like to throw a frog, but others like to flip around the pads."

Night-fishing on the new and full moon is also a popular pastime in the bay in July and August. Topwaters fished around the edges of the pads can produce thunderous strikes.

"The only time I go to the bay in July is at night. It's too hot during the day," said Joe Henson of Jackson. "I'm not a tournament fisherman, and all I'm out there for is that one big bite. I get it more at night. I've caught 10 fish over 8 pounds the last two years, including three over 10. All of them are still swimming out there."

THE MAIN LAKE
For numbers, summer on the main lake is tough to beat. Because of its hundreds of natural ledges, channels and old lakebeds, bass schools have plenty of deep areas bordering shallow feeding spots from which to choose.

"This is where I like to fish," Denson said. "When it's right, in July and August, and you've located a spot with a good school of fish, you can anchor up, never move and catch a hundred. The key for tournament fishermen is finding the schools holding the 15-inch and bigger fish. There are hundreds of schools out there, but only a few that have a big supply of big fish."

The biggest mistake a lot of summer bass fishermen make is looking for surface schooling activity and believing that when the fish are up on top blasting shad is the only way to catch them.

"That is the best way to find a school, obviously, but I do better when the fish are down than when they're up, simply because the fish stay down longer than they stay up," Denson said. "Plus, the bigger fish in the school won't be the ones on the surface. Usually, they stay down and pick off injured and falling shad. They don't like to expend a lot of energy."

Denson has the advantage of being the third generation of a bass fishing family on Barnett. He learned a lot from both his grandfather and his father about the traditional schooling areas. But he has also found, and even created, some of his own.

"Yeah, I have put a lot of structure in the lake on some key areas to sweeten them up," he said. "A little extra brush on a ledge will draw and hold more fish."

For anglers without such a family tree, finding good holding areas requires some work and a lot of time on the water.

"You just aren't going to go out there and - bam! - find the good places," said Phil Crenshaw of Brandon. "You can luck up and see some fish feeding, but all the other people can see those, and you can bet they've been hit pretty hard. What you want to do is take a few days to go out on the lake to do some research. It's a good idea not to take a rod - just ride around looking at your electronics and finding the ledges. Get a good map and a GPS and record what you find.

"The places I've found and been able to keep from going too public are in out-of-the-way places where I spent hours idling around what looked promising on a map and keying on areas that drop from 5 feet down to 12 feet with even deeper water nearby."

Three other patterns that can produce good action, and better fish than the typical schoolers, are fishing around the boat docks, fishing along the dykes and riprap at the dam, and fishing the edges of the pad fields closest to the river on the east side of the lake's upper quarter.

UPPER RESERVOIR
More than half of the bass fishing on Barnett's 33,000 acres is done in the first six miles north of S.R. 43. It is a small area that offers river, backwater and open-lake fishing, and it's close to the best boat ramp.

"The trouble is that it is also the most popular skiing and recreational boating area, too," said Gordy Peters of Jackson. "Weekends in the summer, you better get there early and get some fishing in before 9 or 10 in the morning, because after that the boat traffic is horrendous and it does affect the fishing."

In 2002, it was a bad problem due to the vegetation explosion that eliminated over half of the backwater fishing areas available in the upper reservoir area. Bass fishermen were left with river patterns and traffic.

"It was pretty bad, I know that, especially at first," Peters said. "Once I figured out what the fish were doing, I adjusted and I actually caught more fish than I did in previous summers. A lot of that primrose and other stuff choked off the backwaters so bad that the fish couldn't get back there. There are some good deep holes in the backwaters that provide good summer fishing, but you couldn't get to them because the shallow entrances were blocked.

"While I saw a lot of fishermen just give up, I tried to find the fish and what they were doing," Peters continued. "Sure, a lot of the bass simply moved to the river and took up residence on river structure like cuts and points. But the bigger fish were relating to the edges of that vegetation. A lot of it was matted on the surface but open underneath, and I started catching them by flipping worms and jigs into openings and around the edges."

All of that may not matter this summer. An intense aerial attack with herbicides last fall and then a week-long cold snap that brought several days of frigid weather to the central Mississippi area should have combined to eliminate a lot of the weeds.

There are some sure bets, however, and all of them are related to river patterns.

"Find isolated grass patches in open water near the river channel and fish them early with topwaters," advises longtime reservoir fisherman Harold Sanders of Carthage. "That is your best chance at catching a big fish, but it's over as soon as the sun gets over the trees. Until we know what the spraying has done, I really can't tell you how we'll be able to fish this area this summer."

Schools of bass hang on the river's points and cuts, and especially on the few remaining secondary points and cuts available with deep water.

"After some heavy rains, like a tropical system, if they have to open the gates to release water, it will generate current and you better get out there early and get on a cut," Sanders said. "It's funny. When that starts, you can ride up and down the river and there will be a bass boat in every cut and on every point."

John Alford of Fannin likes to fish the pad points for schooling bass, worming the area deep with Texas- and Carolina-rigged plastics and then using baits like a soft-plastic jerkbait or a spinnerbait when the fish feed on the surface in the pads.

"If you

can find a point holding a good school, you can anchor on it and stay busy," he said. "You can catch some good fish like that, but the fun is that you can catch a lot of fish. For big bass, I work the channel early along stump rows. I fish the deep side of the drop, paralleling the shallow stump row."

UPPER RIVER
The uppermost 15 miles of the Pearl River, from Ratliff Ferry to the lowhead dam, constitute a river fishery. It differs greatly from the upper reservoir area in that it lacks the big vegetation areas, the open backwaters and the stump rows.

"Once you go north of Ratliff, you're pretty much fishing a river," said Alford. "There is some good fishing up there, but it's more of a fall and spring place to go. In the summer, the fish hold deep and move up on sandbar points and into cuts to feed. You can find a lot of big schools, but they will mostly be Kentucky spotted bass and not very many of them will be keepers.

"Because it has a lot of sandbars, it is a popular recreation area and there's always boat traffic up there, and not just on weekends. It's a tough nut to crack in the summer, but I have gotten on some big fish in a few places where I have found some grassbeds along a bank in outside bends. A place like that is really good for the first 30 minutes after sunrise with a topwater bait, but as soon as the sun is up or the first big boat comes racing by pushing a big wake on the grass, those fish are gone back deep into the channel."



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