Mississippi’s reputation as a destination for crappie fishermen is unparalleled, with its waters offering action that is the envy other of states.
That action peaks in the spring, when anglers from around the country descend on the Magnolia State.
And the I-55 corridor in North Mississippi, along which lies four of the state’s best crappie holes — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer flood control lakes Grenada, Enid, Sardis and Arkabutla — is perfect for anglers coming in from the north.
At the top of that list is Arkabutla, about 30 minutes south of Memphis, Tenn.
The smallest and shallowest of the four Corps lakes, Arkabutla is often bypassed by fishermen driving south to either Sardis, Enid or, the most likely destination, Grenada.
That is a mistake, according to one of the county’s best-known and accomplished fishermen, seven-time National Crappie Champion Ronnie Capps.
Capps lives on Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, but he considers Arkabutla his home away from home.
He said the disparity between Arkabutla’s recreational pool and conservation pool creates widespread fluctuations in water levels and lends a few clues as to why the lake doesn’t fish like some of the other flood-control impoundments.
Capps said the appeal for him of Arkabutla, other than the size of the crappie in it, is the large amount of submerged brush around the shoreline. Where most crappie trollers would find that a hindrance, Capps said that shoreline cover makes the lake prime for slow vertical trolling for he and his tournament partner Steve Coleman.
“A lot of anglers think the only way to catch crappie around any kind of submerged brush is by single-pole jigging deep in the brush,” he said. “What we do is either follow a vegetation contour, like a brush row or a weed line or we’ll follow a depth contour.
“Steve and I have made it a point to mark every good fish we catch while trolling on our GPS, just like we do if we come across a brush top. At the end of the day, we’ll pull up our fish log and it really jumps out at you that most of the better fish were on some type of contour line. We use that to establish a pattern.”
Capps and Coleman have pioneered the art of slow vertical trolling and then mastered the technique of taking a bunch of lines out and trolling them where the sun don’t shine.
“I’ll look for green bushes that line the edges of the long points or channels coming into the lake, especially around the Hernando Point or Coldwater River areas. With all this rain we had a few weeks ago, the water is plenty high enough, you need to get back there in those bushes with the fish, deep in the shade and cover.”
Whether fishing for fun with his wife Kay, or chasing down another tournament win with Coleman, Capps makes Hernando Point on the east side of the lake his base of operations.
From there, he’ll ride southeast to the headwaters of the lake to the intersection of Coldwater River and Hickahala Creek.
“Where Coldwater and Hickahala meet, there’s a bunch of little cuts and ditches that cross the top of the bar,” said Capps. “I’ll get in there and follow those cuts, pushing a set of poles up that ditch. I might use straight minnows or I might tip a jig with a minnow but I’m always going to be using live bait. There’s a lot you can learn this time of year by using live bait and paying attention to what your bait is telling you.”
Another veteran Tennessee crappie angler who fishes regularly at Arkabutla is Wade Hendren, who also fishes the national crappie tournament circuits.
Hendren calls Arkabutla “a trophy lake where you’re going to find bigger fish and fewer numbers.”
Hendren’s favorite spots for spring crappie fishing are the flats out in front of the mouths of Mussacuna and Cane Creeks. Though these areas are within sight of the dam, the water depths are only 8 or 9 feet at their deepest, again depending on the prevailing water levels.
“Fishing deep in the river channel doesn’t work at Arkabutla,” said Hendren. “You’ll catch a boat load of small catfish in there, but very few crappie. The 4-to 6-foot depths are the best average depths when fishing for crappie.”
Like Capps, Hendren favors multiple-rod trolling over single-pole jigging. He finds it easier to maintain a single jig on each pole rather than load up with multiple minnow hooks, especially if he’s fishing on the shallower flats. But, he agrees the minnow rigs have a bit of an advantage.
“You can put a 1- or 2-ounce egg weight on a minnow rig and push it a lot faster than fishing single jigs,” he said. “That’s an advantage because those crappie are roaming the flats feeding on bait and having the heavier weight lets you troll faster and cover more water.”
Anthony Reasons of nearby Hernando is a Mississippi angler well-versed in locating slab crappie at Arkabutla Lake. Reasons is a full-time guide with John Wood’s Guide Service and claims that May is one of the best months of the year to pursue Arkabutla crappie.
Reasons seldom has to run very far on Arkabutla after launching his boat at Hernando Point.
“Within this immediate area, within sight of Hernando Point, there are probably at least 100 stake beds that have been put out by local anglers,” said Reasons. “I can’t tell you the number of crappie fishing tournaments that are won in this area alone.”
For visitors to the lake who may not be familiar with the intricacies of Arkabutla, Reasons said all a newbie has to do is look for jugs put out by commercial catfishermen.
“Nine times out of 10, where you find jugs out in the water, you better fish right beside them,” said Reasons. “The commercial catfishermen understand that catfish like the edge of the channel and many times those are the same locations where you will find crappie.”
Most of the time, Reasons’ fishing poles will be equipped with double-hooked minnow rigs, the same variety favored by both Capps and Hendren although he will, on occasion, use a jig tipped with a minnow. For the most part, the guide finds that the dingy waters of Arkabutla make straight bait the best choice.
“The good thing about using a minnow is you don’t have to worry about what color to use,” he said. “Just make sure it’s big. We have big white crappie in this lake and they can easily eat a big bait. A 3-inch shiner is the standard here.”
“You’ll also need to bring at least 10 dozen minnows for a day’s fishing on Arkabutla,” added Reasons. “You’re allowed four poles per person, so every time you change baits on a double hook, minnow rig set-up, you’ll be changing nearly a dozen minnows each time.”
His final tip was to put your poles out and go. Some lakes have honey holes that are known to always hold fish, but Arkabutla crappie tend to be nomadic, especially when the post spawn season arrives and crappie are chasing schools of bait to replenish weight lost during the spawn.
“Crappie on this lake move around a lot,” said Reasons. “Just because you catch them in one location one day, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there tomorrow.