After a lifetime of crappie fishing all over the state, and fishing hard on the crappie trail from September until June, Magnolia Crappie Club member Shelton Culpepper of Bay Springs relaxes during the "offseason" by returning to his roots and fishing down on the Pearl River near Monticello where he grew up.
"River fishing is best during the hottest part of the summer and early fall when the water levels are lowest," he said. "Any place that you can find some deep, still water, you're likely to find a whole school of crappie bunched up in one place."
Culpepper admits that the sizes of river crappie may not be quite as large as those found on the local reservoirs, but when he compares fishing in the heat, boat traffic and bright sunshine on a big reservoir to having a quiet, shady spot on the river all to himself, he'll take the river.
South Mississippi is home to several flowing-water crappie hotspots. In addition to miles and miles of the Pearl River as it winds its way from Barnett Reservoir to the Gulf, the Leaf, Chickasawhay and Pascagoula rivers, plus a number of their smaller tributaries all hold plenty of crappie.
"Most of these rivers will be anywhere from 40 to 60 yards wide," he said, "but there will be stretches that have shallow runs where there are rapids. You want to stay away from those areas because they're not likely to hold crappie, and some of them may be hard to navigate when the water is low."
Culpepper prefers stretches of river that hold a minimum of 10 to 12 feet of water and possibly as deep as 25. He says that most of these depths will be found in the vicinity of soapstone bluffs where the river makes a sharp bend then opens up into a deeper pool. These areas will have plenty of wood cover in the form of blowdowns where the soapstone has eroded away and dropped trees off its bank into the water.
"The best water to fish will actually curl around and flow back upstream behind these blowdowns and log jams," he said. "A slow backward flowing eddy is a great place to catch crappie ambushing bait. All of these rivers are loaded with little spot-tail minnows, and crappie don't have to chase them down; they just wait until the current brings them in."
Unlike big-reservoir tactics where more rods means more chances at catching fish, Culpepper says the river may be the last single-pole crappie fishing venue left. Too many unseen snags and too much moving water make it nearly impossible to troll. Instead, he seeks out wood cover that blocks the current and vertically jigs the area with a single pole and a 1/16-ounce jig.
"You may have to hit a number of spots before you find the right one," he said. "Once you locate a good spot, you can catch several with the jig.
"Then, if the bite slows down, I'll switch over to a tightlined minnow and try to get more fish to bite."
Like his fellow Magnolia Crappie Club member, Eli Rowell of Foxworth loves to fish slow-moving rivers during the summertime. Living just across the Pearl River from Columbia, Rowell and his Magnolia Club partner and son, 9-year-old Cole, hit the river during the summer hoping to have enough water to gain access to several oxbows off the river.
"The river gauge at Columbia needs to be at least 4 to 5 feet to get back to the oxbows," said Rowell. "Most of them are pretty silted in, and you may have to snake through a narrow stretch. The average depth may only be 5 feet, but on one end or the other will be a couple of deep holes in the 10- to 12-foot range. Crappie are land-locked in those holes and can't get out."
Like Culpepper, Rowell and son opt for single-pole tactics in the oxbows. The pair will jig any available wood cover above or below the surface, and usually find crappie holding a couple of feet off the bottom. A backup plan if he cannot gain access to an oxbow is to fish the mouth of a creek tributary. Several creek mouths may allow the Rowells to fish 100 yards up into the creek, where crappie will hold in wood cover out of the flow of the main river.
"In the Pearl, we catch mostly white crappie in the oxbows and creek mouths," said Rowell. "Out in the deep bends in the main river, holding down in the cover, is the best place to find specks."
Both experts recommend getting on the water as early in the day as possible and plan to fish until mid morning. Later in the day when it begins to cool off is a good time to return to the river and catch crappie until dark.