John Harrison waded slowly until he was a pole’s reach of a flooded cypress tree before easing a jig into the knees and roots.
Wham! A Grenada Lake slab crappie nailed it.
Harrison set the hook and quickly landed the fish and put it in the supper well. Seconds later he was probing the cypress roots again, this time swimming the jig pretty fast.
Wham! Another crappie, this one a male wearing his black spawning suit, inhaled the jig and Harrison made quick work of it.
When it comes to catching pre-spawn crappie there are several techniques that work for anglers, but for John Harrison, operator of J H Guide Service, it means getting in shallow and working in tight quarters.
“I have two War Eagle boats, one that I use for trolling, and the other one, a much smaller 15-foot boat that I can maneuver in the shallow water and work my jig in and around shallow water cover,” Harrison said.
But what determines whether Harrison stays in the boat, or hops out for a stealthy wade to get his Grenada Lake crappie?
“When the water is up in the bushes in March, you may have to get out and wade to reach the crappie when they’re scattered in the buck brush and button bushes,” said Harrison. “That’s when I get out and wade into the thick brush and pick the brush apart with my jigs. The ideal water level for wading occurs when the water level reaches 217 feet or above.”
Harrison, an avid tournament angler, was the Magnolia State Champion two years ago and finished runner up last year. He fishes 12 months out of the year now, which gives him a greater perspective of what the fish are doing any time.
“If you know the right places on Grenada, you can limit out in 30 minutes or less,” Harrison said. “Once those males get into the pre-spawn mode and they’ve gone shallow, the weather won’t affect them very much.”
That kind of action is not limited to that one lake. It is available at all four of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control lakes that sit just off Interstate 55 between Grenada and Memphis.
North Mississippi’s Big 4
North Mississippi is home to several prolific crappie lakes including (north to south) Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid and Grenada.
“I fish all of the flood control lakes and they’re all the same,” said Harrison. “You have the same pre-spawn patterns on all of the lakes.”
The timing of the spawn is the only thing that varies, he said. And most of the lakes have Cypress trees, ironwood, and some type of grass and buck brush where the fish congregate.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that the spawn and pre-spawn can vary from year to year depending upon the water temperature and weather conditions,” Harrison said. “Some people want to go by the calendar and think that the spawn will begin the last week in March, or whatever is the traditional time. But that’s not always the case.”
And, he said, the crappie can turn on and head to the spawning areas overnight.
“If we have a few warm days when the temperature doesn’t fall back into the freezing range at nights it can happen real quick,” said Harrison. “When the water temperature reaches into the 50s, say 52 to 57 the black males head to their pre-spawn areas and get ready for the females and that’s when I head shallow.
“It can change overnight and be over fast, so I fish every day through March and April until it’s over.”
Those males will move in first and congregate around old stumps, grass, and anything they can find in the shallows, in 1 to 3 feet of water according to Harrison. While some people like to fish a little further out and catch the pre-spawn females, Harrison concentrates on the males first, as they are easy to find and they’re aggressive and eager to thump a jig.
“I like to wade a lot and I fish for the shallow water males with a single pole, an 11-foot B’n’M Ultra-light, with 8-pound test line and a Mr. Twister blue and white, or chartreuse and black Sassy Shad,” Harrison said. “Sometimes you have to keep that jig in the water and on the move and you’ll pick one or two crappie off of each stump or tree.
“If you’re the first to hit a cypress tree, or a place where there’s two or three trees close together, you may catch 8 or 10 and I have limited out and caught 20 or more without moving.”
Last year Harrison’s best Grenada Lake crappie was a 3.21 pound monster that he caught on a straight pole with jig a Sassy Shad in 5 feet of water in a stump field. The single pole rig gives him the ability to get tight and work that lure in places where trolling won’t work.
One good thing about the spawn and pre-spawn is the extended time frame on a lake as big as Grenada, according to Harrison.
“All of the fish don’t spawn at the same time,” he said. “The north side warms up quicker than the south and every cove might have a variance in water temperature, which controls the spawn and pre-spawn movements.”
And that’s a good thing for the anglers as it extends both the pre-spawn and spawn fishing. If the entire lake’s crappie population spawned at the same time it could be over before some people have a chance to get in on the action.
“I’ll work one area over until the bite cools down and then head to another area of the lake and keep up with them until all the areas have spawned out,” Harrison said.
Harrison is a highly sought after guide and books guiding trips year round with many anglers from around the country. He has a tight schedule, but is available for some guiding trips. “I have a few dates left open for this year, but most are already booked,” Harrison said. For more information on fishing Grenada, or securing a guide, contact John Harrison at 662-983-5999.”
Don’t overlook Okatibbee
Scott Vance scanned his LCR and maneuvered along the submerged creek channel in Okatibbee Lake about 15 miles west of Meridian, working jigs tipped with crappie niblets in 9 feet of water. Suddenly, a rod surged downward and a magnum-sized crappie struck hard.
Vance, of Collinsville, set the hook and started the fish towards the boat. The massive crappie fought like a lunker bass, thrashing from side to side in a valiant effort to rid itself of the stinging hook. Vance finally wore the papermouth down just long enough to net it and put it in the boat.
“That was the largest crappie I caught on Okatibbee last year and he went 2 pounds, 3 ounces,” said Vance. Though that wouldn’t be unusual by Sardis and Grenada Lakes standards, it was a bona fide monster for Okatibbee Lake, a much smaller flood control project.
Vance usually spends a couple weeks or more at the world famous Grenada Lake fishery fishing for pre-spawn crappie, but is able to fish the 3,800-acre Okatibbee just a few miles from his home.
“Last year I caught five that weighed over two pounds during the spring at Okatibbee Lake,” Vance said. “I hadn’t done that in a long time, but I think it’s a result of taking the 10-inch minimum off of the crappie at Okatibbee. The lake was overpopulated with small fish so it has really helped the crappie fishing by taking out a lot of the smaller ones.”
Vance likes to fish for pre-spawn and spawning crappie, but he takes a slight different approach than the traditional shallow water crappie angler.
“I like to fish the drop offs near the spawning areas and I’ll usually work the creek channels in 9 to 10 feet depths and push jigs tipped with minnows, or crappie nibbles while working from stump to stump,” Vance said. “My fishing partner, Steve Jordan, caught many bass on the lake’s submerged stumps and creek channels and won many tournaments back in his younger years and now we’ve put that knowledge of the lake’s bottom to use crappie fishing.
“I’ve got an aerial map of the lake taken when it was drained down real low the last time, and we’ll use that along with GPS coordinates of the creek channels and stumps when searching for crappie.”
In fact, Vance targets pre-spawn and spawning crappie that stage on the submerged creek drop-off areas along stumps and even on stumps.
“The larger crappie will spawn deeper, so I never go shallower than 7 to 8 feet deep,” said Vance. “And we’ll catch them 3 to 5 feet deep over the stump beds and sometimes even catch spawning crappie in 9 feet of water. I’ve caught spawning perch off of stumps 9 feet deep and they’ll have eggs running out of them when I bring them in.
“Most of the folks will head to the shallowest water that they can find, but we’ll work the creek channels and ledges and catch a lot of pre-spawn fish that are staging while other fish are spawning. There’s always a transition during March and the fish are in all stages of spawning, both pre- and post-spawn and we’re hitting areas that aren’t beat to death.”
Vance always on the move
“I like to troll, so I have two four-pole holders side by side, where both fishermen can fish side by side,” said Vance. “Now on Grenada and some other lakes you can only use 3 per person, but if we have 4 per person we can cover 28 feet of water as we fish.”
Some call it trolling, spider-rigging or, as Vance calls it, “pushing,” but whatever you call the technique it’s very popular and effective. While most people think this is a deep-water technique, Vance employs it in all situations, except during periods of high wind that limits fishing to certain areas. And it’s surprisingly effective when the fish are relatively shallow, as they will be during times of low water and during the spring.
“I’ll use a single rig with one hook and one egg sinker on each pole sometimes, and I also use a double rig with the jigs about 12 inches apart,” said Vance. “Many people prefer the double rig on Grenada and other flood control lakes. But if I’m fishing a shallow stump filled flat, I like to use the single rig because you won’t get hung up as much.”
One obvious advantage of the double rig is a better chance of locating the exact depth that fish are located.
“If you catch more on the bottom hook then you’re probably fishing too shallow and you can fish deeper,” he said. “And if they’re hitting the top hook, you may want to fish shallower. The crappie will move up and strike a jig or minnow above them, but they usually won’t move down and hit something below them, as they’re looking up for food.”
Once you find the right depth then you can just keep your lures in the water and cover a lot of water while fishing similar areas around the lake.
Vance’s lure choices
“It’s usually colder during March and the fish hit real light, so I won’t even fish without tipping the jigs with minnows, or crappie niblets,” said Vance. “The scent helps the fish hold onto the lure a little longer and sometimes that’s all it takes to get a hook in them.”
Vance makes his own lures for himself and friends and calls his creations Southern Sickle Jigs.
“I tie my own jigs and use the red Matsu sickle hooks because they’re really sharp and they have a sharper bend and a smaller barb and they usually catch more fish, and that’s important when the bite is light and tough to feel,” Vance said. “On Okatibbee I’ll use a No. 1 or No. 2 hook, but I’ll move up to a 1/0 or 2/0 hook on Grenada where they have the really large crappie with most of them being over 12-inches.”
Vance uses rabbit fur for the tails and cuts about a ¼-inch wide strip that pulsates and gives it more action. It’s more durable than marabou and will last longer even with multiple strikes.
“Orange and chartreuse are my go-to colors on the flood control lakes because they’re usually stained in the spring,” he said. “I’ll use either of those colors, or a combination of the two, as well as an Electric Chicken color, which is really deadly. It’s a fluorescent pink and chartreuse color and it’s really productive, too.”
Hot Grenada action
When it comes to fishing flood control lakes, Grenada Lake is Vance’s favorite crappie lake, touted by many as the world’s best crappie lake. And Vance has sampled some of the lake’s biggest crappie during his pre-spawn excursions in March.
“We have a get together each March and I’ll stay a couple weeks and fish with some of my crappie fishing buddies from Crappie.com from all over,” Vance said. “Crappie.com is a forum for crappie fishermen and we’ve become friends and really talk about how to find and catch crappie, really anything to do with crappie fishing.
“During the pre-spawn in March I’ll start out in the flats 3 to 5 feet deep and search for crappie,” Vance said. “Once we find the depth and area that the fish are located we’ll set our poles at that depth and troll, maybe a mile in a straight line catching crappie all along the submerged stumps. The fish will be scattered along the flats and stump fields, so we cover a lot of water and once we quit catching them we’ll move back and fish through the area again.”
It can be crowded on Grenada, but Vance’s preference for deeper water gives him solitude as the spawn progresses.
“There may be 100 boats scattered out around you, but once the spawn starts most people will go to the bank,” Vance said. “We limited out several times on our Grenada trip last year during the March pre-spawn.”
On big lakes like Grenada the wind also has a lot to do with your fishing success and techniques.
“Sometimes we’ll drag chains, or drift socks, to slow the boat down in the wind,” said Vance. “We like to use a 4-foot, ½-inch chain, on the end of a 50-foot rope and just let the wind carry us through those areas while we catch fish off of the stumps.
“The same patterns will translate to other areas of the lake as the males have their own spots and they will be scattered and getting ready for the female spawn,” said Vance. “That’s when you’ll find them ripe for the picking.”
If you’re looking for some of the finest pre-spawn fishing in the Southeast then look no further than Mississippi’s famous flood control lakes for fast and furious springtime crappie fishing. It just doesn’t get any better, or the fish any bigger, than right here at home.