September 30, 2010
From Pickwick Lake in the north down to the Pascagoula River, Mississippi's loaded with great waters for papermouths. Let's take a look at some of the best of those for this year.
Finding crappie in almost any fresh water in Mississippi shouldn’t be a problem, but finding papermouths in quantity or in gigantic sizes — that’s more difficult. Still, no matter what the weather does this spring, with a bit of thought and preparation there are places in your part of the state to limit out.
Not only do we have a lot of lakes that hold these tasty fish, there’s even a lake in where a new variety, the Magnolia crappie, can be found. As is the case for me with most other hunting and fishing in Mississippi, the biggest fish are about as far away from my home on the coast as you can get, but even down here, the Pascagoula River basin holds a lot of papermouths.
THE MAGNOLIA CRAPPIE
This is a hatchery concoction that’s just beginning to be stocked in the state. Right now the only fishable population is in Lake Charlie Capps outside of Rosedale. However, as numbers of the fish increase they’ll be stocked in additional waters for which control of crappie numbers is important. Why this is so? Read on.
Magnolia crappie have several unique characteristics, appearance being one. The fish is a cross between a black and a white crappie and so looks like a crazy quilt. According to fisheries biologist Tom Holman, its color pattern is both mottled and banded, with a black strip along the top.
Also noteworthy: It’s a triploid hybrid and unable to produce fertile eggs. “Females are electroshocked up and their eggs are harvested,” Holman explained. “Then the eggs are put in a pressure chamber and it is cranked up several thousand pounds. This treatment makes the fish produced from the eggs sterile.”
Why stock fish that can’t reproduce? It would seem that more crappie would make for happier anglers, which would in turn make the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks look like a bunch heroes. Making anglers happy isn’t the only reason the MDWFP is around, however. The agency also works to maintain a balance of predator and prey fish so that no species goes hungry and the natural balance is maintained.
“In healthy lakes crappie have a tendency to overpopulate,” Holman said. After a few good years of increasing to sizes and weights pleasing to anglers, the crappie begin taking over, and other fish are squeezed out. Although young crappie are still hatched and provide forage for other fish like bass, they begin to take up too much space, pushing other populations of fish out of their normal place in the ecosystem and reducing the numbers of bass, bream and other species that fishermen also love to catch. Plus, the competition for food is so fierce that the crappie become stunted.
These new sterile fish prevent this from happening. The only downside is the hatchery staff must catch egg-filled females, go through the fertilizing and sterilizing process and then grow the fry up to releasable size.
Although Magnolia crappie are sterile, the fish have the same instinct to breed and nest, so the spring fishing over beds is a still a logical way to catch them. They also respond the same way the black and white crappie do to jigs, minnows and trolled baits fished over and in structure.
WHERE TO FISH
Regardless of the species of papermouth you pursue, the eternal question is: Where are the best places? Taking a ride on Interstate 55 through the Magnolia State puts you in easy reach of good crappie fishing from the central to the north part of the state.
Successful crappie fishing in the spring starts at Ross Barnett Reservoir outside of Jackson, usually in early March. A particularly cool spring can set this back a week or two, but crappie start moving as soon as the water warms, according to Tom Holman.
“From Barnett the bite moves north up the I-55 corridor,” he said. “Grenada Lake, then Wolf Lake, Eagle Lake, Enid, Sardis, Okatibbee and Arkabutla. The bite peaks at tax time, around April 15, at Barnett Reservoir.”
This means that a fisherman with time on his hands could spend more than a month fishing for crappie around the state and end up back at his own doorstep. Most of us don’t have that much time, but understanding that circuit allows you to time a few trips to coincide to where the action is.
Still, picking out the best spots at which to catch crappie isn’t an easy thing. There are so many variables that go into a successful fishing trip. Even with a depthfinder and a good topo map of the lake, it still takes individual knowledge gained from experience to figure out where the fish are going to be hanging. Whether you’re trolling, fishing off a bank or jigging, knowing where structure is located is important, but knowing which brushpiles and tree stumps are best comes with time.
That said, it’s fair to add that being on lakes and rivers whose number of crappie has been increasing, and where weather hasn’t dealt the fish any hard blows in the last few years, can make the learning experience easier.
It’s tough to choose between the Pascagoula River basin on the eastern edge of the state and the Jourdan River close to the Louisiana border. Both are dark-water, slow-meandering rivers with lots of marshy areas, lily-pad holes and small ponds that open off the stream. Since crappie are so attuned to structure, you should thoroughly fish any fallen trees or clusters of plants in the water.
Locals on both sides of the state favor using a live minnow hooked behind the head; most place a small weight about 6 inches above the hook. Maneuver the bait in between branches or stems and try to it get down fairly deep. When you find one crappie, there will be others at that depth, so mark your line hook on a bobber to keep the bait at the same depth.
Until the water gets hot, fishing those small ponds and lily pad areas off the main channel makes sense. The crappie seem to find a number of minnows and other things to feed on in these holes. It’s better to anchor and throw into these spots, since motor noises can spook the fish.
Although minnows are the typical first choice, a neon jig sweetened with a minnow on the hook works even better in these dark waters. F
avored colors are electric blue and red, chartreuse and white. Anything with metalflake also seems to bring on bites. If the water’s unusually clear, change to more natural colors of jigs.
While the water’s still cool, just twitch the lure every few seconds. If, however, the water has reached higher temperatures, jig it with enthusiasm.
If there’s been a lot of rain and the water’s high, the crappie will probably be back in the flooded trees or in the cattails and marsh grass. Under such circumstances, finding holes to fish is tough work. Look for small breaks in the standing stalks, drainage rivulets or anyplace else that might hold extra water.
“On rising, water fish shallower,” suggested MDWFP fisheries biologist Keith Meals. “The best beginning point is about one to 1 1/2 feet deep. On falling water start fishing at the 3-foot mark and work your way down to the school.”
Trolling for crappie usually doesn’t work well in these waters, simply because they’re relatively narrow and shallow. There are few underwater streambeds, and deep holes are generally small and confined to drains where feeder creeks enter the bigger waters.
North of Jackson lies the first of Mississippi’s big impoundments — Ross Barnett Reservoir. There are many old streambeds, brushpiles and remains of trees that attract and hold crappie.
Spots like the Poverty Hole are excellent after the shallows warm and the spawn is over. In the spring, target shallower structure around which the water warms early, as around docks and downed trees close to shore.
If you’re at all unfamiliar with the impoundment, get a map of the reservoir and do some cruising with the depthfinder on. Check for areas that have brushpiles or stumpfields, especially those toward the south end of the lake. Use colorful jigs, minnows or a combination of both to fish these spots. Colors that work well include pink, white-and-red or chartreuse.
Although most anglers anchor over these spots to fish a minnow and a bobber, slow-trolling along the edges of creek channels and stumpfields allows you to cover more water and locate the crappie easier. Turn the trolling motor down to its lowest setting, or just use the wind, if it’s blowing in the direction you want to go, to push the boat slowly along.
Chotard Lake is another consistent producer of quality crappie, although it’s sometimes hard to get a limit there. The papermouths here can be tough to pattern. They seem less predictable with regard to the timing of their move out of deeper water on the way to spawning along the shore. Since crappie begin heading out to breed when water approaches the 60-degree mark, tracking temperature is the best bet for picking the moment to fish here.
Slow-trolling in spring along any areas of structure or deeper cuts offers another means of locating the fish. Use a 3-way swivel and attach a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce weight to about 8 inches of line on one of the eyes. Use the other eye to tie on a shorter line and fasten on the jig.
When you hook a fish, throw out a marker as close to the spot as you can get and then anchor nearby and fish the spot thoroughly at about the same depth.
Okatibbee Lake near Meridian is another excellent spot for finding crappie. There’s a lot of beaver activity in and around this lake, so natural brushpiles and downed trees are always plentiful. There are also plenty of stumps along old creekbeds, which attract crappie late in the spring after the spawn. Even with all these advantageous options, most anglers fish the concrete platform below the dam.
This is another lake where using jigs with soft-plastic bodies pays off. Colors should be matched to the color of the water. Thus, if the lake is murky, chartreuse and white work best, while, if the water is fairly clear, more natural colors like silver and blue are the ones to go with.
Lake Charlie Capps near Greenwood is another lake that’s known both for its excellent crappie and for its angler-friendliness. Although the boat ramp can accommodate all sizes of craft, boats are only allowed to run at trolling speed. Having a place to fish where constant backwash from joy-riders, water-skiers and personal watercraft fans is a big improvement over many state waters.
“This is one of my favorite crappie lakes in the state,” said Laurel resident Joe Lorinc. “The fishing requires a light touch to catch crappie, but there are some giants hanging around down there.”
The largest crappie recorded as taken from this lake, caught in 1992, weighed 3 pounds, 8 ounces.
If hauling a boat is too much trouble, five fishing piers are scattered around the lake. Or, a boat can be rented at the lake.
Although Lake Bogue Homa, east of Laurel, is known more for bass than for crappie, it is loaded with standing timber and stumpfields that also hold papermouths. In fact, it’s a great lake at which to pick up a limit of crappie.
Since the schools of baitfish move around the lake, trolling is a good way to locate likely pods of forage and schools of crappie. This is another lake where live minnows work best. Most crappie anglers use a bobber. They begin fishing at a depth of about 2 feet, working the bait down 6 inches at a time until the cork starts bobbing around and the first fish is hooked.
There are several boat docks around the lake. Note that a special fishing permit is required in addition to your state fishing license.
The rest of the state is hard pressed to measure up the crappie-fishing standard set by big U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes scattered along I-55 in the northern part of Mississippi. These impoundments have everything that a crappie could want — food, structure and lots of room to grow.
Unfortunately, according to Keith Meals, the area fisheries biologist for the MDWFP, Arkabutla, Sardis and Enid lakes have one major drawback that keeps them from being ideal for anglers: They’re too close to Memphis, and thus receive a lot of angling pressure. Meals also noted that recent years have seen an influx of anglers from Missouri, Illinois and Iowa coming south to get a jump on spring fishing.
“ Arkabutla Lake is muddy in springtime,” Meals added. “Start fishing the coves on the north side since they warm first.” The biologist doubts that there’s much chance of catching a 3-pound fish in the big lakes in this area, because of all the pressure. On the other hand, he says, quantities of fish are there.
According to Meals, the best bet for big crappie in years past has been Grenada Lake. “Grenada should be awesome this spring,” he offered. “The average size of fish will double in this lake just because out-of-state anglers to the north don’t make it this far. If big crappie are the goal, Granada is the place to go.”
Another option in the area for big slab crappie is Tunica Cutoff. But, Meals cautions, Tunica Cutoff peaks three to four weeks later than do the big reservoirs, as cold water from the Mississippi River slows the spawn down.
Since both of these lakes are likely to have stained water in the spring, the same rules on using bright-colored jigs in dirty water apply. When trolling, he suggests, get the lure down 4 to 8 feet deep.