In fact, last month's "As Big As They Grow" crappie column was based on what I expected to happen in that early December tournament. As I recall, I predicted that the tournament would be won pulling crankbaits at Chotard.
Man, I couldn't have missed the mark more badly!
My tournament partner, Tommy Moss, suggested I write a follow-up giving "the rest of the story" or at least a post-script.
Let me tell you what actually happened. In December, on T-day, the weather was beautiful and very mild. In fact, it was "shirt sleeve" weather, and all the tournament competitors enjoyed the great day Mother Nature provided. It is not unusual that weather on T-Day can be good for nothing - except killing ducks. But, Dec. 8 was something special!
Not only was the weather great for fall crappie fishing, but every team competing that day (and I believe the total was 40 teams) had seven good fish - that's the weigh-in limit - to set on the scales. And, brother, I've never seen the likes of heavy weights!
Indeed, the Dec. 8 "fisherman's choice" tournament was one of the best in the last 21 years for every team catching really good fish.
Tommy and I pre-fished on Thursday at Eagle and found some good heavy black crappie on some "shallow" piers. We were especially impressed that we didn't see but one or two other competitors all day Thursday, and to us that was a plus because we didn't feel like we'd have to fight for a spot on T-Day.
Then, on Friday, we went to Chotard to pull crankbaits. I was convinced this cranking strategy would be the ticket for several reasons. One, in the past at Chotard and connecting lake Albermarle, fall crappie had been extremely aggressive over deep water when fishing less than 6 feet deep. My initial plan was to pull 200 series Bandit cranks and show my "doubting Thomas of a partner" that cranks and crappie go together in the fall at Chotard.
Two, it was my humble opinion that Eagle would be extremely crowded with weekend fishermen and that we'd have trouble getting back to the pier-based fish we knew about.
But, what I hadn't figured on was just how bad the fish and the fishing were at Chotard. Look, in early December, Chotard was as low as I'd ever fished it, making the overall body of water seem like a ditch rather than a lake. Getting into Albermarle was almost impossible, and the canal into Tennessee was impassable due to low water and a new higher-than-ever (and I believe, illegal) road build.
In a word, Chotard was "bad." In a word, Eagle was "unbelieveable."
Eagle - Early December
So, when T-day (Dec. 8) rolled around, the lake choice for practically every team was an easy one: Fish Eagle and take your chances with the crowd.
What Tommy and I didn't know was that other pre-fishing teams had found huge white crappie "out in the middle" at the end of Float Row and on down toward Maxwell's Landing - just like it used to be over 10 years ago.
Theory is that when the COE filled Eagle to the brim last year during that 500-year flood, those great big white crappie came in there with the fresh water through the Muddy Bayou Lock. For whatever the reason, the huge white crappie caught out in the middle of the lake beat those really healthy "specks," or black crappie, caught on the ends of the piers.
Tommy and I weren't the only surprised competitors when we got to the scales. Shoot, our "little" 12 ½ pounds didn't measure up to the 14- and 15-pound sacks turned in by the Top 15 money-winning teams. And, we all caught lots of fish.
In fact, I worry that Eagle's overall reconstituted crappie population was and is being hurt by the non-tournament fishermen who seem to be unknowing and uncaring about the legal creel limit on Eagle. Look, I believe the greedy, amoral fishermen killed Eagle 10 years ago by catching and keeping every crappie they could. And, it took years of dedicated and expensive stocking by the MDWFP and a 500-year flood to restore Eagle to its "glory days."
The December tournament was won by Terry Stewart of Clinton - fishing with his 80-plus-year-old dad, Don Stewart of Vicksburg - weighing over 15 pounds of Eagle Lake white crappie. That's right, I said white crappie.
Please, please, please, Mr. Game Warden, get out of the woods and go to Eagle Lake and lock some law-breakers up. Some fishermen are taking hundreds of crappie every day out of the most-wonderful crappie fishery in Mississippi. At the current illegal rate (make that rape) of crappie-catching going on at Eagle, there won't be a single dadgum white or black crappie left to catch next year.
Tell me - why does a man need to carry home 350 crappie on a single day? That's what I heard one local fellow telling another guy in the bait store on Dec. 8.
Tournament fishermen don't hurt a lake's fish population. We're more regulated than any fishermen on the lake by our club rules and our built-in appreciation for what Eagle Lake has produced over the last few years. MCC fishermen would like to see tighter, more-restrictive and enforced laws placed on all crappie lakes in Mississippi. An enforced 12-inch slot limit and a reduction to 20 crappie a day, along with a heavily armed and mean - and I mean "mean" - game warden at every lake exit point would be our preference.
But, regardless of what the future may bring, Eagle was back to being the best crappie lake in the State of Mississippi - at least last fall - and, yeah, that includes Grenada and The Rez and Arkabutla and Sardis and Enid and Washington.
I just hope we can keep it that way.
January - What a difference
Then, like in a dream, we woke to the cold (and rainy) reality of early January for our last tournament. The crappie tournament on Jan. 5 was 180 degrees different - on the same two lakes.
The weather was awful. It was cold during the pre-fishing days, and then it was cold and rained all day on T-Day. The surface temp at Eagle went from the mid-50s to the low 40s in less than a month. The huge bonanza of white and black crappie at Eagle just disappeared; Eagle went from being one of our best tournaments ever to one of our worst tournaments ever in the cycle of one full moon.
And Chotard's water level jumped with rapidly rising Mississippi River water pouring fresh water and, thankfully, shad into the record low, starving lake - not so good for the current bite, but literally a lifesaver for the hungry, "pore," starving, skinny - really skinny, white perch in Chotard/Albermarle/Tennesse compounds.
Tommy and I pre-fished Eagle and Albermarle. We caught more fish in Albermarle, but the quality of fish at Eagle (the few we caught) was so much better that we had to fish Eagle to try to get our seven weigh fish. Man, it was a tough bite on this cold, wet, miserable T-Day.
And, we weren't the only team struggling to catch tournament-size fish. At the weigh-in, held at Chotard Landing Resort, every one was singing the blues.
"If I'd been working outside in weather like this, I would have quit about 8:30 this morning" or "if I'd been on vacation in weather like this, I'd have gone home yesterday" were the basic sentiments of the cold, wet, shivering competitors in the weigh-in line.
Veteran tournament fishermen Rabbit Rogers and Pat Jeffcoats from the Rez caught them as big as they grow and won this miserable event with over 12 pounds. They jig fished a couple of piers "all damn day in the rain" and caught seven big enough to weigh.