The Little Lake That Could — Tips for fishing Lake Tom Bailey
Lake Tom Bailey might only measure 182 acres in size, but it offers a lot of fishing — from catfish to panfish to lunker bass.
For every stick-up, there is a submerged treetop creating underwater structure to attract fish. This is an especially active area during the crappie spawn.
Just a little east of the city, a little north of I-20, is Lake Tom Bailey — which could be dubbed as "The Little Lake That Could."
You see, Lake Tom Bailey holds the Mississippi State record for the largest channel catfish caught in the state. Tom Edwards landed that behemoth, which weighed a whopping 51 pounds and 12 ounces, in May 1997.
Since that time, the lake has been drained to allow structural work to be done, followed by restocking. Tom Bailey reopened to the public in October 2005, and immediately proved itself as a popular destination for area anglers.
When state lakes go through renovation, they are restocked with bass — both black and Florida strains — bream (bluegill, redear and copper-nose), channel catfish and crappie.
"There are some lakes that are drained, restocked and produce good fish very quickly, while others do not," said David Berry, state fishing lakes manager for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "While the water is down we look for those areas where fish attractors will best serve the public. Attractrs may be concrete blocks, wooden pallets, Christmas trees, brush piles or just a simple gravel spawning bed. Then we indicate these places on lake maps.
"We also build fishing piers for those anglers without boats. Fish attractors are placed within casting distance of the piers, as well."
Catfish are strictly a hook and line pursuit at state lakes. No trot lines, jugs or yo-yos are allowed.
However, that does not mean anglers are limited in bait selections.
Channel catfish are not the picky eaters some of their river cousins are, and they will eat minnows, worms, blood bait and road kill with equal vigor. The more smell the bait has the better it will disperse in the water and the greater the distance the catfish will come to take it.
Donnie Stuart of Pelahatchie is a dedicated fisherman and has a home-made catfish concoction he uses as bait. The bait is simple to make and stores well between trips.
"I use a couple of bags of cheap, red hotdogs, each cut into four chunks" Stuart said. "Place all these in a plastic bag with a bottle of fish oil. Add several tablespoons of minced garlic — not the dehydrated kind, but the moist, really strong-smelling kind. If fish oil is hard to find, substitute a can of mackerel.
"Allow the whole mess to soak for several hours. Unused bait can be stored in the freezer or refrigerator. Just don’t leave in the fridge too long or the wife may be serving it too you as supper."
He said shad also make excellent big-cat bait.
"A lot of time shad will school around boat ramp and piers," said Stuart. "I keep a 6-foot cast net handy to catch a few of these to use against the bigger catfish. The hot-dog baits are great for smaller cats up to around 10 pounds, but the bigger catfish want bigger bait, and a large chunk of cut shad will do the trick.
"A hand-sized chunk of shad head and guts hooked to a 50-pound-test line and fished around the deeper water near the overflow spillway can produce some arm-aching action."
Tom Edwards set a Mississippi record for the largest channel catfish with a 51-pound, 12 ounce behemoth at Tom Bailey in 1997.
The lake is overrun with crappie, and the three tributaries that feed Tom Bailey — Toomsuba Creek, Knox Creek and Sand Branch — are important to catching some of these fish in the summer.
Using a depth finder to locate these deeper troughs, when summer heat forces crappie to seek cooler water, is just one key to success.
"In the spring, the abundant stick-ups all around the lake are magnets for spawning crappie," said Preston Jones of Clarke County. "As spring transitions into summer, the crappie will still hold around the structure, just in deeper water.
"During the hottest periods of summer the crappie seek the most-comfortable thermocline, which is sometimes over the creek beds. This is when a depth finder/fish finder is an essential part of the equation. The fish may be holding at 10 feet in 15 feet of water in the morning, then be a foot or 2 deeper by afternoon."
Jones likes to use a white curly-tailed jig to locate these deeper crappie. When he finds suspended fish, he’ll allow the jig to drop to the bottom, and then dance it toward the surface in small increments.
When the proper depth is determined he counts how many revolutions of his reel he has used to raise the bait and repeats the process.
"Minnows work well, too," said Jones. "But, the lake is to the point of being overpopulated with crappie. They hit a jig or little spinnerbait such as a Beetle Spin so readily that spending money on minnows just seems to be a waste."
The lake record for crappie was a 4-pound slab caught in 2006 by Bobby McDonald.
Of course, bass fishing also is an option at Tom Bailey.
Ray Anthony lives near the lake, and bass fishes there at every opportunity. He finds the fishing rewarding but somewhat a challenge.
"I can always boat a few fish," Anthony said. "But most will be under the slot and have to be returned. That doesn’t bother me too much, since I seldom keep them to eat.
"However, I’ll catch a half-dozen or so over the slot, as well."
Anthony uses a Strike King spinnerbait with gold blades. He will also pull a crankbait.
"Strike King makes a 3/8-ounce spinner bait with a gold head and a gold skirt with a red streak in it," Anthony said. "That has become my go-to bait when I’m bass fishing.
"I fish with what I call a hip-hop — up and down action — or sometimes just a steady retrieve. If the bass are biting, they’ll hit it no matter what."
Anthony has a box of crankbaits, but chooses his specific lure according to what the bass are doing. With shad being plentiful in Tom Bailey, any shad pattern will produce strikes.
"Silver-and-black Rapalas are always good for locating bass, as are Bandit crankbaits," said Anthony. "But one of my favorite times to bass fish is late in the afternoon, when the bass move up.
"The lake is shallow, so the surface action starts once the sun falls below the trees. For the late afternoon, nothing does better than a Pop-R. Keep your rod tip low and give it short little twitches. As soon as it stops, be ready for the strike."
Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’ Tom Holman said that, following renovation, Tom Bailey was restocked with Florida bass in 2004.
There also is a healthy shad population in Tom Bailey, which combined with ample additional forage allows bass to grow at a normal rate.
A 15-inch slot limit requires anglers to return all bass 15-inches and shorter to the lake immediately.
The lake record for bass is 12 pounds, 8 ounces, and was landed by Cliff Bateman in 2007.
Tom Bailey also has long been known as a good bream lake. That reputation remains, with stringers of fat bluegills and redears continung to provide great fun and fine table fare to anglers.
Two fishing piers serve boatless fishermen, as do several earthen structures. Crickets and worms appear to be an equal preference of bream anglers.
"Most of the chinquapin fishermen like to use red worms, tight-lined on the bottom," said Josh Means of Lauderdale. "Crickets are always a favorite for bluegills under a cork.
"Every now and again I’ll get some catalpa worms, and they work out pretty well."
During a trip there earlier in the summer the author managed to catch supper in short order with crickets.
Two fishing piers and earthen structures allow shore anglers good access to excellent bream fishing. Pea gravel spawning beds have been placed all around the lake, and the odor of bedding bream is a giveaway that the bream are spawning.
Biologists say where conditions exist that are conducive to healthy reproduction, bream will bed every month around the time of a full moon — depending on water temperature, of course.
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