Tracking Mississippi Slabs

Tracking Mississippi Slabs

The Magnolia State is blessed with plenty of waters that hold crappie, but some are a cut above the crowd. Come along and take a look at several of those hotspots. (February 2009)

Winter's are finally winding down: time to start thinking about spring fishing -- crappie fishing in particular. Papermouth anglers have a lot to look forward to this year, and the annual crappie spawn is the excuse needed to grab that fishing tackle.

A lot's going on across the state with our crappie fisheries and the fishing locations that are historically the best. The Mississippi Department Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks is looking at both crappie angling in general and the major fisheries in particular to help determine the best management strategies to both protect the resources and provide the greatest degree of fishing opportunity to Magnolia State anglers.

Approximately half the state's top crappie waters are in the northwest's large flood-control reservoirs, so, naturally, a large amount of both anglers' and the MDWFP's attention is focused on those. In fact, along with the usual creel surveys and such, a research project for those impoundments is also in the works.

At present, the research is still in the proposal stage. If implemented, it will be a joint project of the MDFWP and Mississippi State University. The focus would be on the upper reaches of the reservoirs and their tributaries. The fisheries personnel would like to know the percentage of the crappie population in these areas and what can be done to protect and enhance the habitat found there.

The studies would involve sampling of larval fish, telemetry studies of adult fish, and movement studies of the crappie as they progress through the year and seasonal changes. The project would be flexible, and could involve different lakes in the northwest.

In other areas of the state, conventional management and surveys are yielding insight into our crappie fisheries -- which are peaking, for example, and which are on a down cycle. Because crappie populations are typically cyclical, a lake may provide great fishing for several years and then have a downturn for a year or two until the population rebounds.

GETTING THEM IN THE BOAT

Crappie can be very easy to catch -- at times; at other times, they're nearly impossible to get. They can seem to bite everything thrown at them, or they can be extremely finicky. Obviously, weather, water conditions, and the time of year play a part in the papermouths' interest in the angler's offerings.

It's in the spring that crappie are most vulnerable and anglers have the greatest variety of tactics at their disposal. Widely used in the spring, that old standby the live minnow is a favorite bait of many papermouth enthusiasts. In fact, it's all but universally used throughout the year.

Proponents of artificial baits also have their favorites, and these, being able to cover more water in less time, can sometimes outfish minnows. Various hair jigs, inline spinners and curly-tailed grubs are the best.

So let's cut to the chase and take a look at some of the top spots around the state for wetting a line and tangling with some hefty papermouths.

NORTHWEST FLOOD-CONTROL RESERVOIRS

Normally, one has to look at the fishing on an individual basis for each lake covered. However, to leave plenty of room to cover other areas of the state -- and because they've all had some similar changes in regulations -- we're looking at lakes Arkabutla, Grenada, Sardis, and Enid as a group this time.

All of these lakes are in fisheries District 2 in the north-central portion of the state. They fall under the guidance of MDWFP fisheries biologist Keith Meals. According to him, Mississippi anglers should expect some good fishing at all four impoundments if the weather cooperates some this year. Additionally, changes in regulations at these lakes should start yielding better catches and much better quality over the coming years.

Meals said that until gas prices soared last year, a trend of increasing angler activity at the reservoirs had been seen. With the former regulations, anglers had been using numerous poles while trolling and had been harvesting an enormous amount of fish, while and the size and quality of the crappie harvested was steadily going down. Over a 12-year period, the average weight of harvested crappie declined significantly. In fact, the average weight for a 30-fish limit had dropped to just 5 pounds --not good.

New regulations in place at the reservoirs are designed to decrease the harm from overharvest and to get the weights and quality back up to previous levels. These lakes have always been known for excellent crappie fishing, and Grenada is known for producing trophy caliber fish in the range of 3 pounds.

New creel limits differing from those mandated in statewide regulations are now in place at all four reservoirs. Anglers at Arkabutla, Grenada, Enid, and Sardis may now keep only 20 crappie per day, and may keep no fish under 12 inches. And pole and hook restrictions are in place at the four lakes: At Grenada, an angler may use a maximum of three poles; at the other three lakes, five poles are permitted per person. In both cases, each pole may be equipped with no more than two hooks or lures.

Meals believes that the new regulations should translate to better fishing for all. "With the size limits and reduced fishing pressure, if the weather and water conditions cooperate, we should have a really good crappie season this year," he stated. "People should start seeing larger fish come out of these lakes than they have in several years."

Although these lakes have similarities, some differences exist as well. Enid and Sardis are deeper than the other two and typically are clearer during the summer months. They're known for producing higher numbers of fish, but of a somewhat reduced size. Local anglers also tend more often to use trolling as a crappie fishing method.

Arkabutla and Grenada, on the other hand, are much shallower and more turbid. They don't usually yield large numbers of fish, but are known for good-quality fish, so anglers there generally catch much larger crappie.

Crappie fishing and angler harvest at Arkabutla in particular may be much improved this season. Last year, heavy flooding sent water pouring through the spillway, flooding terrestrial vegetation. This scattered the crappie into impenetrable cover and thus led to low catch rates and reduced harvest. Therefore, fish that would normally have been pulled from Arkabutla are still in the lake and are now a year older and larger.

This old oxbow lake in southern Washington Cou

nty, roughly 5,000 acres in size, contains a notable crappie fishery. Unlike many of our state's other oxbows, Washington has been disconnected from the Mississippi River for a good many years. It provides some great angling -- and the crappie fishing has been remarkably good over the past several years.

MDWFP fisheries biologist Jeremy McCain said that solid numbers of fish exhibiting a good size-structure are present at Washington, making for a promising outlook for this year. He added that while biologists don't do a lot of creel surveys at the lake, they do look at the tournament results quite closely as a way of monitoring the fishery and anglers' typical catches. "This past year, a lot of anglers were catching a lot of fish of varying sizes," he said.

Indeed, tournaments have told the tale. In some of 2008's early contests, anglers were catching plenty of fish in the range of 2 pounds; the largest topped out at about 3 pounds -- a very respectable papermouth. Fish of that size, according to McCain, are approximately 4 to 5 years old.

Habitat for crappie -- especially early in the year, before the fish move into deeper water -- is plentiful. The west side of the lake has some tall grass and a cypress forest; the north and south both have cypresses, and the latter also features a channel and spillway. These are excellent areas to target during the springtime, as the crappie relate to the cypress knees and other shallow structure. Later in the year, trolling or drift-fishing over deeper structure is more effective.

Lake Washington has a daily creel limit of 30 fish per day. There's also a 10-inch size limit, but anglers may keep up to five fish that are less than 10 inches.

The lake is about 25 miles south of Greenville. For more information on fishing at Lake Washington, contact the MDWFP fisheries office at (601) 432-2200 or call Jeremy McCain at (601) 859-3421.

ROSS BARNETT RESERVOIR

Although the crappie population at Ross Barnett is cyclical, it's at present in good shape, and the fishing prospects for this year look very promising. In fact, fisheries biologist Larry Bull is optimistic. "Ross Barnett has one of the best crappie fisheries in the state," he offered. "Most people don't catch a limit, but the size of the fish is good."

Plenty of big fish are available at Barnett. According to Bull, crappie in the range of 1 1/2 to 2 pounds aren't uncommon. During the last three Crappie Masters tournaments held there, the five largest fish caught weighed between 2 1/2 and 3 pounds each -- decent-sized crappie in most anyone's opinion.

More crappie of this size should be available this year. Additional promise of a good season may be seen in 2005's robust spawn. The fish from that spring are now four years old, so they should be 14 to 16 inches.

Minnows, tube jigs, feather jigs, hair jigs, and jigs tipped with minnows are all good baits in the view of local anglers. Popular colors at Ross Barnett are chartreuse, yellow, black, and white.

During the summer months, Bull noted, crappie move into deeper water, preferring to hold near deep structure. Anglers should start fishing about 8 to 10 feet deep, going deeper as the sun gets high by midday.

Look for crappie in the old sunken oxbow lakes near the mid section of the reservoir, such as Three-Prong, Saddle Bags or Big Lake near Brown's Landing. In the south end, fish the old lakes near Roses Bluff. The creek channel in Pelahatchie Bay is also a popular spot.

Very knowledgeable about crappie fishing, Bull offered some tips. "Fall and winter fishing is popular in the Welfare Hole just south of the State Route 43 bridge," he observed, "and near the Pelahatchie Bay Causeway bridge. The Welfare Hole is a real hotspot if water is moving through the bridge. As the water temperatures fall, fish move deeper, and presentations should become slow as the fish become inactive. Deeper water along Roses Bluff and the main dam can also be great areas for deep-water crappie during the winter months. The key to finding crappie is to find deep structure."

Statewide crappie regulations apply at Ross Barnett. Maps showing depth contours are available at the Pearl River Valley Water Management District office and their campgrounds around the reservoir.

To contact Larry Bull, call the District 4 fisheries office at (601) 859-3421 or the Jackson office at (601) 432-2200.

OKATIBBEE RESERVOIR

Larry Bull is also the biologist overseeing the Okatibbee Lake in Lauderdale County. He asserted that the lake should offer up some great crappie angling this year.

Historically, Bull said, the creel data don't fluctuate a lot at Okatibbee, according to Bull. "I would expect the fishery to be similar to past years," he offered. "Mean length is around 10 1/2 inches and the mean weight is 0.6 pounds."

Anglers harvest high numbers of fish at Okatibbee, but the sizes aren't impressive.

The crappie action should not only be good this year but also over the next few years. In the fall of 2007, the water level at Okatibbee was at a near record low, but spawning last spring was excellent, as the crappie were able to move into flooded terrestrial vegetation to spawn. These fish should start showing up in the fishery by next year.

When crappie are moving into the shallows to spawn during the spring, they're found on the flats around Christmas tree brushpiles and other structure. At other times of the year, the submerged main creek channel tends to hold the most crappie and is the best fishing location on the lake.

At Okatibbee, a 30-fish-per-day creel limit is in force. Anglers may retain no fish less than 10 inches in length. Depth maps of Okatibbee Lake are available on the MDWFP Web site, www.mdwfp.com.'‚

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