Hesitating only slightly after plopping down in the lake, the little Styrofoam bobber shot completely out of sight beneath the surface of the still waters.
“Whoa! Already?” I said, watching the action while digging a cricket out of the bait box. “First cast! Not bad.”
My partner’s ultra-light B’n’M spinning rod was bent in a huge arc as he played the fish to the boat. It appeared to be a nice bream on the other end of the line, and, sure enough, the first bluegill of the day was quickly tossed into the cooler.
“The first of many, I hope,” fellow outdoor writer and frequent fishing partner Brian Broom said. “That’s why we come to these state lakes.
“Seems the fish are always hungry.”
It was the perfect start to our day, one that got even better when my first cast drew the same, almost immediate, result.
“Unbelievable! They’re bedded up in the same exact area of the lake at the very same time that they were last year,” I said, reeling in another hand-sized bluegill to add to the box. “I am in heaven.”
Actually, we were on Prentiss Walker Lake near Mize, and, yes, for laid-back fishermen it — and the many other honey holes that comprise the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks State Lakes and State Park system — is a little slice of heaven.
Strewn across the state, with the exception of the Delta, the mostly small bodies of water provide anglers with easy chances to enjoy the best of what nature offers — scenic beauty, serenity and fish.
“I am very passionate about our State Lakes system,” MDWFP Director of Fisheries Larry Pugh said. “I always have been, always will be, because I realize that a lot of fishermen don’t have the means to fish the big bodies of water that a lot of us do. They don’t have the time it takes to go to the big reservoirs and waterways, and learn the areas and techniques that produce fish.
“What the state lakes provide are waters where people fishing from the bank can catch fish just like people in a boat, and where families can spend a day at a clean, well-managed and supervised lake. Our goal is to provide Mississippi with a quality experience.”
It is admirable and lofty goal, for sure — and one that the agency has achieved.
It doesn’t hurt that, at the same time, the MDWFP has put together a system of lakes where trophy fish are also available: A state lake or state park lake has produced the current state records for largemouth bass, Magnolia crappie, redear and channel catfish.
According to the agency’s State Lake Coordinator David Berry, the agency has 18 state lakes offering a total of 4,030 acres of fishable waters. That does not include another 18 state parks that also offer fishing on even more acres of water.
“The purpose of the state fishing lake program is to maintain and enhance state-owned lakes to provide fishing, boating and camping opportunities for the public,” Berry said. “These facilities provide opportunities for visitors to enjoy the outdoors in a safe, family-oriented environment.”
Both the state lakes and state parks strive to keep the areas clean, well-mown and user-friendly. They have excellent and well-maintained boat ramps, and most provide fishing access for the handicapped.
The agency also keeps the waters stocked with fish.
“Everybody thinks of our state lakes as bream-fishing places, and well they should because all of them are good bream lakes,” Pugh said. “But, to be honest, bass and crappie drive the traffic. We get more bass and crappie anglers than you think.
“Obviously, we do have some lakes that are better than others for bass and others for crappie. I think all are good bream lakes.”
Pugh smiled when asked about creating the quality experience.
“That’s the whole deal, and always has been,” he said. “A lot of our lakes have many decades on them, products of the ’50s and ’60s. But, as they age and we have to renovate or repair the water-control structures, we use that time to redesign the shorelines to emphasize bank-fishing access.
“The r-word — ‘renovation’ — is one of my favorites when talking about state lakes. I hate closing a lake for any period of time, but the result on the back end is always worth a two- or three-year closure.
“Part of renovation is restocking, and when we put Florida bass and Magnolia crappie in a lake, the next decade of fishing is phenomenal.”
As an outdoor writer, I have been fortunate to spend many days of fishing on state lakes with Pugh, his predecessor Ron Garavelli, as well as with Berry, regional biologists and lake managers.
Each one takes great pride in the lakes they oversee, whether it’s on a statewide, regional or a single lake basis.
“That’s another aspect of the state lakes that makes them so attractive, I think,” Pugh said. “Our staff, including our lake managers, take great interest in the lakes and are readily available to help. Think about that — how good it is to have somebody at the lake who is tracking the fishing and is able to share that knowledge with fishermen.”
Nice, but then so is the modern assistance the agency provides through its website, mdwfp.com.
“Topo maps are available for our lakes, and they show where we’ve put our fish attractors like brush piles and gravel bars,” Pugh said. “We also put the weekly fishing reports on the website — all locally generated.”
Combine the local knowledge from the MDWFP staff and the maps with the fact that most of the lakes are small enough that a fisherman can fish it all in a day, and it’s easy to understand the “user-friendly” element the system offers.
Despite the advantages, the close proximity and the productivity of fishing these waters, Pugh said they are under appreciated and under utilized.
“I wish I knew the answer (to why they aren’t better used), because I’d sure fix it,” he said. “Traffic is down over the past decade, but is that a product of the state- and nation-wide decline in fishing? I don’t know.
“Are we charging too much? Is that a problem? I don’t think so, but I do know that a more-uniform and easier-to-understand pay system would help people.”
For sure, the problem isn’t the fishing.
As for my day on the water with Broom, we finished with a box full of fish. The number is faded in my memory, but I can assure you we had a fine mess of bluegill and redear, just as we’ve had on many trips.
“Cleveland, your bream and catfish limit is always all you care to clean,” Broom said.
Yep, and I can usually count on getting that number — whether targeting bass, bream, crappie or catfish — at a state lake.