Editor’s Note: Stop No. 10 on our year-long look at the state’s best public fishing holes is a perfect October destination. Okatibbee Lake, northwest of Meridian near Collinsville, fits the bill. Best known for crappie, it’s also got bass and catfish. For added fun, pack your guns and bows to hunt the neighboring Okatibbee WMA.
Our best state lake for October might be a misnomer. Okatibbee Lake near Meridian is so far the largest body of water profiled through 10 months of our yearlong series, and it might not exactly fit the “state” description.
At 4,144 acres, Okatibbee is actually a federally owned and operated lake but is a testament to the great cooperation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and manages the lake primarily for flood control and also recreation, and two state agencies — the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks and the Pat Harrison Water District.
A cooperative management program with the MDWFP includes the annual stocking of both forage and game fish. The program also creates and replenishes fish attractor sites on the lake. The content of these attractors is both natural and manmade.
Pat Harrison Waterway District also leases and operates Okatibbee Water Park. The park features fully developed camping spurs, with 50-amp electrical service, for camping enthusiasts. Four new vacation cabins are available as well as a 25-room lodge.
According to MDWFP biologist Britt Harris, the major attraction for anglers on Okatibbee is crappie, although another colleague Ryan Jones was quick to point out that after a year of collecting creel and tournament data on the lake, he found that local bass tournaments were regularly producing 20- to 25-pound sacks of largemouth bass during events.
“Crappie in Okatibbee grow slower than say Barnett or some of the I-55 corridor lakes,” said Harris, who in addition to being a biologist has fished the lake since childhood. “What it makes up for in size it produces in numbers. You’re not going to catch a lot of big fish in the 14- to 16-inch range, but there are plenty of 11- and 12-inch crappie in the lake.”
Harris said his best experiences in crappie fishing Okatibbee during the fall frequently c0me at night, when summer-like day time temperatures gave way to cooler night time temperatures.
“Target fish anywhere near deep structure,” he said. “That means along the edges or just outside the major creek channels. You’ll want to look for water in the 15- to 18-foot depths.
Harris said an area locally known as the Sunken Island about midways up the lake past Twiley Branch was a good fall producer of crappie.
“The creek runs tight to the bank, then it twists a lot in that area,” he said. “Local anglers have dropped brush in this area and there’s a lot of natural cover. It is a good place to night fish as well.”
As far as other targeted fall species, bass now receive a lot of attention, thanks to an increase in surface vegetation that greatly improved fishing. In October, those patches of grass nearest deep water pull in a lot of migrating shad looking for shallow cover and the bass follow. The vegetation offers bass food and cover, and gives bass fishermen a place to target quality fish with plastic frogs and other lures.
Harris said bream received little fishing effort based on preliminary creel surveys in his tenure. The lake holds both bluegill and shellcracker, but like the lake’s population of crappie, those species ranged on the small side compared to other state lakes.
“Okatibbee does produce good numbers of channel catfish,” said Harris. “In the spring, the channel cats will congregate at the base of the riprap on the south end of the lake to spawn. Many of our catfish anglers report good catches of catfish both jugging and using trotlines and we also have a number of anglers who target catfish with rod and reel.”
Emphasis on crappie
Magnolia Crappie Club member Hugh Krutz has major experience fishing Okatibbee for crappie and said trolling for mostly white crappie was the most productive tactic any time of year, but especially in the fall when crappie tend to move more as water temperatures began to fall.
The term trolling can mean a lot of things to different anglers, so Krutz narrowed his selections down to three major tactics, tight-lining, long-line trolling, and pulling crankbaits. He claimed most area crappie anglers preferred to tight line either straight live bait or a combination of jigs and minnows along the winding course set by the old Okatibbee Creek channel.
“You rarely see big pods of shad on the graph so finding bait may be an important factor, Krutz said. “Because of the numbers of fish, there’s a lot of competition for shad. In fact, you can do really well just fishing straight jigs without having to tempt them with live bait.”
Like on most bodies of water during the month of October, Krutz said Okatibbee crappie will be heading towards shallow water to begin putting on winter weight after a long hot summer.
“Crappie will have found their way to deeper water in the summer and it always seems some fish prefer those areas that offer cover in the form of brush piles and stumps almost year round,” he said. “But look for them to be moving, even if it’s from brush pile to brush pile because they start following bait more in the fall. Locating these travel routes and trolling with multiple rods often produces the best results.”
Cover a lot of water
Tight-line trolling from the front of the boat, long-line trolling from the sides and rear of the boat, and pulling crankbaits are three popular trolling methods. Each tactic has it’s own strengths and weaknesses for smaller bodies of water but all allow an angler to cover an abundance of water in a short time span, a factor Krutz said is vital in the fall.
He said a local favorite bait is a hand-tied hair jig that can either be tight lined from the front of the boat or long lined behind the boat. For weeding out the bigger crappie from the large population of smaller fish, however, he admitted he would probably pull crankbaits.
“I can start pulling crankbaits right out in front of the ramp and troll all the way to the dam and probably make 20 circuits in the 7-hour time period of the tournament,” he said. “That’s covering a lot of water.”
Regardless of the method picked for fishing Okatibbee, Krutz claimed the deeper water near the channel or the stretch right in front of the dam, both of which offer 20 feet of water, would be the best choice in late September, then follow the contour lines to shallower water from there.
“If I was going to fish shallow I’d probably consider the area known as the Minnow Ponds,” he said. “That would be the last place that’s likely to hold shallow fish; otherwise, a couple of long points reach almost to the creek channel and would provide a good drop off into deep water. I expect you’ll see a lot of fish caught either way, take your pick.”
Okatibbee fish attractors
GPS coordinates for the Lake Okatibbee fish attractors:
N 32° 29.148’ W 88° 48.127’
N 32° 30.182’ W 88° 47.462’
N 32° 29.661’ W 88° 48.121’
N 32° 29.345’ W 88° 47.908’
N 32° 30.398’ W 88° 47.952’
N 32° 29.325’ W 88° 48.517’
N 32° 29.066’ W 88° 48.129’
N 32° 29.148’ W 88° 48.094’
N 32° 29.868’ W 88° 48.284’
N 32° 30.478’ W 88° 47.965’
How to get to Okatibbee Lake
Getting there: Located off Mississippi Highway 19 only seven miles northwest of Meridian near Collinsville, Okatibbee Lake is an important feature in the development of the Pascagoula River Basin. The physical address for the USACE facility at the dam is 8490 Okatibbee Dam Road, Collinsville, MS 39325.
Contact: Scott Payne, Okatibbee Lake Park Ranger 601-626-8431, www.sam.usace.army.mil/op/rec/okatib/fish.htm.
Boat access: The USACE maintains five public ramps on Okatibbee Lake while the Harrison Water District maintains an additional two public ramps. For a listing of ramp locations, directions, access, and usage fees, visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mobile District website and click on Okatibbee Lake. The web address is http://www.sam.usace.army.mil/op/rec/okatib.
Accommodations: Lakeside camping is available at the Corps’ Twiltley Branch Campground. The Pat Harrison Waterway District’s Okatibbee Water Park offers over 100 camping pads and a 24-room lodge. Both campgrounds have electric, water and sanitary facilities. Camping fees are charged to help offset the costs of operation and maintenance. Golden Age and Golden Access Passports are accepted at Twiltley Branch Campground. For more information call Twiltley Branch Campground at 601-626-8068 or contact Pat Harrison Waterway District at 601-737-2370 or 800-748-9403. Offsite accommodations can be found by contacting the Mississippi Division of Tourism at 866-SEEMISS, www.visitmississippi.org
Best fishing tactics for Okatibbee Lake
Crappie: Crappie can be caught in the deeper parts of the lake on creek ledges in and around structure using jigs or minnows. Deep structure that was added back in February of this year should hold fish as well. Orange and chartreuse or white and chartreuse jigs tipped with a nibble or a minnow seem to work good at Okatibbee. Fall of the year is a good time to try night fishing for crappie with minnows or jigs.
Bass: Largemouth bass typically hold on deeper points during late September and October but will make feeding runs into the shallows as waters cool. Try using plastic baits such as worms or lizards with a Carolina rig on any type of deep structure during the middle part of the day. Grass beds may be holding fish in the early parts of the day and late evening. Top water lures and especially plastic frogs are a good choice.
Bream: Bream can be caught in and around the grass using crickets and worms in 3 to 4 feet of water throughout the fall. Look for areas with a rocky bottom contour and or mussel shells to indicate bream have been feeding on mussels in that area.
Catfish: As the waters cool this month, look for catfish to become more active. MDWFP reports numbers of catfish can be caught on jugs and trotlines. These fish are mostly average-size channel cats. A few trophy-sized flathead catfish can be found in the lake — a 35-pound catfish was reported this spring. Use hand-sized live baits such as bream or perch around underwater wood structure.