September 30, 2010
Either end of the Tenn-Tom Waterway in the Magnolia State offers good spring action for crappie. Let's check out the fishing at Pickwick and Aliceville lakes. (April 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
The Tennessee-Tombigbee Water-way offers a fertile fishery that provides magnificent habitat for crappie. In the Magnolia State it's anchored by Pickwick Lake in the north and Aliceville Lake in the south. Both of those reservoirs offer outstanding fishing for crappie this time of year.
"They're probably not the best lakes for trophy crappie in Mississippi, but they produce plenty of crappie in the 1- to 1 1/4-pound size range," said Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks district fisheries biologist Larry Pugh. "Two-pounders are not unheard of in either place."
Because of its high fertility, the Tenn-Tom has abundant shad, which provide plenty of food with which to grow good crappie. "The shad are the right size, too," Pugh said. "And that's the key."
But the lakes are totally different, he pointed out: Pickwick is clear and deep; Aliceville is muddier, with lots of stumps, weeds and brushtops. Thus, effective fishing techniques for the two bodies of water can be totally opposite as well.
Let's take a closer look at just what is involved in catching springtime slabs on each end of the waterway.
Because Pickwick's water is so deep, the window of opportunity for taking spring crappie there is fairly small.
"The fish start to go shallow as the water warms," Pugh explained. "When I talk shallow on Pickwick, I'm talking about water that is 6 feet deep or less. Ninety percent of the crappie fishing that takes place when the fish go shallow utilizes a tactic known as 'pulling.' It was made popular by fishing guides Roger and Bill Gant."
According to Pugh, "pulling" consists simply in outfitting a fishing boat with a trolling motor amidships that pulls the boat sideways through the water. "You usually have three people in the boat, and they have two or more rods apiece, either sitting in rod holders or leaned against the side of the boat," he said. "You find a piece of structure you want to fish and go over it using this pulling technique."
This method differs from trolling in that the sideways presentation allows the anglers in the boat to put more baits in the strike zone. It can be a highly effective technique for putting crappie in the boat.
Few of the lake's pullers use minnows with their rigs; it's almost entirely a jig-fishing method. Squirrel- or deer-hair jigs seem to be the preferred bait.
"It's a good time to be fishing Pickwick," Pugh said of April. "The lake has experienced tremendous catches of crappie the last two years, and we see no reason that won't continue this year."
Some crappie fishermen start as early as January on the lake and find the fish in 12 to 25 feet of water. They move progressively shallower until the fishing reaches its peak in mid-to-late April.
While a lot of fishing is done by means of pulling, Pugh said, anglers also do well by casting small jigs under a slip-cork, with rocky points, ditches, creek channels and steep banks all being good places for trying that tactic. "The numbers are always there as far as the crappie population in Pickwick," he asserted. "The catch rate is really good. We did some angler surveys there last spring and the catch rate was something like 1.5 fish per hour, which is very good."
The creel limit at Pickwick -- and at Aliceville, too, for that matter -- is 30 crappie per day. All crappie have to be 9 inches or longer. Those are the same limits and size restriction as Alabama, which shares both impoundments with Mississippi.
At Pickwick, you have to stay in the Magnolia State portion of the lake to be legal with a Mississippi license. At Aliceville, a Mississippi license is valid anywhere on the lake.
Pugh said that anglers can investigate submerged brushtops and "crappie mats" -- beds of vertical structure placed in the water by crappie anglers -- when on the lookout for good places to fish. People who place these tops and mats keep the locations top-secret, but it is possible to find the structure with a depthfinder or fishfinder. "Crappie are real attuned to structure," he observed, "so finding brush tops and mats or placing them there yourself is important."
Three good places to try at Pickwick are Yellow, Indian and Bear creeks. "For some reason, these creeks turn on at different times every spring, but it always goes in the same order," Pugh said. "Yellow Creek is the first place that will really get a lot of crappie fishing. It's the early fishing spot for February and early March. Then Indian Creek will become the place to fish for a month or so -- and then they will move to Bear Creek. You can just watch it as it progresses each spring."
About 85 percent of Pickwick Lake is in Alabama, so Mississippi anglers are only fishing a small portion of the waterway. Additionally, roughly 85 percent of Bear Creek is in Alabama.
Aliceville's fishery has attracted national attention, Larry Pugh said. Lots of Crappie USA tournaments take place on this impoundment. "They may actually be holding the tournament on Columbus Lake just above Aliceville," he noted, "but it's legal to lock through and fish Aliceville, and a lot of the competitors will do that."
Larry Higginbotham, a Mississippi Conservation Officer who regularly fishes Aliceville, explained, "I like to go there in March and April, when it's time for the fish to start spawning."
Early in the season, he finds fish holding on structure just offshore. The crappie relate to brushtops in the water, and even twigs and tall grass. Later they'll move into what he calls the "spawning banks" -- shallow stands with weeds, woody structure or other cover.
Higginbotham fishes almost exclusively with jigs. He likes black and green plastic versions, but he sees lots of other anglers using squirrel hair jigs in dark colors such as brown.
The difficult part: just finding the fish. "They're hard to predict," Higginbotham said. "You might find them in 10 feet of water one day and in 8 or even 3 feet the next day if they're in the process of moving to the banks."
Don't expect to find one magic spot that'll enable you just to load the boat. "You kind of have to move down the banks," Higginbotham emphasize
d. "You might catch five or six fish in one spot and then move down the bank 100 yards and catch one or two more. You have to be patient."
Around the first of April is among the prime times. The time of day at which you're on the water doesn't matter a whole lot, but as Aliceville gets a substantial amount of fishing pressure, Higginbotham likes to get out early. But he's had good luck in the middle of the day, fishing around 11:00 a.m., too. "There's very little night-fishing on Aliceville," he tossed in.
Portions of the lake are treacherous for boating, and a newcomer to the fishing at night might just be asking for trouble. "There are a lot of stumpfields," Higginbotham said. "A lot of the best fishing is on the old Tombigbee River run. That's where the bigger fish are found."
Pickwick is clear and deep; Aliceville is muddier, with lots of stumps, weeds and brushtops. Thus, effective fishing techniques for the two bodies of water can be totally opposite as well.
The angler has also noticed something unusual during his patrols on the lake as a conservation officer. "I'm seeing people from other parts of Mississippi that have better crappie fishing than we do come here to fish a week just because they want to experience something different from what they're used to fishing," he remarked.
Biologist Larry Pugh noted that anglers visiting Aliceville can expect to find a lot of crappie in the 1- to 1 1/4-pound range, with an occasional 2-pounder.
The lake is mostly shallow, so deep water for crappie fishing here is 6 to 10 feet, the biologist added. Those depths are mostly found in the bends of the river channel itself, which makes them good places to look for crappie early in the spring.
"Aliceville is the classic shallow water crappie fishery," Pugh said. "To find the fish after they come off the deep channels, look for stumps, laydowns and aquatic vegetation."
The action here is almost all jig-fishing, and most anglers fish with old-fashioned jig poles. "There's just not much need to cast here," stated Pugh, who went on to suggest that, in the spring, targeting backwaters and fishing around structure are the keys.
The challenge of this crappie lake lies in figuring out what depth the fish are at and what kind of structure they're holding on. Pugh recommended putting baits beside anything that looks like it should hold fish. "It's a matter of time and patience," he noted, "but it becomes fairly easy once you figure them out."
Like Higginbotham, Pugh has found that as the fishing can change from one day to the next, staying on top of things is critical for success. "You may go one day and limit out," the biologist said. "Then the next day you fish for half a day until you find them."
Crappie anglers at Aliceville should generally give themselves at least that half a day to figure out just what the crappie are doing at any given moment. "You don't have to use your electronics on this lake, especially when you're fishing with a jig pole in 5 feet of water," Pugh noted.
One historically productive crappie location at Aliceville is Hairston Bend, also known as Pruitt's Camp. An old river run on the lake, it offers both shallow and deep locations to probe for slabs. Pumpkin Creek near the state line is another good location for spring crappie fishing.
Pugh compared Aliceville Lake to a shallow pond with a ditch running through the middle of it, the ditch being the channel of the old Tombigbee River. "One good point about Aliceville is that the wind can really play havoc with your plans on a big waterway like the Tennessee River up north," he said. "At about 8,900 acres, the wind isn't nearly the factor on Aliceville. There are enough sheltered shorelines that you can find a place to get out of the wind and keep fishing."
Pugh also noted that Columbus Lake -- just upstream from Aliceville -- is actually the more renowned fishing hole of the two. "Everyone wants to fish Columbus," he said. "I think it's because of the facilities. There are plenty of motels and restaurants and you can launch your boat right in town."
But Aliceville, Columbus and another upstream sister lake, Aberdeen, are all cut from the same cloth, and fish very much alike. "They're the three-lake chain that make up the lower Tombigbee River," Pugh said. "Columbus Lake is the focus of a lot of fishing, but Aliceville is very good, too."
In the biologist's opinion, the best time to visit Aliceville or the other lakes is the second or third week of March. "It coincides with spring break in Mississippi," he said, "and it's when a lot of fishermen have really good success. The crappie are usually moving up into shallow water at that time."
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Whether it's Pickwick in the north, Aliceville in the south or somewhere in between, the Tenn-Tom Waterway provides excellent places at which to try your hand at boating a limit of crappie this spring.