Magnolia State Winter Angling Grab Bag

So it's nippy outside -- the fish don't quit biting! Try these options for some angling action this month. (Dec 2006)

The 10 rural stores we passed that morning were beehives of activity, each thronged by the camo-clad, grownups and children both, many of whose ensembles were accessorized with a bright orange vest or jacket. Hunters, obviously.

"The great thing about hunting season," said Brandon's John Alford as he pointed at the last little grocery, "is that if this was anytime between February and November, a lot of those folks would be doing what we're going to do: The waters would be crowded with fishermen.

"As it is, they're going deer and duck hunting -- and it is very likely that we won't see another boat on the lake all day."

That lack of involuntary togetherness ranks at the top of the list of reasons for the love winter felt by the little cohort of Mississippi fishermen to which Alford belongs -- that, and the fact that off-season fishing can be as hot as a furnace.

"There's no doubt that if you know where to go and what to do, you can hammer fish throughout our winters in this state," said Paul Johnson, also of Brandon, and the president of the Magnolia Crappie Club. "Some of the best crappie fishing I do each year is between December and February. A lot of people think I'm crazy, but I'm not kidding you: Give me a couple of hours on Chotard and Albermarle when the fishing's hot, and I'll never know it's cold. I won't have time to think about it -- I'll be too busy catching fish!"

Plus, in Mississippi it's rarely cold enough for long enough in a continuous stretch that you've got to quit fishing. Oak Grove's Ray Cook reported that the percentage of days that he can fish in the winter exceeds that in the summer.

"I gave up deer hunting about 10 years ago because I found out that I was missing the best fishing season we have in south Mississippi," said Cook, an avid bass angler who targets big fish in smaller state lakes. "Sure, we can fish all year 'round in south Mississippi -- but who wants to fish when it's 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity, making it feel like it's 105? Give me a 45-degree day with bright sunshine anytime over that. Hey: I can always put on a jacket!"

Fortunately for us, Alford, Johnson and Cook are willing to share their fishing tactics on their favorite winter waters.

SPOTTED BASS FEVER

John Alford's favorite sort of winter day is one just cold enough to make him consider not wearing his trademark flip-flops when he hits the upper river area of Ross Barnett Reservoir.

"If I have to put on shoes," he said, "then, yes, maybe it's too cold to go -- but that's because I'd be too cold, not because the fish wouldn't bite. Actually, the perfect morning is when I have to wear socks under my flip-flops. By noon, I can usually take off the socks."

Alford lives only 10 miles from the boat ramps at State Route 43, and it's just 18 miles to the ramps farther up the river at Ratliffs Ferry. The SR 43 ramps give better access to winter largemouths, but Ratliffs is the best jumping-off point for getting after Kentucky spotted bass.

"God love them," Alford remarked. "They are so much fun from December to February. They may not be very big -- at least not the average spot -- but they don't seem to know it. You can hook a 12-inch spot in the dead of winter and think you've got a 5-pounder. They're mean -- and so strong!"

Native to the Pearl River, spotted bass are present in considerable force in the ideal habitat afforded them by Barnett's upper river area. They bite all year long, but the best bite's always in the winter.

"If you're going to take up spotted bass fishing on the river," said Alford, "then you better learn how to work a tailspinner like the old Wing-Ding. There's a lot of versions out there, and I don't care which you choose: Just make sure you get several, and learn how to use them."

The Wing-Ding -- which Mississippian Bob Ponds designed specifically for use on Barnett Reservoir -- is a version of the tailspinner consisting of a small fish-imitating piece of solid teardrop-shaped lead with a hole tunneling vertically through it near the center to which a small spinnerblade is attached at the rear. The line is run through the body, from top to bottom, and then attached to a treble hook. Once a fish is hooked, the lure is free to slide up the line, reducing the fish's ability to sling the hook. It's fished fairly quickly with a yo-yo-like retrieve, with strikes happening as it flutters back to the bottom.

"I have about 10 of 15 places on the river that I check every time out in the winter," Alford offered. "All of them are similar: They are shallow flats or sandbars that average 5 to 6 feet in depth, falling into the river channel" -- the depth of which can be as much as 20 feet deep.

"The best is a big flat that was once a deep outside bend in the river that has silted in and formed a huge area of water between 5 and 8 feet. It drops into the river at 25 feet. It's at the mouth of two backwater sloughs that attract shad, and huge schools of spots live in the river and move up on the flat to feed. I bounce a tailspinner on the flat and then let it fall down the sharp drop. The fish either bite on the flat or when it falls down the drop.

"If they are up on the flat," he continued, "then I often switch to a 200 series Bandit crankbait in some sort of shad pattern. That is faster fishing, and can produce more bites. The drawback is that they can tire of it very quickly. They really need to be active to stay on a crankbait."

Alford's other lure choices for spots include a 3-inch pearl grub behind a 3/16-ounce jig head and a 6-inch red-shad worm.

Barnett Reservoir regulations allow a limit of seven largemouth or spotted bass in aggregate per angler per day. No bass less than 15 inches are to be kept.

RIVER LAKE CRAPPIE

Paul Johnson loves to throw some insulated overalls in the boat and drive the 90 miles west to Chotard and Albermarle lakes, two conjoined oxbows off the Mississippi River. He knows that, given the right conditions, he's got a good chance of boating his limit of 50 crappie. (Another bonus of fishing this border water: The limit is Louisiana's 50, not Mississippi's 30.)

Unlike most oxbow fishermen, Johnson doesn't pay a lot of attention to river levels. "People talk about the river rising or falling and the fish not biting, but I can't agree with that popular theory," he noted. "I've caught them by the boxloads on dramatic river changes, both up and down, and I've bombed when

the river is holding steady.

"However, I've seen strong fronts shut them down consistently. My personal theory is that people attach fishing success or failure at Chotard to the river fluctuations when they should be paying more attention to the barometer."

In the course of his years of fishing, Johnson has made up a list of things that affect his outcomes. "No. 1 is: Find the shad; No. 2 is: Find the shad. I fish the shad schools because that is where the crappie are going to be. If you aren't fishing around shad, you aren't on crappie.

"No. 3: Depth is important. Pattern crappie to the depth they are holding in the water column. Typically, plan to be fishing from 16 feet to 35 feet. Which brings us to No. 4: If suspended fish are not biting, go to the bottom -- I mean, literally bounce the bait off the bottom."

Even if you find the fish at other depths, it'll be worth giving the lake floor a try at some point. But other parts of the formula, such as speed of presentation, can vary. "One of our winter tournaments at Chotard was won by a team trolling really fast when most others were fishing very slow," Johnson recalled, "and there were winter storm warnings out that day. The air temperature was in the mid-30s, and it was sleeting. However, just a day or two before that, I was making people around me mad by catching the fool out of them by slowing my presentation down to an absolute crawl."

As for gear, Johnson uses No. 4 Octopus hooks, two to three hooks per pole, with a 5/8- or 3/4-ounce weight on the bottom of the rig for minnow-fishing. If he's fishing 35 feet or deeper, he goes to a 1-ounce sinker.

In the winter, incidentally, he'll unfailingly fish a minnow, almost always hooked through the lips, either tipped on a jig, or just on a hook. "The only time I change is if I'm fishing on the bottom real slow," he said, "and I'll hook the minnow either through the back or its tail."

He uses 12- and 14-foot trolling poles spooled with 12-pound line down to a swivel, and then 8-pound monofilament to the hooks.

The final consideration is color -- and Johnson's dead serious about this one. "Color matters," he insisted. "And I'm not just talking about jig colors: I also have become a firm believer in colored hooks. Chotard in the winter, more than anywhere else, has proved that to me.

"I got on colored hooks hot and heavy because of tremendous success I was having when others were having average or poor days at Chotard. The only difference that I could see was the color of my hooks. Some days glow hooks work best; some days red hooks work; some days pink, some days orange."

In stained water, Johnson uses orange or pink hooks; he goes to red if it's a bright day, or the water is only slightly stained. On a dark day, or when he's fishing deep in clear water, he goes to glow hooks. "Of all the variables that make a difference," he said, "colored hooks is the No. 1 thing I can control.

"In conclusion: Don't worry about the river stage, dodge the backsides of strong fronts, and locate the shad. Don't be afraid to fish 35 or 40 feet deep if 16 to 20 aren't working. Slow down and speed up presentations and change the color of your hook until you find one that works."

STATE LAKE BASS

If it's December and he's got a day off, it's a sure bet that Ray Cook will be found in his bass boat. What you'll never be able to predict is where that boat'll be.

"One of the great advantages of living in south Mississippi and being a bass fisherman is that we have so many choices," offered Cook, who lives in Oak Grove, a few miles west of Hattiesburg. "Within an hour's drive, I have a lot of choices, and none of them are bad. Some are better for big bass, others for numbers. And during the winter, I usually have them all to myself, even on weekends. Everybody else is hunting!"

Cook's favorite lakes include several state lakes run by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. Lake Perry at Beaumont, Simpson Legion Lake between Magee and Mendenhall, Lake Geiger at Johnson State Park near Brooklyn, Lake Mike Conner at Collins, Lake Columbia at Columbia, and Lake Bogue Homa at Laurel are all on his list, as are some of the water parks run by the Pat Harrison Waterway District, a quasi-state agency -- specifically, Little Black Creek at Purvis, Flint Creek at Wiggins, and Maynor Creek at Waynesboro.

"All of those work," said Cook, "but I prefer the state lakes, except for Bogue Homa and Geiger, because all of them are, like, 75 or 100 acres, and I can fish the entire lake -- all of its options -- in a day. That's pretty cool.

"And, basically, I make my choice based on my mood. If I want to try for a monster fish, I pick the warmest days and go to either Columbia or Simpson Legion; if I want numbers, then Perry or Bogue Homa. But whichever of those lakes I choose, I know a 10-pounder is possible."

Cook's winter tackle box always includes a few staples. "My No. 1 winter lure at all lakes is a hard jerkbait like a suspending Pro Pointer Lucky Craft," the angler stated. "I catch more fish on it than any other lure in the winter, especially on cold and clear days.

"I like a suspending jerkbait fished on no more than 10-pound line. And no matter which lake I'm on, I concentrate on the dam. Most of the state lakes and even the water parks have riprap walls on the dam with a shelf that extends 10 to 20 feet before falling off into deep water. I think the bass spend the winter in that deep water but move up on that shelf to feed in the waters warmed by the rocks. There's more forage there, and therefore more bass.

"I throw the jerkbait close to the rocks," he continued, "work it out, and keep working it well past the drop. If the fish are feeding shallow, they hit it on the shelf; if they are ready to move up, they'll be on that slope and attack it when it comes off the shelf. If they are deep, they still come up and get it when it's suspended 6 feet deep over 15 or 20 feet of water. I slow the retrieve -- let it sit still longer -- over deep water."

In a six-hour day, Cook usually spends at least 75 percent of the time with that pattern. "The only time I vary is when the weather is unusually warm, and has been for several days," he noted. "Then the fish move up on shallow cover, which, depending on the lake, can be vegetation or stumps. I will vary lures between topwater, soft-plastic jerkbaits and small spinnerbaits."

The winter topwater bite is what Cook most likes. "If I had to describe the perfect winter bass day," he said, "it would be the third or fourth day of a warm front with a rapidly approaching cold front on the way -- still warm, but cloudy with the barometer falling. That sparks a topwater feeding frenzy.

"My biggest bass to date is an 11-pound, 7-ounce bass at Columbia two years ago between Christmas and New Year's on just such a day. That fish hit a buzzbait, and I was lucky. Two smaller fish missed it before this big one exploded on

it."

And there you have it. Winter in the Magnolia State can prove a serious boon to those anglers willing to exploit its many positives -- good things like crisply cool conditions that seem a universe away from the sweat and swelter of midsummer, and a passel of fish that pretty much nobody else seems much interested in going after. So put your flip-flops on -- maybe with some socks? -- and get to fishing!

Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.