The north boat ramp at Okhissa Lake in the Homochitto National Forest was nothing like it was in 2007 when the Bill Dance Signature Lake first opened. Instead of waiting for an endless line of eager anglers to launch their boats, I drove right up to the ramp and had my pick of the best parking spots.
The early excitement that swept through Bude in southwest Mississippi with the opening of Okhissa has faded like Marty McFly’s brother and sister on the picture he kept in his pocket in the movie Back to the Future.
“I was here the third day it was open,” said Patrick Engerran, who frequently drove from southeast Louisiana to fish the lake 10 years ago. “Man, it was brand new and still had that new-car smell.”
It wasn’t unusual for Engerran and his friends to catch 150 bass a day.
“You could literally go 12 casts and catch 12 bass,” he said as we idled away from the ramp. “Look at all these dollar pads and this coontail. None of it was here when it first opened. Except for standing timber, it was bare all the way up to the bank.”
As the lake matured, the dollar pads and coontail showed up. There’s no doubt its emergence threw a lot of anglers off their game. Those that didn’t adapt to the changing conditions struggled to catch bass and lost interest.
Not wanting Okhissa to completely fade away like McFly watching his hand starting to disappear, anglers like Engerran made their move by switching over to bass techniques tailor-made for grass fishing.
“Back then, we caught bass on the ends of points in 10 to 20 feet of water,” he said. “And if it was 10 feet, it was because they were moving up. The coontail and dollar pads have taken away a lot of that kind of fishing. Instead of dragging Carolina-rigs and football jigs out in open water, we’ve switched to punching grass and pads with a Texas rig.”
And there’s no better time in Engerran’s estimation to fish the Okhissa vegetation than November. As long as the weather stays warm enough, which it usually does, the vegetation will be just as abundant as it was in late summer.
“For November, the pressure is starting to come off it because of hunting season,” he said. “The bass kind of get back to their normal routine and aren’t quite as bait shy, not nearly as skittish. And they’re starting to move to the backs of the little pockets because they’re following the shad. They get those big fat bellies on them this time of year and are absolutely fun to catch.”
Engerran reasoned that bass get a little easier to catch this month because fish are more ganged up around the shad, which in turn are more concentrated in smaller areas of the lake.
As we began making our best efforts at hauling out a big Okhissa bass, I immediately grabbed my frog rod.
“Good luck with that,” Engerran laughed. “I know it looks like a frog-fishing heaven, but these pads are so tight they will blow up on your frog and blow it up in the air instead of getting it in their mouths. On a good day, you might hook two out of 10 bites. It’s fun to do, and it can help you locate fish, but the best way I’ve found to catch these bass now is punching the edge of the pads and the coontail with a Texas-rigged soft plastic.”
I noticed the Toups’ Tackle Zydeco Hog Engerran was flipping around the grass was about the same color as the grass: a green base color with some gold flake. Engerran said he prefers extremely natural-looking colors in the clear Okhissa water.
“I don’t like for my baits to stick out a whole lot here,” he said. “It seems like everything in the water kind of takes on a greenish hue like this grass, and if the bass are feeding on bream, it’s especially good. Anything that looks natural will work; green pumpkin and watermelon with a little bit of flake are ideal. But if the bite is really tough I’ll go straight green pumpkin or watermelon with no flake.”
Staring at the near gin-clear water, I couldn’t help but notice that Engerran had braided line spooled onto his reel and wondered aloud how he got away with such visible line in such clear water.
“I don’t downsize my line at all,” he said. “I just use a clear fluorocarbon leader tied directly to my braid. I still get the benefit of the braid around all this vegetation, but I don’t have to worry about them spotting my line.”
Because the water is so clear, Engerran said that Okhissa bass are predominantly sight feeders.
“If we can see 6 feet down, how far can they see, 10, 12, 15 feet?” he asked. “Basically, these fish see something and they come after it.”
Engerran and I spent a lot of time pitching to the edges of the grass, striking out for the most part. That’s when he mentioned that another of his favorite ways to fish Okhissa is with a drop-shot worm.
I wasn’t having any of it, though. Okhissa might have had clear water, but it didn’t have the bare, open water that makes drop-shooting so productive.
“It ain’t like that,” he said. “All I do is rig it up like a Carolina rig in reverse. Instead of sinker then bait, I’ve got bait then sinker.”
Specifically, Engerran rigs up with his normal 17- to 20-pound fluorocarbon and a 3/8-ounce weight.
“It’s not so much the line as it is the presentation,” he said. “When I’ve got my weight below the bait, the weight is down in the grass kicking around, and my bait is just kind of dancing around right at the top of the grass.”
Engerran fishes his drop-shot like he would a Carolina rig by casting it, allowing his weight to touch bottom, then slowly dragging it in.
“You don’t have to put a lot of motion to it,” he said. “When you’re fishing, your arms are going to move around without you even realizing it. Just that little bit of movement that you don’t even think about is enough to put some action into your worm. I don’t see any point trying to dance my bait around much more than that.”
While talking about how much he loved fishing a drop-shot at Okhissa, Engerran continued casting his Texas-rigged Zydeco Hog.
Immediately after moving over the end of a long, main-lake point, he turned around and fired a cast that landed right on top of it. Something felt strange to him, so he reeled down slowly to try to get a better feel. When he felt the head shake, he set the hook.
“Never even felt the bite,” he grunted as he worked to get the fish’s head coming our way. “Sometimes, like this one, you don’t feel the bite. Other times they knock the rod out of your hand. If they’re biting it soft, the best thing you can do is what I just did: reel up slow and easy and make him react.”
Before he could release his bass, I asked Engerran how he was fishing his Texas rig. I spend a lot of watching how successful anglers fish to see what they’re doing that I’m not, and I noticed that he wasn’t fishing his bait like a typical Texas rig.
Instead of hopping it off the bottom and letting it fall back down, he was dragging it just like he would have a Carolina rig.
“There’s just something about Okhissa that makes these bass respond better to a drag rather than a hop,” he said. “When I can fish a Carolina rig, I drag it. When I fish a drop-shot, I drag it. And ... when I fish a Texas rig, I drag it.”
Engerran reasoned that dragging weights on the bottom kicks up mud, which attracts clear-water bass that typically feed on sight.
“Hopping it can work, but I’ve found the drag to be best more often than not,” he went on. “And I like a 1/2-ounce tungsten weight to get it down to the bottom faster. When you’re fishing 15 to 25 feet of water, it can take a lighter weight forever to get to the bottom. Lighter weights may get more bites in some situations, but I don’t want to give these clear-water fish a good look at my plastic when it’s falling.”
We wound up picking off a few more bass before deciding to call it quits. To say we got anywhere near 15 bass, much less 150, would be a bit of a stretch. However, the seven or eight we caught were all chunky, healthy bass that allowed Okhissa to give a taste of what’s in store for anglers that still visit the lake.
Engerran said a good approach in November would be to start in backs of creeks looking for schools of shad or fish.
“I’d keep a suspending jerkbait in my hand while I was looking,” he said. “If you spot some action, maybe fish some plastics on the outside edges of the vegetation. I’d also check the humps in 20 to 40 feet that top off around 15 feet.”
The humps are not hard to find. Just look for the big openings in the timber. There will generally be a hump there.
“And I’d try the timber off the sides of the humps,” he added. “Sometimes they’ll suspend in the timber at the same depth as the top of the hump. They just kind of slide across from the hump to the timber, but they generally stay at the same depth. If you get on them in the timber like this, you can get happy in a hurry.”
Okhissa Lake may not be what it used to be, but it’s hasn’t completely faded away yet. You won’t be able to go back to the past, so you’re going to have to fish in the present, and that bodes well for your future.
All you’ve got to do is make your move.