About halfway between Laurel and Meridian lies Jasper County, home to Lake Claude Bennett, one of Mississippi’s best fishing holes.
Named after a former president of the University of Southern Mississippi, the 71-acre body of water is part of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’ State Lakes system, meaning it is designed and managed to give Mississippians a recreational area without having to travel.
Built back in 1959, Lake Claude Bennett opened for business in 1962 and immediately became popular, especially for skiing, swimming and camping.
It wasn’t until later, according to current lake supervisor Jason Thigpen, that the lake gained notoriety for its fishing.
Claude Bennett was closed to swimming 15 to 20 years ago, but its reputation as a great fishery continues to attract fishermen to its good bass, crappie and bream fishing.
Like all lakes in the MDWFP’s system, Claude Bennett is stocked with bass, crappie, bream and a few catfish. Over the years, redear sunfish and bluegill started getting the attention.
“The lake is known for large bream, large bluegill and large redear,” said Thigpen. “They start biting usually when the water temperature gets in the mid 60s. Basically, our anglers will use worms or crickets and they’ll fish near the gravel beds that we have installed in the lake over the years. They usually produce good numbers of fish.”
A primary benefit to non-boating anglers, Lake Claude Bennett offers great access for bank fishing. The lake was built to include earthen points, designed to put the angler well within reach of deeper water and good fish. It also has an expansive wooden fishing pier.
MDWFP fisheries biologist Larry Bull points to Claude Bennett as one of the best bank fishing venues in the state’s program.
“All of Mississippi’s state lakes are designed to provide ample bank fishing access,” Bull said. “One of the better locations for bank fishing is Lake Claude Bennett in Jasper County. The lake has a wooden fishing pier located on its southern shore between the boat ramp and the campground.
“In addition, there are seven earthen piers that allow anglers access to deeper water channels. One unique feature found at Claude Bennett is a number of gravel beds located near the fishing pier.”
In addition to the ease of access for bank-bound anglers, Claude Bennett is also managed for boating anglers, with a full-sized boat ramp, courtesy dock and plentiful off-shore structure that boating anglers can also use to catch not only bream, but bass and crappie as well.
“Fish attractor sites are maintained in a lot of different depth locations at Claude Bennett for boating anglers,” said Bull. “A lot of people may think about crappie fishing when you say fish attractors, but bass, bream and crappie can all be caught around these locations.”
These fish attractor sites are well marked on maps available in both the Lake Supervisor’s office and online at mdwfp.com.
All brush piles are marked to make the fishing fair to both local and visiting anglers.
“We do not allow anglers to put secret brush piles in the lake,” Bull said. “Of course, we have a number of volunteers who want to assist the lake manager, and we welcome this type of help.
“Usually we’ll mark the sites after the brush or other material is put in so that all lake users can enjoy them.”
March kicks off a prespawn pattern for Claude Bennett’s crappie and bass. Redear sunfish, locally known as shellcracker or chinquapins, will be the first of the bream species in the lake to move up. Spawning bluegill move to the beds about the time the chinquapins finish up, providing a small window where both species are available.
Chinquapins are a fairly cold-water fish. The last of February through March, they are still on somewhat of a prespawn pattern. The females will have eggs in them so it’s a good time to find them bunched up before they start getting ready for the spawn.
Local angler Richard Lynch of Jasper County favors what he calls “dead bays” for chinquapin fishing. He uses that term to describe the cuts and coves on the opposite side of the main lake from the office that do not have water flowing into their back ends.
“If you can catch a string of warm days, shellcrackers will move into the backs of those dead bays or up on top of a long point,” he said. You’ll find them as shallow as 2 to 4 feet. On most days, the average depth this time of year is about 6 to 9 feet deep.”
According to Lynch, chinquapins are more dialed in on the bottom than bluegills, so he rarely catches them using crickets. Later on in the spring, he will use nothing but crickets when he’s fishing for bluegills.
“For chinquapins, I use whole night crawlers,” he said. “I want to make sure I can reach a variety of depths because these fish move in and move up and down on that point.
“The thing about bluegills is that you will almost always find bluegills using a chinquapin bed in May after the chinquapins have left but I rarely find chinquapins using an old bluegill bed.”
Claude Bennett also has a healthy population of three different species of crappie. Bull said crappie will begin moving up into shallower water as the spring warms and many anglers will catch them before they head to the shallows around the man-made fish attractors.
“The average size crappie in Claude Bennett will be in the 10- to 12-inch range and weigh between a half and three-quarters of a pound,” said Bull. “The lake has both black and white crappie as well as some of the Magnolia crappie that we’ve stocked in many of our state lakes.”
Lake supervisor Jason Thigpen said both jigs and minnows produced good crappie at Claude Bennett, and also pointed to the lake’s fish attractor sites as the best hotspots.
“The crappie anglers mostly set up around some of our added structure,” Thigpen said. “We have four fish attractor buoys out there that are marked. We add structure every year or so, just to beef them up as you might say. They use jigs or minnows and do well with both of them.
“We also have a number of gravel beds, three of them are accessible from our piers and we have another three accessible from the bank. The anglers catch a few crappie around them but those are mostly bream spots.”
Like other state lakes, anglers wishing to visit Claude Bennett and stay a few days never have to leave the property. The park has full camper hook-ups as well as some refitted cabins that can be rented on a daily basis.
“We have 31 campsites that have water and electricity hookups,” Thigpen said. “We do not have any that have sewer hookup. We also have four rental cabins and they’re very popular now. Camping is $18 per night. That does include fishing. If you’re a senior citizen or disabled, that rate is cut to $13. As far as cabins, the rate is $75 per night on Friday and Saturday. All other nights are $65.”