The day started out especially warm for late May as Magnolia Crappie Club tournament director Hugh Krutz and his partner Steve Stevenson headed out for a day of crappie fishing.

It's not unusual to find several of the Magnolia boys and girls pre-fishing before a tournament, and very often you can pick the best areas to fish on lakes like Barnett, Arkabutla and Grenada by the number of trucks at the ramp bearing the MCC logo.

This particular day was no different, although the list of ramps was narrowed down and off the regular beaten path for the popular club. This month's tournament was being held on Okatibbee, a 4,144-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake near Meridian.

"The club used to fish tournaments here several years ago, but we haven't been here in a good while," said Krutz. "It's an awesome lake for numbers of crappie, but in the few times I've fished it for fun over the last couple of years, the sizes of fish have been down."

This year the Magnolia Crappie Club may be in for a big surprise, at least that's the opinion of Okatibbee Park Ranger Mark Dean. Dean is housed at the central corps facility near the Okatibbee dam, and has seen quite a change in the crappie fishery over the past couple of years.

"Some big crappie have already come out of this lake this spring," said Dean. "We've had a reputation for the large number of small crappie in this lake, but I believe that is changing. I drive through the campgrounds during the spring and summer, and look at the sizes of the fish folks are catching, and there are some nice ones in here."

Dean explained that much of the turnaround is due to past drought years when the lake was down and vegetation grew up around it. He further explained that the water levels have remained pretty stable for the past two to three years.

The Okatibbee project was authorized by Congress in 1962 to form the lake from the Okatibbee and upper Chickasawhay rivers. As a result, these two old creek runs are the most prominent terrain features of the lake. Add that much of the old forest land was logged prior to impoundment, and now you can add a vast assortment of tree stumps as primary cover on the lake floor.

A cooperative management program with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, & Parks includes the annual stocking of both forage and game fish. The program also creates and replenishes fish attractor sites on the lake. The content of these attractors is both natural and manmade.

"We get a lot of culls from a local Christmas tree farm to use as fish attractors and put these out in the early spring," Dean said. "This year we also built some PVC structures, some that stand upright and others that are similar to the porcupine balls that are available from places like Cabela's. These have been marked by GPS, and the coordinates are available through the Wildlife Department."

Dean said the most popular method for catching crappie during the summer is deep-water trolling in the vicinity of the brushpiles and supplemental structure that have been added to the lake. He also said the MDWFP regularly conducts creel surveys from the lake. While both black and white crappie are available in Okatibbee, Dean believes there are more whites than specks.

"The deepest area of the lake is right in front of the dam - that's where most of the crappie come from during the summer," he said. "Either that or trolling the edges of the old creek channel.

"Those should be good places because we put most of the fish attractors along those routes."


Pre-tournament day

When asked about his preparations for the Magnolia Club's upcoming tournament, Krutz made the prediction that the angler who covered the most water and was able to catch and cull the most fish would have the best chance of winning the tournament. To his way of thinking, covering lots of water means he'll employ one of three different trolling tactics.

"The lake has some backwater that's really hard to fish if the water is not up," said Krutz. "The spawn will be over by June anyway, so the fish should be in post spawn and holding along the old creek channel that runs through the middle of the main lake.

"The creek has silted in, so there's not going to be a lot of change in the depth of the water, but the creek channel winds around a lot so there's a number of inside and outside bends to it, and those are the areas that should concentrate crappie, even if the change in depth is only a couple of feet. To me, that makes this lake a prime candidate for trolling."

The term trolling can mean a lot of things to different anglers, so Krutz narrowed his selections down to three major tactics, tightlining, longline trolling and pulling crankbaits. He anticipated a lot of the Magnolia anglers would tightline either straight live bait or a combination of jigs and minnows along the winding course set by the old Okatibbee creek channel.

"You rarely see big pods of shad on the graph, so finding bait may be an important factor," he said. "Because of the numbers of fish, there's a lot of competition for shad.

"In fact, you can do really well just fishing straight jigs without having to tempt them with live bait."

Krutz said one local favorite bait is a hand-tied hair jig that could either be tightlined from the front of the boat or long lined behind the boat. For his money and time, however, he admitted he would probably pull crankbaits.

"I can start pulling crankbaits right out in front of the ramp and troll all the way to the dam and probably make 20 circuits in the seven-hour time period of the tournament," he said. "That's covering a lot of water."

Krutz offerred that the best strategy when fishing a lake known for numbers of fish is to cover as much water as possible and cull fish until you pick out the biggest ones to weigh in at the end of the tournament. He also said he isn't interested in setting up in one spot.

"It can get unseasonably hot in late May and especially June," he said. "That's another reason I want to keep moving, keep some breeze going, even if it's just the movement of the boat."

Regardless of the method picked for fishing Okatibbee, Krutz said the deep water in the channel or the stretch right in front of the dam, both of which offer 20 feet of water, would be the best choice.

"If I was going to fish shallow, I'd probably consider the area known as the Minnow Ponds," he said. "That would be the last place that's likely to hold shallow fish; otherwise, a couple of long points reach almost to the creek channel and that would provide a good drop off into deep water.

"I expect we'll see a lot of fish caught either way, take your pick."