Prospects For Magnolia State Papermouths

Prospects For Magnolia State Papermouths

Finding crappie isn't a problem in Mississippi -- they're virtually everywhere. Still, these waters should rank high among the state's slab venues this year. (February 2008).

Photo by Phillip Gentry.

The status of crappie fishing? It's changed.

For generations, to talk of the pursuit of the species would conjure up images of some good old country boys dunking "minners" under a willow tree from an old johnboat with a cane pole on a warm spring day. Today, the view of the crappie fishing industry is a little bit different. This sport long enjoyed by country boys has a lot of fans among country girls, too -- and city boys and girls as well.

Mississippi's crappie waters are a bona fide tourist attraction; anglers travel from all over the country to avail themselves of this unparalleled fishery. Live bait is still a top choice, with specialized bait tanks employed to keep the minnows lively in order to catch more fish. Choices in artificial baits range anywhere from tiny tube jigs to 3-inch crankbaits in styles that number in the hundreds.

While old johnboats still claim their share of papermouths, boat manufacturers have stocked the market with specially produced models designed by professional crappie anglers and powered by large horsepower motors. High tech electronics show the way to offshore structure that holds large schools of crappie.

Finally, poles, rods, reels, line, and other tackle have been engineered not just for crappie fishing, but specific crappie tactics such as trolling, jigging, or casting for slabs.

With all that said, one still has to pick a place to go fishing in the Magnolia State. Here are some options to consider this year.

FLOOD-CONTROL

RESERVOIRS

The flagships of North Mississippi's crappie fishery are Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid, and Grenada lakes. These four flood-control reservoirs make up the majority of locations for local and regional crappie tournaments.

Because of the widespread appeal of crappie fishing in not only Mississippi but across the country, fisheries managers have to be on their toes to make sure the renewable resource has the chance to renew.

"The big news for this season is the quality regulations that took effect on the four flood control lakes last year" said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

Those quality regulations refer to changes in creel, size and pole limits that have been instituted over the last couple of years and finalized in August of 2006.

"Raising the minimum size limits on Sardis, Grenada, Arkabutla, and Enid to 12 inches will be a great boost to recruitment on these heavily-pressured fisheries," Garavelli emphasized. "In addition, the creel limit has been reduced to 20 per day on these reservoirs. At first look this might seem like a reduction, but anglers will soon realize that they have just as much, if not more, total weight of fish with 20 of the 12-plus-inch crappie than they had with 30 fish at 10 inches."

The new regulations, however, are not just about putting filets in the cooler. "Protecting the 10-inch year-class will provide an additional spawning season for that class," Garavelli noted. "It takes 4 to 5 months in Mississippi waters for a year class to go from 10 inches to 12 inches, which means that a 10 to 12 inch fish gets to participate in one more spawn before being removed from the fishery."

Fisheries managers hope that the quality regulations allow these lakes that have become magnets for anglers seeking big crappie to keep their appeal. However, instituting size and creel limits are not the only challenges faced by the MDWFP.

Recent drought conditions have resulted in low water levels for all of the flood control reservoirs. The initial impact of low water is a boom for anglers. The same number of fish in less water makes locating and catching crappie easier. However, the long-term effect has negative implications for the fishery. Low water means prime spawning grounds that are normally accessible to fish in the spring are high and dry, and crappie have to resort to spawning on more barren ground. Less-than-ideal spawning grounds makes for poor recruitment. Add in the fact that short run catch rates go up during low water conditions and the result is often a busted year-class to follow. With an average harvest life of three years, two or three sub-par year-classes can severely impact an entire decade of fishing.

While little can be done about the lack of rainfall, Mississippi managers have attempted to improve the deep-water habitat that crappie are forced to use for spawning grounds during low water conditions. With the help of volunteers from organizations such as the Magnolia Crappie Club, habitat improvements were established in each reservoir. These are created by sinking Christmas trees and setting out wooden stakebeds. According to the 2007 edition of the "State of the State" freshwater fisheries report, Arkabutla received 360 habitat improvements, while 400 were placed in Sardis, 850 at Grenada, and 950 at Enid. Those projects on the latter consisted of 830 Christmas tree shelters and 120 stakebeds.

One additional factor that's been addressed by fisheries managers has to do with success rates by anglers. Creel surveys showed that a large percentage of anglers who caught limits of crappie on the most consistent basis were trolling.

"It's not an issue of exceeding the established creel limit," Garavelli explained, "but a situation where anglers who troll multiple rods -- often a dozen or more at a time -- are consistently catching limits of fish, especially during the summer and fall when most of the single pole angling for crappie has subsided."

Garavelli went on to say that the introduction of pole limits brings regulations on these heavily pressured Mississippi waters on par with regulations in neighboring states.

"Our survey found that many anglers travel to our state to crappie fish not only for better fish, but without the pole restrictions that apply to their home states."

Newly established regulations place a five pole per angler limit on Arkabutla, Sardis, and Enid, and a three pole per angler limit for Grenada.

DEEPER INTO THE LINEUP

Having Mississippi's big "I-55 corridor" lakes on their roster would be enough to make any state a crappie powerhouse. But looking deeper in the lineup reveals several crappie fisheries that make the Magnolia State a contender for top crap

pie destination in the country.

Kent Driscoll is a crappie tournament champion and Pro Staff manager for West Point based B'n'M Poles, a leader in the crappie tackle industry. Driscoll confirmed that Mississippi crappie fishing spreads over a number of locations across the state. When asked about his picks for some of the best, Driscoll also went deep in the lineup.

Bay Springs

In a state containing so many good crappie fisheries, Bay Springs is a relative unknown. This impoundment also differs significantly than other Mississippi crappie reservoirs in that it is a deep, clear lake, while most of the others are shallow, murky, intensely fertile bodies of water.

"Bay Springs is off the beaten path," Driscoll added, "but that doesn't mean it isn't a great crappie lake."

According to the pro, crappie spawn deeper in Bay Springs -- 15 to 20 feet is not unusual. Typical spawning grounds include deep flats littered with stumps and standing timber. Because crappie relate deeper in the clear water, Driscoll prefers to spider-rig rods around his boat and slow troll with a near vertical presentation. He fishes several 12-foot poles rigged with a 1/2-ounce egg sinker to hold a 1/16-ounce jig head straight down. Driscoll's choice of bait is a jig-and-minnow combination.

Favorite locations at which to target Bay Springs' crappie are large stump clusters in the McDougall and Piney Creek arms as well as Gin Branch near the dam.

"In the spring, a big stump will hold several big males and a couple of females," Driscoll explained. "Anglers need to make sure they're fishing tight to the stumps to target all of these fish."

Tunica Cutoff

Another hot crappie venue that differs from the reservoir-heavy list is Tunica Lake, also known as Tunica Cutoff. Tunica is an old oxbow of the Mississippi River that is 11 miles long, half-mile wide and is shaped like a giant horseshoe. A turnout leading to the Mississippi River is connected via a weir dam that holds water in Tunica during non-flood stage of the river. The lake's lined with willow trees and a large number of lay-downs on the outer bend. The opposite banks are typically shallow flats that are bordered by the switch willows.

"Water level is a big key to fishing Tunica," Driscoll noted. "The weir cuts off at 9 feet, the best fishing is typically when the Memphis gauge of the Mississippi reads 9 feet and above. If the level is 12 to 14 feet at the Memphis, then there will be at least 3 feet of water back in the willows, and that is where anglers can really wear out the crappie, especially during the spawn."

Tunica is usually one of the last waters in the state where crappie spawn. Because the water supply is from the Mississippi, Tunica is generally colder than surrounding crappie waters and takes longer into the season to reach peak spawning temperatures. In fact, many Magnolia State anglers fish a "round-robin" spawn by starting at Ross Barnett Reservoir in late February and working their way north up the I-55 reservoirs, then cut across to the cooler oxbow lakes, including Tunica.

At Tunica, as at most of the oxbows in the state, wade-fishing is a popular tactic. Anglers access ditches and cuts off the main lakes via small aluminum boats from the water or ATVs along the bank. Once the location is reached, they simple wade right in after the papermouths.

Wade-fishing is akin to hand-to-hand combat with spawning slabs: Anglers sneak quietly through the jungles of willows using specially made "wading rods" that allow them to reach way back under willow trees and bushes to dangle a jig on 24 inches of line.

Tunica Cutoff is five miles west of the town of Tunica and U.S. Highway 61. There is a $4 launch fee at the public boat ramp. For more information call (662) 363-9711.

State Lakes

One of the primary reasons that crappie are one of America's favorite game fish is that they can be found in diverse locations -- from huge reservoirs to small farm ponds. Don't make the mistake of thinking that only large bodies hold large crappie.

While most of the ponds overseen by the MDWFP in the state lakes system are managed for largemouth bass, bream, and catfish, some of these bodies of water also host populations of crappie. Among those is Lake Mary Crawford in Lawrence County. This 128-acre impoundment has two boat ramps and about a dozen fish attracters. Back in 1998 it produces a crappie that tipped the scales at 3 pounds, 4 ounces.

Another option is to try some of the lakes in Mississippi's state parks. Lake Tangipahoa in Percy Quin State Park in Pike County is one example. The lake covers 700 acres. In Forrest County, Geiger Lake in Paul B. Johnson State Park provides another 300 acres for fishing.

One of the benefits of fishing state lakes is lower angler pressure, particularly for crappie. Since most smaller lakes are managed for other species, their crappie numbers are lower, but the fish's sizes are greater.

Adapting big-water tactics to smaller lakes can be a challenge, but is often rewarded with slab-sized crappie. Such lakes that have submerged or standing timber are usually good locations to find some big slabs. Standing timber is a prime location for vertically jigging a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jig up against the structure. Since crappie usually prefer a "no-action" presentation, gently raising the jig off the bottom and letting it settle can be a deadly tactic.

More information on Mississippi's state lakes and state park lakes can be found on the MDWFP Web site under the links for Fishing or for Parks. The site is www.mdwfp.com.

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