Mother Nature can be a fickle mistress. One summer you get no love from the clouds, and the next year they won’t stop pouring rain.
If you’re a crappie angler in northwestern Mississippi, that’s a double whammy. Extended periods with no water dropped Lake Arkabutla to less-than-desirable levels, and then after acres of scrub brush and vegetation filled in, the copious summer rains have used them to hide crappie.
“This was one of the slowest summers I’ve seen in a long time for Arkabutla,” veteran fishing guide John Woods said. “It wasn’t that the crappie are gone, but it’s been like the rest of these lakes — there’s so much vegetation in the water now and so much water on top of it (that) crappie can be anywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
Fortunately, a reversal of that trend is underway as the Army Corps of Engineers — not Mother Nature — has taken over the task of managing water levels at Arkabutla.
On most lakes and reservoirs around the state, crappie anglers this month would be spending their time finding the deepest water available and working around some type of structure to catch crappie. Patterns on Arkabutla, however, are more akin to spring patterns than summer: Anglers need to come prepared to fish shallow water and cover lots of ground.
By the end of September, cooler overnight temperatures and shortening days can bring some relief to the summer heat, and things start to change.
Arkabutla Lake is one of four flood damage reduction reservoirs in northern Mississippi. Located less than 30 minutes south of the Tennessee state line, it is the only U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project (aside from the Mississippi River) in the Memphis metropolitan area. The lake has a summer recreational pool of just over 11,000 acres, and when drawn down to its conservation pool during the winter, Arkabutla can cover less than half that amount. This translates into widespread fluctuations in water levels and lends a few clues as to why the lake doesn’t fish like some of the other flood-control impoundments.
But pro tournament anglers Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman from across the state line in Tiptonville, Tenn., love to fish Arkabutla during the fall. The main reason is that the pair somewhat stumbled upon a pattern that has won them several fall tournaments on the lake.
“Typically, in the fall, everybody wants to fish the main lake using tactics that vary from crankbaiting to long-lining to minnow rigging — a lot of speed techniques,” Ronnie Capps said. “But the Corps pulls the plug on the lake in the fall, and the levels start dropping. People think you have to move deeper to find fish, but as it goes down crappie like to stay shallow.
“There is way more food for them; the water’s way more fertile; there’s just healthier fish in shallower water if you can find the places they settle into.”
Capps recounted a fall tournament several years ago when he and Coleman won a Crappie Masters event hands down because they were they only competitors fishing the backwater shallows at Arkabutla.
“We were on the Coldwater section up the Coldwater River,” Capps said. “As the water drains from Arkabutla, it gets shallow where the river flows into it; there’s a lot of small ditches that basically flow like veins. The Coldwater River spreads out into a whole bunch of different little drainage ditches. They remind me of veins because they’re tiny and almost equal in depth.”
The pair found receding, shallow water along these ditches that had an average depth of a 1 1/2 feet on the top of the ditch before falling into 2 ½ to 3 feet of water in the bottom. As the water was dropping, the duo discovered that crappie were staggered all along the drains leading back into deeper water in the lake, ambushing baitfish along the way.
“The crappie were in no hurry to fly down those drains to deep water,” Capps said. “Why would they? The water temperature was around 70, and they had plenty of bait to eat and all the cover they wanted. There was a lot of remnant weed growth from drought a few years back. I’m talking good fish, too.
“The fish we were catching were a lot healthier than the fish that were caught down the lake. Our fish had been gobbling up bait all summer long, and they were fat as you’d ever want outside a prespawn fish.”
To catch their fish, Capps and Coleman employed the multiple-rod, tight-lining method they’ve used for the last 20 years that has garnered the team their seven National Crappie Championships; however, because of the close quarters, the duo had to make a few modifications.
“What we did was push a 1/16-ounce jig on 6-pound line right up the middle of those fingers,” Capps said. “Instead of a double hook minnow rig, we only used one bait — the jig — but tipped it with a minnow.”
Navigating the shallow water rivulets and winding turns was harder than the pair imagined, especially using multiple rods. In order to get a few rods perfectly positioned, some of the rods were nearly dragging across dry ground, but perseverance paid off in big dividends at the end of the tournament.
“Some of those places were no wider than the boat,” Capps said. “We were fishing with six rods, and two or three of them would be running up near the bank on top of the drain at all times. It’s hard to keep your boat right in the middle of (a drain), but you can count on that (being) where the fish will be.
“It’s a lot easier to visualize if you get an aerial photo of the lake when it’s dried up; then you can see all those little fingers winding down.”
Because of the slow summer fishing, Woods said he was looking forward to the upcoming fall on Arkabutla. He said the water in the lake is clearer than usual and, like the scenario described by Capps, low water levels from the previous year have allowed plenty of cover to grow up.
All he needs now is for the water to start falling.
“When the water starts falling, the crappie fishing at Arkabutla will turn on like a light switch,” Woods said. “The fish will start pulling out of those weed pockets where they’ve been laid up gorging on shad all summer, and they’ll start moving down the lake toward deeper water.”
Like Capps and Coleman, Woods targets ditches, low spots and depressions along the course back down the lake, where crappie will hole up to ambush prey. He also likes to slow-troll combinations of minnows and jigs, and will even go to straight minnows at times.
“The water is cooling off and the fish won’t chase bait like they would in warmer conditions,” Woods said. “I’d plan on targeting fish to start in about 5 to 7 feet of water and then adjust either deeper or shallower depending on what you find.”
Woods also suggested setting trolling poles out the front of the boat at a depth of 3 to 5 feet when fishing in 7 feet of water or 2 to 4 feet when the boat is in 5 feet of water.
Finally, the experts agreed that wading for crappie or using a small boat to get shallow should result in fish if anglers concentrate on the basic concept of intercepting fish in shallow-water areas as they leave heavy cover and pull back to deeper water as the lake levels recede.
How to Get There
The northernmost of the I-55 corridor lakes, Arkabutla is located 12 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., and 13 miles west of Hernando, Miss., on Scenic Loop 304.
For a complete listing of available public boat ramps and launches on Arkabutla, log onto www.mdwfp.com/fishing-boating/ramps-piers.aspx.
While summer fishing at Arkabutla has been slow due to the additional acreage of flooded vegetation, expert crappie anglers John Woods and Ronnie Capps expect to see crappie fishing improve significantly as the USACE drops the water level from summer pool to winter pool.
Receding water will draw fish out of heavy cover, and put them in ditches and rivulets that have slightly deeper water than the rest of the upper lake flats.
In order to target these receding-water crappie, both experts recommend trolling minnows or jigs or a combination of the two from the front of the boat. Plan on setting your baits a foot or 2 off the bottom, and target water from 3 to 7 feet deep.
Using a kayak or, where possible, wading the winding ditches at the upper end of the lake is another way to access super-shallow fish.
Arkabutla Lake has a five-pole limit per angler. In addition, there is a 12-inch size limit and a 20-fish daily creel on crappie.
DeSoto County CVB, 662-393-8770, www.sodesoto.com
John Woods, 731-334-9669, www.crappie101.com/crappie/john-woods-guide-service.
Delorme Mississippi Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105 www.delorme.com
Fishing Hot Spots, 1-800-ALL-MAPS, www.fishinghotspots.com
Navionics Electronic Charts, 1-800-848-5896 www.navionics.com