August Bassin' On The Tenn-Tom

August Bassin' On The Tenn-Tom

The string of pools along this waterway in northeast Mississippi offers a variety of bass fishing options this month. Join the author in exploring them.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

If Hernando De Soto had been a bass fisherman, he might have recognized the Tombigbee River of eastern Mississippi as a premier bass fishery. Then he would have stopped to wet a hook, and avoided ending his journey beneath the surface of the Mississippi River.

Of course, De Soto and his band of 1,000 soldiers could not have imagined in 1541 how the twisted network of stained streams and oxbows, dotted with cypress trees, stumps and lily pads, would look today. Though much has changed since this fertile labyrinth became the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in the mid-1980s, its waters still give up lots of largemouth, spotted and, occasionally, smallmouth bass.



De Soto crossed the meandering Tombigbee River en route from Florida to his date with destiny near where Lowndes County meets Monroe County and what is now the midpoint of the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Stretching 230 miles southward from Yellow Creek on Pickwick Lake at its north end, the waterway connects the Tennessee River with the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, 10 navigation pools are backed up by a series of locks and dams. The major pools entirely within Mississippi are Bay Springs Lake, Aberdeen Lake and Columbus Lake.

BAY SPRINGS LAKE

Midsummer bass fishing at Bay Springs Lake heats up in ways different from what's seen at its sister lakes. Located near Tishomingo, the 6,700-acre reservoir is a clear, deep impoundment that remains cooler than the lakes to its south. As a result, its spotted bass are about as numerous as largemouths, whereas only a smattering of smallmouth bass will be found swimming its waters. Those latter fish may have come downriver naturally, or may have been caught in tournaments on Pickwick and released in this reservoir.


"It's a fantastic spotted bass lake," said fishing guide and Strike King pro staff angler Roger Stegall, of Iuka. "While the general public fishes for largemouth bass with typically big baits, there're a lot of spotted bass being taken by anglers who understand that small lures can turn big catches of spots. A lot of 5-pound spots are caught on Bay Springs by anglers who know how to fish for them."


Lying in the Magnolia State's Hill Country, Bay Springs Lake floods many old stream bottoms, forming long points and deep coves. Rocky shorelines are abundant, and old roadbeds cross many of the creek bottoms. Submerged hilltops and old pond levees -- such as the Josh Pond Levee south of Crow's Neck -- create underwater humps that concentrate both baitfish and bass in deep water under the summer sun.

"The magic depth in summer on these humps seems to be 22 to 30 feet for both largemouths and spotted bass," Stegall said. "For largemouths, I work the deep dropoffs and old roadbeds 25 feet deep with spinnerbaits and 10-inch plastic worms Carolina-rigged. The spots bite best on smaller lures -- drop-shot rigs with 4-inch baits and the so-called french-fry plastic worms, also Carolina-rigged."

Stegall favors long leaders on his Carolina rigs because a 5- or 6-foot leader gives your bait a freer action. "You might as well throw a Texas-rigged worm if you think 3 feet is long enough for your leader," he asserted.

At the end of that leader is a 6-inch worm that might not draw as many strikes as will a smaller finesse-sized plastic worm, but the strikes you do get are generally larger bass.

Deep water is not the only place in which you'll find Bay Springs' bass. Stegall suggests throwing topwater lures -- such as the poppers or stickbaits -- at daylight across humps in water 8 to 10 feet deep. It's in that relatively shallow water that you're likely to see a nice-looking spot or largemouth busting bait after a night of foraging. Shad, fire-tiger and clear-bodied patterns are top choices.

Also, secondary points on the creek channels tend to hold a lot of spotted bass, while clay banks muddied up by boat traffic hold both largemouths and spots. "There's not many shad in Bay Springs Lake, so it's got to be crawfish those fish are targeting," Stegall surmised.

In both situations, spinnerbaits in white or white-and-chartreuse patterns and crankbaits in bream or crappie patterns are his lure choices.

For more information about bass fishing at Bay Springs Lake, contact Roger Stegall at (662) 423-3869 or check out his Web site at

www.fishpickwick.com.

Bay Springs Lake features a single marina, located two miles north of the dam on the west side in the back of Mackeys Creek. Six concrete boat ramps with paved parking areas are situated around the impoundment and on the Divide Cut.

For information about Bay Springs Lake's boating facilities and public recreation, contact the Bay Springs Resource Management Office and Visitor Center (operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) at (662) 454-3481.

ABERDEEN LAKE

The complexion of the Tenn-Tom's bass waters changes dramatically south of Bay Springs. The James Whitten Lock and Dam connects boat traffic to Aberdeen Lake via the 45-mile-long Canal Section of the waterway. This section gets little attention from bass anglers because it shrinks to little more than a navigation channel.

But Aberdeen's 4,600 acres get plenty of attention from fishermen who know how to fish the "edges," which, according to local guide and EverStart/BFL pro angler Danny Walden, of Columbus, are the summertime hotspots at Aberdeen. "Aberdeen's summertime bass get on the ledges near deep water. These include the main navigation channel, the old river runs and creeks," he pointed out.

The edge of the main channel is the most obvious ledge, running the length of the 10-mile-long navigation pool. Both logjams and bass pile up on the edge of the channel, says Walden. The channel is maintained by the Corps at 9 feet deep, but several areas drop off to about 15 feet deep, and it's from these that many 3- to 5-pound bass are caught.

Crankbaits are the summertime lure of choice along these ledges, where the bass fishing is worth your while all day long. "Throw shallow-running crankbaits early, turning to deep-running as the day grows later," Walden said. "When the water's stained and visibility is less than 1 foot, chartreuse and fire-tiger patterns work best. Where clear water is found -- and 'clear' is anything better than 1-foot visibility -- throw shad or bream patterns. Bream patterns are especially good during the bream bedding seasons that take place two or three times through summer."

The logjams also hold promise for anglers tossing 4- to 6-inch plastic trick worms, french-fry worms and lizards. Rig these Carolina-style with a 24- to 36-inch leader, Walden suggests, and a 3/4-ounce weight to get them down into the cover.

Other "edges" that Aberdeen bass fishermen target are on the old river run and ditches connecting to it. The Corps map of Aberdeen Lake shows a network of sloughs and backwaters formed by the old river channel, which snakes across the navigation channel several times from about a mile upstream from the Aberdeen Lock and Dam all the way upriver to Weaver Creek Cut-off.

"The ditches are usually shallow runs, 2 to 4 feet deep, that eventually drop into the creek channels and old river run," Walden noted. "These intersections, as well as where the old river run meets the navigation channel, are great places to throw topwater patterns early in the morning.

"I like a black spinnerbait when the water is clear, and a chartreuse-and-white pattern when it's muddy. The stained water usually occurs with a good rainfall. A lot of the lake's tributaries run through plowed-up agricultural lands."

Aberdeen's backwaters include sloughs, cutoffs and oxbows, all of them covered up with flooded timber off the main channel. Hyacinths have a presence, but they're swept through the backwaters by the current following the old river run. According to Walden, the grass present there-- chiefly hyacinths, coontail and hydrilla -- is both good and bad for Aberdeen's bass fishing and bass fishermen.

"The grass offers cover and protection for small fish, shade from the hot summer sun, and ambush points for big bass," he explained, "but the hyacinths frequently block the areas you want to get your boat into to fish."

BOATING THE TENN-TOM WATERWAY
The waters of the Tenn-Tom Waterway provide a safe and calm surface for recreation boaters. On the other hand, this resource has a number of locks and dams that must be negotiated. Modern navigation locks, however, allow pleasure craft to move through quickly and safely. Ten locks are located along its course. Each is 600 feet long and 110 feet wide. There is no charge for using the locks.

The navigation channel is maintained at a minimum of 300 feet wide and 9 feet deep. The shallower water outside the navigation channel is usually deep enough for pleasure craft, but caution should be used. Under normal conditions there is a current of less than 1 mile per hour along the Tenn-Tom. The exception to the rule may be encountered in flood-prone early spring months.

More information about navigation facilities and locking through the Tenn-Tom Waterway is available online at

tenntom.sam.usace.army.mil/. You can also receive similar information by calling the Corps of Engineers at (662) 327-2142.

When Walden fishes around grass, he frequently chooses topwater skimbaits such as a Scum Frog or Moss Boss for luring largemouths out of the thick cover. Designed to be pulled across the top of hydrilla, lily pads, coontail and other thick vegetation, skimbaits dart and dance on the surface, drawing explosive strikes from bass lurking in the holes and under the mats of vegetation.

"The best color is white, or colors combined with white, such as red and chartreuse. Get ready for a big strike anytime the lure nears the holes and edges of the grass."

Aberdeen Lake has no marinas, but three concrete boat ramps with courtesy docks and paved parking areas are found on the lake. For information about Aberdeen Lake boating facilities and public recreation, contact the Waterway Management Center operated by the Corps of Engineers at (662) 327-2142. For more information about bass fishing at Aberdeen Lake, contact Danny Walden at (662) 328-3386.

COLUMBUS LAKE

Heavily fished by recreational anglers, pressure on Columbus Lake is heightened by the many bass tournaments staged on the 23-mile long navigation pool. Backed up by the Tom Bevill Lock and Dam, the 8,900-acre reservoir nonetheless boasts a noteworthy bass fishery. However, some anglers fear the fishery is degrading because of the heavy mats of hyacinths that plague the lake and its backwaters.

"It's been coming for years," said veteran Columbus bass angler "Rat" Hausey of the onslaught of water hyacinths. He added that the water weed could eventually restrict anglers to the navigation channel if no action is taken to curb or destroy the invasive exotic. Already, many of the old river runs, sloughs, oxbows and cut-offs upstream from the Barton Ferry Access Area to near the Aberdeen Lock and Dam are choked shut in the height of summer.

Hausey still might be seen fishing some of those areas, especially along the edge of the heavy vegetation in which Columbus largemouths hide from the summer sun. The bass also ambush forage fish here, often on the upstream end of an oxbow, where the river current keeps the hyacinths at bay. At other times, the target area is right at the navigation channel, where the grass creates an edge along deep water. These are the places in which Hausey tosses shallow- to medium-running crankbaits, Carolina-rigged plastics or a plastic frog.

Having fished the lake since it opened in 1982, Hausey has learned a few other ways to snatch Columbus bass, despite the loss of fishing water to the hyacinths. His top bass on Columbus is a largemouth that tipped the scales to 10 1/2 pounds. "That fish came on a jig," he recalled, adding that he frequently flips tube baits today. "Just about anywhere you would throw a jig -- creek channels, stumps, laydowns, flats and the few steep, deep clay banks with timber."

The rig he uses is a 4-inch tube on a 1/8-ounce jighead; he opts to go mostly with black-and-neon or green-pumpkin patterns. He also dips the tails of his tubes in garlic-scented chartreuse dye.

Speaking to the lake's hotspots, Hausey pointed up the state Route 50 bridge that crosses the waterway near Waverly Marina. "It's a spot that's best for small boats," he noted, "because it's got thousands of stumps. It's great fun for fishing during the week when boat traffic is light."

Tippee Creek, which opens into the main pool adjacent to the Waterway Management Center, has also attracted Hausey's notice. Its current is usually strong enough to push back the hyacinths toward the main pool, leaving the upper reaches of the creek bottom open.


Though much has changed since this fertile labyrinth became the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in the mid-1980s, its waters still give up lots of largemouth, spotted and, occasionally, smallmouth bass.
 

"There are some great flats in there, up to 100 yards wide, where I throw buzzbaits -- blac

k skirt and black blade -- especially when a boat or barge is locking through," he said. "The current gets stronger whenever the lock is operated, and the fish seem to feed better, even for just those several minutes when the water is dropped out of the lock.

"You can catch good spotted bass, too, at the riprap walls of the locks at either the Aberdeen or Stennis locks. Listen for the horn that signals the lock is operating and get your boat over there. You're on the downstream side of the lock at Aberdeen, so watch out for the increased current.

"It's usually bright-colored crank-baits -- chartreuse-and-black, chartreuse-and-blue and shad colors -- that get the best bites. Toss them to the riprap and pull them back toward deep water. There are a lot of good spots caught off that riprap that go 2 or 3 pounds."

Columbus Lake features a single marina, located at the Stennis Eastbank and Columbus Recreation Area, just east of the John C. Stennis Lock and Dam. Eight concrete boat ramps with paved parking areas are also situated around the impoundment.

For information about Columbus Lake boating facilities and public recreation, contact the Waterway Management Center operated by the Corps of Engineers by calling (662) 327-2142. For more information about bass fishing at Columbus Lake, contact Rat Hausey at (205) 658-2171.

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