Magnolia State Oxbow Crappie

The cut-offs along the rivers in Mississippi provide some of the most dependable crappie fishing in the state. Here are some places where you should check out the fishing this year.

By Robert H. Cleveland

Willie Carson has caught enough crappie in his lifetime to feed a starving nation. At 71, Carson still loves fishing for what he calls the greatest game fish in the world.

But at this point in his life, with his hair graying and his houseful of kids grown and gone, Carson no longer fishes for crappie out of necessity. Now he fishes for the fun.

"And the challenge," added the retired public school bus driver. "That's what it is, I think, the challenge of beating them day in and day out.

"To tell you the truth, other than keeping my wife happy and raising my four children through school, I don't think there's a bigger challenge than catching crappie in the oxbows in April."

He does, however, qualify that statement.

"The challenge is only on those oxbows still connected to the Mississippi River, and not on those old oxbows that have been separated by the levee," Carson clarified. "Those other oxbows aren't a challenge at all. We can go to those, and to other lakes like Barnett Reservoir, near Jackson, where I live, and catch fish every day in April because the fish will be spawning and easy to find."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

That is not the case at Carson's favorite oxbows, lakes Chotard and Albemarle, north of Vicksburg in Issaquena County. There, in April, an angler never knows what to expect on any early spring day. When fish are enjoying spawning-type water conditions in most lakes, oxbow fish are swimming in the waters that come south from the spring thaw.

Nature tells them, with shorter days, that it is time to spawn. But the water temperatures, which can be 15 or 20 degrees cooler than in other lakes, tell them their eggs will not hatch. Instinct also tells them that if they move shallow and do spawn, there's the possibility that a sudden 5- or 6-foot rise or fall could quickly happen, either exposing their eggs to dry air or covering them with too much water and preventing necessary sunshine from hitting them.

When the fish themselves don't know what's going on, Carson said, "it is really hard for us to figure them out."

It can be brutal, yet it can be wonderful. You never, ever know what it is going to be until you put your first minnow or your first jig in the water.

"You have to go to the lake prepared to fish about 50 different patterns because you never know which one will work," Carson mused. "And there are days in April when none of them work. Fast-rising water, for example, is impossible to deal with. If you know there's a rise of half a foot or more a day, then just stay home. The same is true with fast-falling water of a half-foot or more. Just stay home.

"But anytime the river is near a standstill - I don't care at what level - then you can catch fish. That's when the fish will not be panicky. They won't be constantly moving. On a standstill, or on a slow fall, you can find them and you can stay with them."

By finding them, Carson means finding the proper depth at which that the fish are holding. By staying with them, he means sticking to fishing that depth, or within a few inches of it, moving up or down with the slight rise or fall that is naturally happening with the river's change.

Johnny Laney, who has lived on the banks of Chotard and has operated Laney's Landing for over four decades, probably knows more about crappie fishing on oxbows than anyone. He, too, understands the challenge and knows most fishermen can't deal with it on a daily basis.

"But that doesn't mean that April can't be a great time to fish the oxbows," he said. "Some of the best catches I've seen come out of the lake - no, make that most of the best catches I've seen come out of Chotard - have come in April. Those catches have always come when we have one of those years when we get a late spring thaw up north."

A key for Laney is watching the water level gauge on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.

"A late thaw means we might have a constant lake level here around 18 to 22 feet that could last up to two or three weeks. You let that happen, and you can sure enough catch some boxes full of slabs - the big ones, 2 pounds and up. That's when the fish get against the trees and under the brush and are anywhere from 3 to 5 feet deep and you can hem them up."

Those days are rare, however, and may not happen in April but once every three, four or five years. More often the river level is at 30 to 40 feet and rising or falling.

"That's when it gets really tough," Carson said. "When it's like that, I may be the only boat on Chotard or Albermarle."

When the water is falling, Carson isn't hard to find either. He'll be right in the middle of the lake, looking for schools of suspended crappie. The fish feel the fall, panic a bit, and start moving out of the flooded timber. Using his electronics, the angler cruises the open water until he finds the big schools. It could take hours or it could take minutes.

"Once I find them, I stop and put out several poles, each with several hooks, and use my trolling motor to move slowly around that area," Carson explained. "The fish are finicky, but they will eat if you keep putting a minnow in their face. The only way you can be sure you're doing that is to have at least four or five poles out with hooks set about a foot apart with a 1-ounce lead sinker at the bottom to keep it down."

The tactics are just the opposite, if the water is rising quickly. Carson moves to the edge of the timber or into the trees and starts fishing a different pattern.

"A fast rise will send the fish to the banks in search of food," he said. "They want to be there, naturally. It's April, the days are getting longer, and nature is telling them it's time to go shallow. So when the water is rising they move to the trees. Once they get there, you can forget the multiple-pole drift-fishing pattern, too.

"You have to switch to vertical jigging, either with a jig or a minnow. That time of the year, I stick to the minnow/jig combination because they will still be edgy and the natural minnow will get you the strike when a straight jig won't."

There is a magical moment that happens at least once every year, and often in April in the right conditions, when it all comes together. The action could last a few hours or a few days. But at som

e point and time during the spring, like someone flipped a light switch, the fish all of a sudden just bite.

"Darnedest thing I have ever seen, but it happens and it's why I try to hit the lakes as often as possible," Carson noted. "You never know when it's going to happen. You know when it's not, and that's when the river is real high and the spring thaw is coming down the river. Otherwise, it could happen anytime the lake is in that 18- to 22-foot range and either on a standstill or a slow fall."

Those same patterns work in all of the river-connected oxbows, from Tunica Cutoff in north Mississippi, to lakes Lee and Ferguson at Greenville, to Lake Mary near Woodville in southwest Mississippi. Every connected oxbow is affected by the rise and fall of the river. That's a natural phenomenon that river anglers have learned to deal with by watching the water level tables in the newspapers and on the Internet. Predicted levels can be found for a week in advance, and you can get a good idea of what to expect.

Oxbow fishermen who target lakes like Eagle and Washington don't have to worry about the levels. They just get ready to fill their ice chests full of big spawning crappie.

A lot of oxbows and "bar pits" - as the old borrow pits (holes left when areas were dug out for dirt to build the levees) are called - now sit outside the main levee. The river's rise and fall can't get to them.

In effect, they have become lakes and offer some of the finest spring crappie fishing you will ever find anywhere. Being oxbows, they are still all shaped like long river runs with deep open water in the middle and tree-lined banks. When the spring spawn comes, the fish move up on those trees and brush on the bank and they spawn.

"It will be happening in April," said Howard Thomas of Vicksburg, who spends time on both Eagle and Washington, the two premier oxbow lakes no longer connected to the Mississippi River. "The fish will be shallower than two feet most of April, unless we have some freakish weather. You just need a jigging pole and some jigs and you can fill a box."

Water temperatures usually reach the magic mid-60s in mid to late March, which starts the spawn at both of Thomas' favorite lakes.

"Even though Eagle is about 50 miles south of Washington, the spawn starts quicker at Washington because it is shallower and usually has murky water that time of the year. The water warms quicker," Thomas said. "They move up on the shallow cypress, and I swear there are days when you can catch a male and a female off every cypress knee. I'm talking about catching them in water 6 inches to a foot deep. I've actually seen the spines on the back of the fish out of the water, put a jig right in front of him, and watched him attack it."

At Washington, Thomas keeps the boat in 2 to 3 feet of water, about a pole's length outside the tree line on the deep outside bend of the oxbow. If that produces bites, he knows he's in for a quick and easy day. If it doesn't, then he has to move up inside the trees to shallower water.

"What that means to me is that the fishing pressure has been heavy, because everybody likes to hit those outside trees because of how easy it is," he said. "Once those fish are caught or get tired of being fished for, they move up inside to the shallower trees. I also like to fish the shallow inside bend in the shallow flats. The fish aren't as plentiful, but I seem to catch more big fish there. They get back around the bushes and can be tougher to get to, but the biggest fish I catch each year come from there."

Thomas said the spawn usually lasts throughout April before the fish start moving back to the open water in May. By June, they are suspended in open water again on this lake, but trolling there differs from trolling at most other lakes.

"If you're trolling deeper than 5 feet, you are spinning your wheels," he said. "You need to be in water 10 feet or more, but the fish will be within three or four feet of the surface."

Back at Eagle - perhaps Mississippi's most famous oxbow lake - April is the peak of spawning. The fish move up into the buckbrush and cypress to take care of their natural calling to reproduce. You see hundreds of trucks parked at all ramps.

"But when you get on the water, you see a lot of the boats tied to a tree in the shallows with nobody in them," Thomas said. "A lot of people, including myself, like to wade at Eagle. I'll get out and start walking around the bushes, and that's fun.

"What that does is allow you to get to the fish in the shallow water without disturbing them with a trolling motor or a boat clanging around. You just slowly and quietly slide your feet along the bottom, moving from bush to bush or tree to tree.

"Just like Washington, during the April spawn at Eagle, you can't fish too shallow," Thomas continued. "The fish will be in less than a foot of water when the spawning is peaking. They will be right on the banks. I mean right on the banks, wherever there is a bush or a log or something for them to use for spawning."

The key spawning sites at Eagle are the ends of the horseshoe-shaped lake and the area between the two islands.

"My favorite area is the end near Buck's Chute," Thomas said. "That's where most of the shallow brush is. It's easy wading, and it's also easy for boaters who don't want to wade. You go past the chute, and the outside bend of the lake is lined by about 10 yards of buckbrush. The fish really like that kind of area for spawning."

Two other popular oxbows that are no longer influenced by the river's rises and falls - unless extreme flood levels exist - are Horn and Flower lakes, in north Mississippi near Tunica. They are also good spots to hit for spawning crappie in April.

Obviously, when fishermen mention oxbow lakes, everyone automatically thinks of the Mississippi River lakes. That is a mistake that too many fishermen make.

Inland, in the Delta, are many natural oxbows that were formed both by the tributaries to the Mississippi and, according to geography books and experts, the Ohio River system.

"That's right: some of the Delta's oxbows were actually formed centuries ago by the Ohio River system, which at one time did come through Mississippi," said Jack Herring, former fisheries chief and executive director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "Wolf Lake, Little Eagle Lake and Bee Lake, to name a few, were formed by that system."

They, like Eagle and Washington, are lakes that are no longer influenced by river stages. They maintain constant levels and they are in their prime during the spawning months.

"The problem is that they are in the flat Delta in the heart of the farming area, and they get a lot of runoff during a rainy spring," said David Saxon of Delta Sports in Yazoo City. "If we have an extremely wet spring, it's tough to get a single decent fishing day

during the spawn on those lakes. The runoff will carry a lot of mud into the lakes and the visibility can be reduced to less than an inch. It can look more like chocolate milk than water.

"But if we can get a week or two of little or no rain in late March or April," he added, "the spawning action on Wolf and Bee can challenge any of the Mississippi River oxbows. They don't need to be overlooked."

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For updated weekly reports on all the major Mississippi River oxbows and on all the others inland, visit the Web site of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, at www.mdwfp.com, and follow the prompts for "Fishing" and then click on fishing reports for District 3. River levels for each of the connected lakes are also provided.



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