The rod tip bobbled ever so slightly. The guide barely spoke "wait." The action was playing out faster than my brain could calculate it all. Then beyond the bobble, the tip jerked straight down as I flipped the cork grip upward in an automatic reaction.

Fish on!

At the autonomic tug on the fiberglass crappie pole shaft the silver slab dove for deeper cover. The fish was not just headed for water with more depth, it was intent on wrapping up my line in a maze of tangle. It did.

"Let him play it out," counseled my able guide.

I was instructed to keep the line taut with no slack.

"He knows he's hooked, and will tire of it. When the line goes down straight again, he will be out of the web of mess down there, and you can gently hoist him out."

He was spot on in teaching this neophyte crappie angler some of the tricks he has been honing for 50 years.

When the mottled crappie parted the surface, the guide let out a yelp. That, I guess, was a signal to other anglers about the area that our boat had just landed another one. There had been several brought aboard already each to a yelp, but this was my first. So I felt compelled to add my own yelp. Not only did the crappie slab get hooked, but I did as well.

 

The persona grata crappie guide

The fishing guide that day was Harry Barkley of South Jackson. Now long retired to tend his wife, camping trailer, garden, boat and tackle, not necessarily in that order, Barkley was one of the early fisheries biologists in Mississippi.

It was not so much the accumulation of work he did on behalf of the freshwater sporting fish of this state, but the specific projects he worked on, the things he saw and the things he remembered. For that, Barkley is one of the special ones.

He was on board at the old original fish and game agency in Mississippi when Ross Barnett Reservoir was built.

"I remember seeing the property before it was flooded," Harry said. "I was amazed we could acquire the land and left all the structures and features right there.

"I remember the barns, out buildings and fence lines all now covered in water. For a long while, I could recall where to fish those spots, but over the years the lake took on its own character.

"Hard to say what came first with me, the fishing or the biology? You have to be passionate about the fishing in order to fully understand the science of it all. To me that would be kind of like being a custom leather saddle maker but never having ridden a horse.

"I guess I like crappie fishing best, mainly because of the pace you can set. There is no pace to crappie fishing. Fishing slow is in a sense one of the keys to success in crappie fishing. You can't dash about a lake trying to hit every single spot you think might be hiding a fish. Crappie live in cover, and you have to patiently fish every inch of it.

"Crappie favor all manner of submerged cover that sometimes can be identified on the surface or sometimes not. First I look for the obvious. It might be a stand of flooded cypress or willow trees like found at Lake Chotard or it could be some freshly downed treetops in a small back bay such as those on Ross Barnett. Look for downed cover close to the bank in water less than 10 feet deep. Slip in quietly, motor off, and drop baits down right into the cover.

"I like to use good silver minnows when I can find them. Sometimes I'll use jigs, but often finding the color of the day can be a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. Minnows never seem to go wrong when fish are biting.

"I use basic crappie rods 10- to 12-foot long and utility reels. I usually only fish two rods at a time, but occasionally I will try three.

"Again, the secret to filling a cooler with crappie slabs is to keep working the cover, slowly and thoroughly. If it's a treetop, I will use my trolling motor to ease me around every side, limb and branch of that tree I can reach with my pole. Either I catch fish or not, then I move to the next tree. When I run out of trees in that line, I usually circle back and do it all over again."

 

The Fishing Champion Turkey Hunter

Avid turkey hunter Preston Pittman also loves to fish crappie.

"Enid Reservoir is one of my all-time favorites mainly because I guess we always get lucky there," he said. "A couple years ago, we pulled into the area with three boats of guys, and based on the wind blowing, I never thought we'd do anything. Later in the afternoon of that day, it took us over two hours to fillet all the slabs we caught.

"One of the crappie structures we look for are grassy flats. Enid, for example, has several areas where you can find this grass in 2 to 3 feet of water or less.

"You ease into these spots with a trolling motor on slow, and fish all sides of the boat. We often rig up, bait and put out the maximum number of poles allowed on a particular lake. If the fish are biting, then this can get pretty hectic sometimes with half the poles with fish on at the same time.

"I also like to ask the reservoir manager where they last dumped artificial cover, especially Christmas trees. These evergreen babies make super crappie cover because of the density of the branches.

"We found out on Enid there are Christmas tree fields in Dew Creek and Long Branch area. Wherever you fish, be sure to ask around about any type of manmade fish cover that has been put out and how long it has been in place.

"When it comes to pulling in the slabs the best bait is fresh minnows. They have the natural action to attract crappie to bite. Once the minnow expires, be sure to replace it quickly. As good as a live minnow is, a dead one is worthless.

"I will throw out a crappie jig every so often, and my favorite colors are white and chartreuse."

 

Crappie lake resources

• Chotard Lake. Access to this well-known crappie lake is by taking Highway 465 or what is known as the levee road north of Vicksburg north past Eagle Lake.

Chotard is an oxbow lake formed in 1913 when the Mississippi River charted a new path creating the Newman Cutoff. The lake is roughly 1,000 acres in size complete with ideal crappie-hiding structure.

There are two ramps at the lake, one at the Chotard Store and another at Laney's Landing. Both will have basic supplies and bait. Laney's also has boats and motors to rent by the day. Camping spots are also available.

Fish for crappie when the river level is about 28 feet and falling. Target shady areas in the willows using minnows or chartreuse jigs. Work along the woods line in depths of 3 to 6 feet. When water levels drop to 20 feet or less, then fish the exposed cover including fishing mats placed in the lake.

 

Albemarle Lake. Just up the canal connected to Chotard is its sister lake. Albemarle was formed before the 1913 flood, but by 1934 the big river finally decided to settle down with the Newman Cutoff, which was later formed into the Willow Point canal.

Get to Albemarle via U.S. Highway 61 to the first blacktop west below the Onward Store at Highway 1. When you get to the levee, go south to the old Dent Fishing Camp.

This lake has a deep east bank and a shallow west bank. Fish Rocky Point on the east side. There are numerous crappie mats on the lake. Ask around. Also be sure to fish the willow trees on the west bank, the snags, tops and dead trees on the north end. Popular jigs are black/silver and black/chartreuse or a Slater's No. 8 in crawfish color.

 

Wolf Lake. This is a bit of a sleeper lake, but Barkley mentioned it as a good backup. The lake is north of Yazoo City on U.S. Highway 49 west. Look for the old Sally's Wolf Lake Grocery and boat ramp. This point divides Wolf Lake from Broad Lake. Wolf is on the upper end. This lake is a huge oxbow complex.

Wolf Lake is widely described as a real crappie producer. Slab crappie are the norm not the exception throughout the year. Structure can be fished equally well by trolling jigs, minnows or both. Some use a minnow and a jig on the same line.

 

Lake Mary Crawford. In Lawrence County five miles west of Monticello on Highway 84, Mary Crawford has roughly 135 acres. There are two handicapped-access fishing piers on site and two boat ramps. This lake site has had major renovations recently.

Crappie on Mary Crawford bite on minnows well in depths of under 10 feet. Favored jigs include white and chartreuse. The lake offers diverse crappie structure including downed treetops, submerged cover, gravel banks and cat tails. For a smaller lake, Mary Crawford is a good bet for crappie anglers in the southern part of the state.