You consistently can catch more big bass out of well-managed ponds and small lakes than from any large reservoir not intensively managed for big bass. You also can manage small ponds and lakes to consistently grow a number of easy-to-catch 5-pound-plus bass.

A well-managed small body of water will have a consistent forage base of bluegills, threadfin shad, tilapia and/or supplemental feed that's distributed from automatic feeders at regular intervals throughout the day. To catch these bass, bait with the forage the bass have eaten in the spots where they're accustomed to eating that particular bait.

Two- to three-finger-wide bluegills caught from the dock will produce 5-pound or better bass also caught from the dock. But the most unique bait I've ever used that always pays off is cheap hot dogs. I can fish my brother Archie's 10-acre pond and consistently catch bass that weigh 5 pounds or more fishing from the dock with the cheapest hot dogs I can buy.

When I asked Archie how he discovered that using hot dogs would produce big bass, he opened up the lid of his automatic feeder, picked up a handful of high-protein fish pellets and told me to smell them. Taking a whiff, I quickly jerked back from the foul smell.

"OK, John," Archie said, "smell them again slowly, and tell me what they smell like."

He was right.

"Those fish pellets smell like hot dogs," I said.

"So, if you'll cut a 1- to a 2-inch piece of hot dog, and put it on your hook, it smells and looks like a giant fish-food pellet to the bass," he said. "I've stocked my pond with tiger bass, a cross between extremely aggressive northern bass and very large Florida bass, and trained them to eat fish pellets. When they reach their potential weight, they prefer to eat really big fish-food pellets, like my cheap hot dogs. Fishermen of any age can catch big bass from the dock where I have my fish feeder set up by using big chunks of hot dogs."

 

The bluegill connection

Along with tiger bass, my brother stocked his pond with bluegills. Early in the development of his pond, he noticed that the bluegills would come to the feeder every time it threw pellets out on the water. Then, the big bass would come in to feed on those bluegills.

Archie started catching small bluegills first and then using them for bait, letting a bluegill swim under a cork and casting it out to the spot where the fish pellets hit. He consistently caught bigger bass each year by using the bluegills for bass bait.

Although the world of competitive bass fishing has shunned the use of live bait, and no BASS or FLW tournament pro would ever consider fishing with hot dogs in a competition, these two techniques consistently produce bass over 5 pounds in small, well-managed ponds and lakes.

 

Producing lunkers

To learn how to grow bigger bass in ponds and to find the best big-bass lakes in the state, Mississippi Sportsman talked with Larry Clay of Mathiston, a retired fisheries biologist after 30 years with the USDA Forest Service.

"To create a productive trophy-bass pond, you have to start from the bottom and build to the top," he said.

In 1992, Clay and his team of biologists redesigned and rehabilitated the 100-acre Choctaw Lake, built in the late 1930s and one of the oldest man-made lakes in the state, near Ackerman in the Tombigbee National Forest. Clay and his team drew the lake down to about 40 acres, exposing the bottom, allowed the bottom of the lake to dry for 6 to 8 weeks and then redesigned the bottom of the lake, using trackhoes and bulldozers.

"We used the sediment dug out of the bottom of the lake to build land piers that jutted out into the lake, creating better access to the lake for fishermen," Clay said. "Most lakes and ponds are built like a bowl, and the only deep water is where the pond has been dug out, and the dirt is used to build a dam. An old creek channel in a lake may be the only bottom break in the lake.

So we used a trackhoe to cut ditches in the bottom about 3/4ths as wide as an automobile. We piled the dirt we dug out of these ditches on the sides of each ditch, creating mounds above the ditch and a good bottom break with the ditch. We created several different creek channels with the trackhoe."

Then Clay and his team took old root wads of trees they knew wouldn't float when the water rose, and placed them in strategic spots to provide places where the bass could hide, wait and ambush bait. In the past, most fishermen caught fish because of random encounters with the fish. However, Clay learned that changing the bottom structure by strategically placing habitat like root wads, fishermen consistently could catch bass.

To successfully build productive bottom structure, Clay and his team laid cedar trees, root wads and tree trunks across the ditches they built in the bottom of the lake, and also created rock piles and underwater humps to provide different types of habitat where the bass could hold at various times of year.

"The bass can go down to the bottom of the ditch and hold under, in, above or on either side of the root wad," Clay said. "By putting cover over the top of a ditch, you'll give the bass more places to hold and the fishermen better spots to catch bass."

Clay also dug holes into the bank, like small caves, and placed brush over these openings without completely covering the holes. The bass then could back up into the holes and hold behind, in, over or under the brush.

"To have productive small pond or lake fishing, you must protect the integrity of the bank," he said. "If a landowner is using his pond to water his cattle, he needs to fence-off the bank, except for one opening where the cattle can go in to water. This way, the bank doesn't get trampled down; yet he still can use the pond for watering cattle and enjoy great bass and bluegill fishing."

With bluegills the bass's primary prey in a pond or a small lake, the more bluegills there, the more and bigger the bass can grow. To increase the number of bluegills in the ponds in the National Forest lakes, Clay developed gravel beds where the bluegills could spawn.

"Bluegills prefer gravel beds because gravel beds allow their eggs to continuously be oxygenated," Clay said. "On a gravel bed, the water can flow over, under and around the eggs, which produces a greater survival rate for the bluegills, as well as provides a great place where anglers can catch bluegills and bass."

Clay learned that by using 1x12 untreated cypress boards to make a box and then filling that box with washed pea gravel, he could keep the gravel beds intact and provide excellent places where fishermen could catch bluegills.

Most people don't know that the USDA manages many of the National Forest lakes for maximum production of bass, bream, crappie and catfish, and has stocked some with tiger bass. You can catch some of the biggest bass in Mississippi per acre in these small lakes and ponds.

Clay picked the five best National Forest lakes in Mississippi with the potential for producing trophy bass, naming some relatively small but intensively managed lakes.

 

Okhissa Lake - This 1,075-acre lake in the Homochitto National Forest between Brookhaven and Natchez provides water, land and nature-based recreational opportunities. It opened to the public Nov. 7, 2007. Okhissa Lake has launch ramps, parking areas for vehicles with and without trailers and a gazebo area with picnic tables that overlook the dam and lake.

"Rick Miller, the biologist for this lake, said that in August, Okhissa will produce big bass - plenty of 4- to 6-pound bass," Clay said. "This lake is fertilized regularly."

Okhissa has received the most publicity as one of the larger lakes in the National Forest lake system. The Forest Service has spent more than $2.5 million improving the bottom of this lake, including creating channels, adding root balls, building gravel spawning beds, rehabilitating the bank and drastically improving the lake for fishing.

 

Davis Lake - In the Tombigbee National Forest, this 200-acre lake lies about 15-miles south of Tupelo.

"Several 13-pound largemouth bass have been caught out of this lake," Clay said.

Davis Lake features 24 camping sites, each with water and electric hookups, a grill and a picnic table. The area also has toilet facilities with hot showers, a sewage-disposal station near the entrance of the recreation area, picnic areas, a swimming area and a boat launch ramp.

 

Turkey Fork Lake - This 240-acre lake, located about 44 miles below Laurel in Southeast Mississippi in the Chickasawhay National Forest, received stockings in 1995 of catfish, bass and bluegills. Turkey Fork Lake provides several recreational opportunities, including fishing, water sports, camping, picnicking and hiking. The recreational area has a full-service campground, a tent-camping region, a secluded picnic section with tables and grills, a shaded beach, a bathhouse, an accessible fishing pier, hiking trails and a concrete boat launch with two courtesy docks. Clay reports that the lake produces some 13-pound bass.

 

Choctaw Lake - One-hundred-acre Choctaw Lake in Ackerman, just south of Starkville, in Choctaw County, also in the Tombigbee National Forest, has received stockings of bream, crappie, largemouth bass and catfish. The recreational area features camping, fishing, hiking, picnicking, boating and swimming opportunities.

The lake has picnic sites with tables and grills, boat ramps with courtesy docks and a swimming area with a beach. Anglers can fish from the boat or the shore with plenty of gravel beds within rod-and-reel distance from the shoreline.

 

Chewalla Lake - The newly renovated 260-acre Chewalla Lake, just south of Holly Springs in the Holly Springs National Forest, holds 10- to 12-pound bass. The day-use section includes a playground, a swim area and beach, a sand volleyball court, a scenic trail along the lakeshore, an overlook and new restroom facilities. Chewalla Lake also has plenty of campsites with hot showers and hookups.

 

"I talked with a trophy-bass fisherman from Meridian who fished the National Forest lakes regularly, and he mentioned that he caught double-digit bass from these lakes prior to April 1, but rarely would catch a really big bass after mid-April," Clay said. "He explained that he could catch 3- to 6-pounders throughout the year, but the really big bass would be caught in February and March."

Clay also explained that anglers who catch trophy bass prepare to fish like hunters who take trophy white-tailed deer do.

"To take a trophy deer, you'd hunt a piece of property that consistently produced trophy deer in a place that didn't receive a lot of hunting pressure," he said. "You'd search for where a big deer liked to feed or bed.

"Well, these National Forest lakes consistently have produced double-digit bass. Most National Forest lakes receive very little fishing pressure, and the bass in these lakes eat bluegills, threadfin shad and other live bait. Most bass fishermen don't like using live bait to catch bass, but big bass primarily eat live bait."

 

To learn more about the USDA National Forest trophy-bass lakes, visit www.fs.fed.us/r8/mississippi/Recreational_Activities/index.html. For more information about tiger bass, go to www.americansportfish.com, or call 334-281-7703.