"The colder the weather, the better the fishing gets" is the way professional angler Kent Driscoll describes the crappie fishing behind the dam at Ross Barnett Reservoir.

The spillway that turns the Pearl River impoundment back into the Pearl River is a well-known hotspot for crappie anglers throughout the year. One reason for the magnetism of the area is the moving water spilling through the dam draws baitfish from the far reaches of the Pearl and also from the Ross Barnett impoundment itself.

"While it looks rough on the fish, coming through that spillway doesn't hurt them one bit," Driscoll said. "Both crappie and bait come through that spillway and create a great fishery on the other side."

Winter spillway fishing

Because the tailrace waters at Ross Barnett are rich with baitfish, game fish, particularly crappie, are abundant as well. When water temperatures drop below the 50-degree mark, baitfish dispersed all over the upper river areas instinctively move upcurrent. Despite colder water temperatures, baitfish work their way upriver, and are effectively corralled into compact masses.

As water temperatures begin to fall even more, baitfish become disoriented by the cold water. Hungry predators, especially schools of crappie, lie in wait in slack-water areas, and feed on the disoriented bait.

"The rock outcroppings along the edges of the spillways create eddies close to the bank," said Driscoll. "Those are great hiding places for crappie to lie in wait and ambush bait that is swept along by the current."

The crappie pro indicates that since cold water and dissolved oxygen are evenly distributed throughout the spillway area, crappie are just as likely to be found along the bank in 3 feet of water as they are in deep holes out in the middle of the run. Driscoll also pays attention to prevailing weather conditions to help pin down the whereabouts of spillway crappie.

"On a cloudy day, the crappie in the spillway seem to prefer the deeper haunts out in the center of the run," Driscoll said. "However, on a sunny, bluebird day, I have often found them just below the surface of the water hanging around flotsam and debris that collects in an eddie or other slack water area along the sides of the spillway run.

"Those are the days when you can ease along the bank and cover a lot of ground fishing anything that looks good. Because the current dictates the movement of the fish, by the time you work all the way around the immediate spillway area, you can often find fish back in the same spots you've already caught fish from."

Two if by land, one if by sea

Unlike many crappie-fishing venues, spillway fishing offers good access to both boating and shorebound anglers. By virtue of their design, spillways allow bank fishing anglers to get closer to the fish than boating anglers have in circumstances where regulations may limit how close boats are allowed to the spillway.

Because of restrictions established by Homeland Security measures, boaters must remain 200 yards from the structure. That's 200 yards of crappie-rich environment accessible only on foot.

"Bank fishing anglers do well pitching a double-rig jig under a cork from the bank into the current," Driscoll said. "Because the water swirls and eddies, it provides action to the jigs as they bounce along under the cork. There's a lot of debris - rocks and rebar from the construction of the spillway as well as wood that has washed in - and miles of fishing line strung between them. The cork suspends the jigs above all that structure where crappie lay up out of the current and feed on disoriented bait washing through the spillway."

Without the use of electronic sonar that's available to boating anglers, shore-bound fishermen have learned to "read water" to interpret what lies beneath.

"A slack-water area that holds a lot of little black water bugs indicates there's a seam where moving water meets slack water," Driscoll said. "Finding seams in the current is a key to catching crappie along the spillway. Drifting that cork along the seam will put the bait right in the fish's face, and that's important in the winter because the cold water slows a crappie's metabolism and they won't chase a bait down in January like they would in May when water temps are higher."

Driscoll suggests using a slip float so anglers can adjust the depth of the jigs without having to re-rig. Below the cork he'll thread a 1/16-ounce jighead on the line and then tie the second jig to the end of the line using a loop knot. The upper jig is then secured using another 2- to 3-inch loop knot a foot and a half above the bottom jig.

"Tube jigs work well for casting and drifting through spillway runs," said Driscoll. "The tube arms wave in the current as the slip float washes along over the structure."

While shore-bound anglers get in on their share of the fishing, many anglers prefer to launch a boat into the running water to get better access to crappie-holding spots. One such angler is Pelahatchie native Charles Ballenger, who has been fishing the reservoir and the spillway behind Ross Barnett for more than 25 years. The discharge rate at the Ross Barnett dam is a major player in turning on the crappie bite. Most fishermen agree that a slowly rising water level creates optimal conditions for fishing the spillway.

"The water level is the first thing I look for this time of year," said Ballenger. "When the Pearl River gauge at the Ross Barnett Tower shows the water is at least 12 feet, then it's time to hit the spillway."

Ballenger said one of the best places to fish on the Barnett Spillway is right off the boat ramp in the mouth of the old slough that used to be the main Pearl River channel. He indicated there is a long sandbar off the ramp that is out of the water during low-water times, and that sandbar grows a lot of iron weed and button brush when it's out of the water. Later on, when the released spillway water rises over the bar, crappie use the area as an ambush point.

"That sandbar is full of holes," he said. "All you have to do is anchor out over it with a good solid anchor and use a jig pole and bounce a jig down in that brush."

Both Driscoll and Ballenger agree that when the bite is on in the spillway, word gets out fast.

"There are days when there will be a lot of boats out there and it's almost wall to wall," Ballenger said. "You'll even see three of four boats tied up together in a chain. Add to that a lot of bank anglers who line up on the bank, and the place gets pretty crowded."

When overcrowding occurs, Ballenger drops back and looks for other spots where shad will run up the river in proximity to an ambush point. Finding such places is not hard since Hurricane Katrina blew through the area in 2005. A lot of trees and other woody debris made their way into the river below the spillway as a result of the massive storm.

"Not far back from the ramp there's some old trees that went into the river during Katrina," Ballenger said. "There used to be some limbs that stuck up, but they've rotted down since then. That place still holds a lot of big slabs because it's right out in the middle near the channel."

When and if water levels reach the 22-foot mark at the Ross Barnett Tower, Ballenger indicates it's possible to get a boat back into some of the old sloughs and creeks that butt up to the river.

Driscoll also relishes the days when high water allows access to the backwaters of the Pearl. The fertile ground is a magnet for baitfish, and the crappie move in with them.

"It's very similar to a spring pattern," he said. "I like to move the boat around the shallow flats, which warm quicker during the day, and drop a jig around any kind of structure."

Single jigs are the norm for boating anglers who fish either the eddies along the rocks, the structure on the bottom or the newly flooded bushes if the water is up. A 1/16-ounce jig is the standard, but the rigging is a little different depending on the water depths and the current the boater is fishing in.

While shallow water doesn't require anything more than a jig at the end of the line, Driscoll has a special setup for fishing water out in the current that may be 12 to 15 feet deep on a normal pattern.

"The setup is similar to a bottom-bouncing rig," said Driscoll. "I tie an 18-inch dropper off a three-way swivel. A 1-ounce bell sinker or pencil weight goes on the dropper. Then I tie a 6- to 8-inch leader, which holds the jig off the three-way. The weight allows the angler to stay in touch with the bottom without hanging up."

Jig colors preferred by both boating and shore-bound anglers include anything with chartreuse or white/pearl in them. The lighter colors flash in the often dingy water and closely imitate the flash of a threadfin shad separated from the pod.

"Where other crappie holes can get cold and windy this time of year," said Driscoll, "the spillway is a place out of the wind where you can come and load the boat with slab
crappie."