Just before the time that Columbus was setting sail from Spain to settle his curiosities about lands to the west, the Mississippi River was doing the same thing it had been doing since the beginning of time. It was ripping through the middle of the "New World" and making its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

It was during this particular time period, roughly 1300 AD, when the Mississippi River occupied the channel that anglers now know as Lake Washington in the Mississippi Delta.

As with the hundreds of other oxbow lakes in the Delta, Lake Washington was abandoned by the Big Muddy long ago. The town of Glen Allan, on the southeast end of the lake, lies roughly 7 miles west of the Big River, while the Chatham community, on the north end of the lake, is only a mile from the Mississippi.

Angling methods

You will find as many differing opinions on how to catch crappie in Lake Washington as there are cypress knees in the lake. Some anglers swear by trolling the open water of the lake, while die-hard jig fishermen won't go until they can catch fish in the shallow waters in the timber. Even other anglers will abandon the first two methods and only use yo-yos to take their limits. But for the purposes of fishing the spawn, we will talk only about jig fishing.

If you have fished with crappie jigs in the Mid-South, you've probably heard of, or even used, a Slater's Jig. Eddie Slater, from Indianola, started tying his own jigs more than 40 years ago to supplement the worm business he and his family had begun for extra money.

While on a fishing trip with a friend to Louisiana's Lake Gassoway, Slater was shown how to tie crappie jigs using nylon rope. He went back home, ordered a mold and made six jigs.

"I got off work on Dec. 23, and drove over to Mossy Lake," he said. "I was out in the middle of the lake, and some friends of mine were fishing near structure along the bank. They had only caught three fish in two and a half hours, and were headed to the ramp.

"I decided I'd try it anyway, and I tied one of my jigs on and dropped it in the lake. I sat on the end of the pole while I rigged up another pole, and the first pole doubled over immediately. I thought I had hung a log or something, but I pulled up a big crappie, probably a pound and a half.

"I got him off the hook, and dropped it back into the lake. I immediately caught another big crappie. My friends were astonished. They paddled over, and we tied our boats together. I paddled along, and we both fished side-by-side. I caught several crappie, and they caught none. The limit in those days was 50. I caught 32 fish before I went back to the ramp. Those guys couldn't believe it, and each of them ordered a dozen of my jigs.

"Not long after that, men would wait for me to show up at the coffee shop before work and place their orders for my jigs. I sold them out of a cigar box for four for a dollar. I still make that same jig today - an orange/black/yellow. They call it the Slater's Standby."

Slater said that Slater's Standby is also known locally as the Bee Lake Bomber and the Lake Washington Killer.

Slater has come a long way from the days of selling jigs out of a cigar box. His store in Indianola manufactures and ships tens of thousands of jigs annually, as well as the Slater's brand yo-yo, Slater's jig poles and their brand-new Crappie Smackers that will be on the market just in time for the 2009 spawn. He was glad to offer a few tips on fishing Lake Washington, gleaned from more than 50 years of fishing experience.

"The first place they are going to bite is in the trees where the water is about 2 feet deep," he said. "I like to put in at Cordell's and fish in the trees between The Swamp and the Highland Club. I also like to go to the far north end of the lake, and fish those trees. I go to the same places in Lake Washington year after year, and they always produce.

"I like a grey/blue/grey jig when the water is clear. When the lake is dingy, I prefer an orange or pink head, black body and a chartreuse or yellow tail."

John Wills, a.k.a. the "Wolf Lake Wizard," from Yazoo City, echoed Slater's advice on jig color.

"Anything with chartreuse," he said, mentioning that chartreuse with black, blue, purple, orange, red or yellow will work usually. "On sunny days, use light colors, but on dark days, use darker colors."

Wills prefers a 1/32-ounce jig for water depths up to 6 feet. He also likes a rod length of at least 10 feet, but says the 12-foot rods are the most popular. Graphite rods are lighter than fiberglass, and the graphite rods are strong and very sensitive.

"For jigging around stumps and trees, 6-pound line is sufficient," he said. "It is more limp than heavier lines, and allows a better feel of the jig and pick-ups."

Wills also mentioned that the lighter line is not as visible to the fish in clear water, and heavier lines can be used in stained waters.

"A crappie is like a vacuum cleaner," Slater said. "They suck food into their mouths; they don't bite it. You want to fish as light as possible because of this. My favorite setup is a 1/48-ounce jig on a size 8 hook, using 4-pound-test.

"That crappie will find his comfort zone in the water, which is 65-70 degrees. He'll sit in that layer of water and run up to catch bait, then he'll go right back to his comfort zone. If you catch a crappie in the bottom lip, you are fishing too deep; he had to go down to get it. You want him to come up to bite.

"Fish slow, and don't bounce the jig up and down a lot. Also don't swim the jig too fast. An insect in the water will swim along slowly until he is startled. Swim your jig nice and slow. If you bounce the jig up and down, or swim it too fast, that fish will be ringing wet with sweat trying to catch it. Drop it down slow, bump it up and then let it fall again.

"If you fish next to a stob or something, the worst thing you can do is to drop the jig straight down the structure onto the fish. You'll startle him. Flip the jig out and let it come back to the structure below the rod tip. He'll see it coming, and run out to get it."

Both anglers agree that fish are very light-sensitive.

"On cloudy days, expect fish to be located in shallower water than usual," Wills said.

"On sunny days, fish the shady side of structure," Slater recommended. "Fish don't have eyelids, and will stay in the shade."