When winter winds blow crisply, many Mississippi anglers retire to the fireplace to await spring's warmer weather. In the process, they miss some good papermouth fishing on these lakes!
By Robert H. Cleveland
Barnett Reservoir was not a pleasant place to be that morning, but Rabbit Rogers insisted that if we could brave the elements, I could carry home a load of slab crappie.
"You do know that the weather forecast is for a high of about 28 degrees?" I asked Rogers at the ramp. "That seems awful cold."
Rogers assured me that he knew what the Weather Channel had said - and was well aware that it would have to warm five degrees to reach even 28.
"That's about what they're calling for this weekend for our first crappie tournament, so I need to put some time in on the lake in similar conditions," he said. "Besides, we aren't going far, and we won't be fishing by feel, so you can wear gloves."
I zipped up the last remaining inches on the legs and chest of my snowmobile suit, pulled my insulated face shield over my ears to my neck and, with an unsure nod, prepared for the ride.
Just 15 minutes later I pulled in my first fish of the day. That put me three behind Rogers, who was well on his way to providing the Cleveland house with a load of crappie for the freezer.
Anglers would be wise to stick with live minnows for bait during the colder months. Photo by Tom Evans
Barnett Reservoir and a few other lakes in Mississippi do offer fishermen some excellent winter crappie action. It's not for the meek, I can assure you, but with the right clothing and equipment, it's not that bad.
But be warned: Bring lots of towels. Fishing with minnows is required, and the worst moments of the day are those brief seconds between putting a wet minnow on a hook, drying your hands and putting them back in the gloves.
"That's the drawback - you have to have minnows," said Rogers, who until a few years ago was always a jig-fishing purist. "I had my butt beaten too many times in our early tournaments by minnow people. I also had to give in and start trolling."
The winter method used by most Mississippi crappie fishermen involves trolling with multiple poles, each rigged with multiple hooks. These "spider rigs" enable crappie anglers to cover a lot of water and to probe varying depths in pursuit of their quarry. It's a proven pattern at the state's most productive winter lakes: Barnett, Eagle Lake, Flint Creek Water Park and the Bay Springs Pool of the Tenn-Tom Waterway.
All these waters require intestinal fortitude of those who'd fish there in the winter - but right now, we can check them out while staying warm by taking a vicarious trip to the four lakes with local experts who'll tell you how to catch the crappie for real.
BARNETT RESERVOIR At this 33,000-acre lake, 90 percent of the winter crappie fishing is done on fewer than 50 acres of water. Rabbit Rogers' boat will be among those crowded into an upper-lake area known as the Welfare Hole or tied up to the nearby state Route 43 bridge.
"There's a good reason why all the fishermen are here," Rogers said, "and that's because here is where the largest concentration of crappie will be found on the lake. The only time there's a bigger concentration is when the spillway is running open and the tailrace loads up, but I got to where I hate to fish down there, no matter how good it gets, because of the crowd."
You'll find the main-lake crowd just southeast of the SR 43 bridge, fishing a large, deep flat, loaded with old sloughs, ditches and other natural and artificial fish-holding structure. It's called "the Welfare Hole" because anybody who wants to catch some crappie can get a free meal there.
With biologists' surveys indicating a strong, healthy population of crappie in Barnett - especially fish that were two-year-olds last summer - this winter could be one of the best in years. The Welfare Hole is a good place to start.
"This is as perfect a place for winter crappie as you will find," Rogers said. "Highway 43 and the bridge form a perfect bottleneck that attracts and holds crappie moving up and down the river in the current. We usually get a lot of winter rains, and that creates a lot of current. The fish get pulled into that bottleneck and look for the first place they can go to get out of the current.
"When that water is bottlenecked at the bridge, it creates a natural push over to that flat. That push carries a lot of shad to the flat, and that attracts a lot of crappie. When the current isn't so strong, you still find fish on the Welfare Hole, especially after there's been strong current that has slowed. But you also see a lot of boats move out to fish the bridge structure itself. The pilings provide a perfect ambush spot for crappie to hide."
The first thing I learned to appreciate about the Welfare Hole is that in winter, when Mississippi's prevailing wind pattern is out of the north, SR 43 creates a perfect windbreak. It doesn't stop the wind's chill, but it does keep the water calm, which equals very little splash over the gunwale.
According to Rogers, just about anyone can fish the area and catch a few fish, but it takes a little work and electronic depthfinders to pinpoint the best concentrations and the biggest fish.
"Like all fish, Barnett crappie relate to changes on the bottom," he said. "You can find the brushpiles and fish them, but you better get there first, or you won't get close to them on weekends. Everybody knows where the ledges are" - there are marker poles - "and they tie up or anchor and won't leave until they limit out. They catch some big fish, but most of the brushpile fish are smaller.
"The fish that relate to the ledges are the ones that can win you tournaments and the ones that you can fill a cooler with without catching a limit."
Rogers knows the ledges by heart and doesn't have to mark them; for others, the best idea would be to find the ledges and to spend a few hours following them and finding lineups on the horizons that you can use to stay on or near the change in depth.
"This area is full of ledges, and all of them are capable of producing fish," Rogers noted. "One day it may be the deeper ledges, with water dropping off to 18 or 20 feet. Other days it may be shallower ledges, with the water dropping to 11 or 12 feet."
Once you learn the ledges, it's a matter of setting up a spread o
f rigged poles. On each pole, put an ounce of lead on the end of the line and then attach three hooks, coming up a foot from the lead to fix the first hook and spacing the other two up the line a foot apart.
Keep trying different depths until you hit on one that consistently produces strikes; then, cover as much water as is possible, sticking close to the ledges. Troll as slowly as you can.
After heavy winter rains have increased the release of water at the dam, Barnett's spillway offers another option. Winter draws a lot of fish to the deep water around the dam, and the release can suck those fish through the gates and stack them in the tailrace.
The keys to success there are using bright-pink jigs and knowing if the river is rising or falling. A rising river pushes the crappie out of the channel and into any newly flooded cover; a falling river pulls those fish back out to the natural river channel.
Pelahatchie Creek flows in just below the riprap on the east side of the dam. Anglers like to target the deep cover along its banks when the river is high and rising.
EAGLE LAKE While 2002 and 2003 were down years in the natural crappie cycle of this old landlocked oxbow of the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, biologists who ran population surveys last summer were pleased with the crappie they encountered. Actually, "surprised" might be a better description.
"We didn't know what we'd hit when we did our early shocking in June, but we did find more crappie that we expected," said John Skains, the biologist who works Eagle Lake for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "We didn't find a lot of big crappie, but that's natural, since you can't electro-fish in deep water. But we found small crappie, and that is evidence that there have been a couple of good spawns."
Eagle Lake is famous for its productivity. Biologists have said the lake produces 10- and 12-inch fish in two years, which is much quicker than any other lake in the state can, and is among the best in the world. And the year-old fish of last year, when mixed with the adult fish that produced them and another great spawn in 2003, should mean good fishing in 2004.
"The time to take advantage of Eagle Lake is the winter pre-spawn," said Phillip Thomas of Vicksburg, a longtime angler on the oxbow. "When the big females begin moving up out of the deep river channel, you can load up a limit of fish in a couple of hours of trolling."
Eagle differs from Barnett is many respects. As an oxbow, the lake is basically a circle with a deep bank (the Mississippi side) and a shallow bank (Louisiana). It lacks current and contour changes that create ledges, and has no points.
"About the only deep-water structure we have at Eagle that helps to concentrate fish are the piers on the Mississippi side," Thomas pointed out. "That means they get hit pretty hard by people who own them and by people who don't know any other way to catch fish. The pier owners have been good about putting out a lot of cover to hold fish, but I've always found that the bigger crappie do not relate to that - at least not in the winter during pre-spawn."
The most successful trips on Eagle, according to Rabbit Rogers, include trolling the deeper waters near the spawning flats, which means using the same multiple rigs he uses on Barnett and spending a lot of time drifting in open water to find the huge schools of crappie that have moved toward the shallow side of the lake.
"They seem to like 14 feet for some reason," Rogers observed, "and I don't mean 14-foot-deep water. In January and February I find most of the concentrations suspended 14 feet deep in 15 to 20 feet of water."
Phillip Thomas reports that this pattern begins with the first warm front in January and continues through February. "After that, they start moving up shallower and the trolling is over," he said. "Then it's time to hit the shallow brush for the spawn."
Even though more than half of the lake and 90 percent of the spawning area is actually in Louisiana jurisdiction, a Mississippi fishing license is valid on the entire lake.
BAY SPRINGS POOL Now, this one really takes some courage. As far north as it is - just 30 miles south of the Tennessee border - the 5,500-acre lake on the Tenn-Tom Waterway can be brutally cold. But that doesn't deter crappie fishermen like Ellis Smith of Corinth.
"As good as Bay Springs is in the spring and fall, I prefer fishing it in the dead of winter, when the crappie are deep, and fat," Smith said. "Give me a hundred minnows and a few hours in the middle of the day, and I'll get you a limit, or darn close to it. The colder it is, the better."
Smith is another firm believer in covering a lot of water at varying depths to find wintertime slabs. At Bay Springs, however, one has to use as many poles as is feasible to cover the entire range of the water column.
"I fish the main-lake points," Smith explained, "and that can put me in 35 to 50 feet of water - and there's no telling where the comfort zone of the crappie will be. With the water as clear as it is, sunshine can penetrate pretty deep. The more sunny days we have, the deeper the fish suspend. You get a cold front to pass, and follow it up with three or four bluebird but very cold days, and the fish can be 35 feet deep and be in 40 feet of water. I know a lot of people who fish shallower, but I like to go deeper and find bigger concentrations of quality fish."
Smith uses a minimum of five poles on his boat - more if he has a partner or two to help man them. "I use as big a minnow as I can buy and, I make sure that I have every depth covered - from 15 feet to 30 or 35 feet deep, depending on how deep the water is. That takes a lot of poles and a lot of minnows."
Mum on his favorite points, Smith did observe that, in general, most main-lake points yield fish. His main piece of advice: Have a depthfinder of reasonable quality whose resolution is high.
"You have to find the schools," he said.
FLINT CREEK WATER PARK Mississippi's best crappie lake in any season - winter obviously included - is 1,000-acre Flint Creek Water Park. Way down south in Wiggins, it's the largest lake of the Pat Harrison Waterway Park system in south Mississippi. Making the case for its excellence: Tommy Miller of Hattiesburg.
"It's because for a south Mississippi lake, Flint Creek is very deep," he maintained. "There are some 40- and 50-foot holes out there where fish can get in the winter. They'll be in those deep holes in January and in early February, but it warms quickly after that, and they start moving up shallow for the spawn by the end of February."
If his next tip sounds familiar, it's because it is. Miller's preferred pattern is trolling the open water of
f the dam to look for big schools suspended deep in the lake.
"Minnows, lots of poles and hooks - just like they do up north," he said. "I grew up fishing at Barnett when I lived in Jackson. I just moved the patterns I used up there and put them to work down here. They work."
MAYNOR CREEK WATER PARK Another lake in the waterway system, Maynor Creek Water Park, is at Waynesboro near the Alabama line. It's yet one more worthy choice for seekers of winter crappie. The pattern there involves trolling minnows along the ledge formed by the creek channel on the lower third of the lake.
* * * All the lakes mentioned in this story are worthwhile picks, but there are others where these same deep trolling patterns will work; it's just a matter of adjusting the depth to suit your favorite fishing hole. Depth is a relative thing: At Barnett Reservoir, 12 feet is deep, while at Bay Springs Lake, that's shallow.
One constant holds for any lake in January and February, however: It's cold. Dress warmly, and consider putting a portable (but safe) gas heater in the boat!
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