Photo by Scott Maloch
Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, and though its aftermath has been fraught with various serious difficulties, dire consequences for the crappie fishing in most the state aren’t likely to number among them. Crappie populations generally run in cycles, and as most papermouth lakes in the Magnolia State have seen their fish enjoy several solid annual spawns, those venues show promise for excellent action.
“Hurricane Katrina didn’t affect crappie fishing in Mississippi greatly,” said Bubba Hubbard, the assistant chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, “because the main crappie fisheries are from the central part of the state northward. From Jackson north we saw very little damage to the fisheries from Katrina. The hurricane probably only greatly affected the area around the Pascagoula River, the oxbow lakes off the river and a few coastal streams. We had some fish kills in the coastal rivers because of oxygen depletion and saltwater intrusion from the hurricane surge.”
In most state waters, anglers can catch up to 30 slabs per day in any combination of black or white crappie. Black and white crappie look very similar and share many traits. As the names imply, black crappie look darker, while white crappie tend to be lighter in color. A white crappie usually shows several vertical bars of dark color on its sides; a black crappie — sometimes called a “speckled perch” — is randomly spotted all over. For a positive identification, count the spines: A white crappie has six spiny dorsal fins; a black crappie has either seven or eight.
Of course, they look and taste the same when dipped in cornmeal and fried!
“Overall, the crappie fishery is in good shape in most areas,” Hubbard said. “Since crappie populations tend to fluctuate in cycles, some lakes are in down cycles, but most areas should be moderate to good. We’ve had some good year-classes recently, so anglers should find good sizes and numbers.”
Both black and white crappie generally occupy many waters jointly. They both eat the same prey, mainly threadfin shad or other minnows; black crappie may eat a few more insects. People generally use the same tactics to catch both species.
While they might share the same waters, the two species prefer slightly different habitats. In general, anglers find white crappie more in the muddier running water of big rivers. Black crappie generally prefer clear, quiet water, so anglers often find them in the oxbows and backwaters of major rivers.
Both species congregate in big schools in late winter before spawning, sometimes at depths of 30 to 40 feet in large reservoirs. You might catch a limit in one spot without moving the boat. Once one or two crappie are caught, you should thoroughly probe the area for more of their cousins. Usually, fish run in schools with others of similar size. Also, the fish tend to congregate by size: If three or four half-pound crappie are hooked in a particular spot, more of that size are probably present there. If you want bigger crappie, check other locations that might hold bigger slabs.
Mississippi anglers typically catch the largest crappie of the year in late winter, just before the spawn. Fishing for pre-spawn crappie can resemble hunting for submarines. In deep water, crappie follow schools of prey species, so search for those baitfish with your electronics. Find the bait, and hungry crappie probably lurk just below the school. A baitfish school might appear as an inverted “V” on a depthfinder.
To catch suspended fish, always dangle the bait slightly above the crappie. These fish look up to spot minnows silhouetted against surface glare. They might swim up 3 or 4 feet to hit a jig or live minnow, but they’ll probably never see one bouncing just below them.
Among the earliest fish to spawn, both black and white crappie move into the shallows as water temperatures reach about 65 degrees. They generally spawn in March or April across most of Mississippi, but possibly move shallow as late as May in some cold lakes, oxbows or rivers. Water temperatures may vary widely in a large, deep reservoir. A shallow, muddy flat in the sunshine on the northern end of a lake might reach the critical temperature in March, but deep, clear flowing waters near the dam might not warm up sufficiently until May.
The crappie is one of the most prolific game fish in North America; a single female may produce 20,000 to 25,000 eggs a year. They might spawn twice a year. With the males guarding nests, fry stand a better chance of survival.
Following is a region-by-region review of some of the Magnolia State’s best crappie venues.
“For big crappie, I’d fish Grenada Lake,” Bubba Hubbard suggested. “Grenada Lake produces some crappie over 3 pounds. We’ve seen some tremendous catches from that lake in the last few years.”
Completed in 1954 as a flood-control reservoir on the Yalobusha River, this reservoir offers anglers 35,000 acres of water and 148 miles of shoreline about three miles northeast of the town of Grenada. Famous for producing huge slabs, Grenada Lake can give up fish exceeding 4 pounds.
“In a crappie tournament in the spring of 2005 on Grenada Lake, the winners weighed in a seven-fish limit weighing 20.92 pounds,” said Keith Meals, a MDWFP district fisheries biologist in Enid. “The biggest weighed 3.4 pounds. I heard of a 4.11 coming out of there in 2005. It’s probably one of the better lakes in the country to catch a monster crappie.” In March, big females enter the Grenada shallows to spawn. Many people slowly troll jigs or fish with live shiners at this time. Although the lake contains some deep holes, most fish are found in less than 10 feet of water. Water levels can vary widely in the turbid lake.
“It’s fairly stable for fishing quality right now,” Meals said. “We’ve had several good spawns in a row on Grenada Lake. An average fisherman on an average day can probably catch about 15 to 20 crappie. We are getting increasing fishing pressure, so I expect to see the average size decline somewhat. Right now, it has some really big fish. Locals don’t bat an eye over a 3-pound fish.”
On July 31, 1957, Fred Bright caught the state record white crappie, a 5-pound, 3-ounce fish, at Enid Reservoir. Enid Lake, a 28,000-acre flood-control reservoir in Yalobusha County, rises as spring rains inundate prime crappie cover. Many crappie gather
to feed and spawn near this cover.
Gerald Conlee landed the Magnolia State’s top black crappie — a 4-pound, 4-ounce fish taken on March 19, 1991 — at Arkabutla Lake, another north Mississippi flood-control reservoir. Dating from 1943, the 11,240-acre lake near the town of the same name still produces some of the biggest slabs in northwest Mississippi.
Sardis Lake, a 32,100-acre impoundment on the Little Tallahatchie River about nine miles southeast of the town of Sardis, dates to 1940. One of the deepest lakes in northern Mississippi, it can produce many crappie in the 2- to 3-pound range, but most people know it more for numbers.
“We’ve had good spawns for the past several years, so crappie populations are maintaining good levels,” Meals remarked. “Sardis Lake has some 2- and 3-pound crappie, but most fish range from 3/4 pound to 1 1/2 pounds. People could put a big stringer together. Sardis Lake is good.”
“Tunica Cutoff has been coming on strong,” Meals offered. “If people want to fish for numbers, we recommend Tunica Cutoff.”
A 6,500-acre active oxbow, Tunica Cutoff rises and falls at the whim of the Mississippi River. Some holes drop to more than 40 feet deep, but most people fish in 15 feet of water or less. Because of the cold water and snowmelt flowing down the Mississippi River into Tunica Cutoff, crappie usually spawn much later in this oxbow than in other lakes. Generally, crappie fishing peaks in May, so many northeast Mississippi anglers fish the other lakes in March and April, switching to the willow-covered shorelines of Tunica Cutoff in May.
“Most people fish jigs or minnows in shoreline cover,” said Meals. “We’ve had some good year-classes since 2002, so crappie spawned in previous years are really reaching good sizes. We see some fish in the 2- to 3-pound range, but most Tunica crappie weigh about 1 pound.”
In northeast Mississippi, the Tennessee River and its tributaries dominate the fishing geography. Pickwick Lake, one of a series of lakes formed by the damming of the Tennessee River, spreads through 50,000 acres of Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama near Iuka. Known chiefly for giant smallmouths, Pickwick Lake offers some pretty impressive late-winter and early-spring crappie fishing. With 496 miles of shoreline, the lake offers plenty of habitat.
Fishing for pre-spawn crappie can resemble hunting for submarines. In deep water, crappie follow schools of prey species, so search for those baitfish with your electronics.
“We’ve had as good a spring on Pickwick in 2005 as I’ve ever seen,” said Larry Pugh, a MDWFP district biologist in Tupelo. “Typically, when we see a good cycle, it lasts for three to five years. Pickwick is on an up cycle. It’s probably going to be good for the next three years.
“Pickwick is not a traditional lake,” the biologist added. “It’s part of the Tennessee River system and people fish in anywhere from 12 to 30 feet of water.”
Near the Wilson Dam at Florence, Ala., the lake still flows with a lot of current in the original river channel before spreading out into Tennessee and Mississippi. Pickwick Lake averages 10 to 12 feet deep, but some holes drop to more than 70 feet deep. The Tennessee Valley Authority also maintains a channel for commercial traffic.
“February and March is the time to be on Pickwick crappie fishing,” Pugh asserted. “They usually start spawning in late March through early May. Fish average about 1 pound. In one tournament in 2005, I saw 10 crappie that weighed 18 pounds. Crappie up to 2 pounds are not uncommon. The biggest I ever put my hands on weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces.”
For pre-spawn crappie, many Pickwick anglers do what the locals call “pulling”: Positioning their boats crosswise to the current in the bays and creeks off the river channel, they use electric motors to maneuver and control the drift speed of their boats. Slowly trolling, they drop tube or hair jigs into likely crappie holes; some also use live bait.
The early February bite begins in Yellow Creek, one of the four main tributaries entering Pickwick Lake, and then progresses to Indian Creek; in March and April, it reaches upriver to Bear Creek, Pugh says. Anglers might also fish Second Creek.
The greater part of the lake sits in Alabama, and anglers with an Alabama license can fish from the Wilson Dam downstream 53 miles to the Pickwick Dam near Counce, Tenn. A Tennessee or a Mississippi license only allows anglers to fish certain parts of the lake.
Ross Barnett Reservoir
“If I had to pick one lake for numbers, I’d probably go to Ross Barnett,” said Bubba Hubbard.
Formed by damming the Pearl River, Ross Barnett Reservoir is just northeast of Jackson along the historic Natchez Trace. It offers anglers 33,000 acres of prime crappie habitat and 105 miles of shoreline. A shallow, often turbid lake with northern stretches above state Route 43 still resembling the river, Ross Barnett can drop to more than 40 feet deep in places along the old river channel, but it also offers considerable acres of shallow flats less than 5 feet deep.
“Ross Barnett has a high crappie catch rate,” said Larry Bull, a MDWFP district fisheries biologist in Canton. “The average size of a crappie is less than a pound, but we see some fish up to 2 pounds. Two fishermen in a boat can usually catch 20 to 30 crappie on a good day.”
When impounded, the reservoir engulfed several old oxbow lakes that still hold strands of standing timber around the edges. Spring rains can muddy the waters, making fishing difficult at times, but anglers can often fill large stringers.
“In February, people fish along the old river channel and the oxbow lakes,” Bull said. “They fish the drop-offs with jigs, minnows or jigs tipped with minnows. Most people fish vertically. Fish the structure. Our peak spawn tends to be in late March to early April.”
Almost like a separate lake, Pelahatchie Creek runs through an earthen dam into the main lake; the cove formed by the dam is called Pelahatchie Bay. Near the main dam, anglers find about eight miles of open water. Above the SR 43 bridge, the upper lake runs about 15 miles. Most of it resembles the old river channel, becoming even more riverine as you progress upstream.
Sited seven miles northwest of Meridian in the western part of the state, 4,144-acre Okatibbee Lake is on Okatibbee Creek; it has 28 miles of shoreline. A 10-inch minimum-length limit for crappie is in force here.
“It’s a shallow lake with a lot of flats,” Larry Bull noted. “The old Okatibbee Creek channel runs the entire length of the reservoir to the dam. It doesn’t have a lot
of old timber in it, but it does have some structure around the old creek channel. Anglers might catch about two to three fish per hour.”
The average crappie here weighs just over 1/2 pound, but a few 1 1/4- pounders show up.
About 18 miles north of Yazoo City, Bee Lake is an ancient oxbow offering anglers a decent chance at catching a stringer of crappie, some of which may well break the 2 1/2-pound mark.
“Bee Lake has an early fishery with the best fishing from February through April,” said Garry Lucas, a MDWFP district fisheries biologist in Greenwood. “It’s a long, relatively skinny and shallow oxbow with a lot of cypress trees, some crossing right through it. People might catch 15 to 25 crappie per day.”
Lake Whittington, an active oxbow connected to the Mississippi River south of Rosedale, fluctuates with river levels. Many anglers prefer to fish there whenever the water level starts to drop slowly. Some slabs from the lake may weigh more than 2 pounds.
“Lake Whittington is very dependent upon the water level in the Mississippi River, but it can also produce some good catches of both white and black crappie,” Lucas observed. “Lake Washington, a very old oxbow lake of the Mississippi River south of Greenville, has some large fish, some in the 2-pound range. People catch a lot of 1-pounders. Most of the western shore is a flooded cypress swamp.”