A few years ago, veteran crappie guide and Calhoun City native John Harrison spent a day doing something he loved - crappie fishing. On this particular day, however, he was enjoying one of his favorite aspects of crappie fishing, which is donning a pair of chest waders and getting into the water to meet the fish on its own turf.

As an experienced guide and tournament angler, Harrison doesn't have the opportunity to wade for crappie very often since most of his clients prefer the comfort of a dry boat under their feet and most tournaments have regulations against getting out of the boat while fishing. Harrison recalls the day vividly as it was when he made an incredible discovery about the fish he thought he knew so well.

"I was at Grenada, and we'd had a good bit of rain that winter, so the water was up," he said. "My normal routine when I wade for crappie is to put the boat in and ride to the very back of one of my favorite creeks, then beach the boat and get out and wade around the shallow flats.

"I was a pretty good ways back up the creek and there was an underwater ditch that was too deep to cross, so I decided to walk out on the bank and cross the ditch where it ran back into the woods. Up there it was only about 3 feet across, and even somebody as short as me could step across it.

"Well, when I started to cross, I noticed that a fish spooked in the ditch right under me, and darted off toward the lake. The water couldn't have been more than a foot or two deep there, but I got curious. Since I was carrying my wading rod, I pulled off about 8 inches of line and dipped the jig down in the ditch, and no sooner than it touched the water, a big ol' crappie snatched it.

"I pulled the fish up on the bank, unhooked it and dropped the jig back in again - same thing. The jig was inhaled by another pound-and-a-half crappie. I couldn't believe it. I was standing up there way back in the woods catching slab crappie out of a little ditch that was so shallow, I could almost see their backs sticking out of the water.

"That's the day I discovered how far back and how shallow crappie will go to spawn when the conditions are right."


Hand-to-hand combat

Harrison looks for male crappie in the northern half of Mississippi to start sporting their spawning colors by his birthday, March 11. He has seen them turn on as early as the last week of February, and remembers one time when he caught dark-hued white crappie males on a submerged island near the Grenada dam as late as mid June.

"They start when the water temperature gets to be about 57-58 degrees," said Harrison. "However, I'm talking about surface temperatures in the very backs of the creeks and sloughs where the water is less than 3 feet deep. These areas warm quicker than the rest of the lake, so if you put in at the dam on any of the big reservoirs, you'll find water that's 6 to 8 degrees colder than where you want to be wading. If you wait till the big water warms up, you'll miss it."

Harrison is quick to point to his home lake of Grenada as his favorite venue for wade fishing, but contends that he and other anglers have equal success fishing any of the flood-control lakes of Enid, Sardis, Arkabutla or Grenada when crappie move shallow this time of year. Wading takes away a lot of the guess work that an angler has when fishing an open body of water for crappie.

"Find a long creek on any of these lakes and follow it all the way to the back as far as you can go in a boat," offers Harrison, who also suggests that many non-boating anglers hike in or use an ATV to make their back to where the water gets skinny enough to wade fish. "The boat allows you to cover more area so you can wade all of your favorite spots in one day."

When asked to name the single most-important factor in fishing the spawn, whether it be wading the banks or fishing from a boat, Harrison said it was water level.


Controlling flood-control lakes

Dereck Redwine is an engineering technician who works at the dam on Grenada Lake. He explained that about this time every year he starts getting calls from crappie anglers from all over the area wanting to know what the water level is going to be this spring. That's when he gets to explain the ups and downs of the Hydraulic Rule Curve.

"There is no secret," said Redwine. "We have a daily target rate that we try to maintain depending on the time of year. The curve not only applies to the lake here at Grenada but to all of the flood-control lakes. They each have their own water levels that we try to achieve going from the summer pool in May to the conservation pool in February."

As an example, the desired level for Grenada during the winter is 193 feet above sea level. That is what's considered the conservation pool, which allows the corps enough storage space to collect the typical winter and spring rain run-off. Beginning on the first of February, the lake is allowed to collect run-off at a measured pace until the summer pool is reached. The summer pool is at 215 feet. The corps' rule curve targets the first of May to reach this water level

"There's a big difference in the surface area of this lake between conservation pool and summer pool," said Redwine. "At conservation pool, we have 9,810 surface acres of water at Grenada. At summer pool, we have 35, 820 acres. That means there's a whole lot more water up on the banks at summer pool than during the winter, and that's what all the fuss from the crappie anglers is about - how high will the water be in the spring so we'll know if it's a good time to get out there and wade for them."

Redwine was quick to point out that the corps only has so much control over the water level in the lake.

"We are at the mercy of droughts and floods," he said. "All of these corps lakes are 100-percent flood control. We aren't hydroelectric facilities, so we don't have power-generation schedules to contend with like some of the other corps lakes around the country. But if we're maintaining our rule curve and we suddenly get 5 inches of rain across the area, that's out of our control."

This season appears to be on the high side.

"We never made the conservation pool this winter," said the engineer. "In fact, our water level has stayed above the summer pool due to all the rains we got last fall and winter. The good news for crappie anglers is that there should be plenty of water out there covering those shallow spawning grounds, but only time will tell for sure."


Two if by sea

For those who aren't interested in chasing crappie down on foot, Harrison suggested that some minor alterations to standard tightlining tactics would pay off with some of the biggest fish of the year.

"Over time, those well-defined creeks that crappie are using to find their way back into the shallows turn into fingers because they've started to silt in and that's usually the areas where all the buckbrush and ironweeds are growing," he said. "When I'm wading, I'm targeting male crappie that are seeking places to build nests or are already on the nests guarding them from predators, but the females aren't far behind. They like to stage in little depressions on the flats or in those deeper creek fingers. They'll find some tree roots or a stump, and hang out in the creek finger because it's got a little deeper water."

The guide offered that he can catch the bigger females by easing along in his boat targeting the females that are waiting on the males to complete the nest. Using up to the maximum number of rods allowed on the lake he's fishing, he'll creep through the standing brush targeting deeper-water females that he couldn't reach when wading.

"I only use a single 1/16-ounce jig on each rod," he said, "and I'll only have about 2 feet of line out. You have to really watch those rods because one little bump is all you'll see from the females. Go slow and be real patient; you'll have to pick your way through that stuff.

"If you can follow those deeper fingers and work your way through that brush, you'll catch some of the biggest crappie there are in the country."