Magnolia State Small-Water Crappie

Ordinarily thought of as a big-lake species, crappie can also turn up -- and in quite respectable numbers, too -- in smaller waters. These little lakes are some of the best for slabs right now. (January 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The sky glowed a warm orange as the little johnboat powered by only a trolling motor slid away from the boat launch. A heron rookery was our only gallery as Harold McAlpine cruised the quiet-running motor towards a point opposite the ramp. The adult birds "skronked" at the babies and us made hopeful clacking sounds.

"Jim, get ready. We're almost to the place where Bobbie and I caught a bunch last time out," McAlpine said. "If we can mark some of these beds it won't be any problem to get our limits by 10 a.m."

Standing in the bow of the boat Jim Spencer watched through his Polarized glasses and held a piece of foam in each hand. Tied to and wrapped around each piece was about eight feet of line with a heavy weight tied at the other end.

"Just ahead," Spencer exclaimed. "I see two, no five circles on the bottom, about the size of dinner plates."

He threw one of the foam markers into the middle of the area as McAlpine turned the boat away from the bedding area tucked in a small cove just inside the tip of the point.

"That's one, now we need about ten more spots just like that," McAlpine said. "It's funny some of the best sites that never get fished are close to boat launches. Maybe people want to let their motors out and go fast, or maybe they think it's cheating to catch fish so close, but there always seem to be panfish close around where dozens of boats might put in during the day."

The rest of the lake stretched out around us. We'd have to hurry if we were going to mark many more spaces and still have time to fish before the water skiers and recreational boats showed up. One of the problems of fishing small waters like Lake Geiger that is close to a major Mississippi city, is sharing it with a lot of other folks who have decidedly different forms of entertainment in mind.

The fish are there, but the combination of noise and waves makes it almost impossible to catch wary crappie during the middle of the day. Basically there are three choices, fish early, fish at night or rock and roll through midday and put very few fish in the boat.

The problem with fishing early or late is getting into places that lock their gates. It takes study and planning to figure out a way to enter early enough to take advantage. For the folks with motor homes there's camping out.

However, if you have a detailed area map and knowledge of the lake there are often ways to enter through the back. Paul B. Johnson State Park, which holds Geiger Lake, has a back entrance that is about 1 1/2 miles north of the main gate on U.S. Highway 49. Along this road there are places where small boats can be launched without even entering the park.

Anyhow, back to fishing. We marked seven potential beds. Although crappie were not swarming in the shallows as they had been in April we still found a lot of active beds around the margin of the lake.

After marking the last bed we returned to the spot where the first marker floated. The boat was anchored bow and stern at maximum casting distance, and we all baited up. The first fish was hooked almost as quickly as the bait, hung under a floating bobber made it down to a spot near the bottom. When Spencer brought his fish in we all set our lines for about the same depth.

Soon we had seven handsome male crappie, each weighing about a pound, in the ice chest. We then began catching only much smaller females. So we picked up the marker, pulled up anchors and moved to the next spot. By the time we got to the fifth marker, boats were starting to roar around and quiet fishing was almost impossible in the main part of the lake.

Back at the boat launch McAlpine put the boat on the trailer and we headed out in different directions. The plan was to meet back at the lake around 6:30 p.m.

By then the lake was mostly quiet. The fast boats were gone and those that remained were edging along the shoreline hoping to pick up bass. We went back and fished out the last markers. It was too late to mark any more spots since it takes crappie quite a while to settle down after having a foreign object land in their midst. We were still short three fish.

McAlpine found the last three fish working some piles of brush hidden around the lake. The guys kept on with bait, but I tied on an orange and black Beetle Spin and caught two of the last three fish. The boat was loaded back on the trailer before running lights were even required.

During that day we caught more than a hundred fish, but many were immediately returned to the water. All females and males that didn't measure longer than the guys' hands escaped to live another day or season.

We had a great day of fishing and caught enough crappie to put several bags in the freezer even after we ate a mess. All of which goes to illustrate that even Mississippi's smaller lakes harbor some great papermouth fishing options.

The Big Lakes Syndrome

Tradition is that the best places to fish for crappie are the big lakes like Columbus Lake, Grenada Lake and Tunica Cutoff. Those big man-made impoundments and oxbows offer plenty of space so crappie have room to grow, yet predators like bass, pickerel and striped bass prevent population explosions.

It is little wonder then that the top 10 list of crappie lakes in the state, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks is top heavy with big waters. Arkabutla, Columbus, Mossy, Grenada, Aberdeen, Tunica Cutoff, Eagle, Lake Charlie Capps, Okatibbee and Pickwick make up that elite group. The MDWFP bases this ranking on creel surveys and electro-shocking samplings. Though some of these impoundments are considered "small lakes", even those are among the largest bearing that title.

In the big lakes the channel edges, drowned timber and brush piles are usually good starting places to find the tasty fish. Often there are well-known holes that hold quantities of crappie. The Poverty Hole on Barnett Reservoir is one such crappie magnet early in the year and late in the summer. It's a spot that is easy to find simply by looking for the boats that ring it when crappie are tapping. Or, just ask at any of the local bait and tackle shops.

But don't think just because a lake isn't huge that it won't hold crappie. Not all of us have the advantage of living

within easy driving distance of Sardis or Grenada, so we fish what is close to home and frequently do quite well.

In the big lakes the best fishing locations are pretty much the same from year to year. There are only so many spots that ideal for attracting crappie, especially during the spawn. In smaller lakes, however, changes in the water level, the shoreline and structure on the bottom are much more likely to fluctuate. Those differences can make an immense amount of difference where crappie hang out from year to year.

Smaller Water Options

Fishing smaller lakes requires an intimate knowledge of the bottom, where old creek channels run or the locations of stumps and brush piles. If you don't have a fishing buddy like Harold McAlpine who regularly spends time on the lake, the next best thing is a detailed map of the bottom. These are not available for all public lakes, but an accurate one can make a big difference. As you learn the lake you can add to the store of knowledge by marking in on the map the GPS coordinates of important structures and even draw in changes that have occurred.

Water temperature, food and cover are the three most important elements for finding crappie. During spawn the chore can be easy. The males move into the shallows, dig a hole down to the bottom and defend their plate-sized nests from all predators. The guys then lure females in from deeper water; the females spawn and almost immediately head back for deeper cooler locations. Each male stays and guards his territory until the fry are hatched and able to swim and fend for themselves. Then the males head back deep and the small fish find a hiding place where they can eat and grow. In many lakes males may defend two or three batches of young fish before they call it quits for the year.

Small lakes like Geiger can hold excellent numbers of big crappie, but on such water the papermouths must be fished hard and regularly. If quantities of fish aren't removed each year the lake will become overpopulated and the fish become stunted, 5-inch midgets.

Geiger Lake

About 50 miles from the Gulf Coast and 14 miles from Hattiesburg is one of the best crappie fishing lakes available to the public in the southern third of the state.

Spring-fed Geiger Lake is the centerpiece of Paul B. Johnson State Park, a 969-acre facility. In park also offers campsites, cabins, boat rentals and a boat ramp.

The lake was drained about 10 years ago, restocked and then closed to fishing for several years. The day the 300-acre lake was again opened to fishing more than 200 boats were waiting in line when the park opened. Its popularity has now diminished in the ensuing years.

There are a number of coves that can be fished from shore and you can take to the water in a rental boat or canoe. The fishing fee is $3. The combination fishing and launch fee for private boats is $7.

The west end of the lake is shallow, but a channel runs through the center of it. In spring crappie bed in this area and during the summer running a jig or Beetle Spin along the drop off usually yields a mixed bag of bass and crappie.

Paul B. Johnson State Park is located just west of U.S Highway 49, to the south of Hattiesburg.

Lake Mary Crawford

Five miles west of Monticello on U.S. 84 is 135-acre Lake Mary Crawford. Although the impoundment is small, it is well worth an exploratory trip. Except for Sundays from noon to sunset boats are only allowed to travel at trolling speed only, so there is none of the sloshing that comes with ski and recreational boats.

There are two launch ramps and fishing boats are available to rent when the manager is present. The lake also has two handicapped-accessible fishing piers.

The biggest crappie recorded from the lake was a 3-pound, 4-ounce slab taken in 1998. The daily crappie limit is 30 and fishermen.

The last two years have been good for the lake. Anglers in the area report that there are plenty of crappie. Those anglers prefer fishing their "secret" brush piles, but the drop-offs near points are recommended as water gets warmer.

Lake Washington

Although Lake Washington doesn't appear on the best crappie lakes list, it is an undiscovered treasure trove for the fish. This long oxbow off of the Mississippi River has the combination of deep water that crappie need for hot times and a number of shallows that are good nesting areas.

The lake is about 30 miles south of Greenville and can be accessed from State Route 1 or near Chatham, which is on its northwest end. The lake is relatively narrow and about seven miles long.

For current water and fishing conditions on Lake Washington, contact Roy's Store at (662) 827-2588. Tope maps can be ordered on-line from

www.mytopo.com.

The limit of crappie per person, per day is 30, only five can be under 10 inches.

Lakes Chotard And Albermarle

These oxbow lakes are located about 30 miles north of Vicksburg and only a couple of miles north of Eagle Lake on SR 465. The lakes can be reached from the Mississippi River when Old Muddy is running at above 13 feet. Since the lakes can be hard to get to during dry spells they are less fished than places with more convenient access.

A depthfinder is a real benefit on this lake. There is structure in the deeper channels that attracts and holds crappie, especially on hot sunny days. Look for rises or humps on the bottom that hold a lot of fish.

Pascagoula River Oxbows

There are several ramps along the Pascagoula River in George County near where most of the best oxbow fishing is located. If you put in at the ramp about 10 miles east of Lucedale on SR 26, the area is a combination of flooded cypress trees in fresh water marsh. There are lots of streams and drainages running into this area, bringing a lot of river trash like trees and stumps that wash down in the spring rains. These form natural brush piles. When the area is flooded crappie can usually be found back in the timber and piles. Unless you are an accurate caster you will probably have a lot of break-offs fishing this kind of structure.

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