Kent Driscoll kept his head down as he slowly motored across the face of the Sardis dam. It wasn’t because the weather was all that cold. It also wasn’t because wind was whipping in his face.
No, Driscoll was staring at the monitor screen of his Humminbird 997, a side-imaging unit. In effect, he was watching where he was going by searching the gently sloping curve of the Sardis dam as it made its way under water to the bottom below.
Driscoll’s big War Eagle boat was almost to the corner of the dam when the screen lit up with a smoky-colored cloud of bait atop a mass of what looked to be grains of rice.
"Here they are," Driscoll announced, looking up briefly from the screen to make note of his location. "They’re in a current break right in behind some bigger rocks near this corner of the dam.
"Both the bait and the crappie are stacked up in here. Now it’s time to lay the wood to them."
The big lakes in Mississippi, whether they are Corps of Engineers lakes built for flood control, power-generation lakes or simply multiple-use recreational lakes, all go through a similar set of circumstances during the winter months.
At the end of fall, these lakes begin a winter drawdown designed to slowly release stored water from the summer pool and make room to collect anticipated runoff from coming spring rains.
Most lakes operate on a rule curve; that is, lake managers have a designed summer pool water level and a designated winter pool level, and each day in between is designed to move the lake from one level to the next. The month of December typically finds big reservoirs dropping water levels, allowing water to flow over spillways or through turbine gates, working their way toward winter pool.
As the water levels drop, the upper reaches of the lake become quite shallow and may even go dry as the current flows through the dam.
This current is of particular interest to crappie anglers who are looking for some wintertime action.
"The current pulls shad from other parts of the lake and bunches them up in front of the dam," said Driscoll. "With shad on the move to deeper water, crappie are sure to follow."
Driscoll says that heavy rains can upset the balance at times. The need to release excess water can not only pull shad and crappie to the dam, but through the structures where they are depositied unharmed, at least until they reach the anglers on the other side, into the dam’s tailrace waters.
Most years, however, there’s plenty of action to go round on both sides of the dam.
"All of Mississippi’s big lakes have rip-rap banks all over the dam areas," he said. "The rocks provide a hiding place for the shad and are covered in algal growth, so they’re also a food source for the shad.
"At the same time, the rocks and contours of the dam itself can create current breaks, giving both the shad and the crappie feeding on them a place to escape the current."
The combination of food, deep water and slightly warmer temperatures as rocks heat up in the afternoon sun and transfer that heat to the surrounding water make dams primary "go-to" spots for many anglers. The problem is, there’s a lot of surface area that won’t be holding fish. According to Driscoll, the way to locate crappie in this vast dessert of gravel is knowing how to find the "sweet spots."
"Fishing rip-rap is like fishing a stairwell with a gradual slope," he said. "You first have to figure out what depth the fish are using as it tends to change based on conditions."
Along with depth, the terrain features of an embankment dam dictate how crappie will relate to it. The corners of the dam, plus any irregular features such as points, water-control structures, logjams or a river channel running along the base of the dam, will hold both crappie and the baitfish they feed on.
"It’s a lot to check in a seemingly flat surface," said Driscoll. "Using a good sonar unit, you can run the length of the dam and look for these holding places.
"Crappie tend to school tightly, so when you hit them, you’ll know it. It’s not like the spring or summer when you’re looking for a fish here and there."
Driscoll recommends trolling tactics to fish for crappie holding around dam structure. His preference is to tightline using the maximum allowable number of rods per angler, which varies depending on which lake you’re on. He’ll stagger double minnow rigs from a foot off the bottom to just a few feet from the surface. He prefers using 14-foot jig poles for their longer reach and lighter action while he’s fishing. Since he’s trolling at a snail’s pace, he’ll use only a ½-ounce weight to keep the minnow rigs vertical in the water.
"I may run a 12-foot-depth spread from right to left," he said, "running the right-hand side deeper and the left-hand side shallower until I pinpoint the right depth.
"Straight minnows to start, but I may slip a Southern Pro jig skirt over the top of the plain Aberdeen hook on the rig to add some color. I like to fish glow-colored skirts because the water can be dark from the algae. Then it’s a matter of watching the sonar, playing with various colors and adjusting the depth."
Like Driscoll, legendary crappie guides Roger and Bill Gant also favor dam areas when searching for winter crappie. However, brother Roger says he has more luck plying the mud flats out in front of a dam than fishing among the rocks.
"We’ll catch fish along the rocks, but we usually have better luck pulling across a mud flat as the bottom drops off into deeper water," he said. "I can’t explain why they seem to prefer to lie right on the bottom, and often away from structure, but we catch a lot of them that way from Pickwick, Sardis, Grenada and Enid."
The Gants, who recently won the 2011 Crappie Masters National Championship, are legendary for their unusual trolling style of side pulling for crappie. Rather than the boat moving forward with rods leading the way, the pair trolls the boat sideways and trails the rods and lines behind them.
"We always pull hair jigs; Bill actually hand makes these and sells them at the Pickwick Store just across the state line in Counce, Tenn.," said Gant. "This time of year we use big baits, ¼-ounce jigs tipped with minnows.
"We’re fishing right off the bottom in maybe 30 to 36 feet of water. The bigger jigs make it easier for crappie to find the bait. We actually get more bites on the bigger jigs than the smaller ones."
Locating deep-water crappie on a mudflat in front of the dam may seem like finding a needle in a haystack, but Gant contends it’s a matter of finding the right depth to find the fish.
"Say the water is 25 feet on the flat," he said. "I’ll look for a streak of water that tapers off to 30 feet, and we’ll pull along that taper.
"If we catch a fish at 29 feet, then we can expect to catch more on that 29-foot mark, so we’ll go to that exact depth on the drop-off and fish. It’s a depth thing, not a structure thing."
Gant does have his theories about crappie and winter drawdown, and they coincide with Driscoll’s thoughts on the matter.
"When the water starts falling, it tells fish it’s time to head deeper until they find that comfort level where they feel secure," he said. "That’s always going to make the dam area a great place to fish during falling water."
Listed below are suggested launch locations for winter time crappie anglers wanting to fish the following big lake dams without having to make long runs:
• Arkabutla Lake – Bayou Point Public Use Area -From Interstate 55, take exit 280 toward Hernando, follow Hwy 304 Scenic Loop to the dam. Ramp is on the south end of the dam. This ramp is usable down to the conservation pool elevation of 209 feet.
• Enid Reservoir, Wallace Creek – From I-55, take the Enid Lake Exit, County Rd 36, for .8 miles. Turn left at the “Y” intersection on Enid Dam Rd, Go .7 miles and turn right into Wallace Creek.
• Grenada Lake, North Abutment – From I-55, take Hwy 7 exit and travel north for 5 miles. Turn right on Scenic Loop 333, go approximately 3.4 miles and follow signs to the ramp.
• Pickwick Lake, Pickwick Landing State Park, Pickwick Dam, Tenn. – From I-40, take Exit 126 toward Parsons, follow TN-69. Turn right onto TN-100, and then left onto TN-22. Turn left onto US-64, then turn right onto TN-128. Go 12 miles, and the park entrance is on the left.
• Sardis Lake, Engineer Point Public Use – From I-55, take exit 246, and go north on Hwy 35 for approximately 5.2 miles. Bear right on Blackjack Rd and travel .3 miles. Bear right on Hwy 315. After .2 miles, the entrance to the public-use area is on the left.
Tightline trolling using double minnow rigs is the preferred method for fishing dam structure during the winter. Concentrate on “sweet spots,” those areas that offer current breaks, warmer water, fish and bait holding structure or any combination.
Use your sonar to pinpoint fish, and then ease over the top of them. Fish tend to congregate tightly and bite lightly, so pay close attention to your rods while trolling.
Another viable tactic is to troll or side pull along deep-water mud flats adjacent to the dam. Look for crappie to relate directly to the bottom.
Once fish are located, jig pole anglers can save time and exhaustive rod handling by vertically jigging straight down to crappie.
Roger and Bill Gant, Pickwick Guide Service, 662-665-5160; Pickwick Store, 6630 Hwy 57, Counce, TN 731-689-5666; Vicious Fishing, 1-866-645-0024 www.vicious-fishing.com; Southern Pro Tackle, www.southernpro.com