Editor’s Note: Stop No. 9 on writer Phillip Gentry’s year-long, statewide tour of Mississippi’s top public lakes takes us to Prentiss and Lake Jeff Davis, where two years after reopening after renovation; this one-time panfish paradise is producing a lot more action.

With school back in session and the daily summer crowds have given way to sparse weekday fishing pressure, September is a perfect time to cast a line in the bushy waters of Jeff Davis Lake with a solid chance of getting a bite.

Just three miles south of Prentiss, the 100-acre state lake managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, is perfect for catching a wide variety of fish species while settling in to a great camping environment. 

If getting a little exercise and bicycling or hiking is your thing, make sure you pack accordingly to take advantage of the world famous Longleaf Trace Bicycle Trail. There’s a connection right on the property at Jeff Davis Lake.

Originally constructed in 1963 as a state lake, this gem was closed in 2010 for overhaul. After some maintenance work on the dam, restocking with fish and a few renovations to the grounds, the lake was reopened to the public in 2013.

The fear that the renovation would ruin what was one of the best stops on the MDWFP State Lake System, a lake long considered a panfish paradise, was short-lived. 

It has come back better than ever.

During the down time, the drained lake floor sprouted with willow trees, which became a plus after the lake was refilled, providing better natural structure than any man-made brush piles. 

So much cover exists that for some fishermen Jeff Davis borders on unfishable. But, boy, have the fish have found the new layout to their liking and the populations of bass, Magnolia crappie, bream, and channel catfish have exploded in the two short seasons since the lake was reopened.

State Lakes Coordinator David Berry remains confident, based on the same water quality and soil mineral content that had earned the “panfish paradise” reputation, that it will once again regain that status.

Already it has become a largemouth bass, crappie and catfish hot spot.

“While we were going to do the work on the dam and the structure and all, we went ahead and made the decision to go ahead and redo the fishery,” said Berry. “Before the renovation, Jeff Davis produced huge bluegill and some bass. The bass size was OK, but it was the huge bluegill the lake became known for. It’s still early on this new fishery, but if they produced them before, it should again.”

In fact, Berry said the MDWFP is very pleased with the progress of all the species of fish that were put in the lake. While some anglers may see the new growth willow trees as an aggravation, Berry credits them for promoting the fisheries of bass, crappie and bream in the lake.

“It’s just unreal,” he said. “The tree growth makes it a little hard to navigate right now, but some lakes do that when they’re drawn down. The trees will clear out on their own on over time.

“In the meantime, there’s some good numbers of bass in there. It seems the bass are growing better right now than they did on the old fishery. Our anglers are also starting to catch good bluegill again and crappie. We put hybrids (Magnolia crappie) in there, too, and they’re catching some about hand-sized or a little bigger. We even have a natural supply of black and white crappie that came in the from the creek that runs into the lake.” 

One challenge of renovating fish populations in a small body of water is balancing the bass and bream populations. If bream numbers get out of control, those fish stunt and the bass can’t reduce their numbers fast enough. If there are too many bass, the bream grow to the desired sizes, but the bass sizes are reduced. Berry said that it’s too early to draw any conclusions, but the bass populations have jumped ahead and biologists are looking for some assistance from anglers to help manage those numbers by harvesting some of the smaller bass from the lake.

“From all the electro fishing data were done, the lake is very bass overcrowded,” Berry said. “That’s good for a bream or bluegill fishery, if you wanted a good bluegill fishery, you want the lake to be bass overcrowded. But almost all of our lakes, at some point in time, become bass overcrowded because people do not keep bass that much.”

Berry said in Jeff Davis, they decided to put in a slot limit for bass. Anything between 16 to 20 inches is required to be immediately released. Anglers are allowed to keep one bass over 20 inches in the event a trophy bass is caught and the angler wants to have it mounted. The public is encouraged to keep bass under 16 inches. That was why a liberal creel limit of 15 bass was established.

“Used to we’d have a 10-bass limit per person but after we reopened Jeff Davis, the limit was increased to 15 per person per day,” he said. “We’re encouraging folks to take these smaller fish out, up to 15 per person.”

According to Jeff Davis lake manager Richard Hathorn, the big news last fall at was neither bass nor bream. It was the respectable sized crappie the lake began producing. 

“We stocked hybrid crappie in the lake back in December of 2012 and then we opened the lake to public fishing in May of 2013,” said Hathorn. “Our anglers caught a few small ones in May the next year, but then, in August and September, they really started turning on and they caught a lot of fish in the 12- to 15-inch range.

“The crappie stocking was done in two phases. They originally stocked 5,000 fingerlings in December of 2012 before the lake opened and then they came back in December of 2013 and added 5,000 more. All of these fish are the hybrid Magnolia crappie, but I can tell you that we have seen both white and black crappie come out of this lake. I guess some of those fish either washed down or were held back somewhere while the lake was down.”

Hathorn said he believes one reason for the better crappie fishing in the early fall is a series of springheads that are in or connected to the lake. He said one is in the deepest part of the lake and a couple more are dispersed around the 100 acres. He said locating those areas is a good place to find crappie this time of year.

“I’ve always thought, during the dog days of summer, it was important to find a creek channel with cooler water and fish will be hovering,” Hathorn said. “I think that has something to do with it. According to the maps the creek channel and the spring head start at 32 feet at the overflow. When we drained the lake, it never stopped flowing, it’s just a natural springhead, and there are several around the property, but the main one comes in on the back.

“In August and September, fishing on top of that springhead, you’re going to have a lot of fish stacked up there.” 

Hathorn also pushed the lake’s generous stocking of channel catfish before the lake opened in advance of a kid’s fishing rodeo. The rodeo was a huge success, the kids caught a lot of catfish and the surviving cats have taken well to the lake.

“We put 5,000 channel catfish in the lake in March of 2011 and a week before we opened, we had a youth fishing day and the catfish hit everything that hit the water,” said Hathorn. “They hammered the catfish but there’s still plenty of them out there.” 

Lake Jeff Davis trip info

How to Get There: Lake Jeff Davis is a 100-acre lake located in Jefferson Davis County, 3 miles south of Prentiss on Mississippi Highway 42. The street address is 100 Lake Drive, Prentiss, MS 39474-3116. GPS – N31.565685 W89.841485

When to go: Lake Jeff Davis is open year round and provides great boating, fishing, and also supports a well-maintained campground. Once school starts, weekday pressure falls and offers excellent fishing.

History: Lake Jeff Davis originally opened in 1963 and is one of 18 state fishing lakes operated by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. Renovated and restocked in 2010, and re-opened to fishing in May 2013, the lake is loaded with bass, crappie, catfish and bream.

Amenities: Lake Jeff Davis is connected to the 41-mile Longleaf Trace Bike Trail by a 1.3-mile spur that begins at the lake. Three handicapped-access fishing piers make fishing from the bank popular. The double boat ramp can accomodate boats of all sizes. The daily ramp fee is $7 per boat. Jeff Davis offers 13 RV hookups with power, water, and picnic tables at each site. Camping permits are $18 per day and a 30-day camping permit is $360. Primitive camping is also available for $13 per day. Sportfishing licenses and lake permits are required. Check posted regulations at the lake for permit fees.

Best Tactics: According to lake manager Richard Hathorn, Jeff Davis is best known for it’s largemouth bass fishing. Shortly after the lake was remodeled, the bass population exploded. The lake also has populations of Magnolia crappie, channel catfish and numbers of bream.

Bass: Largemouths are mainly being caught on red and green soft plastics fished near the bases of flooded willow trees in the lake. Fish the outside edges of the structure, especially where there is deep water nearby or in a channel edge. Fishing has been best during the early morning or late afternoon hours. Note: There is a slot length limit protecting bass measuring 16 to 20 inches — they must be immediately released. The harvest of young bass is encouraged. The daily limit is 15 per angler per day, but only one can exceed 20 inches. All the rest my be under 16 inches.

Bream: Always known as a big bream lake, Jeff Davis’s panfish action is already on the rebound since restocking. Bluegill and redear are being caught around the dam on wax worms, crickets, and jigs. Look for better-sized fish to hold on the edge of the riprap at the dam. Fish the drop off, either on the bottom or with a slip cork to allow you to reach deeper depths, if fishing from the bank.

Catfish: Lake manager Richard Hathorn said most anglers are catching channel catfish at night with liver or other catfish bait. As water temperatures begin to decrease later in the month, look for catfish to move up on shallow points near the base of the willow trees.

Crappie: Crappie fishing has picked up with the onset of cooler nighttime temperatures. Fishing with jigs and minnows along the outside of the willow trees, in deep water, can be productive this time of year. 

More Information: Contact Lake Jeff Davis manager Richard Hathorn at (601) 792-8225

Maps: Lake and campsite maps, are available online at www.mdwfp.com/fishing-boating/state-fishing-lakes/south-region/jeff-davis-lake.aspx