O.K., it's February and nobody in their right mind would talk crappie fishing now.

Oh, but that's where all those deep-water chartreuse jigging white perch anglers have got you fooled. They take for granted you guys are still out there finishing up the last of the hunting seasons by chasing a few fox squirrels or cottontail rabbits. Maybe a few bowhunters are lingering around in the woods trying to stick a late-season venison backstrap for the grill before turning their thoughts to turkey hunting.

Most fishing boats are still covered with dirty coveralls, wet socks, and muddy boots.

Meanwhile, savvy crappie anglers are slipping out onto their favorite waters to test the shallows and heavy cover for a few white perch slabs that have been nearly starved out by the long winter.

Did I say winter? In Mississippi no less? Let's get real.

Heck, back in December and a few days in January the ambient temperatures outside jumped into the 70s on occasion. That is enough warm air to keep crappie thinking some silver minnows or white jigs got to be coming their way soon enough.

They would be right.

So, February too cold, too windy, too wet and nasty most days to wet a jig or drop a minnow over some cover brush? Well, I'll concede that might be true on some of the days two months into a new year, but plenty of good, warm, calm days will be available to take in some quality crappie fishing on select Mississippi lakes.

And what might be some of the better choices this time of year to collect some fillets for an early season fish fry? It just so happens we have three lakes to recommend, which we've dubbed The Crappie Triangle.

The triple threat

The Crappie Triangle is a unique set of lakes in the west-central sector of the state just north of Vicksburg. The lakes are situated in Warren and Issaquena counties.

These three premier crappie lakes are easily accessed up Highway 61 from Vicksburg, then just past Redwood turn west onto County Road 465 right over the Yazoo River bridge. Slow down or you're likely to whiz right by and miss the turn. If you do, continue north to Highway 1 and come in from the north end.

The most unique part of this triple set of lakes - besides being excellent crappie fisheries with well-earned reputations for some of the best white perch angling in all of Mississippi - is that with a little planning and forethought, all three could potentially be fished in one day. However, to be honest, such a tactic would require a dawn-to-dusk effort, and while that would be doable in spring or summer, it might be a dicey try in a short daylight month like February.

Anyway, these are not lakes upon which the fishing should be rushed.

So, if you're driving over from a far-reaching part of the state, the plan should be to stay over in the multi-service river city of Vicksburg. Then, daily access would really be easy, and anglers could give each independent lake its own due diligence with multiple crappie poles and jig rigs. Of course, day trips to tackle each lake separately are also advisable, and then anglers can settle on their favorite of the three choices.

If you have not already looked ahead at a map or other resource to fill in the blanks here, these triple-threat crappie lakes are Eagle, Chotard and Albemarle. Coming up Highway 465, they line up in this same order, and can all be accessed with ease just off this road. Eagle Lake can even be seen from the highway, so it won't be missed. Chotard and Albemarle are found west of the Mississippi levee road, which Highway 465 turns into north of Eagle.

These three lakes have a number of things in common, yet retain a number of features that are unique to each one. The primary commonality is that each is an oxbow lake formed eons ago when the track of the Mississippi River changed its course. The result was the cutting off of a curve in the river, thus forming a horseshoe- or banana-shaped lake. In time, each lake developed excellent habitat cover for exceptional fishing.

In perspective, the Big Muddy is only a mile or so from these lakes. Both Chotard and Albemarle are still actively fed by the big river when water levels are sufficiently high enough to flood the inlet channels. However, Eagle Lake is no longer attached to the Mississippi River. The whole process of being connected to the main river is what essentially makes two of these fisheries so great, especially for crappie. Eagle has its own excellent crappie fishery habitat.

The annual process of the Mississippi River exceeding flood stage and flowing into Chotard and Albemarle lakes is the mechanism Mother Nature uses to replenish these resources with fresh populations of fish and a freshening of the water levels.

In drought years, the reverse process takes place, and fishing can be tough, requiring different tactics, or it might be dead water altogether when there is no fishing action at all. This is usually not true in February or the spring fishing months.

Eagle, on the other hand, has been restocked by the state.

The level of the Mississippi River has to be monitored as part of the process in keeping up with the best fishing conditions on these lakes. Always look ahead at the river level before taking on the Crappie Triangle. Ideally, the river stage at Vicksburg needs to be between 24-28 feet, and better yet if the river is in a falling mode the day before you fish. This really can make the difference between having slabs on the stringer or just spending a day on the water getting nothing else but a sunburn.

"I have lived near these three waters and on the banks of Chotard Lake for most all of my life," said Chotard Lake Landing owner Johnny Laney. "The cycle of these oxbow fisheries tends to be roughly the same year in and year out.

"The Big River over yonder beyond the willow breaks feeds this lake every time the flood stage gets up high enough for water to start flowing into the body of the lake. This keeps our numbers of fish up and brings in new water to raise levels so the lake can sustain its fishery through the summer months."

Fish habitat cover on these three lakes is essentially the same from the perspective of crappie fishing. As you approach each lake in preparation for crappie fishing, be sure to ask the local supply outlets and anglers around the ramps where to fish. Call the state wildlife and fish department to seek out a fisheries biologist for advice, and check their web site at www.mdwfp.com for fishing regulations and license information. Now let's look at some specifics each lake has to offer.

Eagle Lake

Eagle Lake came by its name from an Army mapping mission in 1812 when eagles were spotted nesting near the area. By 1829, the river bend had formed nearly a complete horseshoe lake. With its river chute silting up, it was finally cut off from the river by 1925. Today, Eagle Lake is one of the better crappie fisheries in the state.

Cover here consists of visible cypress trees, flooded willows, buttonbush, piers and rip-rap. Structure includes man-made fish attractors, sunken trees, car bodies, mats, stumps, terrain humps, ridges and sandbars.

Most crappie anglers on Eagle resort to drift fishing around structure, or wade fishing.

One of the more popular access areas is near the Lo Sto Landing. Driving down Eagle Lake Shores Road will also reveal some other possible access points. The little community around Eagle Lake includes country stores with basic supplies and services.

Fishing advice is usually free and easy to obtain. Favorite jigs include solid chartreuse, solid black and pink head/black hair. Minnows are a forever popular crappie bait, but may not be available now.

Lake Chotard

While standing at the boat ramp at Laney's Landing looking west, the tree line on the far side of the lake is one of the best crappie hotspots in Mississippi. That is when the water level is right, being high enough to flood into the standing timber. Crappie love hugging up to standing willows and cypress trees. This is the place to start dropping crappie baits in 3 to 6 feet of water.

The other good aspect of fishing into or up against the trees is the additional benefit of getting out of the wind if it has kicked up.

Next, look for fallen trees dropped down into the waterline. Any brushy cover can house crappie, so always keep an eye out for suitable cover. Usually there is considerable fallen-tree cover on the eastern bank of the lake. Fish the mat structures, too.

"I love to fish the willows on Chotard," said Harry Barkley, a retired fisheries biologist from Jackson. "Usually it is the first place I head to when I get on this lake. Certainly it is ideal when you can troll a boat right up into the timber, but if water levels don't permit that, then get in as close to the tree trunks as possible. This is where an extra-long and limber crappie pole is best for dropping a shiner or jig right in beside the tree cover."

Chotard Lake is truly one of the best crappie fishing lakes in the state. If my fishing trip plans allowed me only one day to tackle filling a cooler with white perch slabs, Chotard would be the easy choice.

Albemarle Lake

The most-northern fixed lake of the triangle is probably the least well-known of the three, but is still a very good crappie lake. Lake ramp access can be found at Dent's Landing. Structure on this lake is varied, but most notable are the deep east bank and the shallow west bank to be fished accordingly. The best fishing on Albemarle is in the deepest water near Rocky Point.

Additional crappie cover includes more than 70 mats placed around the lake. Pole tops can be seen in low water. On the west bank can be found willow trees, as can the channel connecting this lake to Chotard. This river chute is a good place to drop a shiner for crappie, too.

The timber should be flooded so long as the lake's water level stays above 16 feet. Anglers I've talked to recommend black/silver hair jigs or a black/chartreuse tube jig. Try crawfish color, too.

Winter prep fishing

Crappie fishing is crappie fishing. That is no rocket science. The trick this time of year is to be prepared for the elements or conditions that could change during the day. For example, a simple cloud cover could make the air temperature drop 10 degrees or more.

Therefore, dress accordingly in layers. Take insulated items that can be added or removed. Pack good rain gear. It is no sissy insult to use a small, portable, propane canister camping type heater in the boat.

Fishing in February is not crazy. This is especially true when anglers can target three excellent lakes like Eagle, Chotard and Albemarle, all on one trip if they want.

Pack plenty of jigs in an assortment of colors in case the local bait shops don't have minnows on hand yet. Then when you haul in a full cooler of white perch slabs, invite over a couple of those skeptics to help you fillet them out and then help you cook up a mess.

That'll teach them.