For three weeks last winter, crappie fishing veteran Morris King trailered his boat down to Tommy's Trading Post on Highway 43 only to stare longingly at the white-capping water out on Ross Barnett Reservoir.

It was a modern-day tale of the old fox and the grapes. Only these grapes weren't hanging high in the trees - they were suspended under the water, and the old fox couldn't get to them because of the wind.

Rather than disregard them as "sour grapes," the old fox bided his time, and before long, the wind subsided. He picked those grapes - by the bunches.

Such is wintertime crappie fishing at the Rez.

During the cooler months, Barnett's contingent of predominately white crappie hang out and suspend in the vicinity of the lake's deeper offshore structure. By simply looking at a decent topographical map, it's easy to pick out a number of old lakes, ponds and sloughs that were covered when Barnett was a mostly wetland area that bordered the Pearl River (it was impounded by the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District in 1962). In addition, the historic Pearl River channel isn't to be overlooked along with several major intersecting creek channels as suitable structure.

For fishing this type of deep vertical structure, most crappie enthusiasts rely on a time-tested method of slow vertical trolling. Over the years, King has developed his own personal style of tightlining.

"I run eight rods all from the front of the boat," said King, who is one of the founding members of the Magnolia Crappie Club. "Six of these are B'n'M PST rods, 14 feet long, and two of them are the same make of rods only 16 feet long. The two long ones go out the front, and the other 14-footers are on the sides so it looks like a 'V' plowing through the water when they're all situated in rodholders.

"I use 12-pound high-visibility line - my preference is the Vicious Offshore hi-vis mono - to which I tie a barrel swivel and then a two-way rig tied with 8-pound fluorocarbon. I run two jigs, both of them Show Down Jigs made by Earl Brink. The bottom one will be a ¼-ounce hair jig and the top one is a small 1/48-ounce mylar jig tipped with a minnow."

Tightline trolling became famous in crappie circles around Reelfoot and Kentucky lakes as a way to cover a lot of water while presenting baits at two distinct depths. During the winter, Barnett crappie are notorious for suspending, and a bait that comes in too high or low will miss the majority of the fish.

According to Kenny Browning, another veteran crappie angler who's been hot on tournament trails the last couple of years, determining the depth at which crappie are suspending is one of the primary keys to catching fish on Barnett.

"I look for baitfish on the graph," said Browning, who lives in nearby Brandon. "If there's any current pushing through the lake, it will bunch baitfish up around these submerged lakes and holes, and that's why the crappie are in there. One day, all the fish may be hanging out 7 feet deep over 25 feet of water, and the next day, they may be down at 15 feet. If you aren't fishing right at those depths when the fish are there, you'll miss them.

"Another important tool I rely on is my Humminbird Side Imaging sonar unit. Even though these fish suspend, they do so in relation to specific bottom contours. Side Imaging helps pinpoint these locations in just one pass over an area rather than requiring me to put the boat right on top of them."

 

Running with the wind

According to King, the biggest challenge to catching suspended Barnett crappie is the wind. Winter conditions mean frequent cold fronts that are often followed by some fair-weather days. If fishing must occur, such as in one of the frequent crappie tournaments he fishes, he gets out and looks for a wind break to provide calm water; otherwise, he watches the weather, and plans his fun fishing trips accordingly.

"My routine is to put in at Tommy's Trading Post near the Highway 43 bridge, check the wind and go from there," he said. "If there's not much wind, or it's blowing out of the south or southeast, I'll stay right there around the bridge, and work those ledges on either side of the bridge. That's where I did so well last year.

"If it's strong out of the north, you pretty well have to go upriver or put it on the trailer and go home. With a westerly wind or southwest wind, you can go down around Rose's Bluff and fish the old lake right off the point where all the big houses are, or maybe get farther out and fish the old river channel."

For Browning, wind doesn't present as big a challenge. He relies on his 21-foot Ranger Comanche to help keep him on the fish, but finds that he rarely has to go out of sight of the Highway 43 bridge to catch fish anyway.

"The old river channel runs right under the bridge, and there are probably five or six old lakes and other holes within close range of Highway 43. The entire length is rip-rapped, so if the wind get's bad, you can usually get on one side or the other and have pretty decent water," he said. "If it's not bad at all, there's probably another 30 or 40 ledges on the main lake not very far from there. Some of these have standing timber in them and they get fished pretty hard; others have no timber around them, and those are the ones that can be loaded with fish that nobody knows about."

 

Tightline tips, patterns

Once you locate a hole that's holding fish, there are a few more tips that can help you figure out a daily pattern and put more crappie fillets in the pan.

"Most of the guys use spinning reels when they tightline, but I really prefer a medium-sized baitcast reel," said Browning. "For one thing, I find it easier to measure off line with a baitcaster than a spinning reel. The second is that I can make minor depth adjustments without having to flip the bail to get more line."

King stays on the move to up his odds.

"For me, it's never stopping," he said. "I troll with a Minn Kota Maxxum variable-speed trolling motor. I run it down pretty slow about .4 mph, but I never stop. If I'm catching fish, I may circle around and hit that area again, but I think they want to see those baits in motion."

Browning thinks size is important.

"I like bigger baits," he said. "Barnett seems to have three strains of crappie. There's the white crappie with the smaller mouths. Those fish are pretty aggressive, but they can't get their mouths around a big bait. Then there's black crappie, which I rarely see when crappie suspend in deep water like this. Then there's what I call a big-mouthed white crappie. His mouth is three times the size of the others, and he likes to hang out over those ledges and eat big baits. Those are the ones we catch pulling 3-inch crankbaits out here during the summer and the ones we catch with ¼-ounce jigs during the winter."

King feels proper depth is vital.

"One thing I can say is that these fish will hang out over deeper water the colder the water gets," he said. "In late November and early December, they may be at 13 to 14 feet over 20 feet of water, but by the end of December, you'll find them around 15 to 18 feet over 30 feet of water, and it seems like the bigger fish will suspend deeper than the others."

Browning agrees.

"I typically only fish one jig - a ¼-ounce hair jig - and I can get pretty deep with that," he said. "But Show Down also makes some big split-shot weights - they come in ½-, 5/8- and 1-ounce sizes. If I need to fish really deep, I can pinch on one of these big splitshot weights and get down there without having to retie or re-rig."

King advises anglers to keep working an area if they catch a couple of small fish.

"There's no rhyme or reason to sizes this time of year," he said. "I'll pull up on one spot and catch anything from ¾-pound fish all the way up to 2½ pounds. I guess that's good for the lake - it shows we have a wide range of fish that can be caught. Plus it's not like some lakes where you see a 2-pound fish every once in a while. This place has got a lot of big crappie just down there hanging out."