Cold Case — Tips for fishing for cold-water crappie
January is no time to sit at home because crappie are beginning to show up in reservoirs across the state. Here’s how to find success in any of these lakes, and particularly at Ross Barnett.
Crappie gather where eddy currents form below the spillway at the Ross Barnett Reservoir. This attracts crappie anglers who fill their limits of slabs in the small areas.
For crappie anglers across the state, however, January marks a time when crappie start to stir in the waters of the reservoirs of the Magnolia State.
Here are some tips for fishing for cold-water crappie.
It has long been a standing joke that a warming spell in January could be attributed to the Mississippi Legislature starting a new session, what with all the "hot air" being tossed about.
But whatever the cause, these warmer days entice some of the first crappie anglers to try their luck in the Pearl River just below the Ross Barnett spillway.
Consider first why the crappie are there and, second, what anglers can do to recharge their larders with fresh fillets.
"The discharge may be slightly warmer and has a higher oxygen content than the water in the main lake," said Tom Holman, fisheries biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks. "A good number of the (crappie) there are as a result of being pulled through the gates into the river.
"Some others may have wintered in the river and are coming upstream to find improved water conditions."
Being somewhat lethargic, the bite can seem slow since the crappie are just not as aggressive during the colder months. But these are the same crappie our northern buddies are pulling out of holes in the ice: A crappie just doesn’t really care how cold the water gets.
"There are eddy currents below the spillway where the perch (a common moniker for crappie) like to hold," said Flowood’s Vance Anding, a regular to the winter fishing scene. "Minnow-tipped jigs work fine here. Some of the more-popular colors include white/chartreuse, red/yellow and yellow with a silver thread.
"I like to use a small minnow because I think the fish will hold it longer, allowing me to get a good hookset."
Anding added there is no questioning that where the currents are on any given day, if the fish are there, the boats will be there, as well.
The spillway has long held a Siren’s song for early crappie anglers. Shore-bound fishermen line the rocks at the water’s edge and cast into the currents with every size and type of gear.
The only boat ramp is located of the west side of the river, and is accessible off the east-bound lane of Spillway Road.
"I’ve seen the time when there were five or six corks between two boats that were scarcely 10 feet apart," Anding said. "But tempers seldom flare the few times lines get fouled. As long as everyone is catching a few fish along, everyone is happy.
"If the river starts a fast rise or fall, you may as well go home. I catch my best fish on a river that has a slow rise."
Above the Dam
On the main lake side of the Ross Barnett Spillway, the assault on the schools of fish takes a slightly different approach. The spider-rigs and deep-running baits are brought into play.
"As simple as it may sound, finding the crappie is the easy part; getting them to take bait is a little more difficult," said Larry Anderson of Grenada. "I find the fish with the aid of a Hummingbird fish finder. They have been as deep as 18 feet and as shallow as 8, depending on the weather.
"Warmer days like we had last winter kept the shad up, and the fish were right there with them. I caught a lot of fish last January in 10 feet of water or less."
Anderson slow trolls his jigs and crankbaits at various depths parallel to the riprap along the dam until he finds a depth/lure/presentation the crappie like.
"As I understand it, the rocks warm faster than soil and remain warmer longer than surface air," Anderson said. "That is why the fish gather here along the dam. I’ve seen the same thing happen at Grenada, and Enid. That’s closer to home, but I have folks here in the Madison area and fishing new water is a good reason to make a visit."
Anderson has also found cold-water crappie in the spillway at Sardis Lake in the area called the Lower Lake, which is part of the Tallahatchie River. Access is good there, and water flow is consistent because the Corps manages the lake for the winter pool.
Being retired, Anderson can watch the weather and water conditions to choose the best days to fish.
"The two things wrong with retirement are: You never get a holiday and can’t call in sick," Anderson said with a hearty grin. "Seriously, consider a day when the lake (Lower Lake) is steady or on a very slow fall or rise. Get as close to the rip-rap as you can or fish the points just downstream of the spillway.
"On more than one occasion I’ve tied on a 3/8-ounce red/yellow Road-Runner and worked the edges of the current with a spinning rod. If the crappie are in there, they will take the bait."
On the very upper end of the Ross Barnett Reservoir is a structure simply called the Low-Head Dam. Access can be made from any point below the structure, but a modern boat launch allows quick access on the Scott County side.
Just as with the spillway below the main lake, the Low-Head produces eddy currents where crappie tend to congregate.
Johnny Lewis of Brandon considers the Low-Head one of his favorite places to fish for crappie.
"I have good luck on the far side (across from the boat ramp) when the water was up high enough to create the large eddy that forms on the outer edge of the river current," Lewis said. "The last time I was catching them, they wanted pink and nothing else.
"It should be noted that the surface current on the upstream side of the eddy travels back toward the dam (and the large volume of water flowing over it). Extreme caution should be used to ensure that the boat has a reliable engine (that will not stall) while maneuvering in and out of the area. Tying the boat off to the available timber above water should be used to moor the boat rather than anchors, which may give way and allow the boat to be pulled toward the dam."
Lewis went on to say the crappie never seem to want the same-color jig. Choosing the preferred color is an exercise in patience, testing first one combination and then another.
"Solid pink was the hot ticket, although partial pink worked, as well," said Lewis. "Where the current would permit, we tight-lined just the tube jig (¼-ounce to 3/8-ounce) at various depths ranging from 2 feet to 5 feet.
"Adding a heavy sinker to match the current, with some jigs on blood loops above the sinker, worked very well in the water flowing from the eddy back toward the dam. It helps to have a heavy enough line to straighten out the jig hooks when you get hung up which, you will. You can then just bend the wire hook back with a pair of needle-nose pliers."
When the bite is on, it doesn’t take long to put a lot of crappie in a box, he said.
"We had three people in the boat and stopped fishing when we had 89 crappie, allowing one fish in the event that we miscounted," Lewis said. "When we pulled the boat out, one of our friendly and hardworking game wardens counted every fish. He congratulated us on a nice harvest of 89 crappie between the three of us.
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