While the weather is cold and sometimes harsh, Mississippi hunting and fishing options still abound in the winter months for sportsmen and women.
Late winter is pretty much a winding down time for many sportsmen and women, but there are still great opportunities to be had throughout the Magnolia State, especially in regard to deer, crappie, waterfowl and bass.
ST. CATHERINE CREEK NWR
Whitetails are masters at adapting to their environment. This is especially true when it comes to increases and decreases in hunting pressure. Prior to the beginning of the rut, the best hunting strategy is to get away from other hunters.
But as the rut intensifies, this strategy becomes less effective. During the peak of the rut, the main strategy should be to look for cold fronts and stay out in the deer woods as much as possible. Find a hot doe and a buck is sure to be nearby.
As the rut tapers off in late December, so does hunting pressure. Many are burned out from three months of deer hunting, while others opt to throw in the towel and pursue other interests.
Regardless of the reason, there are fewer hunters in the woods come January. Deer respond to this reduction in hunting pressure by returning to more predictable movement patterns and becoming less wary.
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Smart hunters take advantage of this situation by remaining patient and persistent.
St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge, located just seven miles south of Natchez off U.S. Highway 61, provides some of the best public land trophy deer hunting to be had in southwest Mississippi.
This 24,445-acre refuge is comprised of a mixture of bottomland and upland hardwoods, cleared areas, cypress swamps and fallow fields.
Bordered by the Mississippi River to the west, the Homochitto River to the south and private property to the north and east, St. Catherine Creek NWR sits in the middle of what many consider to be a premier trophy hotspot.
The rich, fertile soils provide an abundance of forages that contain high levels of protein, calcium and phosphorous.
In addition to natural vegetation, the refuge is surrounded by thousands of acres of agricultural crops, and also contains 1,200 acres of corn, rice and grain sorghum planted along the river for wintering ducks on the refuge.
The age structure and the genetics of the deer herd on the refuge are unsurpassed. Although there is no intensive deer management plan for the refuge, the limited seasons (archery and muzzleloader only) combined with a conscious effort to harvest quality bucks and an exceptional number of does are key to its success. And it doesn't hurt that St. Catherine has an abundance of thick cover, which further increases the chances of the bucks reaching their antler producing potential.
CHOTARD LAKE/ALBERMARLE LAKE
According to seasoned Magnolia State crappie anglers, Chotard and Albermarle are hands-down favorites when it comes to early season crappie fishing. These old Mississippi River oxbows are located about 20 miles north of Vicksburg, a little inside the levee.
For years it was thought that these two oxbow lakes were most productive for large crappie when Old Man River was at lower stages with the lakes cut off from its flow. Therefore, most anglers based fishing activity on Chotard and Albermarle on the Mississippi River stage.
However, a few guys in the Magnolia Crappie Club have proven this theory to be incorrect, and recommend that anglers not worry about the river stage. Instead, locate shad and catch crappie.
The majority of crappie caught at Chotard and Albemarle in January are found in the 15- to 20-foot depths. But when that tactic isn't working, experts recommend fishing the bottom with multiple jig riggings tied every 15 to 18 inches up the line.
The preferred technique is to bounce the lead weight off the bottom while slowly drifting down the steep banks of the two lakes. Some of the more popular jig colors include black/chartreuse, black/silver and crawfish.
But when jigs aren't producing, anglers can almost always rely on live minnows to entice a bite. And when all else fails, both lakes have an abundance of crappie mats placed in strategic locations for anglers to target.
Convenient access is also available at both lakes. There are two ramps at Chotard Lake, one at Laney's Landing and another at the Chotard Store. Access to Albermarle can be had behind the old Dent Fishing Camp.
THE MIGHTY MISSISSIPPI
The Mississippi River, along with its many tributaries, comprises what many believe to be the Magnolia State's best-kept duck hunting secret. Hunting these waters is certain to provide ever-changing adventure and — at times — some of the best duck hunting imaginable.
Primarily, this is when the water is rising and breaking into the willows along the banks. Under these conditions, ducks can show up overnight, and are typically in a working frame of mind.
The Mississippi River is the main thoroughfare for waterfowl in the central United States. In addition to being a primary travel route, it also serves as an excellent feeding and resting area for birds migrating south for the winter.
Depending on weather, duck hunters in Mississippi are likely to encounter pintails, mallards, wood ducks, scaup, gadwalls, widgeons and mergansers, as well as blue- and green-winged teal.
Duck hunting on the Mississippi River is best when the water level is very high or very low. Ducks flock to newly flooded areas, created by rising water overflowing into woods and fields bordering the river.
Likewise, pools of water trapped behind sandbars when the Mississippi is extremely low are favorite rest areas for ducks. This is especially true when hunting pressure is heavy, causing the ducks to seek refuge in obscure, out-of-the-way locations.
Duck hunting opportunities on the Mississippi River are almost infinite, with access to public landings spread out from Tunica to Woodville. And don't overlook the many oxbow lakes that line the Mississippi River. Chotard, Albemarle, Yucatan and Eagle lakes can be especially productive with a bit of cold weather and high river stages.
Most seasoned river duck hunters run the Mississippi in high-sided johnboats outfitted with large outboards and portable blinds. Extreme caution is always warranted when hunting on the Mississippi.
The big river is a dangerous place, especially when it's flooding. Collapsible blinds work best, since they do not impair vision when running. But most importantly, always wear a personal flotation device. Old Man River can be very unforgiving, especially when taken for granted.
Located near Iuka in the far reaches of northeast Mississippi, this 50,000-acre impoundment is one of several lakes formed by the damming of the Tennessee River.
Primarily known for giant smallmouths, Pickwick Lake also offers excellent fishing for largemouth bass, stripers, catfish, bluegill and crappie. However, with almost 500 miles of shoreline bordering Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, this lake is prime smallmouth habitat.
The vastness of Pickwick Lake is the first obstacle as winter smallmouths can be challenging to find. Unlike many Southern smallmouth lakes where smallmouths might stay shallow all winter, Pickwick smallmouths often exhibit shallow and deep patterns at the same time. This attribute calls for a combination of patterns to locate and catch smallmouths on Pickwick.
For the shallow water (8 to 10 feet) smallmouths, focus on the short pea-gravel points adjacent to deep bends in river and creek channels or sharp bluff banks. The two most popular shallow water baits are medium- to deep-running rattling crankbaits and suspending jerkbaits.
Of course, lure speed and color can be a big deal with smallmouths, so keep an open mind when it comes to lure selection. A willingness to change the color, size or style of a lure to match what the fish want at the time will help put more smallmouths in the boat.
Deep-water smallmouths call for an entirely different technique. The key is to locate humps along the main river channel that top out at around 25 feet. Active smallmouths rise to the tops of these humps and wait for a meal to pass by.
Drifting live shad hooked through the nostrils with a No. 4 to No. 2 bait-holder hook and weighted 18 inches up the line with a large split shot in the 1/8- to 1/4-ounce range seems to work best.
Most anglers using this method prefer spooling up with clear 8-pound test monofilament, because 10-pound line is too visible and takes too long to sink, while 6-pound line is too light to handle a smallmouth in the 8-pound range, which is always a possibility on Pickwick Lake.
LAKE CALLING PANTHER
The southwest corner of the Magnolia State is home to some of the hottest trophy bass lakes to be found anywhere. And while all are excellent choices, Lake Calling Panther in Copiah County tops the list. MDWFP manages this 512-acre man-made lake, which is only a half hour drive from Jackson.
Deriving its name from the Choctaw Indian word "Copiah," Lake Calling Panther is best described as a small lake in the middle of the woods. With only one boat ramp and a single long pier running alongside the boat launch, some might consider it wanting in amenities. However, the one quality that Lake Calling Panther doesn't lack is outstanding largemouth bass fishing.
Although not a very large impoundment, Lake Calling Panther offers quite a wide variety of fishing options. In fact, Lake Calling Panther's erratic shape produces a total length of shoreline comparable to a lake more than twice its size.
It also harbors an abundance of standing and fallen timber and numerous deep creek channels, offering anglers a unique fishing experience, as there is also a strip of deep water along the dam, a number of shallow flats and brush piles in various depths up to 45 feet.
Although grass can be found in some areas, most of the lake bottom is either clay or sand.