"You can tell it's starting to turn winter around here," laughs Tim Carpenter, owner of Eagle Lake Lodge and Outfitters near Vicksburg. "That's when all the crappie fishermen show up."

Eagle Lake is one of several productive winter crappie delta lakes located just north of Vicksburg. Unlike many of the other oxbows, Eagle is no longer connected to the Mississippi, having been dammed off from the river more than 50 years ago, and must rely on water flow from Steele Bayou for its water.

Due north of Eagle Lake is a chain of smaller oxbow impoundments that connect with each other and the Mississippi River if water levels are conducive. Chotard, Albermarle, Tennessee and Airplane lakes are all oxbows that rely on the Mississippi for freshwater supplies, and access to the latter two bodies is only advisable if the river level on the Vicksburg gauge is at least 20 feet.

While both Eagle Lake and Chotard offer productive crappie fishing patterns year round, the names of these two fisheries always come up in the late fall and winter as some of the best crappie
venues in the state when the water gets the coldest.

Mississippi Sportsman talked to two veteran crappie anglers to get their take on how to fish these delta lakes.

Eagle Lake

Having served as an officer in one capacity or another with the Magnolia Crappie Club over the last nine years, Kenny Blackwell of Vicksburg loves to fish Eagle Lake in the winter. He indicated that the crappie fishery in Eagle has changed over the years, having evolved into a black crappie fishery in a lake once dominated by white crappie.

"Most of the crappie in Eagle now are specks where there used to be mostly white perch in the lake," he said. "Either way, I believe the wintertime fishing gets really good on Eagle because as the water gets colder all the threadfin shad bunch up in the deeper water, and anywhere you can find structure that's got baitfish around it, you're going to catch some fish."

Blackwell indicated that a lack of deep-water structure in Eagle Lake had been a problem over the years, and resulted in a joint effort between the Magnolia Crappie Club and the MDWFP to build and install fish attractors in the lake.

Blackwell likes to vertically fish trolling rods with two hook sites per rod over the top of deepwater structure. His choice of baits for this time of year is almost always live medium minnows, but he will occasionally use a plastic jig that he tips with a live minnow.

"There's an area between the two islands, the bigger island is called Belle Island but most of the anglers just refer to them as big and little island," said Blackwell, "and that's where most of the action is this time of year. The water depth in these areas gets deep - some places may be 35 feet deep."

Additional locations, other than the artificial reefs created by the MCC, are piers and pilings along the south end of the lake. This area is commonly referred to as "Float Row" due to the number of both private and publicly owned piers. Many of the local landowners have placed brush tops in the water around these long piers, and the added structure is known to attract and hold both baitfish and crappie through December.

A lot of factors have changed the face of the crappie fishery on Eagle Lake, with opinions varying on the cause. Some anglers blame a decline of the fishery in the past due to increased angling pressure, while others point out that the crappie have started behaving differently since hybrid striped bass were introduced into Eagle more than 10 years ago.

One of the most critical factors, according to fisheries biologist John Skains is water quality.

"We've always had a spawning problem in Eagle for a lot of game fish - either due to lack of suitable habitat or low water," he said. "The water levels typically have to get up on the islands in order for there to be access to the best shallow water spawning habitat, and we haven't gotten there even when everywhere else was flooding this spring."

Water enters into Eagle Lake via a concrete gate known as the Muddy Bayou structure. Water filters into Eagle from Steele Bayou through this gate. One of the problems with releasing too much water into Eagle from Steele Bayou is a high pesticide and silt load that has been found in the bayou.

"We're working with the Army Corps of Engineers to get better water quality in Steele Bayou, and cleaning that water up will help out a lot when it comes into Eagle Lake," Skains said.

Chotard Lake

Just 2½ miles as the crow flies from the north end of Eagle Lake and approximately six miles if you are driving up Highway 465 is Chotard Lake. Water clarity as well as stable water levels are keys to catching crappie on Chotard, and one theory as to why the crappie fishing is so good in the winter is that the water quality is typically the most stable in terms of rainfall and water levels in the Mississippi.

Add to this the fact that Chotard is absolutely loaded with baitfish, and you have the makings for some outstanding crappie fishing.

Morris King is a well-known crappie tournament fisherman who also splits time helping to promote the Crappie Masters Tournament Trail. A resident of Pearl and fond of fishing his home lake of Ross Barnett most of the time, King will pack up and head west to Vickburg when the weather turns cold in December.

"If the river is rising during the winter, I'll usually stay home and fish Barnett," he said. "I like to fish Chotard and the other oxbows that connect to the north when the Vicksburg gauge shows the water level to be at least 18 feet and steady.

"Chotard is better when the water is high because more water brings in more crappie, more bait, and it gets colder quicker."

King indicated that the water has to be real cold to turn the fish on at Chotard. When that happens, he'll find crappie holding along the old river ledge 12 to 14 feet deep. He said that for all but the spring spawn, he prefers to tight-line troll at Chotard.

"When they're on in the winter, it's not hard to find fish - just go where all the boats are," said King, who indicates that catching white crappie in the 1½- to 2-pound range is pretty common this time of year at Chotard. "I've seen days where my LCD screen will nearly black out from so much bait under the boat."

King typically starts looking for bunched-up crappie out in front of Laney's Landing, which is the first public access when moving north from the levee. He'll put out rods in the front of his boat using a dual-minnow rig, which is commonly referred to by a variety of names - Kentucky rig, Sharecropper rig or even the Capps and Coleman rig, named for the two BnM pro-staffers who designed a new variation of the two-hook rig using three-way swivels.

Like his friend Kenny Blackwell, King goes with straight minnows on bare hooks, but if he determines a change of pace is in order, he'll change over to rubber jigs tipped with minnows.

"Sometimes you have to figure out a pattern," he said. "I'll just start bumping the boat around using the trolling motor. If I start at Laney's, I'll work my way north toward Chotard Landing near the entrance to Albermarle Lake. There's a ledge that runs along that entire west side of the lake that will hold a lot of crappie in the winter."

So take your pick in the Delta this month. You can fish Eagle Lake for specks, or move north and try your hand at some white perch at Chotard. Either way, crappie fishing on one of these two Mississippi delta lakes is a great way to keep your fishing skills sharp while you load up with a box full of tasty slabs.