Then, a day or two later, another crappie angler shows off his Eagle Lake catch to me. And just this morning, Magnolia Crappie Club member Ricky Smith of Brookhaven sends me a picture of his brother, Jimmy, showing off a true Eagle monster - a white crappie in the 2-pound-plus range caught right out in the middle.
That did it, brother. This month's crappie column has got to be about Eagle Lake. It's back, son, big time! Oh, I've had local Eagle experts and MCC members, Shelton Culpepper and David Thornton, trying to convince me for months - since last year's flood, really - that big-as-they-grow Eagle slabs were hitting their jig poles practically every day they went.
I listened, I even tried their suggestion with little success, convincing me even more that the fish these two Eagle Lake veterans were catching were coming from one or two "secret" piers that I didn't know, and they wouldn't tell me or show me their honeyholes. I was convinced that only those select few who knew exactly where to place a jig were lucky enough to catch the fish they were talking about.
The good old days
Look, I have a long history with Eagle. When I hit Jackson in 1984, all I had to go fishing with was a J.C. Penney trolling motor (that's right, I said J.C. Penney), a Sears Die-Hard battery and a couple of Mitchell 300 spinning reels.
I had never actually tried to catch a crappie on purpose. Where I grew up (Plantersville) in Northeast Mississippi, crappie were generally bream size or smaller and so skinny you could read a newspaper through them. My one-armed Papaw Vance and I spent lots of days sitting on the bank with cane poles lined up and down the pond or creek mainly catching catfish, a bass every now and then, and "strawberry" bream - our favorite.
But all I heard about was crappie fishing when I found the Rez, and there were two places that rented john boats - Pelahatchie Bay Trading Post on the Rez and Maxwell's Landing on Eagle Lake.
So I'd fish the bay at Barnett, and when I wanted a change of pace - an "adventure" - I'd drive over to Eagle Lake, to Maxwell's, and catch "real" crappie.
Crappie fishing for me back then was new, fun and easy. Heck, all I had to do was tie three or four jigs on each of my two lines coming off the back of that little john boat and head down the bank. Every now and then I'd catch one. My main concern was making sure to not run that battery down because it still had to crank the truck once I got off the lake.
I learned 25 years later that I was "long-lining." How 'bout that!! Heck, I was long-lining back when some of today's best tournament long-liners were still wetting their beds.
Early Eagle Lake tournaments
Then, somehow, during the mid-80s, I got my first boat and joined a crappie club. I was hooked, and Eagle Lake became my second favorite lake. By then, I had learned to jig fish, and that's all we did. That's all every tournament fisherman did, on tournament day - was jig fish. At Eagle, that meant hitting the brush around the two islands and Buck Chute.
Then we started seeing those fishermen "from up north" fishing with what they called a "spider-rig." How we'd laugh and laugh about how ridiculous they looked trying to keep up with so many poles mounted in rod holders positioned all around the boat!
But, of course, somebody locally tried it, then another one and another one. First thing you knew, practically all our tournament fishermen were rigged to "slow troll" minnows and jigs from the front of the boat with the two fishermen sitting side-by-side. Yeah, we laughed about that, too. "Holding hands" is what we dubbed it - said we'd never do that, either.
We discovered that not all the crappie lived next to the brush over at Eagle. In fact, the bigger fish were coming from right out in the middle - usually in one of the deepest holes in the lake at the southwest end of Float Row. Shoot, if we had 30 boats in an Eagle Lake tournament, 25 of us would be right out there within rock-throwing distance of one another.
For a year or two, Kenny Blackwell, who grew up on Eagle, convinced us we could catch more and bigger fish using slip corks cast as far away from an anchored boat as possible. Yep, we all bought anchors and slip corks for a couple of years. The thinking was that Eagle's un-Mississippi-like, clear, aqua-colored water gave us away to those smart fish. So, we needed to be really stealthy out there in that 25- to 30-foot water and catch them as far away from our boats as possible.
But, over the years, the one constant was that we caught fish. We all caught fish (and big ones, too) on T-Day at Eagle. It became one of our favorite places to hold a tournament. In fact, Eagle still holds our club record for entries in a regular club tournament at 48 boats - set a decade or so ago.
Back then, Eagle was one of the few "out-of-town" events that MCC held. Truly, for many of us, it was an adventure. I think that's where we really learned the fine art of our "get-togethers" and off-the-lake socializing that we now call "tailgating."
Twelve to 15 of us would pile into Mrs. Allen's house. Her lakeside home downstairs was fixed up to sleep everyone in his own bed; plus, we had a good-sized full kitchen and eating area. Oh, how I fondly remember those cold pre-fishing days spent inside Mrs. Allen's, playing dominoes, and cooking chili instead of actually getting on that cold, windy lake. Other members had cabins on Eagle or would bring a camper, but Mrs. Allen's was our Eagle Lake Headquarters for sure.
The lean years
Then, something happened. The fish disappeared. The Game and Fish people surmised everything from disease to invasion of some kind of non-native grass had caused every blessed crappie in the lake to disappear. I'm telling you, there wasn't a single crappie to be found in Eagle.
MCC worked with MDWFP to restore the lake. We took brood-size crappie from Chotard and stocked them in Eagle. And the MDWFP began stocking Eagle with black crappie by the thousands.
We still couldn't catch any. Eventually, we took Eagle off the tournament trail altogether. It was awful - Eagle Lake had become the worst crappie lake in Mississippi.
Well, no longer - Eagle is back. Look, I literally just hung up the phone with one of our MCC members begging me to move the Jan. 14 Chotard tournament to Eagle or to let the fishing teams decide which lake to fish, Eagle or Chotard. Begging, I tell you, a grown man, accomplished Chotard fisherman begging to fish Eagle instead of his beloved Chotard.
I've had more calls centered around the excitement about the huge Eagle Lake slabs than almost anything I can recall that is fishing related.
Yep, Eagle Lake is back growing both white and black crappie as big as they grow! 'Bout damn time.