Robbie Bridges rocked his bass boat with great force when he set the hook. A second later, with his knees and back bending against the pull of the fish and the current, he made his plea.
“Get the net — it’s a big ’un,” he hollered. “When I set the hook, I couldn’t move her. If she hadn’t shook her head, I’d swear I had hung up in the rocks.”
We knew immediately what it was, and a few minutes later — when Bridges finally coaxed the big, fat, dark green bass to the surface of Bay Springs Lake — it was confirmed.
It was a big Kentucky bass.
“Would you look at the size of that spot,” Bridges said. “What a pig.”
I netted the fish and hauled it over the side of the boat for Bridges to grab. He smiled, as if he had the confirmation he needed to back his boasts of the uppermost pool on the Tenn-Tom Waterway.
“I told you Bay Springs was Mississippi’s king of spotted bass,” the Brandon angler said. “Look at the belly on that fish: She’s short and fat, like a football.”
He was right.
Bay Springs rates No. 1 in Mississippi for spotted bass. Others in the top three are the Tenn-Tom’s Lock E, which is just below the lock and dam that form Bay Springs, and the upper river area of Ross Barnett Reservoir.
While spotted bass are found throughout the state, and especially in its clearest running rivers, they do best in the Tenn-Tom and its pools and canals, and in the Pearl River and its tributaries.
And, for fishermen who want to target spots and fully appreciate their sporting qualities, there are three destinations they must include on their annual fishing schedules.
No. 1: Bay Springs Lake
Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Fisheries Director Larry Pugh confirmed Bridges’ rating of Bay Springs Lake.
“That is the state’s best spot for spotted bass,” said Pugh, an avid bass angler as well as biologist. “We have some other good fisheries, but for overall quality, pairing size and numbers, Bay Springs is No. 1.”
Bridges likes the lake so much and calls its spot bite so dependable that when he fishes a tournament on Pickwick Lake, he makes the 40-mile run down the headwaters of the Tenn-Tom to get to Bay Springs.
“Pickwick is great, but it is so big and finding a good pattern on either largemouth, smallmouth or spots can be difficult,” he said. “Bay Springs Lake is much smaller (8,000 acres) and the patterns easier to find.
“It has deep and shallow points, big coves, standing timber, road beds and, of course, the lock and dam.”
It was the lock and dam that provided Bridges three bites in 15 minutes on our trip that produced the 4.2-pound spot mentioned above, plus a 3.4 and a 2.8, all while the lock was being filled.
“When they start locking through a boat, and sucking water to fill the lock, that’s when you want to hit the walls of the lock,” Bridges said. “It creates current that excites the fish and makes them bite.
“You can probably catch fish here anytime but not like it is when they start the lock.”
And Bay Springs is good all year, thanks to its depth and long points.
“They have night tournaments here in the summer that are real popular,” Pugh said. “Guys come out and fish late afternoons and evenings, fishing the deep points with 10- and 11-inch worms for big spots. They’ll catch them 25 and 35 feet deep.
“In the spring, the shallower secondary points and stump flats hold spots, too.”
Bridges uses two primary lures, both soft plastics. His top choice is a shaky head worm. His No. 2 is the drop-shot worm.
“Both are finesse baits, and even though spots are aggressive, they are particularly prone to bite a finesse worm,” he said. “I can catch some on spinnerbaits and jerkbaits when they move up on shallow standing timber, but you can’t beat the shaky head.”
No. 2: Barnett Reservoir, upper area
Ross Barnett Reservoir produces the highest number of spotted bass in Mississippi, but it can’t match Bay Springs’ overall quality.
“If you target spots on Barnett, you can catch as many as you want on the upper river area,” Bridges said. “Finding a big one — you know over 3 pounds — is difficult.
“But catching 12-inch spots for fun is no problem.”
The best spot fishing on Barnett is from River Bend to the lowhead dam, and the best time to catch them in numbers is the fall and spring, when they move up on sandbar points.
Shaky head and drop-shot rigs with soft plastics are good there, too, but because the habitat is so different from Bay Springs, lure choices are more plentiful.
More Barnett spots are caught on tail spinners (i.e., Wing-Dings) than any other lure, but a jighead and grub is a close second. Small crankbaits like a Bandit 200 or 300 are also effective.
“Spots have spread throughout Barnett,” said Shannon Denson of Fannin. “We’re starting to catch a good many of them on the main lake, and I mean way down on the lower end.
“And I think the biggest spots on Barnett are the ones that show up on the main lake.”
No. 3: Lock E of the Tenn-Tom
Pugh is sure the next spotted bass state record (which currently is 8 pounds, 2 ounces) will come from this small, 800-acre pool immediately below the Jamie Whitten Lock and Dam that forms Bay Springs Lake.
It is also known by the name Saucer Creek, for the stretch’s only tributary.
“Giant spots is what Lock E is all about,” Whitten said. “It’s not big. It’s nothing more than a man-made channel, but apparently it suits spotted bass very well.
“We have several 7s caught each year, and all of them come from right below the lock to Bay Springs.”
Don’t come to Lock E for numbers, even though you can get a lot of small fish bites.
“Lock E is a destination for somebody who wants to catch a giant spotted bass,” Pugh said. “That’s it. The big fish only come from November through February and maybe early March, and then it’s like they disappear.
“But during that period of time, and when boats are using the lock, there is a window of opportunity to catch the spotted bass of a lifetime.”
Pugh recommended a shaky head or drop-shot worm anytime and a deep-diving crankbait when the lock is running water.
“Beware, if you are fishing below the dam and they start to flush the lock — hold on,” he said. “They flush millions of gallons of water out of that lock in a matter of minutes, and it can be like that scene in The Outlaw Josey Wales when Wales shoots the guide rope to the barge and sends his pursuers on ‘a Missouri boat ride.’ It can get wild.
“But it’s the time when the big ones really turn on and move up against the rock walls below the lock and start to feed.”