“On any given day, there’s just no telling what you might see out here,” said crappie guide Brad Whitehead, “I’ve seen all kinds of wildlife from deer to ducks and eagles. Then one day a few years back I was sitting out here with a client, and this huge barge comes by with something that looked like part of the space shuttle loaded on it.”
Bay Springs Lake was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete a water route that connects the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee River. The “Tenn-Tom,” as the route is known, is a series of lakes, locks and canals used as an improved shipping channel for moving goods from the interior United States to the Gulf of Mexico.
With the Boeing Delta Rocket plant located on the banks of Wheeler Lake in Alabama, an area accessible by the waterway, seeing a rocket part or two on its way to Stennis Space Center or Cape Canaveral isn’t out of the question.
The lesser-known allure of Bay Springs is its largely undiscovered crappie fishery. Other than its main channel, the original Tombigbee River, the surrounding areas flooded by Bay Springs were left intact. The end result is what Whitehead describes as “a hunt club flooded by super clear water.”
Whitehead, who hails from Muscle Shoals, Ala., less than an hour’s drive from Bay Springs, likes to fish the lake’s vast acreage of flooded timber — especially as the days begin to warm just a bit and crappie start feeding and staging for the spawn that will eventually move them into the shallows.
“There’s a lot of little fingers and points right off the main lake at Bay Springs, and crappie will stack up around that flooded timber waiting to ambush baitfish as they pass by,” said the BnM Poles pro. “That’s why I like to set up and spider-rig troll out of the front of the boat. It’s a quick way to locate which areas of the standing and submerged timber crappie are holding on.”
Whitehead, who is sponsored by PRADCO, the mother company of such baits as Yum, Xcalibur, Booyah and Bomber Lures, puts out an arsenal of eight rods across the front of his boat. Because crappie can be either deep in the brush or suspended over the top of the structure, he varies the depths of his baits until the crappie decide what they want.
“I’m going to target water from 20 to 25 feet deep,” he said. “Now that water may have submerged timber that comes up within a few feet of the surface or it might have some branches or trunks that lay over on their sides.
“I want to position my baits so they are bumping along right at the tops of this structure. I rarely move my head between watching my graph for obstacles and watching the rod tips for bites.”
Hanging up in the standing and submerged timber is an occupational hazard for this kind of fishing, but Whitehead has a couple of tricks that he employs to keep his baits in the strike zone and not hung in the woody cover.
“I’m going to fish with either one or two ¼-ounce hair jigs on each rod,” he said. “Above each jig is a ¾- to 1-ounce tungsten weight looped through the line so it rides about a foot to a foot and a half above the jigs.
“Not only does that keep the baits vertical right under the rod tip, but it’s a great lure knocker. If the line starts to make a slow bend rather than a rapid tap or jerk, I know the jig is hung up, and I can reach and drop that weight straight down, which will usually pull the jig free.”
Whitehead’s other tactic, which not only prevents hang-ups, but also puts more fish in the boat, is to go slow and feel his way around and through the timber.
“The old saying goes that if you ain’t getting hung up, you ain’t crappie fishing,” he said. “But if I take my time and work those rods around that timber, I can usually prevent too many of them from sticking and just lift the rod up and over the cover when I have to.”
Whitehead takes a backward approach for his trolling patterns. While most anglers will start in the backs of the creeks or pockets and work their way out toward the main lake, he’ll start on the main-lake points and work in.
“There’s two prime areas on Bay Springs that I fish and rarely have to leave to go find other places,” he said. “The first is the mouth of Riddle Creek right there around the Piney Grove Recreation Area. If the wind is coming out of the north or northwest, I’ll cross over the lake and fish the main-lake points at the Natchez Trace Recreation Area.”
Whitehead indicated that Bay Springs supports a sizeable population of both white and black crappie that average in the 11- to 13-inch range, and catching a number of larger-than-average fish is also common.
He offers that Bay Springs has a variety of both natural and transplanted baits for crappie to feed on. The main forage base is threadfin shad, locally referred to as yellowtails, but the guide also suggests that unlike the Tennessee River impoundments he fishes in north Alabama, Bay Springs has more transplanted minnows living in it.
“Every time I come out here, I see tons of little tuffy minnows in the tops of those trees,” he said. “I can’t explain it, but I guess after years and years of fishermen dumping excess bait when they get done fishing, you’d kind of expect some of them to take up residence.
“This is one of the most unpressured areas in the late winter and early spring” he stated. “That’s why I like to come down here because you’ll pretty well have the place to yourself, and there’s a ton of baitfish and forage for crappie to feed on to fatten up for the spawn.
“That’s why I think it’s important to at least tip the jig with a live minnow or some days I’ll just go with a straight live minnow on a No. 2 Daiichi hook.”
While Whitehead is trolling for crappie at Bay Springs this month, he’s likely to run across another crappie guide — his buddy Shayne Anderson from nearby Baldwin. Anderson spends a good bit of time finding and placing brushpiles in Bay Springs, and when he comes calling, it’s with only a single pole.
“This time of year, you have to totally rely on your electronics if you’re going to be successful,” he said. “Even without putting your own brush in, anglers who use some of today’s high-tech side-imaging sonar can make one pass down a creek or across a point and see everything down there.”
Like Whitehead, Anderson prefers to spend his time working structure in the 15- to 25-foot depth range on the lake’s numerous main-lake points. Once he’s located a spot, he’ll graph the fish from above to determine if they’re suspended over the top of the brush or if he’ll have to get down in the brush and dig them out.
“I have two rigs I use depending on what I see on the graph,” he said. “If it’s a sunny day on a warming trend, I’ll expect to find them up sunning to get warm, and I’ll drop a single live minnow on a split-shot rig down to the level I mark them.
“On the other hand, if I don’t mark fish but suspect they’re down in the brush, I’ll rig what’s known as a heavy drop-shot or Kentucky rig with either one or two hooks tied straight inline and drop the 3/8- to ½-ounce bottom weight down in the brush and bump around until I get a bite.”