Members of the Magnolia Crappie Club have dubbed 2009 “The Year of the Big Crappie” at Ross Barnett Reservoir in Jackson. The “Rez” isn’t historically known for big crappie, but there have been more 3-pounders caught this year than tournament director Hugh Krutz can remember in his 13 years of fishing Barnett.
The lake has consistently produced 2-pound crappie for a few years, which is something not many Mississippi lakes can claim, and that has resulted in lots of local fishing pressure. However, Krutz believes the lack of out-of-state pressure is one of the main reasons Ross Barnett crappie are getting heavier.
“Fortunately, Ross Barnett has been kind of a secret,” said Krutz. “You’ve got your [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] lakes in North Mississippi that get the majority of the out-of-state pressure. Travel is one reason because once you drive in from Missouri or Tennessee, you’ve pretty much gone as far as you want to go.”
Aside from visiting anglers stopping short in North Mississippi, Krutz believes the intense local fishing pressure is from a lot of weekend anglers who aren’t catching as many crappie as anglers who have the upper hand in experience from time spent on the water.
Take an angler like me for example. If I were to get in a boat to go catch some Ross Barnett crappie, I would probably drop a shiner around the first good-looking spot and hope my cork went under. If I were fishing jigs, I would drop them right beside a stump and wait until I felt a bite. If I were feeling a little adventurous, I might put out multiple poles with a spider rig and troll open water.
I might catch some crappie, but I might not. Odds are I wouldn’t catch a whole bunch if I caught any at all. A weekend-angler mindset will only get you so far, especially during the summer.
“Summer is my personal favorite time to fish the reservoir because I can go out and catch 100 to 150 fish by lunchtime on one pole and one jig and cull to a limit of 30 if I even keep any fish at all,” Krutz said. “And by June, the crappie will be full on in their summer patterns. That means fishing the standing stumps out in the main lake.”
Why the main lake? According to Krutz, it’s because heading upriver means a sure encounter with rolling boat wakes that follow the party crowd as they look for a hospitable sandbar. Lots of sandbars also mean lots of partiers.
And the stumps aren’t as much stumps as they are standing timber. Those that can be seen are often in 20 to 25 feet of water. These crappie magnets are the remnants of the trees that used to surround old lakebeds before they went under after Ross Barnett was impounded. Hurricane Katrina damaged some, but there are still acres of standing timber to fish.
Fishing main-lake stumps isn’t the only way to catch crappie at the Rez when the temperature gets high, but according to Krutz and his tournament partner Brad Taylor, who is also president of the Magnolia Crappie Club, learning to fish the standing stumps is what defines the line between fishing and catching. Krutz loves single jigging, and Taylor loves spider rigging.
“The key to fishing the stumps is to fish the ones that have horizontal limbs,” Krutz explained. “You can find 10 stumps that don’t have any limbs, and you won’t catch very many fish. Black crappie like to get under those horizontal limbs — they’re more structure-oriented than the white crappie — to get away from the direct sunlight. The shade from those horizontal limbs allows them to see better, which helps them better ambush the baitfish.”
Experience has taught Krutz which stumps have the horizontal limbs, and he can call his shots by pointing out which stumps will hold crappie. He skips the ones in between to keep from wasting his time, and since these horizontal limbs aren’t visible from the surface, he added that it takes a lot of fishing to be able to eliminate the less-productive stumps.
“Most anglers do a 360 around a stump after they drop their jig in,” Krutz said. “You can figure out which stumps have those horizontal limbs by watching your line as you move around a stump. If you start seeing an angle in your line, you know it’s laid over a limb. When that happens, just back up and start fishing that limb, and make sure to mark that stump somehow so you can find it again and again. A GPS works for that.”
Here’s the trick, though. When you’re fishing a horizontal limb, keep in mind that crappie could be as far off the main part of the stump as the limb is long. In other words, fish may be on the limb 3 or 4 feet away from the stump, or they could be as far as 6 feet away if it’s a 6-foot-long limb.
Locating the best stumps with horizontal limbs may not be enough to go from fishing to catching during the summer, though. Krutz says this might make more sense if he could demonstrate it on the water, but summer crappie tend to be lethargic, and they’ll mouth your tube jig rather than hammer it. Visually detecting a strike is paramount to hooking up because you’ll rarely feel a summer bite.
“Crappie feed up because their eyes are situated on top of their heads,” Krutz explained. “He’s looking toward the sky when you drop that jig in there, and he’ll hit it before it completely falls to the bottom. When that happens, your line will just kind of bundle up on the water like it might if you threw a jig in 3 feet of water with 12 feet of line. When you see that line bundle on the surface, that crappie has your jig.”
You might think Taylor a little crazy to spider rig around stumps. A popular open-water technique for catching suspended crappie, spider rigging wouldn’t appear to be at home around flooded wood cover. That’s not the way Taylor sees it, though, and he routinely fishes the Ross Barnett stumps with as many as six poles at a time with two tube jigs under each pole.
“Twelve baits in the water definitely gives you more of a chance to catch crappie,” he said. “But it also gives you more of a chance to get hung up. I’m not saying spider rigging around stumps is easy by any means, but if you pay attention and are fanatical about watching your lines and pole tips, you’d be surprised at how effective spider rigs can be around these stumps.”
Keeping your tube jigs from getting hung is the first order of business for spider rigging stumps. For those with a keen eye, Taylor’s method for avoiding hang-ups is simple enough, although it does require lots of lifting poles from and placing poles in the holders.
Taylor weaves in and around the stumps while keeping a close watch on his rod tips. Any sign of a pole tip going down indicates a snag rather than a strike. When he notices a rod going down, Taylor simply lifts that pole out of its holder and dips the tip to give the jig enough slack to flip over the obstruction.
On the other hand, when he sees a rod tip flat-line, or move from its typical slightly bowed appearance upward and level with the rest of the pole, Taylor knows he has a bite.
“Like Hugh said, crappie feed up,” said Taylor. “These limber B’n’M poles that we’re using will bend under the weight of the two jigs underneath. When a crappie comes up and bites, it will knock enough slack in the line that the weight is relieved off the line. That will make the pole actually straighten back up. So if you see your rod tip bounce up, set the hook.”
Whether you decide to try single jigging or spider rigging, Krutz and Taylor advise that fishing the proper depth is another huge factor in finding and catching summer crappie. Ross Barnett typically forms a thermocline from 12 to 13 feet deep, and the majority of crappie will be in that zone. They can’t live below it because there is no oxygen, and they can’t live above it.
“You can see it when fishing minnows,” Krutz said. “If you drop a minnow to 14 feet during the middle of June, he’s going to quickly die. On the other hand, if you drop it in that 12- to 13-foot zone, he’ll live a lot longer. Fishing the thermocline is without a doubt one of the most important variables to understand for summer crappie fishing.”
If you’re ready to get in on “The Year of the Big Crappie” on Ross Barnett Reservoir, forget about everything but the stumps in the main lake this summer, and give single jigging or spider rigging a shot. Either method will clearly prove what a great crappie fishery the “Rez” is when the temperatures get high.