January is a pretty straightforward pick. Ross Barnett Reservoir, located in the shadow of the state capital at Jackson, is definitively a fan favorite. Crappie at Barnett stack into the upper reaches of the lake where the Pearl River supplies water to the lowland reservoir.
In addition to picking the hottest lakes each month, local experts - guides, tournament anglers, even a few top-notch weekend anglers, provide Mississippi Sportsman readers with 10 GPS locations, picked right off of their personal electronics units, to show them exactly where to fish this month.
The hotspot locations for Barnett were provided by Brad Chappell, part-time guide, crappie tournament angler and member of the Magnolia Crappie Club. Chappell and his partner Bo Hudson have earned a reputation on Barnett for winning crappie tournaments and pioneering long-line crappie tactics.
Chappell takes us through 10 top spots to find January crappie and provides some tips on how to fish these hotspots.
1. Welfare Hole: N32 30.503 x W89 56.503
"It's a big current-break area," said Chappell. "It's a deep hole within the old river channel. Look for crappie to hold to the edge of the channel."
Two schools of thought divide the best methods for fishing the Welfare Hole. Many of the old timers around Barnett will hold over the edge of the channel and vertically jig the drop-off, particularly any old stumps, log jams or similar structure that has been trapped along the channel edge. Anglers may use a single rod or hold one in each hand to tandem fish with 1/16-ounce jigs, walking their way along the bottom.
Chappell belongs to the other school, those who tight-line troll the edges of the Welfare Hole.
"The water is probably about the coldest of the year," he said. "Live bait works best for slow trolling around the edges of the Hole, picking off crappie.
"They may be on the edge, down in the structure or at times they'll suspend up in the water and be shallow over the edge of the drop."
Other times of the year, Chappell will target fish that stay closer to the surface by long-line trolling along and through the area.
2. Highway 43 Bridge: N32 30.816 x W89 56.387
Crappie anglers new to Barnett won't need a GPS unit to find the Highway 43 bridge that crosses the upper section of the reservoir. Over a mile of rip-rap on either side of the bridge structure will help warm the water, but the highest concentrations of crappie, and crappie fishermen, will be under the bridge overpass that spans the Pearl River channel. All of the crappie that migrate from the lower lake to the upper lake must pass through this narrow passage.
"This is a great place for single-pole jigging around the pilings," said Chappell. "The backside of the pilings will act as a current break, and crappie will get in behind them and feed on passing baitfish.
"Not all of the pilings will hold crappie, they tend to school and you might have to fish a number of pilings before you locate the three or four that are holding the majority of the fish."
Not that he's that much of an early riser, but he makes a point to be on the days he'll be jigging around the bridge.
"Make sure you get there a couple of hours before daylight," he said. "Crappie tend to bite at first light, and the location is a very popular spot and tends to get fished a good bit."
3. Tommy's Ledge: N32 30.759 x W89 55.898
Another bend in the Pearl River channel, this location is smaller in stature, and notoriety, but fishes similar to the Welfare Hole. The outside bend of Tommy's Ledge is adjacent to the entrance to the channel that leads to the public boat ramp at Goshen Springs and Tommy's Trading Post, a public boat landing and store that caters to crappie anglers.
"The depth is 12 feet on the ledge and 16 feet down in the channel," Chappell said. "Work the outside edge of the bend - that's always been the most productive side, whether you're tight-lining live minnows or working the drop with a jig."
The angler acknowledges a number of stumps, brush and driftwood making the outside bend the more attractive to crappie.
"Fish just along the breakline," he said. "This area will hold bait with crappie holding right at or just below where you mark bait."
4. S Curves: N32 29.514 x W89 57.657
With the exception of the 43 bridge, Chappell describes all of his hotspots so far as either trolling or jigging spots. He goes the other way in the S curves, as crappie may congregate on either the inside or the outside bend of this spot and are just as likely to be found out in the channel chasing baitfish.
"The best way to fish this is to put out tight-lining poles and just zig-zag from side to side across the Pearl River channel," he said. "The edge of the channel is about 10 feet on the flats, and inside the channel itself the depth goes down to 20-22 feet."
The GPS mark will put you centrally within the area. Once there, use your sonar to find the drop-offs along the channel. The channel itself is easy to find and follow due to its proximity to channel markers in the area along the curves.
"Depending on how much current is flowing through the lake, crappie will hold tight to the edge or move out over the channel," he said. "The more current, the tighter to the curves they'll hold."
5. Ledge Above S Curve: N32 29.660 x W89 58.537
"Same pattern applies to this location as the S curve below here," said Chappell. "Crappie love to hide on this edge of the channel and feed on shad."
The ledge in this location runs from north to south, running diagonally from channel marker 29 to marker 30. There are stump fields on both sides of the channel that will hold crappie from now and through the spawn in the spring when crappie will move off the channel and out into the fields to spawn.
Chappell tightlines in this area using mostly live bait. Most of the crappie caught are white crappie, which show a preference for larger baits. This dictates that Chappell will often use a new Bobby Garland bait known as a "Minno-Minder." The bait has a cut-out that allows the live minnow to ride in line with the plastic bait while the tails provide additional action and color.
"My personal favorite color if I'm using a jig tipped with live bait is a purple-toned bait that's called Vegas," said Chappell.
6. Oil Well Woods: N32 29.637 x W89 58.537
Every hotspot listed by Chappell so far is some portion of the Pearl River channel, a bend, a ledge or flat adjacent to the drop into the channel. This hotspot, Oil Well Woods, is an exception. The Oil Well Woods spot is a creek channel that runs off the Pearl River channel and winds back through a stump field that, according to Chappell, was the original Oil Well Woods but is now associated with the surrounding area on the east side of the reservoir.
"The depth of the creek is between 18 and 20 feet," he said. "The top of the ledge is about 6 feet deep.
"The deeper section is on the left side of the stumps facing east."
As far as tactics go, Chappell says he's back to the half-and-half split of jigging and tightlining. When tightlining, he'll troll back until he reaches the 10- to 12-foot depths after that the bottom terrain gets pretty rugged and may prevent any type of multiple-rod tactic.
"There's a couple of brushpiles back in there that probably have over $100 of my personal tackle in them," he said. "It's definitely not a place to long-line troll, no mater what time of year you're fishing."
7. Saddle Bag: N32 29.709 x W89 59.251
Before the former governor of Mississippi had a major man-made lake named for him, the ground beneath Ross Barnett Reservoir was generally swampy land dissected by the Pearl River. Like most lowland rivers, the Pearl would occasionally change course, leaving an oxbow in her wake. The Saddle Bag spot is one of those old oxbow lakes of the Pearl.
"The old lake is 18 feet deep in its deepest section and 10 feet on top of the ledge," said Chappell.
Several factors combine around the old oxbows that make them hotspots, both during the winter and again in the summer. The first is the steep drop off from relatively shallow water to deep. The other is that strong current in the lake, prevalent if there is a lot of winter rain, will run crappie out of the main channel and send them into the old oxbows. Here they get more shelter from the strong current. Another strong attractant for crappie is that the banks of the old oxbows were lined with standing timber, now degraded to stumps and snags. The old lake beds have also been planted with man-made brushpiles by local anglers. This makes them great locations both for tightline trolling and vertically jigging specific pieces of structure like brushpiles.
"I guess there might be some comments made at the next meeting for revealing this," said Chappell, "but this specific GPS spot is a brushpile out in the lake where one of our club members won one of the Magnolia Crappie Club tournaments last spring."
8. Big Lake South: N32 30.403 x W89 58.566
Like Saddle Bag, Big Lake is a great place to target crappie when there is a lot of current flow in the main channel. Big Lake is a large area, and the whole area can be productive but difficult to access. A look at the map may make this statement questionable, but on the water, someone new to Barnett can quickly tear up a boat or at least a lower unit by trying to run across the upper part of the lake. This is because of all of the aforementioned standing timber.
"People have trouble navigating the stump fields coming across from the main channel," said Chappell, "especially if the wind is blowing.
"My best advice if you're not familiar is to idle your way to the south end of Big Lake from the main channel if the wind isn't blowing. If it is, I'd come through the north end from Brown's Landing."
Chappell's tactic in Big Lake is to slow troll with live bait. Big Lake is big - big enough to fish all day if the conditions are right. Numbers of standing and submerged trees would take all day to fish. With heavy current in the channel, the entire Big Lake area, which is surrounded by shallow stump flats, is a current break, and both shad and crappie will move in to seek shelter.
9. Big Lake North: N32 30.906 x W89 58.090
The unique feature with the Big Lake area is that it has sort of an entrance, on the south end, and an exit, on the north end. To set up a nice trolling run, Chappell will put out his poles at the last spot, Big Lake South, and troll his way to this spot, Big Lake North. The distance between the south and north spots is well over 1,000 yards, at least a half mile.
"The lake is slightly crescent-shaped, like a spoon," said Chappell. "There are channel markers inside the lake that will help guide you through the lake bed."
10. Brown's Landing: N32 31.103 x W89 58.380
"Goshen Springs is probably the most popular launch site in the upper portion of Ross Barnett," said Chappell. "Tommy's is right there so you can eat breakfast, buy bait and put in all at the same location.
"However, if I'm only going to fish Big Lake, most likely I'll trailer over and put in at Brown's Landing."
The channel markers at the north entrance to Big Lake will direct you over to Brown's Landing and vice versa.
"During the winter when water levels tend to be lower or if the wind is blowing, this is much easier than working your way across the lake," he said.