Few honey holes in Mississippi raise the eyebrows of bass fishermen at a mere mentioning of its name. Davis Lake, a 200-acre impoundment in Northeast Mississippi, is one of them.
Dug into fertile ground in the Tombigbee National Forest, Davis Lake is luring anglers to its waters with realistic dreams of a new state record, and maybe even a 20-pounder.
In January of 2013, it produced a 17.34-pound largemouth, not bad for a lake that was built eight decades ago as the United States was working its way out of one of its darkest periods.
The year was 1937. The Great Depression was lingering like a bad dream and a few workers labored at a Works Progress Administration — later named Works Projects Administration, and known as WPA — just a few miles east of what now is Old Houlka.
Davis Lake was built to create jobs as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal plan to rally America. It was one of many projects built for recreation — fishing, swimming, picnicking, and relaxing.
The impact is still being felt, and its popularity has spread from a local base to statewide appeal.
Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, with help from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, Davis Lake was drained and underwent a big renovation and restocking in 1999.
That’s when Davis Lake took off.
Florida-strain largemouth bass were introduced, and bream and catfish were stocked. Then biologists added gizzard shad and the new bass just loved them.
“Double-digit bass are being caught on a regular basis,” said Rick Dillard, a Fisheries Biologist for the United States Forest Service. “During my annual sampling trips to the lake, using a shock boat, bass over 10 pounds are caught quite often.”
Dillard also said the samplings reveal shad in the 8 to10-inch range, and just about every bass autopsied has at least one of these shad in its stomach. The lake also is over-populated with stunted crappie, providing another food source for bass.
As a result Davis Lake bass are healthy and fat, bordering on obese.
While some anglers applaud the fact the bass are large, others see the bass as never being hungry and difficult to catch.
It’s no secret that mature and big Florida bass are picky eaters when it comes to artificial baits.
Yet, true trophy bass chasers don’t mind. A few die-hards, like Jeff Foster of Tupleo, who caught the 17.34 two years ago, go to Davis Lake to fish all day hoping for one bite, knowing there’s a good chance it could be a monster.
For others, who want to insure a more fruitful day, they wait for the spawn.
It has always been a popular time for anglers to cast to the egg-bearing females in the shallows of any lake where Florida’s swim. Davis Lake is no different, and its clear waters are ideal for sight fishing.
In that tactic, anglers with high-quality polarized sunglasses use stealth to ease boats through the shallows peering into the waters for signs for bedding bass.
“The peak of the spawn on Davis is around the first week of April,” Dillard said. “But if you’re expecting the big fish to be your April fool, you will be a few weeks late. Big bass spawn first. With a few warm days they may spawn as early as late January into February into March, so the peak will come after these giants have already moved back to deeper water.
“This is not to say an angler won’t catch a good mess of fish, it’s just that the really trophy bass have done their spawning when the peak occurs.”
Dillard said a good number of gravel beds were placed in the lake during the millennial renovation, with most of them being on the northern shoreline. The best spawning sites are those that are on a level bottom. Evidence has shown bass do not like a sloping bedding site. For that reason, multiple bass will use a favored bedding location. Once an angler finds a good area, it should be a good area for years to come.
There’s an art to fishing for bedding bass, since the fish are so involved in procreation that they have little interested in feeding. Instead, fishermen have to play to the bass’ protective role.
Basically, they cast lures hoping to raise the fish’s ire. A bedding bass will not bite out of hunger, but rather because it is annoyed that something is there to feed on its eggs. More often than not, the fish will inhale the lure, turn away from the nest, and expel it. This it does with amazing speed, and the angler must be ready to set the hook in a millisecond.
Sight fishing requires patience, and usually dozens of casts into the bed. The smaller male bass is the most aggressive and usually must be caught and removed before the bigger, fatter female will assume the role as protector of the bed.
Even if you plan to release the male, it’s a good idea to keep it safe in the livewell while working on the female. If not, the male will return to the nest and be the guard against predators.
So what eats bass eggs?
It would make sense that baits mimicking those creatures would be just the ticket to catching a big brooding female. For that answer, let’s look down the food chain. Eels, crayfish, bream, salamanders, and shad are among the predators playing havoc on bass eggs.
Whichever you choose, the key is getting into the bed and leaving it there until the bass get annoyed enough to take action.
Critter baits, such as lizards and crayfish need to be configured in a Texas rig, or with a lead-headed jig. This will allow the bait to remain in the nesting area and with some light rod action will simulate feeding. The bass may take the tail of the bait and remove it from the nest without ever taking the hook into its cavernous mouth. The lure must be continually returned to the bed.
There are a few tricks to better the angler’s chances of getting a hook-up, and Davis Lake regular Robert Patterson of Corinth claims the bait is not as important as bait presentation.
“These bass (at Davis Lake) have seen just about everything that can be cast,” Patterson said. “If there is something that will trigger a bite, such as flavored bait, that is what the angler should use. I don’t find that color is as important as is bait placement and how it is fished.”
Patterson likes to cast near the nest and bring the bait to it from the shore side. He will even try to land the bait on a log near the nest, allow it to rest for a little while then slide it into the nest.
“These bass see few real predators just drop in with a splash,” Patterson said. “Salamanders and bream will sneak in and steal what they can eat before the bass can run them out. I’ve read that male bass will not leave the nest and eat while they are guarding the eggs or the young fry. I’ve witnessed bass tolerate multiple casts into the nest and simply move the bait aside or ignore it altogether. It’s nerve racking to see your bait being moved but never getting a hook-set.”
Patterson uses attractants, such as Berkley Gulp Alive, in crawfish flavor, to make artificial baits appear more realistic. Smelling and tasting like the real deal will give the angler a better chance of setting the hook should the bass inhale the bait, rather than just try to remove it from the nest. The same goes with shad scent and crankbaits.
Wait, what? Use crankbaits for bedding bass?
Yes. Take a floater, such as a Shad Rap and remove the front hook. Put a line-stop about six inches from the eye of the bait, install a barrel weight, and then attach the lure. Cast it to the nest and allow a few seconds for the bait to float. Then wiggle the end of the rod enough to pull some of the slack line through the barrel weight, causing the lure to bounce off the bottom, as if it were feeding on eggs. Most sunfish or shad will feed head down and tail up while stealing eggs.
Most bass cannot resist the urge to take this egg poacher. The downside to this rig is not user friendly when it comes to structure. Since nests are made near structure, the chance of hanging up is greater. But the technique, which can be seen in a swimming pool to large aquarium, is deadly.
Patterson said boat positioning is critical
“Catching trophy-sized spawning bass is not as easy as it sounds,” he said. “The angler’s boat has to be close enough to see the nest and perhaps see the bass on it. But get too close and the fish will spook to deeper water.
“While I don’t do it, I have seen people looking to land a 12-pound or bigger bass lip-hook a large shiner with a 3/8-ounce or maybe ½-ounce weighted worm hook and toss it to the nest. No doubt live bait is used to catch a lot of bigger bass. I, personally, feel it’s not as sporting as artificial baits.”
One bait Patterson uses is Berkley’s saltwater 4-inch Flats Worm Gulp bait that resembles a black/white salamander. The 5-inch Hog Hawk in Bama Bug, and a 4-inch Power Claw in Black Grape Green Fleck are others he has caught spawning bass with on a regular basis.
As Foster’s 17.34-pound bass attests, Davis Lake could be home to the next record. The current state record is an 18.15 largemouth caught on New Year’s Eve in 1992 at Natchez State Park Lake. At the Mississippi Sportsman website — ms-sportsman.com — use the search feature and enter “Davis Lake” to find stories about Foster’s catch.
The lake is about 32 miles south of Tupelo just off the Natchez Trace. Since it is located in Tombigbee National Forest, it offers wonderful scenery and camping amenities.
But, make no mistake; the big attraction at Davis Lake is its giant bass. Fish for trophy Florida strain bass early, beginning with the pre-spawn in January and February and then straight through the spawn.
What: Davis Lake is a 200-acre lake maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, located within the Tombigbee National Forest.
Where: Near Houlka, Miss., about 21 miles southwest of Tupelo and 10 miles north of Houston, just off the Natchez Trace. GPS: N 34 2.50; W 88 56.20.
Lodging: Tupelo offers dozens of motels and restaurants, and is about a 30-minute drive. Davis Lake Campground has more than two dozen campsites, a picnic area, a group shelter, accessible flush toilet facilities and a dump station. Campsites are equipped with tables, lantern posts and campfire rings with grills. Drinking water is provided. A picnic shelter can also be reserved on-site, for an additional $40 per day fee.
Fishing: Outstanding bass fishing, and good bream and catfish. Davis Lake is managed for a trophy bass fishery.