I just had one of the best crappie-fishing experiences ever, and I'd like to tell you about it. The Magnolia Crappie Club held the Magnolia State Crappie Championship on beautiful Wolf Lake recently. This was one of the best tournaments in the 16-year history of the state's largest crappie club.

Conditions were perfect. MCC couldn't have picked a better location for this big event. Wolf, an ancient river run (many hundreds of years ago, this was the Yazoo River), holds a great deal of appeal and mystery for me. Very few places in this state can claim the natural beauty this 22-mile-long lake presents. Giant cypress trees that are over 700 years old line the banks.

These wooden giants are draped with lots of Spanish moss, and tell a story that can only be heard when you listen closely. This idyllic setting comes complete with some of the biggest catfish and spoonbills you've ever seen rising to surface at sunup each morning. And then the blue herons, the hawks and the ospreys show up fishing and hunting the banks and shallows. Listen closely, and you'll hear the mournful calls of owls, then doves and giant, as big as they grow, bullfrogs.

I'm telling you. They should charge admission for a show like this!

Leading up to the two-day event, the 35 qualifying teams realized so much pre-fishing success that they were chomping at the bit to compete for the championship trophies and the year-long bragging rights that go with them. It seemed this old lake had been rejuvenated by weeks of high water. The flood water came into the lake this spring, and refreshed and replenished the whole thing. Indeed, Wolf was a different place altogether this year with clear water and bigger-than-normal crappie.

MCC has always had some sort of big event at the end of the tournament season. Last year, MCC started calling this annual two-day event the Magnolia State Crappie Championship tournament. Interestingly, MCC charges the participants no entry fee for this very prestigious event. To get into the championship, teams must have competed in a minimum of eight regular tournaments during the MCC season - October through May. A total of 10 regular tournaments were fished this past season.

In the championship, teams weighed their best seven crappie from days 1 and 2. There were no carryover scores from the first to the second day. On day 2, all teams started at zero. The top 20 weights from each day shared in one of the club's largest payouts ever - more than $23,000, according to tournament officials.

Not bad pay for catching seven slabs!

The team with the heaviest two-day total weight was declared state champions.

The Magnolia State Crappie Champs are Doug Hollingsworth and Bobby Clark from Decatur and Newton, respectively. This veteran MCC team scored second place on day 1 with a weight of 10.06 pounds. Their day 2 weight was 9.15 pounds, and good enough for seventh place. Combined, their total tournament weight was 19.21 pounds.

It was close, folks. Taking second place for the event was the Brandon duo of Tommy Moss and Jim McKay (19.05 pounds). After seeing me catch fish trolling crankbaits on a pre-fishing day, Moss and McKay begged me to let them have a few Bandits out of my tackle box. Every fish they caught the next two days came on crankbaits they borrowed from me.

Hey, I think they owe me half their winnings, don't you? What's the on-the-water rate for borrowing crank baits anyway?

I was there, and I can tell you this tournament was filled with lots of twists, turns and excitement. The seven fish weigh-in limit brought every team into contention right from the get-go. Before the first outboard was cranked or the first "Get the net, get the net" ever hollered, every team knew this tournament would end with some of the closest weights we'd ever seen.

Put another way, any of us could lose it. Any mistake, any missed big fish, any boat or equipment problem could be the difference between winning a big check and the coveted trophies or just making the "also-ran" list.

You've got to understand: All 35 teams worked hard all season long to get to this point, and every team was on the top of its game. And it seemed the fish were everywhere in great numbers. We'd never seen Wolf produce so many big fish.

We knew that bringing seven fish to the scales would be no problem. Teams who could weigh a "kicker fish" or two each day would rule.

Gil Woodis of Brandon and I have been partners for years. We hit the tournament lake with great anticipation and expectation of winning this event. Full of confidence and certainty in our game plan, Gil and I had seven weighers in the livewell in nothing flat that first morning.

We began the chore of trying to upgrade or cull toward the 10-pound daily goal we'd set for ourselves. We moved. We tried different tactics and baits. We fished fast. We fished slow. We went deep. We shortened up. We searched for one sweet spot, one big fish.

Finally, we pulled into a spot we knew had always produced for us. Stealthily, skillfully I pulled the drift poles over a favorite underwater top we knew held good fish. Quiet now! This is the place.

There was the telltale bite of a big fish - a "lift bite" - on one of my long poles. We both saw it, and we both sprang into action, expertly handling our respective jobs like the real pro-fessionals we are. I grabbed for the pole, and, at the same time, Gil grabbed the net. We said nothing.

We knew, we just knew from the way the fish bit, this was the one we'd been fishing for all day. We did every thing right. Still, we never stood a chance at landing what I conservatively estimated to have been a 2 1/2-pound white perch. After such a subtle bite, she exploded on the end of my short string on that 14-foot pole and, then, she was gone.

I know, I know. The big ones always get away. I know they look bigger in the water than they do on the scales. Trust me, folks. That Big Momma was as big as they grow, and would have put us in contention for the top spot on day 1.

As it was, Gil and I finished in 22nd place on day 1 and in ninth place on day 2. We changed our tactics after mid-morning on day 2, and trolled the banks with Bandit 200s bumping the underwater structure and catching bigger fish.

We were surprised (and proud) to learn that overall we landed in 13th place. The big one that got away would not have won it for us, but it would have put us in the top 5 overall, and just that one fish would have sweetened our payout by more than $700.

One fish, one missed fish, made all the difference in the world to the Johnson/Woodis team. No sour grapes, though, I promise. After all was said and done, after I recovered (a few days later), I have to admit I wouldn't have done anything differently. What a blast!

I can't wait for the new season to start in October.