Pickwick Lake on Mississippi’s northeast border with Alabama and Tennessee has earned a solid reputation as a crappie fishery, and its deep, clear and cool waters present anglers a different challenge.
It has solid numbers of both black and white crappie and, as you’d expect, in mid-March both start the transition to shallow waters for the spawn.
But, because of the abundance of crappie and offshore cover at Pickwick, not all crappie go shallow. Popular opinion is that a lot of fish spawn around offshore cover, mainly stumps and docks.
That creates an angler’s choice type situation, where crappie fishermen can catch fish just about any way they want at Pickwick in April. The most popular tactic is side-pulling, a variation from the typical spider rigging that has been made famous by Pickwick guide Roger Gant.
Side-pulling really shines during pre-spawn and post spawn phases, but adaptations make the tactic productive year round. Of course, many old school crappie anglers still love to use a single pole to jig for crappie during the spawn.
Once crappie have recovered from the spawn and throughout the summer, trolling crankbaits is a very popular tactic to catch fish oriented to the thermocline.
Here’s a look at each of these tactics in more detail, after which you can take your pick at Pickwick.
More than 50 years ago, while crappie fishing with his father, Gant made a startling discovery. The father and son had been casting for crappie along the shoreline of Pickwick Lake and decided to take a break to eat lunch. After he put his rod down and let the boat drift sideways across the lake, the unattended jig on Gant’s line eased across the bottom of the lake where it was promptly devoured by a crappie. Sensing they might be on to something, the father and son forgot about eating and spent the rest of the day plucking slabs from the middle of the lake just drifting sideways across the open water.
Fast forward to the present time and it’s no secret that crappie fishermen can catch crappie year round by going to them in deep water rather than waiting for them to come to the bank to participate in the yearly spawning process.
With spring in full bloom, many crappie fishermen will be out on Pickwick, drifting and trolling with multiple rods. If you look close enough around Lake Pickwick, you’ll see more and more of them trolling sideways. Most likely, they learned this sideways tactic from Gant.
“Side-pulling is a controlled way of drift fishing,” Gant said. “It’s a way to put crappie jigs precisely where you want them and keep them in the strike zone. The trolling motor is mounted on the opposite side of the boat and I’m pulling the boat backwards while watching the depth finder.”
He said a good depth finder is a necessity to locate groups of crappie scattered over creek edges and holding on stumps and humps. He believes crappie will seek a preferred depth as a comfort zone. Once he finds that depth, he can load the boat with slabs.
“I’ll fish along an area starting on the shallower side and work my way deeper until I find a depth at which they’ll bite,” he said. “Once I know that, I can go to an area that has stumps or edges at that depth and wear them out.”
For Pickwick crappie guide Brad Whitehead, the appeal of sideways crappie fishing has more applications than simply drifting with jigs. He admits that he catches plenty of big crappie in the conventional sense with side-pulling, but it doesn’t end there. He’s discovered that when crappie come shallow during the spawn, he catches more of them by getting his baits out away from the boat.
“Pickwick isn’t a muddy lake like some of the other big name lakes across Mississippi,” said Whitehead. “We can get some really gin clear water and that makes it hard to fish anything less than 20 feet deep on a sunny day without worrying about the boat shadow spooking fish.
“That’s when I started experimenting with some of the balsa wood corks and hit on the idea of side-pulling corks so that I could get lines further out away from the boat while working shallow water.”
Whitehead likes to arrange the corks, usually eight or nine of them when he’s fishing with a party of two anglers, in a wide arc, while gently bumping the boat along over the flat. If the bite is slow, he may even halt the progress of the boat and let the cork rigs sit, dancing right in front of the fish’s nose in order to tempt a bite.
“I use a Thill slip cork and tie a bobber stop about 12 to 16 feet up the line,” Whitehead said. “The average depth of the good stump flats is about 18 feet. That puts my bottom jig right at the top of the stump and the top jig a foot or so above that. I like two 1/16- or two 1/8-ounce jigs, so I have to have the right size cork to float them.
“I fan cast the cork rigs, space the rods out across the side of the boat and start easing across the flat sideways with the corks 50 to 60 feet behind the boat. Once the boat passes, the jigs may not get to that spot for several minutes and that’s plenty of time to get a fish to bite.”
Whitehead stated that he can catch a lot of fish side-pulling nine or 10 months out of the year, but the month of April is one of those times when the fish get too shallow to side troll effectively without pulling corks. The water is clear and it’s just hard to get them to bite when they are less than 10 to 15 feet deep. Using one of his older side-pulling boats that’s now outfitted with a casting deck, the guide can stand up in the front of that boat and pitch a jig along the edge of the creek channel without putting the boat right on top of the fish.
“Pickwick has been down in the 40s and 50s during the late winter and as soon as those night time temperatures start to warm the first place on the lake that you’ll start to see the temperatures rising is in the shallows in the backs of creeks,” said Whitehead. “A good example is at the very back of Bear Creek where the water comes in, it will start warming up in the afternoons and the shad move in to get to that warmer water and the crappie come in right behind both to eat and then to spawn.”
Whitehead said anglers have a choice in April of jigging visible cover that they can see along the shoreline, or, to catch better fish, anglers can work the offshore cover that everyone else doesn’t fish.
“Most of the stuff on the bottom is old stumps that were cut when the lake was made. Only a few of the stumps are visible above the water,” said Whitehead. “You have to look for them on your depth finder to make sure you’re next to the edge of the channel. The presentation is very similar to what the fish see when I’m side-pulling except the boat isn’t right on top of them. You also have the excitement of feeling that hard thump when a fish hits the bait. That bite makes for some exciting fishing.”