September 30, 2010
This lake in the northeast corner of the state is well known for giving up magnum-sized smallmouth bass, but it also has a solid largemouth fishery. Here's a closer look at the resource.
By Robert H. Cleveland
Our goal, as always on trips to Pickwick Lake, was to catch a trophy smallmouth. After all, when one mentions Pickwick Lake around Mississippi, the first thought is always of the mighty bronze-backed smallies. Rightfully so, too, since the massive impoundment of the Tennessee River is one of the nation's best smallmouth waters.
Because of its location at the southern end of the smallmouth's range, Pickwick gives the fish a very long growing season - and the opportunity to grow to trophy dimensions.
So (I have wondered on many occasions) how can it be that on every trip, all the fish I ever catch are, instead of smallmouths, largemouths?
"The answer is simple," said long-time Pickwick bass guide Roger Stegall of Iuka. "Pickwick's a darn good largemouth lake, too. People just don't think about it that way, because of its smallmouth reputation."
That's an answer that I finally came to terms with thanks to on one torrid dog-day trip to Pickwick about 10 years ago. We were catching big largemouths like crazy. My complaints about not catching smallies quickly turned to hysteria over our good fortune.
Stegall, of course, was parked right next to us, fishing the same structure and pulling in one smallmouth after another. But even he was amazed at what we were pulling up to our boat - and was happy about it, too.
Roger Stegall shows off a Pickwick bigmouth. They'll often fall for the same tactics that take the lake's smallies. Photo by John E. Phillips
"That's the best run on largemouth I've seen on this lake at one time in my life," Stegall said. "I mean, I know it's a good largemouth lake, but - wow!"
The best part about the day was that we were catching the fish in Mississippi. "Wow!" Stegall reiterated. "This is great!"
He was happy about being in Mississippi, since very little of Pickwick's massive body is in fact in the Magnolia State. The lake, which begins at Wheeler Dam in Alabama and ends at Pickwick Dam in Tennessee, is about 65 miles in length, only a small stretch of which - about 10 miles near the north end - touches Mississippi soil. Yet in that small stretch lie some of the lake's best largemouth waters, thanks to three feeder creeks: massive Bear Creek near the Alabama line; smaller Indian Creek in the middle; and Yellow Creek, which serves as headwaters for the mouth of the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Numerous other coves are strewn along this shoreline, too, all of them great areas for pinpointing largemouths in spring and fall, and all contributory to some degree to the excellence of the summer largemouth fishing in the middle of the lake along the deep river-channel structure.
"No doubt about that," Stegall said. "We may not have a lot of the lake's banks in Mississippi, but we got some of the best."
As remarked, we were in the dog days: mid-August, unbelievably hot. It was already in the 90s when we launched at daylight; it topped 100 degrees by 11 a.m. And the warmer it got, the hotter the fishing action became. When the Tennessee Valley Authority turned on the massive turbine generators at the dam to produce the electricity to run the region's air conditioners, the current flowing through the lake increased, and that, in turn, got the bass moving.
Fishing humps along the river with 9-inch plastic worms, we were catching largemouths on practically every throw. In one 30-minute span, my partner and I caught eight bass over 6 pounds, including two between 7 1/2 and 8 pounds.
Stegall, who fishes the lake about 200 days a year, loved it. At one point he said something that got my attention: "You know, as good as this is, you should fish here in the spring, when the largemouth are shallow in April and May - that's when it really is good."
In the years since, we've made many spring and fall trips to test Stegall's assertion - and we're satisfied that he was right.
"It doesn't matter where tournaments are staged during that time of the year - a lot of the boats will run to the Mississippi area," Stegall noted. "In March and April, tournament fishermen target smallmouth. In May, they target largemouth, and Bear Creek and Yellow Creek are two of the lake's best areas."
Bear Creek (we'll note for of for purposes of comparison) is about as big as any of Mississippi's other major lakes and reservoirs. Roughly the same size as Barnett Reservoir in Jackson, it offers thousands of acres of shallow backwater cover - ideal for largemouth fishing.
"You see a lot of tournament boats turn off the lake and head up into Bear Creek in May," said Larry Pugh, District 1 fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "It probably gets about as much largemouth pressure as any area on the entire lake. You can find a lot of shallow timber, vegetation, roadbeds - if you can think of any kind of largemouth habitat, you can find it in Bear Creek. And Yellow Creek is also the same way - plus it has a good bit of riprap walls to fish where they started the Tenn-Tom channel."
Pugh coordinates the MDWFP's Bass Tournament Program, which tracks fishing quality through tournament report cards. On the basis of a number of factors, Pickwick Lake was ranked No. 1 in the state in quality in 2002. It also ranked No. 1 for the largest bass reported in a program event, an 8.02-pound largemouth.
"You hear more about the big stringers of smallies caught in tournaments, and that's understandable since smallmouth are so treasured up here," Stegall observed. "But more tournaments are won during the year with largemouth than smallmouth. Beginning in May, you better know where to go catch some largemouth if you want to win a tournament."
Stegall has won his share of those contests, and is unsurprisingly reluctant to share his largemouth hotspots. But know this: He's fishing in Mississippi, and quite often, near his home just off Bear Creek.
"That's true," he said, "and I think it's important that the average Mississippi fisherman who comes up to fish knows that. So many of them come up here and get intimidated by the sheer magnitude of this lake. Pickwick is so much bigger than any other lake they normally fish.
"The thing is, if they just pick either Bear or Yellow Creek or even Indian Creek and take the time to learn it, they can find fishing situations they are used to at their home lakes. T
hey can flip. They can pitch. They can crank. They can throw buzzbaits. They can even find some stained water that is more like what they are used to fishing in back home."
BATTLING THE BEAR In May, Bear Creek is a plausible place to start.
In years that see the spawn progress slowly in April, a lot of the big females are still on the beds in the backwaters - and, because of the lake's clear water, sight-fishing those beds is a smart tactical bet.
"I like that a lot, but to be honest, I do better in the last two weeks of April than I do in May," said Tony Allen of Tupelo. "At least I catch more fish then. What fish I do catch in May, though, are bigger. Usually, if I can find fish on the beds in May, they are going to be sows, and with five-fish tournament limits, I can usually spot enough to scratch out a limit.
"But even if I only get two or three, they are big enough that I can pull out and fish for post-spawn fish on a roadbed or other structure and fill out a respectable limit with a crankbait, or by slow-rolling a 1-ounce spinnerbait."
One of my favorite patterns, learned from Stegall, is to fish a crankbait on gravel bars in May in the mouths of coves and other backwater areas. Secondary gravel points are especially productive.
A crankbait in red, brown or root beer fished on the secondary gravel bars can bring forth a quick limit of keeper largemouths above the 15-inch minimum. It can also yield an occasional lunker smallie, so be prepared for a tug.
"Spend some time, and look for roadbeds in the backwater coves," Stegall suggested. "I'm not going to tell you where to look specifically, but there are a lot of them, and you need to find a few. If you like to fish crankbaits or slow-rolling spinnerbaits, you'll love to find a good roadbed in Bear Creek. Then all you have to do is move up and down the bed until you find the depth the fish are holding.
"The key is finding areas that still have roadbeds with gravel on them, or have the remnants of a blown-out bridge. They hold lots of largemouths."
Don't be afraid, biologist Pugh added, to investigate areas far up into Bear Creek. "You can go miles up that creek, and find some other backwater areas," he asserted. "That's one of the first things I tell anyone who calls the office wanting to know where to fish at Pickwick."
YELLOW CREEK Yellow Creek is worth investigation, too, as one Jackson angler can attest.
"When our club went up there from Jackson to hold a three-day weekend tournament, I spent a whole week at Pickwick before the event and never left Yellow Creek," said Brent Tucker. "I fell in love with it. We were there in May, and the only two days I struggled were the first two days. After that, when I had a better feel for it and had found some good areas, I caught fish. I didn't win, but I did finish second - and the guy who beat me was in Yellow Creek, too."
Tucker said his catch was dominated by largemouths, pointing out that he caught only five or six smallmouths during the 10 days he fished. By comparison, he was limiting on quality largemouths daily.
"I caught some bedding in the shallows that most of us who fish lakes like Barnett, Sardis and Eagle, would never recognize as spawning areas," he said. "I was sitting in 6 feet of water one day, moving slowly down this bank in the back of a cove. I was making a few casts and looking along the bank for fish and not doing so good. I was catching a few small fish, but nothing good.
"Then I looked down, and right there, in 6 feet of water, I spotted a male and a female bass sitting on a bed almost directly under the boat. I couldn't believe it - they were as clear as looking at bass in 18 inches of water in Barnett. I backed off, started looking for more and found some. It took some work, but I was finally able to make a few of the females bite."
But, Tucker went on, he couldn't depend on that pattern for a tournament, so he looked for patterns that could produce a quick limit and leave him time to try to target one or two bedding females to add to his daily weight.
"What I found were two patterns that were dependable," he explained, "one for sunny days and one for overcast days that would also work at sunrise. The sunny-day pattern was fishing around isolated islands and finding gravel bars, and fishing with a crankbait or worm; there was always a fish or two on every one. In just the short time I looked, I found about seven or eight spots, and three of those were hot.
"The other pattern that I started with every day was a buzzbait over shallow gravel right against riprap banks. It didn't matter where the riprap was - if there were rocks, there were largemouth. For the first 30 minutes every morning, I could count on catching at least two or three good largemouths, 2 or 3 pounds each. That's a good way to start any day. If it was overcast, this could last a couple of hours. If not, it was over pretty quick when the sun got above the trees."
|BOOK A GUIDE|
To book a day of guided fishing for largemouth or smallmouth bass on Pickwick Lake, contact Roger Stegall in Iuka. Call him at 662-423-3869, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information is also available on his Web site, at www.fishpickwick.com.
AFTER THE SPAWN Once May passes and summer comes, the largemouths, like their smallmouth and spotted cousins, move out of the coves and head out into deep open waters.
Years of experience with finding perfect deep-water structure are what enable Stegall to specialize in targeting those bass. For those who lack that experience, it's still possible to find fish: Just try concentrating on those same Bear and Yellow Creek waters.
"It would be hard for someone to come up here and in a matter of a day or two figure out how to catch fish in the middle of the lake on the Tennessee River channel. They'd have to hire a guide, which is always a good idea, and then try to find the same spots in the future," he said with a smile and wink. "But both Bear Creek and Yellow Creek are microcosms of the main lake. You can find
the same kind of structure along the creek channels in those coves that you can find along the river in the main lake. The only difference is that you will be looking in shallower water. The river channel is 50 and 60 feet in most places. The creek channels are 30 feet. The humps in the main lake you're looking to fish rise up to 15 or 20 feet, surrounded by 30 top 50 feet of water. The humps you're looking for in Bear Creek, for example, will top off at 10 to 12 feet and be surrounded by 15 to 30 feet of water."
Stegall prefers deeper open-water structure because his clients are mostly paying for the opportunity to catch that once-in-a-lifetime smallmouth. Largemouths, which are more comfortable than are smallies in shallower habitat, are more numerous in Bear and Yellow Creek.
"It still depends on current in the summer," Stegall noted. "If they're pulling water, the current will still be affected in the major creek coves. When you notice movement, start targeting the deeper structure along the channels. That's what triggers the bite."
END OF THE YEAR When fall comes, the fish migrate back toward the shallows and feast on the shad that move into the coves. Finding big schools of largemouths, as well as white and striped bass, spotted bass and smallmouth bass, blasting away on surface shad is a fairly common event.
Any cove on the lake, but especially those off Bear Creek and Yellow Creek, will yield up some largemouths during the fall. If they're not on the surface, take a crankbait and fish the gravel points and bars until you find one holding a big school.
"It won't take long," Pugh promised. "You hit two or three of them, and you're going to find one that has a big school of bass. It may have a mixed bag, but largemouth will dominate over smallies and spots."
FISHING PICKWICK At Pickwick, a Mississippi license is good as long as you are in an area that touches a Mississippi bank. Once you move into areas where both banks of the lake or cove are in either Tennessee or Alabama, a license for that particular state is required.
Ramps are located in many areas, including a very serviceable one with a marina at J.P. Coleman State Park, near Iuka at the mouth to Indian Creek.
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