February 23, 2023
Along Interstate 55 just south of Memphis, four northern Mississippi impoundments consistently rank high on any crappie angler's must-fish list. The "Big Four," as they are known—Arkabutla, Enid, Grenada and Sardis—all yield monster crappies each year, as they have for decades. In fact, Enid produced the current world-record white crappie 66 years ago; Arkabutla gave up the state-record black crappie in 1991.
"The four reservoirs are consistently among the best crappie lakes in the entire nation," says Keith Meals, a Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks district fisheries biologist based in Oxford. "All four lakes have produced crappie exceeding three pounds. I would rank Enid and Sardis the best for numbers and Arkabutla and Grenada the best for size."
All four lakes fish very similarly; they feature the same types of woody cover and little aquatic vegetation due to their drastic annual water level fluctuations. Every fall, the Army Corps of Engineers draws down all four reservoirs.
By mid-January, the lakes begin to refill with rainwater. The best fishing usually occurs from February through April before and during the spawn. Spawning typically peaks from mid-March to mid-April.
"February and March are the best times to fish for big crappie because they are getting ready to spawn and starting to move up shallow," says Tim Howell with Long Branch Guide Service (longbranchguides.com) in Enid, Miss. "At that time, crappie are out on the flats right off the creeks of the main river channels."
When rains come, the lakes refill quickly. Rising water inundates willow thickets, trees and terrestrial vegetation. Fish follow the rising water to occupy newly flooded cover. Since 2015, all four lakes have benefited from high water with excellent spawns, except during the 2017 drought. Even then, considerable vegetation grew on the exposed lake bottom. When high water returned, that flooded cover created outstanding spawning habitat.
Flooded brush grass and other cover gives fish more places to spawn and hide from predators. In addition, baitfish also enjoy strong spawns during flood years, so crappies grow fast by gorging on them. It takes about 4 to 7 years for a Mississippi crappie to grow into the 3-pound range, but many never reach that size.
"In February and March, the water should be slowly coming up," Meals says. "The lakes are currently riding several big year classes of fish. During high water, we get faster growth rates because of the extra forage in the lakes. Crappie are a lot less accessible to anglers during high-water periods, so they also get protection."
GRENADA: 3-Pound Paradise
Impounded on the Yalobusha River, Grenada spreads across 35,000 acres at pool stage. Located 3 miles northeast of the town of Grenada and about 90 minutes south of Memphis, the lake is stuffed with plump, 3-pound crappies.
The Skuna River flows into the northern end of the largest lake entirely within Mississippi. A little bigger than the Skuna side of the lake, the Yalobusha side generally runs more stained to muddy. Since the Skuna River looks a little clearer, many anglers fish this arm first during spawning season.
"Crappie usually start spawning on the Skuna River about a week to 10 days before they start on the Yalobusha side," Harrison says. "My go-to bait at that time is a 1/8-ounce orange-and-chartreuse jig. I'll use the same pattern in any of the lakes. The Skuna Turkey Creek area is one of the first places that crappie go in the spring. The red grass area on the Yalobusha side is another good place to fish."
ENID: World Champ
An impoundment on the Yocona River south of Batesville, Enid Lake covers about 17,000 acres at pool stage. On July 31, 1957, Fred Bright wrestled the 5-pound, 3-ounce world-record white crappie from the impoundment. The old lake still offers great crappie fishing, even though your chances of repeating or breaking the record there are admittedly very slim.
In February, the old Yocona River channel and any creeks near the dam provide the best fishing. Some better areas include Long Branch, the mouths of Bean and Wallace creeks and even up into the creeks. Also try Mooney and Bynum creeks. Look for shad schools.
"Enid still produces a lot of big fish," Howell says. "I usually start fishing around the main-lake points down by the dam in early February. I'll work my way east as the water rises. The fish are going to follow the water up shallow, so I'm going to follow the fish. At that time, I like to spider rig with minnows or jigs. Sometimes, I'll use a jig with a live minnow."
ARKABUTLA: Small Lake, Big Fish
The smallest and northernmost of the Big Four, Arkabutla Lake spreads over 11,240 acres at summer pool on the Coldwater River near Hernando. Arkabutla produced the state-record black crappie of 4 1/2 pounds in March 1991. Anglers frequently catch crappies in the 3- to 3 1/2-pound range, with bigger fish caught on occasion.
"The size of the crappie on Arkabutla is unreal," Harrison says. "Arkabutla is not a numbers lake, but people have an opportunity to catch a crappie bigger than anything they've probably ever caught before. Many of my clients come here specifically to catch a 3-pound or larger crappie."
Some of the best Arkabutla fishing occurs near Hernando Point. In February and early March, many anglers also fish spider rigs along the old Coldwater River channel. The channel can turn muddy, so use larger baits for big fish. Bright jigs, such as a 1/4-ounce head tipped with an orange-and-chartreuse, pink-and-chartreuse or lime-and-chartreuse trailer, do well.
"Fish the north side at Hernando Point," Harrison says. "Wolf Creek on the north end near the dam is another good area. On the south side, fish Kelley's Crossing. At the upper end of the lake, fish Hickahala Creek, or what the locals call ‘Third Ditch,' on the south side of the lake. Anywhere on the south side has good fishing in the spring."
SARDIS: An Oldie but Goodie
The oldest of the Big Four, Sardis dates to 1939. The impoundment on the Little Tallahatchie River southeast of the town of Sardis produces good numbers of 3-pound crappies. At summer pool it covers 32,100 acres. One of the deepest lakes in Mississippi, Sardis plunges more than 70 feet in places. "Sardis is a great lake, slap full of fish," says Howell. "The spawn tends to start a little bit later on Sardis. It's usually a couple weeks behind Enid."
Some better places to fish include the Hurricane Landing area, Blackwater Creek, Lower Graham Creek, Wyatt's Crossing and Gilly's Slough. Fish the flooded trees. Also try fishing up the Little Tallahatchie and its tributaries. A wider lake than others in the area, Sardis can turn rough. Look for launches on the leeward side of the wind to find sheltered places to fish. On a gusty day, boaters can get in trouble fast. Also, during low-water periods, watch for stumps, trees, floating logs and other boating hazards.
"I get calls from people wanting to catch a 3-pound crappie," Howell says. "That's not as easy as everyone thinks. The potential is always there, but you need to know how to fish these lakes. You can catch a 3-pound crappie any day on any of these lakes, but that doesn't mean you catch one every time you fish."
While nobody can guarantee fish, anytime a bait hits the water in any of Mississippi's Big Four crappie lakes, it could result in the fish of a lifetime.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Take in the sights of northern Mississippi while you’re in the area to catch slab crappies.
While in northern Mississippi, take an opportunity to learn the rich historical and cultural heritage of the Magnolia State. Several state parks offer excellent accommodations (mdwfp.com/parks-destinations). Check out the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum (msoutdoorhalloffame.com) in Leland. The museum documents the outdoors history of the state and also includes the Mississippi Outdoors Hall of Fame, which honors men and women who have greatly contributed to the knowledge and conservation of that way of life.
Music lovers should visit the Grammy Museum (grammymuseumms.org) in Cleveland. The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum (biedenharncoca-colamuseum.com) in Vicksburg displays many exhibits and memorabilia documenting the history of the popular drink.
While in Vicksburg, Civil War buffs should visit the Vicksburg National Military Park (nps.gov/vick/index.htm). For more than a year, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army tried to take the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy." The city finally surrendered to the future American president on July 4, 1863.
Don't forget to visit the U.S.S. Cairo exhibit. The Union ironclad gunboat sunk in the Yazoo River in December 1862 while supporting the Vicksburg Campaign. In town, tour the Old Court House Museum. The building survived the war with minimal damage and now houses more than 100,000 artifacts.
In Tunica (tunicatravel.com), check out the Tate Log Home Museum. The oldest structure in Tunica County dates back to 1840. Looking for something more modern? Several casinos provide food, lodging and entertainment.