Happy New Year to everyone in the white perch capital of the world, the great state of Mississippi. Who was that idiot politician — from New York, I think — who recently had an attack of Hoof “in” Mouth disease when he asked the question, “...but who... wants to live in Mississippi?” We need to bring that guy down here in the middle of the winter and introduce him to a jig pole and the best crappie fishing in the world!
Naw. On second thought, that guy needs to keep his NY behind right up there in the middle of the snow and ice. We’ll keep our little secret –– that January is one of the best months to go crappie fishing in Mississippi. January? You Bet! Trust me here, folks. If you want a sho ‘nuf wall-hanger perch, late winter can be the time to find that once-in-a-lifetime fish. Ask any respectable bass fisherman which months produce their biggest hawgs. January to early February will be their answer. Same thing with many of our crappie lakes. Just dodge the most brutally wet and cold days, and dress appropriately (that means, wear everything you own). Wintertime crappie fishing in Mississippi makes a true outdoorsman proud to call himself a Mississippian. So, who wants to live in Mississippi? A bunch of serious crappie fishermen who have the very best crappie fishing resources in the entire nation is my rather narrow-minded answer. We need to keep that New York feller wondering and guessing. Fall Re-Cap Fishing for crappie in the fall was practically unheard of just a few years ago. Only the most dedicated and ardent crappie fishermen pursued the sport once deer hunting season arrived. But, let me tell you, things are really changing, and, from where I sit, it seems that crappie fishing is becoming a year ‘round activity for many Mississippians. I’ve written a lot about fall crappie fishing the last two or three years. MWW has published several articles where I’ve bragged and bragged on the great fall fishing in Mississippi. In fact, the Magnolia Crappie Club (MCC) just completed one of the best fall seasons I’ve ever experienced. Let me tell you about it. MCC had a slow start to the 2006 fall season. October went from being the warmest, driest October on record to, all of a sudden, the wettest October on record. Indeed, several crappie lakes in central Mississippi and the Delta went from record-low water levels to flooding conditions literally overnight. You couldn’t launch a bass boat at Lake Washington or Wolf Lake during most of October. Then, after a deluge that occurred over a matter of only a couple of days, Wolf Lake was at flood stage with residents rushing out to take the decking off their piers before the rising water ripped them apart. We had some real unusual weather going on this past fall. Eventually, about a month behind schedule, we got to some great fall crappie fishing. You should have seen the fishing crowds and the giant –– I mean those “as big as they grow” –– perch coming out of places like Chotard and the Ross Barnett Reservoir in November. On the day after Thanksgiving I counted over 100 crappie boats catching fish after fish under the Highway 43 bridge and within 200 yards of either side of it. And, at Barnett, crappie fishermen were spread from the Roses Bluff area down in the main lake all the way up the river past Ratliff Ferry Landing. The parking lots at the boat ramps were full. It looked like the spring spawn was in full bloom. And, as advertised, the crappie were on a feeding frenzy once the lake “turned over” and water temps hit the low 60’s and 50’s. Friends of mine in the crappie club, the Smith Brothers from Brookhaven, celebrated Thanksgiving catching limits of hubcap-sized white perch at Chotard. That was with the river rising a foot a day, too. What a great fall crappie season we had in 2006! And, the great fishing continues right on into January. January Tactics Mississippi’s coldest weather and water temps often hit in January, and your crappie fishing tactics should change right along with the seasons. In the fall, crappie are very aggressive and will attack anything they think they can eat. Fall crappie are schooled up and suspended in the water column. The water clarity is never better in our Mississippi lakes than in autumn, with surface temps cooling down into the lower 50’s by late fall. Winter usually hits sometime after Christmas. Our Mississippi winters are short and relatively mild, but, still, there is a definite seasonal change, and the crappie feel it. Yep, it’s a different ball game once we start getting those cold winter rains and our lakes start muddying up. But, the fish don’t quit biting. They just relocate and go into a survival mode. Hey, it’s tough being a fish in the winter time, even in our relatively mild Mississippi winters. In January, I find that odor attractants are more important than at any other time of the year. Why? Well, the water has gone from being as clear as it ever gets to being as muddy as it ever gets. The fish are not nearly as aggressive in 40 degree water as they are in 50 degree water. That little extra kick you get from an odor attractor may be the main ingredient to a successful crappie fishing day instead of just another bitter cold disappointing day on the water. I promise that it’s not nearly as cold out there when you find the perch and start putting ‘em in the live box. Funny how that works –– you just forget the cold all together with the first bite or two. My two favorite odor attractants are Berkley’s Crappie Nibbles and Riverside’s Real Craw. Yeah, yeah — I know Riverside is no longer in business and they no longer make Real Craw, but an enterprising person can still find Real Craw with a quick search on the internet. And, I’m told that the Yum brand is pretty darn close to the old Real Craw label that claimed “300 crawfish in every bottle.” In cold muddy water, crappie use their sense of smell to locate their next meal more than at any other time of the year. So, splash it on liberally. And, go deeper, young man, go deeper. Get on down there –– way on down there –– to where those cold fish live. Trust me, some of my best January catches have come from crappie fishing on the bottom in water depths over 35 feet. Crappie don’t spend every winter day on the bottom, but they tend to be deeper in January than at any other time of the year. There are exceptions to every rule, and crappie will surprise you. About the time you think you have them figured out, bam, they’ll humble you in a minute. So, be prepared to try several different depths. One of the coldest tournaments MCC has fished in our 15 year history was in February over at Eagle Lake. The high temp for the day never got out of the twenties. We started out fishing dead on the bottom in the deepest part of the lake. Where did we eventually find the active, feeding crappie? Within three feet of the surface, right smack dab on the top of the water column. I’m guessing that, for that particularly weird weather day which was very cold, dead calm, and quite sunny, they found a little warmth at the surface coming from the sun. Eagle Lake Restoration Speaking of Eagle Lake, let me tell you what the Magnolia Crappie Club is involved with this winter over at Eagle. In case you and your idiot congressman just shipped in here from “up north” somewhere, Eagle Lake is located next to the Mississippi River just a few miles north of Vicksburg. Take Highway 61 north out of Vicksburg to Highway 465 to Eagle Lake. Eagle is one of the prettiest lakes in Mississippi. The water has an unusual aqua blue color much of the time. And, Eagle has long had one of the best reputations as a lake that produces giant, broad-backed, mean crappie. Indeed, I’ve stated more than once that an Eagle Lake perch is meaner and bigger and more aggressive than perch we catch any where else in our club tournaments. However, in recent years, Eagle has stopped producing crappie. Knowing that all crappie lakes tend to run in cycles, we kept sitting around waiting on the next cycle to kick in. Well, we’ve waited long enough with nothing happening, and MCC, along with great support and assistance from the Game and Fish boys, has decided to try to give Eagle Lake a little jump start. Working closely with John Skains, the fish biologist with the MDWFP who carries the Eagle Lake responsibility around with him daily, we developed an Eagle Lake Restoration Plan. At Skains’ suggestion, we built over 100 fish structures which he placed in Eagle. The idea was to give crappie some much-needed structure out in the deeper water. MCC jumped on Phase I of this project with an all out effort in mid-November. We had 40 MCC members plus half a dozen Eagle Lake residents working from can to can’t on a Saturday. It was an amazing work day, folks. Shoot, our folks started showing up before sunup with pickups loaded with equipment and materials. We’d already had lots of material donated and delivered to our lakeside work site. Skains built three different “prototype” structures as patterns for us to follow. I divided our large group into smaller work crews, assigning one of the three patterns to three different crews. In addition, we had a prep crew, a cement crew, and a support crew. Man, you’d have thought we were professional fish structure builders. When we first got there, no way did John Skains think we’d complete our goal of 100 structures, built and placed in the lake in one day. But the MCC folks worked like beavers building a dam and by the end of the day our final count was 112 large, tall, deep-water PVC structures. See the map provided with this article for exact locations where the Game and Fish folks placed them in the lake. Phase II Eagle Lake Phase II is the fun part of this project. Now that we’ve got some place for the crappie to hide, we need some crappie to do the hiding, right? So, Phase II is a restocking plan. MDWFP stocked some fingerling-size crappie in Eagle. They tell me they dropped 2,500 two-inch white perch in Eagle in early November. That is not a very big number of small fingerlings for a lake the size of Eagle, but it’s all they had available from the state’s hatcheries. The problem with stocking small fish is the predation rate. Everything in the lake, swimming or flying by, eats two-inch size fish. That’s why Mother Nature sees fit to gear an adult female crappie with thousands of eggs every spring. Most of those little fellers that came from the state’s cement pond won’t see more than two sunsets over at Eagle, I’m afraid. “So, what can a very large crappie club do to help restock a huge crappie lake?” we asked ourselves. Answer: Well, we’re pretty darn good at catching crappie. So, why don’t we put our number one skill to work here. Look out Chotard, here we come! Located just five miles up the levee from Eagle, Chotard is loaded, I mean absolutely loaded, with crappie. So MCC decided to relocate some of those Chotard perch to Eagle. Again, working with the Game and Fish boys, we’re hauling our December and January Chotard tournament catches to Eagle in their “live haul” truck. Our thinking is that, even if we stock only 1,000 adult crappie in Eagle, these larger brood-size crappie will survive long enough (it’s hard for a cormorant or a stripe or a gar to catch a two-pound slab) to help spawn future generations of millions of baby crappie. As I said, we’re thinking a “jump start” approach here, folks — just a little assist to old Mother Nature is how we see our role. Certainly there are other issues which are being worked on by MDWFP that will help right Eagle Lake’s crappie population. Much research and work is being directed to issues including water quality, predatory fish control, grass control, and creel limit controls. MCC has taken the stance that we need to “put something back.” We hope our efforts will help in some small way to restore quality crappie fishing for all at Eagle Lake. You can do your part, too, by not abusing such a wonderful resource. I know I’m preaching to the choir here. My guess is that, if you’re involved enough in the outdoors to be reading MWW, you probably are the last folks who would over-fish Eagle or any of our other fisheries. To you, I make a personal plea: Help Eagle Lake right itself by practicing some real conservation measures yourself. You don’t have to keep every dadgum crappie you catch — especially at Eagle. Let ‘em grow and make a few babies! Catch and release — now there’s a new concept for us crappie fishermen, I admit! MWW About the Author – Paul Johnson is President of the Magnolia Crappie Club. Call him at (601) 624-0359 to discuss crappie fishing in general or to get info on MCC.