By definition, gambling is to bet on an uncertain outcome, typically in a game of risk. For those who enjoy the prospect of gambling, Greenville, in the heart of the Delta, is a great fall destination offering the charm of an authentic "river town" along with casino gambling.

For visitors who desire a more predictable outcome to their pursuits, especially if the pay-off is in numbers of slab crappie, Greenville is also the home of Lake Ferguson. This 10-mile-long oxbow lake remains attached to the Mississippi River by an open runout on the lake's south end. The lake is loaded with numbers of both black and white crappie with locals suggesting that specks are the top runner due to the continual shifting currents caused by fluctuations in the river stage.

Greenville native Brad Taylor and his brother-in-law and fishing partner Chris Criswell find Ferguson to be the odds-on favorite during the fall months when cooling waters and migrating baitfish cause Ferguson's river specks to go on a feeding frenzy.

Taylor admits that Ferguson crappie average only a little over a pound. The lake does not have the reputation for holding big fish like some other lakes, but it produces good numbers of quality fish on a fairly consistent basis.


Finding structure

Back in his younger days, Taylor, a part-time fishing guide who is also the most recent past president of the Magnolia Crappie Club, spent many hours creating his own honeyholes at Ferguson by planting brushtops in order to congregate crappie. On many occasions, Taylor would return to one of his spots to find it was no longer there or had migrated up or down the lake.

"Ferguson is an oxbow lake tied directly to the Mississippi River," he said. "The lake levels rise and fall with the river. and that creates a lot of current. That current can be a good thing because it congregates crappie around structure - they use the brush as a current break. The bad part is at times when the river is dropping a foot and a half a day, the current really pushes and often washes brushpiles away or moves them for you."

Taylor's days of creating crappie structure for the most part came to an end the day he purchased a Humminbird side-imaging unit and installed it on his boat. He says the side-imaging technology allows him to make one pass down a bank and both locate natural and man-made structure and determine if there are fish holding on them.

"There's plenty of structure in Ferguson, from brushpiles and stake beds put out by locals to old wooden barges, rock piles and old car tires," he said. "By using side imaging, it's a lot easier to find structure that's already there than make your own. Plus I can see if there's fish. I may not be able to tell if they're crappie, but if I mark schools of bait and fish holding right there in the structure, it's a pretty good sign."


Spiders in the brush

Once they have located structure that is holding fish, Taylor and Criswell will back off and put out an array of 14-foot trolling rods across the front of the boat. The idea is to work the edges of the structure, whether that structure is brush, rock piles or some other debris.

"There is no rod limit on the lake, but because we're so accustomed to fishing by our club rules of three rods per angler and no more than two hooks per line, that's what we stay with," said Chris Criswell, who has been a member of MCC for 6 years, but started fishing oxbow lakes for crappie with his grandfather at a tender young age.

"If the weather and the barometric pressure have been pretty steady for several days, we've done pretty well longlining crankbaits out in the middle of the lake," he said. "That's very possible during October, and we've caught some nice white crappie doing it. But for the most part, this is a spider-rigging lake, and you need to be fishing just a couple of feet off the bottom in water that may range from 14 to 17 feet."

Taylor says that by spider rigging, the anglers can present baits vertically to crappie that are holding tight to brush or other structure.

"One big mistake that a lot of anglers make when trolling around brush is if they get one pole hung up, they start pulling on the line trying to break loose," said Taylor. "We fish six rods across the front of the boat, and if one gets hung, that means the other five are right where they need to be. If you start yanking on a fouled line, it will shake that brush and that spooks all the bait and crappie that are down there. A lot of times, if I can't get loose by easing the rod down and letting the weight dislodge the hook, I'll just cut the line at the rod tip and keep fishing."

The rig employed by Taylor and Criswell is a double-hook minnow rig. The lower leg of the rig uses a ½- to ¾-ounce egg sinker to keep the rig vertical in the water. The rig can be bumped into the side of structure without fear of hanging up if the angler is careful to ease the rods off of the structure once they feel it.

"I like to use big baits this time of year," said Taylor. "The water is cooling off into the lower 80s to mid 70s, and crappie will feed aggressively because they know that cold weather is coming and they need to build up fat reserves."

And they often try to get many of those fat reserves in one bite.

"You'd be surprised how big a bait those fish will hit," said Criswell. "Bigger fish will definitely seek out bigger baits - these are the ones we want on tournament day."


Ferguson hotspots

Unlike some other delta oxbows, Ferguson is a working lake. With the south end of the lake open to the Mississippi, numerous tugs and barges run the lower end en route to the Port of Greenville to load and offload goods and obtain repairs at the dock. Even on days when the current isn't trying to suck crappie back into the Mississippi, heavy boat traffic often creates unsettling conditions both for the fish and the angler on the lower end of the lake.

"My favorite area is what is known as the upper lake or what we call Little Lake Ferguson," said Taylor. "At the northern end of the lake, after the oxbow curls around Archer Island, it goes into a fork. The left fork narrows down to a little chute, and then it opens up into the upper lake. The further you can get from the source of all the water coming in or going out the better. That's why I prefer it up there - it's the last place to be affected by rising or falling water, and it's typically the most stable."

While both Taylor and Criswell say that a river stage somewhere between 19½-26 feet on the Greenville gauge is the best overall for fishing Ferguson, Taylor states that the chute between the two bodies cuts off bass boat-sized traffic at a gauge reading of 18 feet.

"That part of the lake holds tons of brushpiles, especially across from the old Archer Island Hunt Club landing," said Taylor. "Another great spot is located just outside of the chute going back into the lower lake; there's a deep hole that's been caused by all the current running through the bottleneck. The corps has dumped a bunch of old concrete mats, old highway lane barriers that are about 3 feet wide and 4 feet long, into that hole to try to keep it from washing so bad, and crappie will pile up around that concrete."

One of Criswell's honeyholes is also on the northern end of the lake.

"As you come out of the upper lake, the lake makes a hard bend back around to the right, heading back toward Greenville," he said. "The old channel is more of a gradual slope than a hard break line in most places, but in this area, there's some old sunken barges that are lying on the bottom. They aren't brushpiles, but there's a lot of algae growth on and around those barges, and at times they can be a sure bet for crappie."