Every spring, an eons-old phenomenon takes place in the lakes and streams of southeastern states: the waters warm, crappie move shallow and become active, and fishermen rejoice. They reap the bounty brought on by the predictable behavior of the fair-fleshed fish.
That behavior not only fills fishermen’s coolers — even freezers — but also produces a new year-class of crappie to replace those caught on a hook, making sure the cycle is unbroken.
While there is a solid argument that bass are the most-popular fish in the Magnolia State, crappie — at least in the spring — have a solid edge in popularity.
A slab primer
Crappie are a river and stream fish that has adapted well to lake environments. While they can rapidly overpopulate a small lake when key predators cannot control the population naturally, they flourish in reservoirs and river systems.
Two species are common in Mississippi, white and black crappie; the two can cross and create what is called a calico crappie. They can also be caught in the same schools and entering the spawning period at the same time.
Biologists with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks developed a solution to the problem of small-lake over-proliferation by developing the “Magnolia crappie,” a sterile hybrid of black and white crappie.
Crappies spawn annually in the spring. When waters warm to around 60 degrees, male fish move into shallow spawning areas and create “beds” around either grass or hard structure to attract later-arriving females.
During the prespawn, females stage in nearby deep water, waiting until their eggs are fully developed. Then, they move shallow to find a partner and start depositing eggs. It may require several trips in and out to expel all their eggs, usually between 30,000 and 150,000 per fish.
Grass and brush are favorite places for crappie spawn; anglers have learned to target these places when annual event begins.
Now let’s look at some of the state’s best spawning lakes.
The Rez — Barnett
Barnett Reservoir, also known as The Rez, gets the lion’s share of crappie pressure in central Mississippi. The 33,000-acre impoundment has very little water-level fluctuation, which means crappie rarely have a failed spawn. Its population of slabs is less cyclic than other lakes.
Ryan Jones, a MDWFP fisheries biologist who oversees The Rez, said the normal prespawn pattern in March is following crappie from the river channel and creek mouths to spawning areas. It’s a progression that takes weeks to complete and can vary between areas of the lake.
One way to pinpoint the start of the process, Jones said, is to keep an eye on the river channel at just south of the bridge on Mississippi Highway 43 and the area known as locally as “the Welfare Hole.” It is a vast expanse where a big eddy current forms along the river. Shad find it in times of moving water, crappie follow the shad and fishermen follow the crappie. It happens every year after February and March rains. When you see hundreds of boats, the prespawn migration hasn’t started but soon will.
Once the water temperature reaches a steady 58 to 60 degrees, fish will start to move shallow. The spawn will start earliest in the shallower upper-lake and Pelahatchie Bay areas and work downstream to the dam. With miles of shoreline and acres of grass and other vegetation, crappie have more than ample spawning locations.
East-Central hot spots
Okatibbee Reservoir near Meridian has a healthy crappie population, and each year, great numbers of anglers head there to fish. Over the years, fish attractors have been added to the lake bottom. It’s no secret a few cedar trees attached to a pallet and submerged with concrete blocks will attract crappie.
Jones has good things to say about Okatibbee.
“The lake has everything a crappie can want: good forage, trees, grass and riprap,” he said. “Anglers will find the north ramp open all year and ample grass and riprap near deeper water to attract crappie during the prespawn. The northern end of the lake will warm faster, so the first spawning activity will be there.”
Kemper County Lake is a sleeper when it comes to crappie. Brush piles are scattered around the lake from mid-depths to deeper water. Most shallow spawning areas are very close to deep water. Crappie will hold on these breaks as the prespawn progresses.
“I encourage anglers to go to the MDWFP website and study the bottom contours and brush-pile locations on Kemper,” Jones said. “Kemper is not a flood-control lake, so the level remains pretty steady. This means the grass and treetops are there when the crappie start to spawn, and there is little aside from weather to slow or deter the fish from spawning.”
Angler Charles Golden of Taylorsville said the area around the boat ramp is an excellent place to judge where crappies are and what point in the spawn active fish have reached.
“There are good weeds and grass, root balls and treetops within a short run from the boat ramp,” Golden said. “I spider-rig six poles from 4 feet down to 8 feet and follow the shoreline until I locate the fish. Then, I adjust all the rods to the same depth and fish for effect.
“Most times, I’ll put two poles away; four will be all I can keep up with. The colors of the baits are different, ranging from pink heads with chartreuse bodies to white curlytails tipped with small minnows.”
The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway gets a lot of notice for fabulous bass fishing, but the crappie bite can be just as exciting. Trevor Knight is the MDWFP fisheries biologist for the Northeast Region.
“A lot will depend on the water temperature and which lake the angler visits,” said Trevor Knight, an MDWFP biologist who works the area. “The river-section lakes — Aberdeen, Columbus and Aliceville — will warm up a little faster than the Bay Springs or Lock E. Good areas to start on the river section would be any old gravel pits or old river beds. Deep water with laydown trees in these areas are prime spots.”
In the canal section (Locks A through E), Knight recommends looking for some fish to still be in early, prespawn mode around the locks, water-control structures, outflow pipes, ditches and gravel pits. Some late prespawn fish will be moving into the dormant water willow after a few warm days, especially close to deeper water.
On deep and clear Bay Springs Lake, a lot of fish will be deeper, still relating to contour changes, but after several warm, sunny days they will move up into the standing timber and stumps in the backs of creeks. The north end of the lake will warm earlier than the deeper, clearer end.
Lake Washington near Greenville is another good choice. It’s a big oxbow, no longer connected to a river, and crappie like big water. The rich, alluvial soil makes it very fertile, so it can support lots of fish. The shad population — the main food source for crappie — is massive.
“There’s no reproducing population of Asian carp in Lake Washington like in a lot of the river connected oxbows,” said Nathan Aycock, an MDWFP biologist. “We’ve done studies showing that when Asian carp invade a lake, they compete with juvenile gamefish and with shad and really hurt the fish numbers.
“Since the Asian carp must have flowing water to spawn, they can’t reproduce in Washington, so it’s protected from them much more than river-connected oxbows such as Chotard.”
Aycock said fewer rough fish like gar and buffalo are in Washington compared to other Delta oxbows. For example, Eagle Lake has a long, storied reputation for crappie; however, Asian carp were introduced to the lake during the 2011 flood. Bow fishermen are finding good numbers of rough fish in Eagle and have no trouble filling a boat with carp in nearby oxbows Chotard and Albemarle.
“In 2016, we changed from a 10-inch minimum length limit to 11 inches on crappie to better protect the lake from increasing fishing pressure,” Aycock said. “This spring, we will be doing some further studies on the lake to evaluate the fish population again and make sure the regulations are still sufficient.
“First-timers on Lake Washington should definitely stop by one of the bait shops on the lake and talk with the owners, who are more than happy to help put people on fish. There are lots of cabins to rent on the lake for a weekend trip. Many local anglers seem pretty friendly and willing to point people in the right direction.”
In the prespawn, drift-fish depths of 6 to 8 feet out from the shallow tree line. As the water temperature rises into the upper 60s, watch for the spawn to take place and look for crappie in less than 3 feet of water. Aycock recommends fishing the huge cypress swamps on the north or south ends of the lake or along the western shoreline. Lots of crappie can be caught with minnows or jigs fished between the cypress knees.
Ron Neal and his son, Tyler. are team members in the Magnolia Crappie Club. The club visits Washington on a regular basis.
“The more you go there, the more you learn about the lake and the habits of the fish,” Neal said. “It’s one of my favorite lakes to fish, especially in March and April. You may have to swap around a little to see what color jig they are biting, but they’ll always be biting shiners.”
North Mississippi’s Big 4
Grenada, Enid, Sardis and Arkabutla lakes, all flood-control lakes managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are to crappie anglers what Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Idaho are to elk hunters — world-class locations.
Each year, out-of-state anglers move into north Mississippi with hopes of catching limits of fish on these impoundments, and most will have success. The more trips made, the more information learned that is useful on the subsequent visits.
Keith Meals, the MDWFP biologist for the district, spends much of his time analyzing fisheries on these lakes. He sees good news for 2018, but it comes with a word of caution.
“March is a toss-up,” he said. “So much depends on the water level, the rate of rise or fall and, of course, temperature,” he said. “Most of the out-of-state anglers come down in March, but many find the water low and stained. That doesn’t mean they can’t catch fish, but they will have to work harder to do it.
“The prespawn usually begins when the water temperatures reach and maintain 58 degrees. The peak of the spawn is usually first or second week of April, when the temperatures in the same locations are 65 degrees.”
Meals said a lot of factors have to come together for the spawn to be optimal. When the water level is stable and the water temperature is right, crappie will move from the staging areas into the shallows where some structure exists. But a drastic water-level change, as little as two to three inches a day, is enough to slow the activity. A rapid drop is more negative than a rise.
“The upper end of the lakes will warm sooner than the main lake, and the crappie there will spawn before those in the main lake,” Meals said. “Sardis is the longest lake of the four, and the spawn there will be the most stretched out.”
As flood-control lakes, there is a lack of structure to hold fish, and vegetation in the shallows is almost nonexistent. That means fish will be looking for stumps, exposed root balls and man-made structure (stake beds and or brush piles) as places to spawn. Deeper channels are like highways for prespawn crappie; every cove will have a ditch or channel.
Crappie will hold in deeper water, close to the shallows. Any good depth finder will assist an angler in locating these sorts of places. Side-imaging sonars can help fishermen locate additional structures that will hold fish along these underwater highways.
Boat ramps on the lakes can be a challenge. A lack of spring rains can cause some ramps to be inaccessible.
www.mdwfp.com — The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’ site has online fishing reports updated weekly and also has a depth maps and maps with locations of boat ramps and contact info for bait shops on most public lakes. Creel limits and minimum lengths may vary, so be aware of these numbers before you keep the fish. This information is posted on the website, and in the 2017-18 Outdoor Digest.
www.mvk.usace.army.mil/Missions/Engineering-and-Construction-Division/Hydraulics-Branch/Water-Copntrol-Management/ — This page on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website shows water-level information on north Mississippi’s big four lakes. Click on Tiver Bulletin and Hydrographs for the current year for each lake for a graph.