When it comes to bass fishing, Mississippi waters are hard to beat. Come along as we check out some of the best for this year's action! (March 2007)
Lake manager Sherry Hazlewood shows off the kind of bass that renovated Neshoba County Lake can boast.
Photo by Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
We were just pulling out of the boat ramp at Neshoba County Lake when I decided to test my casting ability with the new Bigfoot Scum Frog lure. Out in deep, open water, I launched an arcing, rainbow-like cast across the lake. It went downwind, of course, to make it easier to throw the non-weighted frog. It landed with a splat about 20 yards away.
Satisfied that I could cast the toad, I started reeling it real quick back across the lake. Its legs literally ran across the surface. giving it a buzzbait-like action.
The water erupted under the frog, which quickly disappeared.
"What was that?" said my fishing partner for the day, Fisheries Chief Ron Garavelli of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
He was still tying on his lure when he looked up at the sound to see me bowed up against the first fish of the day.
"You've got to be kidding me," he said. "You got hit on a frog right there in open water in 6 feet of water? On a frog?"
I had been lucky, being caught by surprise. It caused me to hesitate the necessary seconds it took for the fish to completely take in the soft-plastic lure. When I set the hook, I made solid contact and the fish was mine.
Within a few seconds of launching on the 137-acre lake, I was holding a 4-pound largemouth by the lip and was digging with a pair of needle-nose pliers to remove the hooks.
"Guess we did it right," said Garavelli, speaking of his agency's renovation and restocking of the public lake near Philadelphia. "First cast, first fish! Yeah, that's a good sign."
Not only was it an indication that the two of us were going to have a good day on the lake, but it was also an indication that 2007 should be a year of bass fishing to remember in Mississippi.
Anytime the state opens or reopens a lake to fishing, excellent bass fishing follows for years to come. You can multiply that times three in 2007. The MDWFP opened its newest lake, Calling Panther, in March of 2006 and reopened, renovated and restocked Lake Tom Bailey in October of 2005 and Neshoba County Lake in October 2006. All three are on our list of must-fish stops in 2007. Toss them in with a couple of older hotspots that produced excellent fishing in 2006 and this should be a great season.
LAKE CALLING PANTHER
We'll start our preview at Lake Calling Panther, the 500-acre lake near Crystal Springs in Copiah County, which many fishermen predict will be the next public challenger to the state record of 18.15 pounds.
The opening of this lake, built in the rolling hills of southwest Mississippi just 30 miles from Jackson, was long anticipated, and for good reason. The terrain in which it was carved was ideal to create a great bass fishery, and the MDWFP biologists did just that.
"Everything a bass needs to grow, it's got at Calling Panther," said District 5 biologist John Skains, who oversaw the lake's building. "There's deep water, and I mean deep. There's some 40- and almost-50-foot-deep water on the lower end, but that's not what's critical. A lot of the lake's backwater areas in the coves and on the lake's upper end have 20 feet of water that is loaded with standing timber.
"There's all kinds of natural structure, too, from long points and coves to flats and creek channels and ditches. Our bream population is plentiful, so there's good forage so the fish can grow."
The myriad types of cover and structure provide fishermen with a test of their ability, but also a lot of choices. In the learning process of 2006, reports of success included about every kind of pattern you can imagine -- deep cranking on rockpiles, flipping timber, topwater. You name it, and on any given day three or four patterns worked.
But the lake isn't that easy to fish. The very same abundance of hiding places can make for a frustrating day.
"You have to love it that on any cast, you know you might be hooking up with a monster," said bass pro Pete Ponds of Madison, who filmed an ESPN2 "Day on the Lake" episode on Calling Panther last June. "I couldn't find any big fish that day, but I caught about 15 keepers. Then on my next trip, I caught two over 7 pounds. The more you go, the better you'll learn, and I really feel this lake has more potential than any other public lake in Mississippi."
Already, the lake has produced several fish over 9 pounds for fishermen, and an electro-shocking boat turned up an 11-pounder. Those fish could have been no older than 3 years.
"I couldn't believe how quickly the fish put on weight," said Kallum Herrington, the lake's manager. "When you see fish getting to 10 pounds in that short a period of time, you have to believe the potential is there to develop a trophy bass fishery for years to come.
"What's going to help is the abundant cover these fish have in which to hide. For the next few years, until a lot of this timber falls in, it's going to be hard for fishermen to get at them."
But, as Garavelli said, the timing of the continued growth of the Florida-strain of bass and the continued decay of standing timber should coincide to produce outstanding fishing beginning this year and lasting many more.
"As these fish start reaching maturity, a lot of this dense cover will be gone, giving fishermen more access to them," he agreed. "Plus, we've got protective limits to help ensure that the lake keeps producing big fish."
To ensure more recruitment of bass into the trophy range, the lake opened in 2006 with a slot limit that protects 16- to 22-inch fish. All fish measuring in that slot have to be immediately released. Each angler was allowed to keep seven fish a day, but only one of those could exceed 22 inches.
"For that to work to produce more big fish, we need fishermen to take some of the smaller bass out," Skains pointed out. "The last thing we want to do is for the bass to become overpopulated, which would stunt growth."
LAKE TOM BAILEY
At Lake Tom Bailey in Toomsuba, between Meridian and the Alabama line, the MDWFP has a management plan in place to do exactly the opposite -- create an overpopulation of bass that will limit trophy potential.
"We're managing Tom Bailey to create a trophy bream lake," said biologist Larry Bull. "That means we want to develop a bass population that will be dominated by small fish that will feed on small bream only. I know that bass fishermen won't understand or like the sound of that."
Well, for now they should. In the first few years of the lake's reopening, Phase 1 of the management plan actually creates a great bass fishery. It won't last for very long, but for 2007 Tom Bailey should be a must visit.
A 234-acre lake, it shouldn't be hard to learn in a trip or two.
"You don't have to look too hard to see where you want to fish," said biologist Clay Ready. "We did a lot of work during renovation to create cover and structure, plus we have a lot of vegetation that we really didn't plan on. You can launch at the ramp and immediately see two or three options."
In the spring of 2006, one pattern emerged quickly following the spawn.
"We had a heck of a run on bass on plastic frogs," Bull said. "We had a couple of guys who kind of stumbled onto it when they saw fish moving around the shallow vegetation. They pulled out frogs and had great results."
Bass up to 6 pounds were common in the catch, which means the lake is producing some good fish quickly.
"But, again, understand that this is not our long-term goal," Ready emphasized. "It's great to start with for bass fishermen and it will last a few years. But we're working hard to create a high population of small bass, not big bass. We'll always have some big bass, but not like we will for the first few years. There's a 15-inch minimum length limit on bass. That is not to promote recruitment of bass to trophy length, but to protect the small fish which will dominate the population."
Spring and fall topwater fishing is the top bass attraction at the lake, but there is ample opportunity for deeper fishing in the channels cut by the agency during the renovation process. Also, in the late spring, fish for bass around the many gravel beds built for bluegill spawning areas. Fishermen had excellent luck catching bass that congregated around the beds to feast on young-of-the-year bream. Spinnerbaits and soft-plastic jerkbaits worked really well.
NESHOBA COUNTY LAKE
When we pulled up to the ramp at Neshoba County Lake last October, lake manager Sherry Hazlewood gave us a tip that would pay big dividends.
"Hope you brought some topwater baits," she said with a smile. "This is a topwater lake. That's all my husband throws."
It was that tip that led me to tie on the Bigfoot Scum Frog described in the lead to this story. Even though we fished on a day dominated by bright sunshine and 85-degree heat, I never threw anything else with the exception of a worm that I kept at the ready to offer fish that missed the frog.
And throughout the day, bass kept blowing up on that frog. So much so that Garavelli made another topwater bait, a Pop-R, part of his arsenal.
"It is a mostly shallow lake," Garavelli said in explaining the topwater bite. "When we renovated it, we dug a lot of channels to create some more deep water, but that's all there is. Even in the open water at the dam, it's difficult to find any water over 10, and most of it is under 10.
"The lake is about 135 acres, and 80 percent of it is probably 3 1/2 to 4 feet deep or shallower. Before we renovated it, we had vegetation problems, and even though we thought we had eliminated a lot of it, the same kind of grasses and weeds had already reappeared before we opened. Add to that the natural growth of willows that shot up during the drawdown and there's a lot of shallow cover for bass near the channels we dug."
When the lake reopened in October, most of the bass were relating to the cover adjacent to any of the cut channels, which range from 10 feet deep to 5 feet along the banks. A lot of the deepest water in some areas is adjacent to the banks.
Bull said electro-shocking surveys continually found the biggest supply of bass relating to the riprap and willows along the dam levee. Unfortunately, they were the toughest to catch on our visit -- easy to coax into biting, difficult to remove from the timber.
This is a lake to visit for numbers of fish this year, not size. Of the 40 fish we boated on our October visit, we had 10 in the 4-pound range, with the majority running 2 to 3 pounds. In other words, we had four hours of fun.
ROSS BARNETT RESERVOIR
For a lake that gets so much pressure, Barnett Reservoir seems to be maturing into a great fishing lake. A crappie hotspot for years, it now is getting to be known more for its bass opportunities.
"I've been fishing this lake ever since it opened, and right now I'd say it's the best it's been since those first few years after it was impounded," said Vernon Thomas of Brandon. "Every lake goes through those hot years, followed by down years, and eventually it settles down and becomes what it is supposed to be. For a long time, through the '80s and most of the '90s, I worried that Barnett was not supposed to be a great bass lake. I was wrong.
"I know it's a cycle-type thing, but our up cycle has been going on for the last 10 years and just keeps getting better."
Tournament statistics and catch rates back up Thomas' unscientific assessment. Tournaments with five-fish limits require an average of 25 pounds or more to win, and in many it takes at least 18 or 20 pounds to cash a check.
"What I like about it is the numbers of quality fish we're seeing now," said Pete Ponds, who cut his teeth on the 33,000-acre lake. "I don't fish Barnett as much as I used to before I started fishing the national tours, but I fish it when I can. Over the past two summers, when I have gone I've been able to catch between 30 and 40 fish a trip. The fish still do what they always have, and that's form big schools, only now the schools have bigger fish."
Fishing patterns change year to year with the changes in vegetation. An aggressive weed and grass control battle waged by the governing Pearl River Waterway District has kept any certain weed from dominating the lake. One year it might be hyacinth. The next it could be pads.
"I wish they'd slow down because I think a lot of the improvement in bass fishing is due to the vegetation," Ponds argued. "For nine months of the year, you need to key on vegetation. During the three summer months, key on the deep main-lake structure."
If you have never considered a trip to this 200-acre National Forest lake on the Natchez Trace about 30 miles south of Tupelo, 2007 should be the year to go. After being restocked and reopened in 2001, Davis Lake has continued to improve and produce bigger and better bass.
In one week last October, the lake yielded five 10-pound largemouths as the water cooled and the fish moved up shallow.
"What I like about Davis is that you can catch them year 'round if you just adjust to what the fish are doing," said U.S. Forest Service biologist Larry Clay. "Obviously in the spring and fall, we have great shallow water fishing in the coves, but in the summer and winter we have excellent fishing off the lake's bluff banks on the south shore."
Larry Pugh, an MDWFP fisheries biologist from Tupelo, makes Davis one of his regular fishing spots.
"Especially in the early spring when the bass are bedding," he said. "The water is clear and you can see them on the bed and you have a great chance to catch a big fish."
The lake has a 16- to 20-inch slot limit to protect its growing fish, and anglers are allowed to keep just five fish daily. Only one of the five can exceed 20 inches.
Clay's favorite time to fish, oddly enough, is when the fish have moved back out to the deep water in late spring and summer.
"I know a few spots where they hang out once they go deep, and I love to worm those," he explained. "I pretty much know that if I get a bite there, it's going to be a quality fish. Because it's only a 200-acre lake, it shouldn't take anyone very long to find the best spots. With electronics you can find the channels and drops, the deep brush and all the other structure that bass relate to."
Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com.