Photo by Terry Madewell.
Brushing off the thick layer of frost that covered the frozen boat seat, I began to second-guess my decision to accept my uncle’s invitation to join him for a morning of crappie fishing. It was early February and the weather was brutally cold. During this time of year, the water temperatures are as cold as they get here in the Magnolia State.
“It sure is cold this morning. Don’t you think it would be better if we came back in say, April, when it’s nice and warm?” I suggested, hoping to change my uncle’s mind about venturing out onto the big oxbow known by the locals around Natchez as “Old River.”
But my pleading was to no avail.
“Nope! The best time to crappie fish is whenever you can!” my uncle shot back. “Besides, crappie eat every day. And this bucket of minnows should be the perfect meal ticket.”
Half-heartedly, I guided the small johnboat away from the landing and into deeper water as my uncle intently searched the screen of the depthfinder for big schools of shad. Having located a sizable school of baitfish, he instructed me to shut down the trolling motor and quietly drop anchor at the edge of the school.
As I finished securing the anchor line to the boat, my uncle prepared our 10-foot telescoping crappie poles for a morning of fishing. He quickly strung the monofilament line through the eyes of each pole, tied on a No. 6 long-shank hook to the end of the line, and added a small split weight about six inches above the hook.
Before I could get a minnow on my hook, my uncle had already dropped his bait to the edge of the school of shad 15 feet below. By the time my minnow got to the strike zone, my uncle’s had been swallowed, and he was pulling in a 2-pound slab crappie.
“We’re going to have some fine eatin’ tonight!” he crowed. “Nothing better than some stuffed ‘sac-a-lait’ to warm you up!”
“You know that’s right!” I responded, having completely forgotten about the bitter cold.
Over the next hour, we caught a couple of dozen slab crappie, all identical to that first skillet-sized monster. We turned back another 15 or 20 smaller papermouths. That day, I gained a new appreciation for one of the most enjoyable sports available to Mississippi anglers — cold weather crappie fishing.
For thousands of Mississippi fishermen, there is no bigger joy than to find themselves sitting on top of a school of slabs. Not only is the action unsurpassed, but the rewards are two-fold in the immediate thrill of the catch and the later feast of delectable fish. To top it all off, nobody in the Magnolia State has to drive very far to find such a hotspot.
“Mississippi anglers are very fortunate,” said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “If you like to do a little perch jerkin’, you can find plenty of places. It doesn’t matter if you prefer big lakes, small lakes, oxbows or reservoirs — you won’t have to drive far to find one.”
As Magnolia State crappie fishing goes, there are excellent lakes in every geographical region of the state. Overall, the fishery is in good shape statewide, which makes it even more difficult to select the best places to try the action in Mississippi. However, limiting the selection to lakes that are better for cool weather crappie does narrow down the choices. These are the top February crappie lakes in Mississippi based upon professional opinions and history.
According to seasoned crappie fisherman Paul Johnson of Brandon, Chotard is his favorite body of water when it comes to February crappie fishing holes. This old oxbow is connected to the Mississippi River and is located inside the levee, about 20 miles north of Vicksburg.
These waters were once thought to be most productive for producing large crappie when Old Man River is at lower stages and the lake is cut off from its flow. Thus, most crappie fishermen based their fishing activity at Chotard on the Mississippi River stage. However, a few of the guys in the Magnolia Crappie Club have proved this theory to be incorrect.
“Forget the river stage,” admonished Paul Johnson, president of the club, which is one of the largest local crappie clubs in the country. “I proved in the winter of 2005 that it is possible to catch huge quantities of really large slabs at Chotard with the river coming up over a foot a day. I did it over and over again by fishing the shad schools. Locate the shad, catch the crappie — it’s really very simple.
“The river eventually got to flood stage in February 2005,” Johnson continued, noting that the water level exceeded 46 feet on the Vicksburg river gauge, “and I was still limiting out on practically every trip to Chotard. Shoot, the last day I fished over there before it flooded, the ramp at Chotard Landing was all underwater.
“Now, after the floodwaters receded, it was a different story,” Johnson added. “We had a crappie tournament over there a few days after the 10-year flood began to go down, and the fish were nowhere to be found.”
Most slab crappie caught at Chotard in February are in the 15- to 20-foot depths. But if that doesn’t work, Johnson has another trick up his sleeve. He recommended next fishing the bottom at depths from 25 to 35 feet deep.
Johnson rigs up with a 1-ounce weight on the end of the line. He then ties on three dropper lines, spaced about 15 to 18 inches coming up the main line above the weight. To the ends of those he attaches a white (or for muddy water conditions, orange) “glow-in-the-dark” hook. To those hooks he adds live minnows.
His technique is to bounce the lead weight off the bottom as he slowly drifts parallel to Chotard’s steep banks.
According to Johnson, the only other items you need to bring are a couple of ice chests and a fish counter, because “you’re going to catch the limit!”
As with other oxbow lakes on waters bordering adjacent states, the daily limit on Chotard is the same as that of the adjoining state. In this case, that makes a creel limit on the lake the same as Louisiana’s 50 per day, rather than the Magnolia State’s 30.
To reach Chotard Lake, take U.S. Highway 61 north from Vicksburg and then turn left onto SR 465
. Follow the signs to Eagle Lake, continue past that body of water until you reach the levee. The road stays on top of the levee as it continues to Lake Chotard.
ROSS BARNETT RESERVOIR
Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a flood-control project for the Pearl River, 33,000-acre Ross Barnett Reservoir is located just north of Jackson along the historic Natchez Trace Parkway. With over 100 miles of shoreline, Barnett is home to some of the Magnolia State’s premier crappie habitat. The reservoir is drawn down during the winter months to almost half of its normal summer capacity. The result is a lot of fish packed into a much smaller body of water.
Options are abundant when it comes to crappie fishing on Ross Barnett. With 18 free boat ramps to choose from beginning at the spillway and scattered along its length to its northern reaches above SR 43, Ross Barnett offers crappie anglers a wide variety of fishing sites to pick from. Whether you prefer the shallows, the deep holes along the old river channel, or the turbulent water below the dam, access is never a problem.
According to the MDWFP, 54 percent of the anglers on Ross Barnett Reservoir are targeting crappie. The lake also has a high catch rate, and the average crappie take here weighs in at just under a pound. However, reservoir fishermen take a good number of 2-pound-plus slabs each year. And with no minimum size limit, Ross Barnett anglers stand a better chance of reaching their daily limit of 30 crappie.
Several members of the Magnolia Crappie Club spend a considerable amount of time on Ross Barnett. According to those anglers, February is the best time of the year to catch crappie on the big reservoir.
When pressed, those fishermen point to Pelahatchie Bay as the first area to start producing good catches in February. Other sites include Rose’s Bluff; Big Lake, which is located just out from Browns Landing on the Natchez Trace side at Madisonville; and the Welfare Hole, just southeast of the SR 43 bridge near channel markers 50 and 52. These sites have all produced good catches in February. But don’t overlook the obvious: The tailrace below the dam is an excellent site for taking your limit of cold-water crappie.
Live minnows and jigs are both popular baits, but in cold water the nod usually goes to the baitfish. During cold weather, crappie fishing generally requires a slower presentation in deeper water. However, if that deep, slow presentation isn’t working, don’t be afraid to move the bait faster and shallower.
Most slab crappie caught at Chotard in February are in the 15- to 20-foot depths.
Sometimes a warm-up of only a few degrees in February results in crappie becoming more aggressive and moving closer to the surface. The key is to always be ready and willing to change your tactics, especially if the game plan you started with isn’t producing.
Unlike Lake Chotard, which is attached at times to the Mississippi River, the Magnolia State is blessed with other outstanding oxbows that are separated from the big river by the levee or simply distance. Of these non-connected oxbows, Lake Washington is fast gaining a reputation as a premier February crappie lake. Some of the largest slabs caught in recent years came from Washington in the winter.
As is the case with most oxbow lakes in February, live minnows fished deep tend to produce the most fish. The biggest of those slabs are consistently caught on larger sized minnows.
One dubious indicator of how good the crappie fishing stacked up leading into the winter was the numerous citations for exceeding the creel limit that MDWFP conservation officers wrote during the fall! The creel limit for Lake Washington is 30 crappie per person per day, with no more than five of those fish less than 10 inches long.
Located at Glen Allan, just 20 miles south of Greenville on SR 1, 5,000-acre Lake Washington features easy access from seven boat ramps.
Located near Iuka in the far reaches of northeast Mississippi, this 50,000-acre impoundment on the Tennessee River floods portions of Alabama and Tennessee, as well as the Magnolia State. Primarily known for its giant smallmouth bass, Pickwick Lake is fast becoming a crappie hotspot as well, due to its prime papermouth habitat.
According to the MDWFP, 70 percent of Pickwick anglers target crappie. Also, their catch rate from last year was the highest reported since 2001.
For pre-spawn crappie in February, Yellow, Mills and Indian creeks are the hotspots on Pickwick. Live minnows, tube jigs and hair jigs are the most popular lure choices for this time of year.
With the majority of the lake in Alabama, an Alabama fishing license allows an angler to fish from the Wilson Dam downstream to the Pickwick Dam. Anglers possessing a Mississippi or Tennessee fishing license are allowed to fish only smaller portions of the lake. The exact boundaries are explained in Public Notice 3255, which is posted on the MDWFP Web site at www.mdwfp.com.
Anglers are allowed to keep 30 crappie per day while fishing Pickwick, but the fish must be at least 9 inches in length to be legal.
With its slab action no longer a secret, Grenada Lake is likely the top trophy crappie lake in the country. Located five miles east of the town of Grenada off Interstate 55, this 35,820-acre lake is home to some monster crappie. With an even dozen boat ramps available to them, anglers can easily access that trophy action.
Grenada Lake’s fame has resulted in increased fishing pressure, as would be expected. Fishing effort in 2005 was the highest ever recorded. In fact, the crappie harvest totaled 433,747 pounds, which was estimated to be between 50 and 60 percent of the fish in the lake!
Past levels of low fishing pressure produced large crappie, but the present harvest rates are likely to change that. To prevent a collapse in the trophy fishery, the MDWFP enacted a 12-inch minimum size limit in 2006. More restrictions may be necessary.
For big crappie, the hotspots include the Redgrass, Wolf, Perry and Turkey creek arms of the reservoir. The hot lures for slabs at Grenada Lake are pink and black-and-chartreuse jigs. Some anglers tip them with minnows.
The main factor to keep in mind about Grenada Lake is that it is a flood control impoundment. Typically, such reservoirs are extremely low in February, leaving many of the better fishing spots high and dry. Most years the water levels at Grenada Lake don’t come up until late March.