Come together ó Why Ross Barnett Reservoirís old bass-fishing holes are producing again

Ross Barnettís vegetation-control program has long been a point of contention. But anglers are now working with managers to provide access to some historically productive bass holes.

Chris Ginn
March 01, 2013 at 7:00 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Mike Murphy says bass stack up on the Rankin County side of Ross Barnett during March because of its hard, sandy bottom.
Chris Ginn
Mike Murphy says bass stack up on the Rankin County side of Ross Barnett during March because of its hard, sandy bottom.
Common ground isnít so common anymore.

Politics empowers us to believe our side is always right.

Race self segregates us to those we look most like.

Religion splits us off into any number of groups that believe ours is the only way.

So is it any wonder bass anglers and those looking to kill the No. 1 bass attractor in Ross Barnett Reservoir might not always have seen eye to eye?

According to long-time Jackson outdoor writer Bobby Cleveland, change is afoot along the sprawling reservoir that separates Madison and Rankin counties.

Cleveland has been acting as a liaison of sorts between Ross Barnett user groups and reservoir management.

"There has long been contention between fishermen and the reservoir about spraying the grass," Cleveland admitted. "Iím working as a go-between to heal some of those old wounds and get everybody working on the same page."

Not too long ago, Cleveland got a few local bass anglers known for fishing the vegetation to come together and form a committee to meet with Ross Barnett Reservoir management.

The general consensus among these anglers was that there needed to be some spraying, but they wanted the reservoir to reconsider where they were spraying.

"Thatís what weíre working toward now," Cleveland said. "The fishermen brought up that, rather than just going down the edge of the river spraying, the reservoir should consider looking at some of the backwater areas that have been completely lost because they have been choked out with vegetation."

Upon further inspection, there were so many areas that had been lost to impenetrable grassy jungles that it was hard for anyone to decide where to spray.

Mississippi State University, which sends grad students to continually survey the reservoir for vegetation and make recommendations about what needs to be sprayed, decided to focus primarily on Twin Sisters.

"One of the most-popular fishing areas on the entire reservoir was entirely choked off with grass," Cleveland pointed out. "The first tournament I covered on Barnett in the í80s was won at Twin Sisters by fishing the pad stems with spinnerbaits. Thatís how popular the area has been."

The area was so choked off with native and non-native grasses that hardly any life could exist in Twin Sisters. Fish just couldnít live in there, and alligators probably thought twice before taking up residence in the famous oxbow lake.

Because all the grass on the surface dies and goes to the bottom, where it decreases oxygen levels in the water as it decays, Mississippi State decided to spray Twin Sisters aggressively so they could use it to determine how fast the area would heal.

From everything Cleveland has seen and heard, the spraying has had a positive effect.

"I went to Twin Sisters a month before they sprayed it and couldnít go 6 feet inside the main cut," he recalled. "Two months after they sprayed, I went back and could go all the way around it back to where I started, so it has opened back up."

Kenny Churchill, co-owner of Performance Outboards on the lake, is one tournament angler who has spent a lot of time fishing the as-of-now inaccessible backwaters north of the Highway 43 bridge.

"A lot of places we used to fish up there have been unfishable for so long, especially Twin Sisters," Churchill lamented. "Those backwaters had a lot of wood, creek channels and pockets that are totally gone. Theyíre trying to get that back."

Churchill is a little excited that he now might be able to fish some of the spots that have helped him take home lots of bass-tournament winnings over the years.

"All that vegetation has narrowed down the water we can fish," Churchill explained. "There werenít as many spots to get into up there, and what little there was started getting more and more pressure as boats started piling up on each other."

With areas like Twin Sisters now accessible this spring, Churchill canít wait to head up there and see if he can find some fish that havenít seen a bait in long time.

"Thanks to the spraying, if somebody can get back into some water this year that they havenít been able to fish for several years and fish some of their old, favorite ways, thereís no telling what they might be able to catch ó maybe even relive some of their glory days."

Many anglers, though, are going to resign themselves to the fact that they need to fish the Rankin County side of the lake, anywhere from Safe Harbor all the way down to Fannin Landing.

And, according to American Bass Anglers District 129 Tournament Director Mike Murphy, thatís not all that bad of a decision.

"The entire Rankin County side of the reservoir has always been a good bet for springtime fishing because of its hard, sandy bottom," Murphy said. "I like to go up the river and fish the vegetation, but many of the grass points that bass stage on as they move into the shallow pockets are gone."

Therefore, anglers used to fishing some of the smaller patches of grass might just find their favorite holes devoid of vegetation when they show up this spring if it happens to be a spot on the spray schedule or if it was spotted on a day they were spraying.

If you find yourself in this situation, Murphy said your best bet will be to move back on the flats like Cane Creek.

"The fish are going to move back in spots like Cane to spawn," Murphy explained. "But it really all depends on the water level in spring. They keep the level down during spring because the lake can rise so quickly, but bass are going to move up as far as they can."

With the possibility that your favorite patch of grass now might be gone, Murphy and Churchill suggested turning your attention to wood. Both anglers pointed to stumps that have a little deeper water nearby.

"When I say water, I mean maybe 3 or 4 feet of water next to a stump sitting in 1 foot (of water)," Murphy pointed out. "Theyíll hold on those stumps sitting right on the drops, and if itís a sandy-enough bottom, they wonít move any farther back; theyíll spawn right there."

Both anglers rely almost exclusively on spinnerbaits for March fishing around the stumps. Murphy estimated that he fishes a spinnerbait about 80 percent of the time, and Churchill isnít too far behind.

"You can cover a lot of water with a spinnerbait," Churchill said. "The only other two things I might use during the spring would be a Rat-L-Trap and maybe a buzzbait.

"But if things get really slow, I might flip a lizard."

One of the benefits of a spinnerbait on the wood flats is that anglers can fish them anywhere from the top all the way to the bottom.

Murphy often begins fishing a chartreuse or chartreuse-and-white BOOYAH spinnerbait up near the surface to check for active fish before slowing it down and slow-rolling the bottom for more lethargic bass.

"You can do so many things with the spinnerbait, and it is relatively weedless," Murphy explained. "You can run it through vegetation or bump a stump and it doesnít get hung up a lot. A Trap would stay hung."

Like Churchill, Murphy will lay down his spinnerbait only if bass have proven they donít want to eat it. Then he turns to a Trap.

But he especially loves a buzzbait if the water is warm enough.

"You may not get as many strikes on the buzzbait as you would the spinnerbait or a Trap, but youíre likely to catch bigger 3-, 4- or 5-pound bass ó even bigger than that sometimes," Murphy said.

Finding stumps sitting on a drop-off with the added bonus of a little grass around them sweetens the deal for Churchill and Murphy. However, neither angler is going to leave fish on bare stumps to go look for fish on stumps surrounded by grass.

"Whether youíve got the grass or not, bass are going to the wood," Murphy said. "I like fishing grass, but if itís gone because they sprayed it, Iím not going to change anything about the way I fish during the spring."

The presence of grass might sweeten things, but neither Churchill nor Murphy are going to be bitter if itís not there.

Learning to find common ground sometimes means being willing to make concessions and adjust your own way of thinking to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

And being part of the solution means being able to get into some old holes you havenít been able to fish in a long time, while at the same time learning how to fish the fish rather than those old holes.

That sounds like something that can bring all of us together.

Although he keeps a spinnerbait, buzzbait and lipless crankbait handy, Mike Murphy reaches for his spinnerbait when he has to have a bite.
Although he keeps a spinnerbait, buzzbait and lipless crankbait handy, Mike Murphy reaches for his spinnerbait when he has to have a bite.
Vegetation or not, bass will invade Cane Creek during March as shallow as the water level will permit.
If you can find a stump with a little grass around it, odds are that stump will hold a fish.
The general consensus among bass tournament anglers working with reservoir management is that there needs to be some spraying but that spraying locations should be reconsidered.
       





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