Our Water-Park Panfish
September 30, 2010
Scattered across southern Mississippi, these facilities can be great places for catching some bream. Where are they, and what do they offer? Let's see. (May 2006)
After several hours of hunting big bass at Maynor Creek Water Park and finding only a few small ones willing to play ball, the decision was made to move to Plan B -- as in "bream."
Outdoor writers (at least, those smart or seasoned enough to know this sort of thing) always have a Plan B when making a trip to a fishing hole. The money spent to travel to a lake plus the time taken out of one's workweek equal an imperative to return with a story.
On this trip to the 450-acre lake, the backup plan called for pulling out the crickets and worms, switching to ultralight gear and bobbers, and finding some bream beds. It being May, this just made sense -- especially to someone who grew up in south Mississippi at the very time that the Pat Harrison Waterway District was being developed. I knew to bring the bream gear, and, while bass fishing, to keep an eye and at least one nostril on the alert for a bream bed or two.
"Let's start over there off that point near the campground," I told my partner. "That's where we both thought we had smelled a bream bed. Let's see if we can sniff it out, then follow it upwind until we find the fish."
The plan went perfectly. Within a few minutes of staying on high bypass on the trolling motor, we found the sweet-and-sour scent of a bed, an aroma best described as a mixture of natural decay and fresh-cut watermelon. In another few minutes, we were anchored at casting distance from the source.
A cricket man, I loaded up with a small foam bobber and a cricket set at 3 feet to fish in the 4 feet of water and made a cast. My partner, a worm fan, loaded his line with a glob of red worms and tossed his a few feet from mine, let the weight take it deep and then reeled up to tightline on the bottom.
The cork disappeared first, and I set the hook. While I played the fish quickly out of the bedding area, John set the hook on another. We got the fish to the boat and were presently holding two different species while we wore two broad smiles. We had the bream double: a fat bull bluegill and a longer and meaner redear. The bluegill took the cricket; the shellcracker ate the worm.
Before rebaiting, I made an observation. "We can reach this bed from the bank -- and it's lunchtime," I proposed. "Let's park it, get out the ice chests for seats and tightline for big redear like that one you caught."
Brilliant idea -- except for one thing: The action was so quick that we couldn't get our lunches down. Every time we'd bait up and cast, we'd barely get seated again before a fish would be trying to run off with one of our rods. We were using two each and couldn't keep up.
Before that bed played out, we pulled in 48 keeper-sized redear (if it doesn't fill the palm, it doesn't qualify) and 27 bluegills. Then we found a second bed, and recorded about half the numbers.
Welcome to the Pat Harrison Waterway District and all it means for fishermen in the many counties that it serves. In a region of the state devoid of big reservoirs and short on large lakes of any type, these waters have proven every bit as necessary as they were deemed by state officials in the early 1960s.
"That's when the district was formed," said Stone Barefield, Water Parks superintendent at the district's headquarters in Hattiesburg. "The goal was to develop water resources and provide recreation -- and it's done that."
Seven lakes have been constructed, beginning with groundbreaking at the pilot project Flint Creek Water Park at Wiggins in 1965. Flint Creek opened in 1969. Little Black Creek near Purvis, Maynor Creek at Waynesboro and Archusa Creek at Quitman all opened in 1974 and '75. Dry Creek at Mt. Olive was added in 1979, and Turkey Creek at Decatur and Big Creek 10 at Soso were added in the early 1980s.
"That's about 5,500 acres of water," Barefield said. "We also have a water park on Okatibbee Reservoir that's 3,600 acres, but that's a Corps of Engineers impoundment."
The seven lakes were named "water parks" because all were developed into destinations that offer everything from giant water slides and resort cabins to camping, boating and (of course) fishing.
"There's more to our water parks than just fishing," Barefield asserted. "We have wonderful scenery and great cabins and over the years, we've added special attractions that offer a lot of variety for families."
But it's the fishing that attracts most day-users to the water parks, and for good reason: As a quasi-state agency, the PHWD has access to other state agencies -- including the fisheries division of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks -- that can help maintain great fishing.
"Oddly enough, those lakes down there are so often overlooked by Mississippi fishermen," said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the MDWFP. "I know that the local bass clubs go to the water parks, and that the people who rent the cabins do a lot of fishing, but the average Mississippi fisherman living outside the southeast part of the state doesn't use them."
That's sad, too, because the fishing can be great -- especially for bluegills and redears during the peak spawning time of May and June.
"May is the best, because you get the first really big bedding run by the bluegill and still have some of the big redear on the beds, too," said James Walton of Laurel, a regular at Maynor, Big Creek and Dry Creek parks. "We actually start catching the first redear on beds in late March, depending on the full-moon cycles. It can run from mid-March to mid-April, but that first run usually comes on the full moon nearest April 1. That's when I break out the ultralights, get the worms and head to the lakes.
"I prefer Maynor and Dry Creek in late March, but all three are good in April for the redear. You just have to know where the sandy bottoms are. The redear like sandy points -- especially those that go in first."
One big advantage of starting early is finding the prime bedding areas in the clear water. "I don't need it anymore after all these years, but that's how I found out where the best bluegill bedding areas were," Walton said. "I fished around and starting seeing the remnants of the pitted beds on the lake bottom. Then, on later trips, I'd go back and find the bluegill there again. The late-bedding redear move away from the sandy points and start bedding right in with the bluegill.
"Oh, man --
that's when I love it. That's when Big Creek is a favorite. When you can find a bluegill bed, you can bet the redear are there too in April and May."
As good as that action sounds, those three lakes along the U.S. Highway 84 corridor of PHWD Water Parks are not actually the two best bream holes. That rank is reserved for the two southernmost parks -- Little Black Creek, between Lumberton and Purvis, and Flint Creek, at Wiggins. Of those, Little Black Creek is the No. 1 choice.
"South Mississippi crappie fishermen always say Flint Creek is No. 1, but the bream fishermen stick with Little Black," said Hattiesburg angler Randal Howard. "A guy I knew growing up fell in love with those two lakes as soon as they opened. He liked Flint Creek because, finally, we had a crappie lake in south Mississippi. He liked Little Black because he'd go there in May and put enough bream in the freezer to eat all year."
That man, the late Cecil Nobles of Hattiesburg, was a friend of mine, too. A devoted crappie and bream fisherman, he lived two doors down from my family. On Sunday mornings we'd walk down the street to see what he'd caught on Saturday. He'd be sitting on a bench in the backyard, cleaning hundreds of fish that he and his partners had boated.
"The key," Nobles said, "is putting as much time on the water as you can. You have to learn where the fish want to be at all times of the year. In May, that means bedding for bluegill and the remaining redear.
"I always start on Little Black at the campgrounds and move until I find them. Yes, I can smell them, but usually I just scull around making a few casts until I hit fish. Then it's just a matter of locating the entire bed, and fishing it outside in, from one side to the other -- that's always been what works for me. And I tell you, if you do that on Little Black and find a few bedding areas, you can fish a couple of weekends and have all the fish your family can eat in a year."
Many a Sunday-afternoon fish fry took place in the Nobleses' back yard. The fish were never filleted, and picking the bones was a ritual savored by all.
Nobles wasn't beyond a surprise trip to Flint Creek, either, and that's where he introduced me to mass-saturation bream fishing. "Bream bed deeper here, and they are later starting," he explained. "When I like to fish at Flint is in early May before the bedding, when the bluegill are in pre-spawn. That will concentrate both the bulls and the females on the edge of shallow water -- in 8 to 10 feet."
That Saturday morning, we pulled up to one of his favorite spots, and Nobles dropped the anchor. He instructed my dad and me to start baiting the many rods in the back of the boat, all already pre-rigged with slip-corks to fish crickets at 6 feet deep.
"Just start casting them in a semi-circle around the boat," he said as he starting baiting those up front. In about 10 minutes, we had 22 poles in the water.
"Dad," I whispered, "these poor fish don't have a chance."
They didn't, either. As soon as the water settled, our corks started dancing and sinking and we stayed busy for six hours. We quit when the two 48-quart coolers simply couldn't hold another bluegill.
"The problem with that plan," Nobles would tell me years later on another trip to Little Black, "was that at Flint, during the pre-spawn, you'd get one or two really good days like that, maybe three, and then they'd disperse and move shallow. The problem for me was that at Flint, once they moved up to bed I could never find those big beds like I could at Little Black. It's still that way."
Each of the seven Pat Harrison Water Park lakes has a character of its own. Here's a quick look at them, beginning in the south and working north.
This 600-acre lake inside the city limits of Wiggins on state Route 29, is the oldest of the PHWD watersheds, yet it's still considered the gem of the system. In addition to being south Mississippi's best crappie lake, Flint offers outstanding bass and catfish action. Bluegills and redears are plentiful, but it takes a little work to find beds.
"Mostly now I just fish deep in 6 to 8 feet of water on the bottom with worms," said Jim Rose of Biloxi. "I'll make a few casts shallower, but I catch most of the fish in over 6 feet of water. I figure it is a hot spot if I can catch six or eight fish in one spot. It's worth writing down and revisiting because, yes, I feel that's a bedding area.
"The thing about Flint's bluegill and redear is that you don't catch as many as might at Little Black -- but, gosh, the average size is so much better. A pound bluegill or 24-ounce redear aren't that shocking."
LITTLE BLACK CREEK
This 600-acre lake is the best of the bunch for bream. "No doubt about it," Rose said. "If you want to catch a lot of bluegill during the bedding cycles, there may not be a better place in Mississippi to fish. In my 60 years, divided half between Jackson and half down here, I've fished the whole state -- and I've never seen a lake with that kind of bluegill population per acre. It's unreal."
Bream bed in all areas of the lake with the exception of the deepest open-water areas and off the dam. Any other area, however, is subject to hold a bed or two or 30.
As Nobles said, it's a good bet to start in the stumpfields off the campground and try to smell out a bed. If the water is clear, you may spot the beds. Otherwise, just keep a hook in the water, and a bed will eventually find you.
BIG CREEK 10
The newest of the PHWD lakes, 200-acre Big Creek 10 off U.S. Highway 84 at Soso, is also loaded with panfish. Perhaps overloaded.
"You come out here in May or June, bring a cricket box and a couple of rods, and you can catch bluegill anywhere you throw," said the lake's biggest fan, Laurel's Bruce Redmond. "Fish from a boat, from a pier or the bank: It doesn't matter -- you're going to get bit, and keep getting bit all day. What you need to do though is take every one you catch home. We've got too many. We need to get some out."
The smallest of the Water Parks, 150-acre Dry Creek is one of the system's best at producing big redears. "They have about a two- or three-week run in mid March through early April when the big redear move up on a couple of the sandy points," Redmond said.
Early in that cycle, the lake is hard to beat for shellcrackers; later in May, you can also find some bedding bluegills in the lake.
At 450 acres, this lake is best known as having been Mississippi's first true Florida bass lake. Back in the 1970s and early '80s it started producing the state's biggest fish. Then, when the original Florida strain bass disappeared and the lake was left with a bunch of small largemouths, it began blossoming as a bream lake. The ideal situation for a bream lake is to be overpopulated by small bass.
"That eliminates more of the yearly bream hatch and creates a better big-fish bream lake," said Garavelli. "Bass fishermen may not like it, but the bream boys sure do."
Look at the ends of main lake points and fish back toward the shallow flats on each side of the points until you find the bluegill beds in May. Don't be shocked to find a lot of redears, too.
Just out of downtown Quitman off Interstate 59, 450-acre Archusa is still bypassed by many fishermen. In the past it's had something of a reputation as a bass lake, but constant problems with water-control structures have plagued it over the past decade. Yet the bream fishing is good.
"'Overlooked' is what I'd call it," said Meridian's Jimbo Wilkes. "During the May spawn, I do really well with bluegill. Back before the water problems, I caught some good redear, too. Not anymore."
At 250 acres, this is the northernmost of the lakes. It is also the least fished, at least for bream.
"I go over there and bream-fish and will see a lot of fishermen, but they are always fishing for bass," Wilkes said. "That's fine with me, because they sure are fishing past a lot of good fish. But this is not a good lake for bank-fishing for bream. You need a boat to get to deep enough water for the beds. I always find bigger beds in 4 to 5 feet of water."
FEES AND SERVICES
Boat launch fees are the same at all of the Water Parks -- $3 per boat, plus $1.25 for each person in the vessel. The $1.25 fee is charged for fishing from the bank as well.
Aluminum boats and paddles are rented at all of the Water Parks, but availability is limited.
For more information on the Water Parks, visit www.phwd.com.