Every angler who has ever wet a hook has an idea of the perfect place to catch fish. For some, it might be a private farm pond, for others it may be a secret set of coordinates out in the Gulf. The one thing these perfect places have in common is that when you go there, you catch fish.

Bernard Williams is a veteran crappie angler who fishes all over the state with the Magnolia Crappie Club and across the country while competing in national tournament trails. His perfect place, when it comes to wintertime fishing for crappie, is behind Ross Barnett Reservoir. Particularly, he's speaking of the Pearl River after it exits the "Rez" below the spillway.

"It's just too easy," says Williams, who operates Central Mississippi Guide Service along with his fishing partner Don Terry. "When they open those gates at the spillway, crappie get sucked out of Barnett and washed into the spillway. It's just like fishing in a pond right after it's been stocked. For the first mile or two of the river behind the spillway, crappie are behind every tree, every stick up and every piece of cover on the bottom of the river."

Ross Barnett Reservoir is owned and operated by the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District. The lake was constructed primarily as a water supply for the Jackson metropolitan area and to provide recreational opportunities that benefit the surrounding area. Unlike most of the major federally built impoundments across the state of Mississippi, flood mitigation falls far down the list of priorities at Barnett. Another benefit is that the Barnett dam is not involved in hydroelectric generation. There are no turbines or turnstiles to churn fish into mash before they enter the spillway.

The stocking effect at Barnett is a result of the Water District maintaining the winter pool level of 296 feet. Water levels above this mark are siphoned into the spillway utilizing up to 10 gates. Spillway Supervisor Dick Gilbert explains how the fluctuation between winter and summer pools is achieved.

"Barnett is not a very deep lake," he said. "The average water depth here is about 12 feet. Since the floods of 1979 and again in 1983, the district has been maintaining winter and summer pools to offset collection of water during the winter and spring months.

"Our summer pool is 297.5 feet, and we start building back to that level on April 10 of each year. Ideally we will reach summer pool by June 1, but nature plays a big role in determining when that date actually arrives.

"By Oct. 12, we start decreasing from summer pool to winter pool with a target date of Dec. 1 to get down to 296."

 

Fishing the spillway

Williams is quick to point out that while fishing in the spillway can be easy, it's also no secret. He claims that when conditions are at their best, it may be quite possible to walk from boat to boat across the width of the river from Rankin to Madison counties without getting wet. Williams also says that few of these fishermen who congregate at the upper end of the spillway realize that bigger crappie often reside farther downstream.

"I much prefer to go a mile or a mile and a half downstream to do my fishing," he said. "That gets you away from the crowds, and I find that I catch much better fish than I could if I were within sight of the spillway."

The guide targets any type of current break that he can find downriver. While the downriver current may not be as strong or as pronounced farther away from the spillway, Williams contends that crappie still gravitate to the slack-water areas. He says a perfect spot to fish is behind any type of tree blowdown.

A blowdown along the bank will create an eddy behind it, and that's where the crappie will stack up. Sometimes this type of cover will not be very obvious, and the cover may be entirely under water or only a small portion may show above the surface.

"I try to get in the river at some point during the summer and do some scouting when the water in the reservoir is up and the water in the river is down," said Williams. "A lot of the best crappie-holding structure is exposed then, and I'll take pictures of it with my camera, making sure to take note of how to locate the structure when the water is back up. The next winter, it's just a matter of easing up to the cover and either tying directly to it or anchoring above it and letting the current hold me over the top of it."

Williams' best tactic is single-pole jigging. He uses a 9- to 10-foot jig pole to present a 1/16-ounce jig on the lee side of the cover. The water tends to be murky or downright muddy, so he prefers a plastic crappie tube jig body that incorporates chartreuse in the mix. He's also fond of solid yellow. When the water is extremely cold, as it is in January, he may tip the jig with a live minnow or Berkley crappie Nibble to entice bites from crappie.

 

Gauging water levels

According to Williams, one of the factors that confuse many anglers is the effects of rising or falling water on the spillway bite. The water levels are rarely stable, so Williams wants to know if the water is rising or falling before his trip. Either situation can be good, but where he chooses to fish will be dictated by either rising or falling water.

"If the water is rising, it will push crappie farther up the creek bank and into any other water they can get to," he said. "This means that when the water is between 22-25 feet on the spillway gauge and rising, I know I'm going to head into the very back of Pelahatchie Creek or fish back in some of the cuts and sloughs that come into the river."

Two side locations for catching crappie below the spillway are Pelahatchie Creek and an old oxbow of the Pearl River that's locally known as Mule Jail Lake.

On the other side of the coin, falling water levels, which coincide with a stable winter pool in the reservoir, will pull crappie back into the Pearl River channel.

"One thing that draws crappie up into the spillway is that the moving water won't be as cold as the still water," Terry said. "Usually you think of moving water as being colder, but in the dead of winter, shallow pools of water can get cold enough to freeze overnight. The moving water in the spillway stays just a couple of degrees warmer, and that draws the bait and the crappie."

Terry indicates one of the better spots to fish in the spillway is the mouth of Pelahatchie Creek. The small tributary feeds into the Pearl River right across from the public ramp. Terry says it's not uncommon for one boat to anchor in this intersection and have three or four other boats piggyback onto the tie up.

"Crappie will move in, and everyone will catch fish," said Terry. "Then they move off, and there'll be some down time while everyone waits for the school to move back in."