There is a rock weir behind Fordice Island, almost directly across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. The river was around 9.9 on the Vicksburg gauge and Richard Baker said we could get all the skipjack shad we’d need for bait for our catfish outing in just a few minutes there.
He held the boat against the current as I cast into the swift water with a line of three curly-tailed jigs. Each cast added bait to the bucket, sometimes a double but most times a single.
Before we drifted away, Richard suggested I throw a spinning rig he had in the boat with one of the biggest lipless crankbaits I had ever seen. Based on the condition of the finish, it had been in battle with toothy adversaries.
“Start reeling as fast as you can as soon as it hits the water,” Baker said. “Keep the bait close to the rocks, right where the water is pouring over the weir. We might catch some stripes up in here.”
There was never a second cast.
The rod took the brunt of the strike and the drag began to strip against my effort to reel. We started to drift with the current as Richard cut the motor and rushed with the net. The stripe came to the boat gave us a pretty good look, then with a mighty shake was gone. Baker took the rod and reeled in the excess line, stopping to examine the oddly curled monofilament end where once his well-worn bait was tied.
“Knot broke; I been meaning to retie that bait,” Baker said. “Oh well, let’s go get some catfish. That was a sea-run I think. I got a good look at his stripes and didn’t see any broken lines. He’d gone 8 or 10 pounds at least.”
(In case you were wondering, Mississippi River catfish love cut shad floated about 20-inches under a two-liter soda bottle. But jugging will be another story. This story is all about earning our stripes.)
Ben Lassetter, a truck driver and oil field roustabout from Forest, had been told of the big striped fish that were thick below the spillway at the Ross Barnett Reservoir and he had to investigate.
He sat on the rocks, sipped a beer and he watched the anglers cast and retrieve, then cast and retrieve.
Finally one angler in a boat with what looked like a long saltwater rod pulled in a striper. That was the fuel Ben’s fire needed to become an inferno. He didn’t have a boat, but he would catch them from the bank.
“I’d buy the biggest shiners I could find and cast them as close as I could to the churn made where the gates were discharging,” said Lassetter. “It took a lot of casts, but finally I caught my fist striper. What a rush it was, I never weighed it but I’d caught big largemouth before and it was way bigger than those.”
It was at the spillway Ben was told about the lowhead dam near the waterworks in Jackson. Stripers were thick there, they said, but you have to walk a long way to get to them on the Rankin County side. After the first trip the former high school offensive lineman commandeered his nephew’s little red wagon to carry the needed tackle.
It was not a walk for the faint of heart.
A saltwater fish
Striped bass spawn in fresh water, and then travel to the sea (the Gulf in our case) where God only knows where they go and what they do until they are smitten with the urge to procreate. Once again, they enter the coastal rivers that empty into the Gulf of Mexico, on a spring run.
For Mississippi, that is primarily the Pearl and the Pascagoula river systems. Fisheries biologist say the bass are about five years old at this point, in the peak of their reproductive ability.
“As part of a federal program, the state of Mississippi has released over one million Gulf stripers since 2010,” fisheries biologist Tom Holman said. “We are part of a network of states that produce Gulf stripers, which are genetically distinct from the Atlantic strain. The fish are stocked in Barnett Reservoir (on the Pearl River near Jackson). Some stay there while others make it through the spillway. Some are also released in the Pascagoula River.”
The current state record striper — caught March 5, 2016 by Rocky Rawls of Gautier in the West Pascagoula River on a live bull minnow — could have been one of those released fish.
Hybrid bass, also known as Sunshine Bass, are a cross between a Gulf Strain striper male and a white bass female. White bass females are easier to obtain than their striped counterpart. The last hybrid stocking in The Rez was in 2012 when 40,000 were added to the lake. According to Holman hybrids only live about 7 years, so the ones still in Barnett should be big.
With both strains in the reservoir, how do we go about catching them without tripping over the riprap at the spillway? Pretty simple answer — we follow the spawn in the spring and follow the bait fish the remainder of the time.
Trolling and casting
Bob Ponds is considered the dean of striper fishing at Ross Barnett. One method he uses in summer is to troll until he finds the fish then he casts to them. What follows are his tips and techniques perfected by years of experience. Bob is the father of professional angler Pete Ponds.
“In the summer the stripers will move back down the river to the main lake, using the river channel as a navigation route,” Bob Ponds said. “They hold in particular areas near the river or along submerged creek beds. As the summer progresses they will move toward the dam and gather in schools where they feed on the shad population.
“They’ll stay with those shad until they think they have wiped them out, and then move on to another area. I have to say they are the most unpredictable fish in the lake.”
Ponds locates summertime stripers by trolling with either a Series 200 or 300 Bandit crankbait or a Bandit Flat-Maxx to locate the fish. When he locates a school, he stops trolling and starts casting to the fish with the same lure he was trolling.
When the bite slows, or the fish are sluggish, he recommends a soft plastic on a jighead. Chartreuse is the go-to color and a Cocahoe minnow-shaped tail offers the desired action.
“Morning through midday is a good time to be trolling and casting,” Ponds said. “Late afternoon has never been such a good time for me. Watch for the shad to be forced shallow. You might see them jumping. The bass are coming up under them and forcing them to the surface. Don’t troll through them, but get close and cast into the shad. Along the dam the stripers may be hanging at 20-feet then move up to 8-10 feed to attack the shad.”
In winter and spring the stripers go up river and tend to congregate in the deep bends in the river. It is during these months that Ponds fishes near Coal Bluff following the same pattern as in the man lake in summer, trolling until the fish are found then casting to the school.
There is still good striper fishing below the spillway, according to Ponds. In fact, he has developed a lure just for the challenges of the rushing current. He calls it a Slip-Up.
“The bait is heavy, spoon-shaped and with a weedless hook.” Ponds said. “Allow the bait to go to the bottom, then retrieve it with five to seven turns of the reel handle (a 6:1 reel ratio) to bring it off the bottom. Then allow it to flutter down again. It’s a technique I have seen work well many times.”
Other striper waters
At one time, Eagle Lake had a good population of hybrid stripers, but restocking was reduced in the past decade. After the 2011 Mississippi River flood introduced Asian carp into the lake, striper fishing has all but ceased.
That same year, hybrid stripers were stocked in Lake Bogue Homa, Lake Lincoln, Lake Tom Bailey and Okitbbeha County Lake, all part of the MDWFP’s state lake system. Since then there have been no other stockings in these or other smaller waters.
In the coastal rivers, anglers are accustomed to following birds that are feeding on the surface. The birds are feasting on shallow swimming baitfish or shrimp, or those pushed to the surface by schools of predator fish. It’s not rare to catch redfish, speckled trout or a striped bass in the same school.
As for fishing on the Pascagoula River and its extensive tributary systems, stick with the advice Ponds offers for the Pearl and target the deeper, drastic bends in rivers (Chunky, Chickasawhay, Leaf and Bowie rivers) as the fish make their spawning run.