Pickwick's clear waters are in stark contrast to most of Mississippi's other notable crappie lakes, but its reputation as a slab crappie fishery is well earned.
As cooler weather settles in for the season, two things occur that help crappie anglers hone in on their favorite game fish. With flood control as one of the lake's primary objectives, the Tennessee Valley Authority begins drawing the impoundment down to winter pool. In reaction to both the receding and cooling water, crappie tend to congregate along the main channels of Pickwick's major tributaries.
Less water to hide in makes crappie easier to locate and, with winter on its way, tends to make them bite more readily as they stock up for the cold weather.
This combination of factors makes Bear Creek, a major Pickwick tributary straddling the state line between Mississippi and Alabama, an ideal destination for early winter fishing.
Shoals Area Crappie Association angler Darrell Keil of Trinity, Ala., fishes both local crappie tournaments and some national tournaments when the Crappie USA trail comes to town.
Like most crappie anglers, Keil's well versed in several tactics, but on this lake, for this time of year, he's going to be in that all-too-familiar crappie-fishing pose - sitting in the front of his boat, intently watching multiple poles as he makes tight-line trolling runs.
This month, Mississippi Sportsman tags along with Keil to review his top 10 crappie-fishing hotspots for Pickwick Lake.
1. Bear Creek A
34 47.993 N/088 05.526 W
Keil indicated that the first stop on his list is about as far south as you'll want to go in Bear Creek with the lake being drawn down to winter pool. He labels this as point "A" because it's the starting point in a three-spot trolling run.
He begins on the marked coordinates, which places him right on the edge of the Bear Creek channel.
"At this point, the channel runs right up along the bank," Keil said. "I like to place the boat right on top of the channel edge and begin following the channel north. That way I'm covering both deep and shallow waters."
The angler indicated that the top of the channel at this location would be about 7 feet deep at winter pool and drop off to 15 to 16 feet down in the channel.
2. Channel Bend B
34 48.063 N/088 05.394 W
Moving from "A" to "B," Keil wants to make sure anglers pay attention to their electronics as well as their GPS units as the channel breaks away from the bank at hotspot No. 2 and moves out toward the center of the lake.
The creek channel and the water depths at this mark are pretty consistent with spot No. 1, but wind and water current will change the fish's preference as the channel enters open water.
"Look for tightly schooled baitfish hanging around all the structure here," Keil said. "I usually catch a good mix of both black and white crappie in this area, and it seems like all of them are either on the edge of the channel or suspended out in the channel."
The creek channel running through this area has a number of steep drop-offs that congregate fish. In addition, old tree stumps and planted brush on the edges of the channel draw fish.
At the coordinates, anglers may want to start a zigzag pattern to determine if crappie prefer the inside or outside bend of the channel.
Keil indicated that he heavily relies on the Navionics map features of his Humminbird 798 to make sure he's within a rod length of the channel when working this area.
3. End of The Line C N 34 48.179 / W 088 05.342
The end of the "A-B-C" run on the south end of Bear Creek ends at hotspot No. 3. Speaking of lines, the state line between Alabama and Mississippi runs to the west of this trolling run, but Keil points out that anglers needn't worry about which state they're fishing in. Alabama and Mississippi have a reciprocal agreement on Pickwick so that a license from either state is accepted.
Though they didn't make Keil's list for winter time crappie fishing, less than a half mile to the northwest of this spot are numerous stumps that line the left bank going north out of Bear Creek. In years when rainfall outsmarts the water level rule curve, these locations will have sufficient water to attract and hold crappie into the early winter. In normal years, these locations are some of the first places that crappie will migrate to when the water begins warming early in the year.
4. Rocky Slope
34 48.662 N/088 05.309 W
Directly across the creek from the early spring stumps fields is a slight bend in the river channel that many anglers overlook.
Spot No. 4 marks the location where the main channel concludes its crossing of the Bear Creek embayment and runs dead up against a rocky slope on the east side of the creek. This is the beginning of another three-spot trolling run Keil favors during the colder months.
It's time to rock and roll through the next three spots.
"This bend in the channel also tends to collect a lot of baitfish," Keil said. "The right side bank features a lot of blow-downs and rock piles that will also hold fish."
As well as serving as a great wind break in inclement weather, the rocky slope will warm quicker with its southerly exposure, and anglers will find a degree or two warmer water temperatures up against the rocks.
On this second run inside Bear Creek, the channel gets a little deeper, especially where the channel butts up against the bank. Anglers will find 18 to 19 feet of water in the channel, with depths of 7 to 8 feet on the other side of the channel.
5. Stone Point
34 48.759 N/088 05.438 W
Some thousand feet above the beginning of the rock-and-roll trolling run is a limestone point that breaks off the east bank and juts out to the Bear Creek channel. With wind or water current, the point creates a huge current break that has the capability of providing an entire day's worth of fishing by working the leeward side of the structure.
"I'm watching the graph just as much as I'm watching my poles," Keil said. "Especially along this rocky area, you'll find pockets of crappie schooled up tight. Sometimes all it takes is one rod to go down and get the school excited."
Keil said one of the benefits of slow vertical trolling is that it's just as easy to go backward as it is to go forward, right or left. He might brush the edge of a school of crappie with an outside rod, adjust the boat accordingly with the trolling motor and have several rods go down on the next pass.
6. Stone Point
34 48.787 N/088 05.501 W
Keil's hotspot No. 6 is the end of the second trolling run in Bear Creek. From this point forward, the bank begins to flatten out, and he doesn't seem to find the same success following the channel as he does along the steeper bank.
While it's a great location for crappie fishing, it's also a fish magnet for other species - and that can have its drawbacks.
"Catfish like this same area, too, and anywhere you have catfish you'll have catfishermen and troll lines," Keil said. "Between watching your graph and your poles, you'll need to keep an eye out for trotlines. They can make it difficult to troll, and it seems like once you get one line tangled up in a trotline, the rest are sure to follow."
In recent years, Keil admitted the long-lining craze has taken root at Pickwick. While he still prefers the front of the boat, he admit long-liners also do well pulling 1/32- and 1/16-ounce jigs behind the boat, sweeping around and over the tops of the many points and stone outcroppings along this steep bank.
7. Mill Creek
34 49.826 N/088 06.747 W
Moving over to the Mississippi side of Bear Creek, Keil's hotspot No. 7 are the ledges that run off the creek channel at Mill Creek. Accentuating the many breaks in the bottom terrain are numerous stumps and man-made brush piles that dot the bottom of the lake in this general vicinity.
"In the winter, this little cut out in Bear Creek will get more sunlight than the surrounding area," Keil said. "The bottom is also a little shallower, which can be a good thing if there's no wind or water current because the whole area will be a little warmer."
Even if the water isn't substantially warmer, the radiant heat will have the effect of making the crappie a little more active. While this may not be as big a factor in November, it will definitely come into play as the winter progresses.
"November is the beginning of the winter pattern," he said. "On all of these spots, as the water gets colder the crappie will pack in even tighter because even those fish that are late leaving the shallows will be out here after the first of the year."
8. Creek Flat
34 49.935 N/088 06.436 W
With a strong north wind, Keil might skip directly to spot No. 8 on his list because it lies due south of the hard dog leg in the channel above Mill Creek. The spot is hard to miss as it's directly out in front of a huge, sloped, metal-roofed house.
"This place will get better as the water and the weather gets colder," he said. "The deeper water and the humps located on the east side of Mill Creek will hold fish all through the coldest time of the year."
Keil also makes a transition in his bait choices as the water cools off from fall to winter. While live bait is rarely wrong any time of year on Pickwick, it's a must-have starting from November until crappie really become active in the spring; one factor that can spell the difference between a so-so day and a great day on the water is whether you fish with live bait.
Piggy-backing minnows on top of jigs is pretty common, but there are days when, all things equal, the color and action of the jig makes a big difference.
"Hair jigs are popular here on Pickwick," Keil said. "Chartreuse and lime are two favorite colors.
"Another factor is how long the hair is. Some days crappie will just nip the end of the jig, so you want short hair. Other days, the added action of longer marabou works better."
9. Open Water Points
34 50.072 N/088 05.961 W
The last fishing location on Keil's list is a pair of open-water points that comes off the Mississippi side of the lake and curves in from the south. The two points form a gully that runs off the main lake under water.
"The creek channel also runs up against the bank here, so it's pretty steep even into deeper water," Keil said. "The ends of the points will be in water that's 12 to 14 feet deep and drops off to 19 to 20 in the gully.
"I think we're seeing a pattern here - anytime you find low to high, you're likely to find crappie."
10 Rose Trail Ramp
34 51.239 N/088 05.315 W
Rounding out the top 10 is Keil's favorite boating-access area, the Rose Trail ramp located in Colbert County on the Alabama side of the lake. The street address of the park and ramp is 9395 Riverton Rose Trail in Cherokee, Ala.
In addition to the boat launch, the park offers a campground complete with rest rooms, showers and electrical hook-ups.
"This is probably the easiest access to Bear Creek," Keil said, "especially in times of low water during the winter drawdown."