With the creation of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers connected those rivers to produce a short cut for navigation between the heartland of the South and the Gulf of Mexico. No longer were barges forced to carry their cargoes to the west to the Mississippi River, then down to New Orleans.
Once clear of the waters of Pickwick Lake at the junction of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, this waterway also created a number of new reservoirs and pools in the northeast corner of the Magnolia State.
The first of these impoundments as one travels south on the waterway is Bay Springs Lake, a clear-water reservoir. Then moving through more man-made canals and lock pools, waters back up in the major impoundments of Aberdeen and Columbus lakes.
There is a common thread to the various parts of this system in the springtime. You may have to use different styles of fishing, but it is possible to catch crappie in each of these locations. Larry Pugh, the district fisheries biologist responsible for the Tenn-Tom Waterway, knows this string of lakes better than anyone. Here, he offers the lowdown on the crappie populations along the waterway, while avid and veteran Tenn-Tom angler A.E. Smith of Wesson explains how he targets slabs during April.
BAY SPRINGS LAKE
Oddly enough, 6,000-acre Bay Springs Lake is not only the first impoundment on the Tenn-Tom Waterway, it’s also the most overlooked with regard to crappie fishing. This reservoir is located just south of Pickwick Lake in Tishomingo and Prentice counties.
“This lake is similar to Pickwick Lake in that many crappie fishermen use the same tactics to fish Bay Springs as they use at Pickwick, including trolling and side-pulling for catching crappie,” Pugh said. “This is a deep-water fishermen’s lake.”
A lot of fishermen use hair jigs primarily to troll over old creek channels at Bay Springs. The impoundment also holds a vast amount of sunken brush, often 15 to 30 feet deep. Either of these places may attract the papermouths.
“Not typical of any other lake in Mississippi, Bay Springs is the deepest pool in the state,” Pugh noted. “At times the lake is so clear, you can see 4 to 6 feet deep.”
Locating the spawning grounds can be a bit tricky on this reservoir. “The water level in Bay Springs fluctuates depending on the water levels in Pickwick Lake,” Pugh explained. “In Bay Springs, crappie may spawn in water as deep as 10 feet. However, there’s a period during April when the deep-water crappie move into shallow water. But the most dependable crappie are consistently in deeper water, holding on brush.”
If you like to fish around visible treetops, stumps and other structure, then you may not enjoy fishing Bay Springs. Fishing deep in open-water situations is the rule here, rather than the exception. In fact, to catch crappie at Bay Springs consistently, you have to know how to use a depthfinder and a GPS.
“Anglers who can find crappie with electronics will have good crappie fishing here at Bay Springs,” Pugh concluded.
THE MIDDLE TENN-TOM
The Tenn-Tom Waterway’s middle lakes, known as Montgomery, Fulton, Wilkins and Amory pools, follow Bay Springs to the south.
“Nobody knows these relatively shallow lakes by their government names,” Pugh pointed out. “Montgomery Pool is known as Lock D or Beaver Lake. Fulton Pool is known as Lock C. Wilkins Pool is generally called Smithville Lake or Lock B. Amory Pool is known as Lock A. These four man-made canal lakes were created for the Tenn-Tom waterway.”
Pugh does not consider the crappie fishing on these small impoundments lakes very good when compared to the larger reservoirs along the waterway. In fact, he compares fishing in these lakes to fishing in a bathtub, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built them for navigation, not for recreational fishing.
“The productivity in these lakes for crappie isn’t high,” Pugh offered. “The shad populations are very different than the shad in the lakes at either end of the waterway.”
You may find some big slab crappie in these lakes, but not abundant numbers of the fish. Most anglers consider Smithville Lake as the best for papermouth action in this group.
“Smithville is the best lake to fish because Bull Mountain Creek flows into it,” Pugh explained. “The creek is a tributary of the old Tombigbee River. This creek brings a lot of fertility and productivity to the lake. Because of the creek, there’s more diverse habitat than in the other man-made lakes. Locks A, C and D don’t have any major creeks that flow into them. Basically, these other lakes are holes in the ground that are filled with water.”
Like most impoundments, Smithville Lake has a cyclical crappie population.
“Every three to five years, we get a good crappie spawn in this lake,” Pugh reported. “However, Smithville Lake’s spawn won’t be as good as those at Aberdeen and Columbus.”
Smithville, however, does not have a complete monopoly on slab action in the midsection of the waterway.
“We do have quite a bit of crappie fishing at Amory,” Pugh acknowledged. “This lake stands out because of its gravel pits and structure. Even though Amory is small, the crappie fishing is pretty good.”
The water in these pits at Amory drops down to 10 to 15 feet deep in places. This provides better conditions for the papermouths.
During the spring, crappie can be found in good numbers in the gravel pits, but their presence is not a secret. Expect quite a bit of competition for catching these fish when the crappie bite happens.
Although Amory has some standing timber, most crappie are found swimming around aquatic vegetation. Several islands in this pool contain buckbrush and other weeds that crappie like.
“The average crappie at Amory weighs 3/4-pound, smaller than in Bay Springs or Columbus lakes,” Pugh added.
THE TWIN SISTERS
As the Tenn-Tom makes its way toward the Alabama border, it spreads out into two “big sisters.” These are Aberdeen and Columbus lakes. In all, crappie-angling prospects are a cut above what is found to the north.
“All three lakes home tremendous
crappie fisheries,” Pugh assured.
A navigation channel was cut through the middle of these impoundments on the Tombigbee River after the lakes were created. That added even more drops into deeper water to go with the old river run and some oxbows that were inundated.
“Sixty-five percent of anglers are visiting these lakes for crappie. The average crappie weighs close to 1 pound, and fishermen often have the opportunity to catch crappie weighing 1 1/2 pounds each,” Pugh noted. “You won’t see that many big crappie,” he added, “but these lakes do produce large numbers. These three lakes are hard to beat for catching crappie that weigh 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds.”
Both lakes have what Pugh defines as perfect crappie populations.
“These lakes aren’t quite 20 years old. They’re extremely fertile. You see plenty of threadfin and gizzard shad the perfect sizes for crappie to eat,” he summarized. “Most of the crappie on the Tenn-Tom Waterway are white crappie. The black crappie are usually caught around aquatic vegetation in shallow water.”
“The crappie in Aberdeen are a bit smaller than in Columbus,” said A.E. Smith, who has fished the Tenn-Tom Waterway for 15 years.
In that time, he has figured out a number of places that can provide action this month.
“After coming out of the Aberdeen Marina, turn left onto the main river, and go 200 to 300 yards,” he offered. “If you look to the right, you’ll see Blue Bluff, where many fishermen pinpoint good crappie structure and deep-water ledges. This area usually holds numbers of large crappie.
“East of Blue Bluff,” he continued, “a bay that contains standing timber and other structure wraps around the Blue Bluff Campground. Here, I catch most crappie by jig-pole fishing, instead of trolling.”
When it comes to the best color of jig for taking these crappie, Smith is philosophic.
“Whatever the crappie like,” he mused.
At Aberdeen, however, Smith primarily starts fishing with black-and-chartreuse color schemes on his jigs, especially in muddy water.
“During the spring when the water level is up and the temperature is cooler, often I’ll fish in 15 to 16 feet of water,” Smith noted. “One of the advantages of fishing Aberdeen and Columbus is that you can fish in 15 feet of water and then you can fish in 5 feet of water almost at the same time. However, you have to be careful on these two pools because you can run your boat aground when you think you’re in deep water.”
To catch big crappie anywhere along the Tenn-Tom River, but particularly at Aberdeen and Columbus, identify deep-water drops from shallow areas. Having structure along the break at both depths is also a major advantage.
“Big crappie like to have deep water close by, even when they are spawning,” Smith argued. “If you can find stumps on the sides of drop-offs, that’s where the crappie will hold during the spring.”
When asked, fisheries biologist Larry Pugh immediately picked 9,000-acres Columbus as the best lake on the Tenn-Tom Waterway for crappie fishing. That is partially due to the reservoir’s very diverse habitat.
“Besides sloughs and old river runs, there are flooded gravel pits at Columbus,” Pugh noted. “Crappie start appearing at these flooded gravel pits first because the water stays clear and warms up faster than it does in the sloughs and old river runs.
“Also,” he continued, “Tibbee Creek, a major tributary at Columbus that comes into the lake from the west, is a separate fishery that’s connected to Columbus Lake. You can run a 21-foot bass boat 20 miles up Tibbee Creek. “
Crappie fisherman A.E. Smith primarily fishes Columbus Lake.
“I usually put my boat in at Columbus Landing,” Smith admitted. “One of my favorite places to fish is the pit area where gravel was mined to help build the waterway. A lot of drop-offs are there, where I can find 28- to 29-foot water depths. The gravel pit itself also has quite a bit of structure. In this open water, I like to spider-rig and slow-troll.
“I usually find many underwater drop-offs in Tibbee Creek,” he continued, “which always has crappie holding somewhere in the structure. Even when there’s a current, I can find dead-water bays where crappie are stacked up. I truly believe that Tibbee Creek is one of the best areas of the waterway to fish.”
A number of fishing methods can work on Tibbee Creek. Some that Smith mentioned are using a jig pole, drop-fishing vertically or slow-trolling. The many sunken trees in this region are especially ideal for the jig-pole action. Many of the crappie boated weigh 1 1/4 to 2 pounds each.
“If I’m fishing high-water conditions, I’ve discovered that blue and black jigs are my best colors,” the angler pointed out, “and I’ve even won some crappie-fishing tournaments using these colors when the water is high and muddy. Yellow is another color that produces good-sized crappie in muddy water.
“If the lake has stained-water conditions,” he continued, “orange and red crappie jigs are productive colors to use.”
THE TENN-TOM IN A NUTSHELL
Larry Pugh selected Columbus as the No.1 lake on the Tenn-Tom Waterway for catching crappie.
“If the fish aren’t biting in the sloughs or old river runs, you can fish the gravel pits or Tibbee Creek. Many different patterns, depths and styles of fishing will produce crappie on Columbus Lake. Anyone can catch crappie there.”
Pugh also recommended Smithville Lake as a back-up location where you can catch crappie. And of course, for the deep-water fisherman who wants to stay away from the crowd and feels confident in his ability to use electronics, Bay Springs Lake is an option.
“Whether you like to troll or fish with a jig pole or a cork and minnow, select the lake that best suits your style of crappie fishing,” Pugh concluded. “Crappie are all up and down the Tenn-Tom Waterway. All you have to do to catch them is learn the lakes.”