Undoubtedly Mississippi's favorite fishing hole, Ross Barnett Reservoir comes alive with hungry bass in the spring. Here's how to catch them. (April 2006)
Over the years since Ross Barnett Reservoir was first impounded on the Pearl River in 1965, there have been plenty of stories written and told about the bass fishing it provides. So what is all the fuss about?
Perhaps it has to do with the "Rez" being one of the Magnolia State's largest bodies of fishing water. Or it could be because it is so easily accessible to the state's capital and largest city. While those might play into the equation, it is the quality of the lake's bass angling and its status as Mississippi's favorite fishing hole that make if of such interest.
At normal pool the impoundment spreads across 33,000 acres, providing a great deal of water to explore in search of largemouths. Surprisingly, overall the lake is not considered particularly fertile, and on rare occasions visibility may be as much as 8 feet. More commonly, however, expect to only be able to see a couple of feet down.
Ross Barnett is noted for producing a lot of largemouths, as well as some spotted bass. Over the years, surveys have put the percentage of spots as low as only 10 percent of the total population, but in the upper end on the reservoir's more riverine sections, the spots make up half the bass present.
Just how good is the bass fishing on Ross Barnett Reservoir? The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks produces several reports that can provide some insight into that question.
To begin with, the MDWFP annually publishes their list of the Best Largemouth Bass Lakes in the state. These picks are based solely on the documented history of the fisheries and the professional opinions of the agency's fisheries biologists. These are the men and women who spend 40 hours or more per week dealing with Mississippi's aquatic resources and are paid to track them.
One oddity of the list is that it can contain major reservoirs, smaller lakes and even rivers. In the most recent listing from 2004, Ross Barnett was one of only five waters in District 4 to make the elite list of the top 15 bass fisheries.
Another measure is the "Mississippi Sport Fishing Index" (more commonly referred to as the "MSFish listing"). This ranking reflects actual creel surveys of what anglers have caught, combined with the biologists sampling surveys. The hard data are then refined into a ranking based on a scale of 0 to 100. The waters with higher scores offer the better bass fishing. Of the 26 major fisheries surveyed and appearing on the present list, Ross Barnett scored 64 to achieve a sixth-place tie with Lake Lamar Bruce and Lake Jeff Davis.
More supporting data are available from the results of the 2003 and 2004 MDWFP Bass Tournament Program. These statistics are gleaned from tournament reports submitted by event organizers on lakes all over the state.
In 2003, the average winning weight of a stringer statewide was 12.26 pounds; on the other hand, it took 15.66 pounds on Barnett. As to the average weight of largemouths reported, the Rez posted a 2.57-pound standard, which was No. 2 in the state. Additionally, the average weight of the big bass per tournament was 4.87 pounds.
The numbers from 2004 proved that the lake's standing in the previous year was no fluke. The average winning weight statewide increased to 12.77 pounds, but a winning stringer at Barnett remained higher, at 15.18 pounds. The average weight of fish brought to the scales went up to 3.06 pounds, while the average big-bass winner pushed up to 5.39 pounds.
Also of interest: In 2003 statewide there were only 14 largemouths of 7 pounds or better reported out of 19,463 bass brought to the scales. Of those 14, three came from Barnett, with the top fish a 7.94-pound lunker.
In 2004, out of 15,316 bass weighed, only 30 topped the 7-pound mark. Ross Barnett once again claimed three of those entries, with the biggest going 7.9 pounds.
Now that we have an idea of how the Rez's fishery stacks up, let's take a look at the characteristics of the impoundment, along with where and how you might want to tangle with the fish this month.
Regardless of the time of year at which you target bass on this lake, Ross Barnett fishes more like three separate bodies of water.
THE MAIN LAKE
The first and largest of these is the main body from the dam, over which Spillway Road (state Route 468) passes, upstream to the state Route 43 bridge at Madisonville.
Although the average depth of Ross Barnett is only 11 feet, this portion of the reservoir contains the old Pearl River channel that in places plunges to 50 feet. A great deal of the water along the edges of the channel is around 18 to 20 feet as far to the northwest as the mouth of the Mill Creek -- there are two -- on the southeast side of the lake and south of Goshen Springs. (The other enters Pelahatchie Bay from the south.)
Additionally, this part of Barnett covers at least 14 old oxbow lakes. These now-flooded ponds also present some deeper depressions in the lake floor. Finally, there is a lot of submerged standing timber through here. This woody structure is particularly prevalent upstream of the mouth of Haley Creek and along the lakes northwest shore.
One other feature worth mentioning are the fish attractors that the MDWFP has sunk just south of the SR 43 bridge. These run roughly east from channel mark 50 on the old river channel, forming a crescent toward the Safe Harbor Marina.
During April, the largemouths in Ross Barnett are usually right in the middle of the spawn. Since mid-March they have been moving more and more shallow, using old creek channels as thoroughfares. Two keys to locating these fish are warmer watter and clearer water; look for these.
Once these fish are located, you can fool them in a number of ways. Try tossing plastic jerkbaits or floating trick-type worms. If these fail, switch over to light, 1/8-ounce spinnerbaits or lightly weighted plastic lizards.
Situated on the southeast corner of Ross Barnett and just east of the dam is the mouth of Pelahatchie Creek. The causeway over which Old Fannin Road runs leaves only a single narrow passage for water entering the main lake. This creates the wide shallow expanses of Pelahatchie Bay.
With the exception of some 18-foot depths at the Pelahatchie Shore Park boat ramp, all of this arm of the lake is 8 feet deep or less. Additionally, it is a region that suppor
ts a lot of aquatic vegetation, including lily pads.
The prime times to fish this bay in April are right at daybreak or near dusk. Still, the shade provided by the pad fields can hold bass throughout the day.
In recent years the bay has established a reputation as one of the top locations in the Magnolia State for hooking a mega-lunker of 10 pounds or more.
A couple of the favored lures for searching out such brutes are floating frogs or silver spoons dressed with pork-frog trailers. With either offering, bounding them from pad to pad near the surface can be a prescription for an untimely heart attack. A big bucketmouth with an attitude that comes busting through the pads after such a lure can set any angler's heart to racing.
Needless to say, tangling with big fish in such weedy conditions calls for some stout tackle. Medium-heavy-action rods matched with baitcasting reels are not a bad idea. If you spool anything less than 20-pound braided line, expect to lose some baits to largemouths and the pads they will introduce to our lures!
The final portion of Barnett Reservoir lies upstream of SR 43, continuing through a very riverine run to the foot of a lowhead dam. This structure is just west of the point where the Madison and Scott County line jams into the Leake County border.
Virtually all of this upper lake is shallow, except for the old river channel. Even that drop almost completely disappears once you are upstream of the Bell Lake area at channel marker 111. The northwest shoreline takes on a differing, wilderness look as well, since all of it up to the Ratliff Ferry Boat Ramp is composed of either the Pearl River State Waterfowl Refuge or the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area.
Although currents are more pronounced in this stretch, some of the backwaters off the main channel do hold some aquatic weeds. These are likely places for encountering largemouths.
Once upstream of Ratliff Ferry, expect to encounter far more spotted bass. These fish prefer moving water, but run smaller than their largemouth cousins. They make up for that deficit by being feisty, numerous and, seemingly, always hungry.
When targeting these fish, expect to find them slightly deeper than where you catch largemouths. Also they generally demand lighter lines and smaller lures, especially if the water is clear.
ACCESS & MAPS
Downstream of Lowhead Dam Campground, there are 16 public boat ramps on Ross Barnett Reservoir. Also, gas and marine supplies are available at Main Harbor, Safe Harbor and Sportsmans marinas.
Waterproof topo maps of Ross Barnett Reservoir that show the location of all these facilities are available from Fishing Hotspots Maps. These are available at many area sporting goods dealers, or they can be order over the telephone by calling 1-800-ALL-MAPS.