Crappie at these two lakes spawn later than those in the rest of Mississippi, creating great May opportunities for anglers.
“Crappie eat every day” is a mantra that keeps a lot of anglers going when the going gets tough. It’s a way of breaking things down to their most basic form and realizing that no matter how hot it is or how cold it is or how whatever it is, somewhere there are fish that are willing to bite.
However, it’s still hard not to wish that it could be spring again where every tree and every bush held the potential for a big spawning slab at a time when crappie fight their hardest and are easiest to catch.
Over the years, savvy crappie anglers here in the Magnolia State have come to realize that while you can’t make it spring just by wishing, if you time it right, you can enjoy an extended spring spawn by doing a little bit of traveling.
“It’s pretty neat,” said Kent Driscoll, a member of the Mississippi Crappie Club and pro staff manager for BnM Poles. “Down south at Barnett, you can find fish spawning in late March. About the time that’s done, you can work your way north up I-55 and hit the spawn again at Grenada and Enid the first couple of weeks of April. When that starts to dry up, Sardis and Arkabutla fish go on the beds the last two weeks of April.
“Fortunately for us, when those fish finish spawning, the lakes over on the Delta are finally getting about right in May, and we can hit a great spawn one more time at places like Tunica and DeSoto.”
Spawning on the Delta lakes is incumbent upon fresh inflows of water from the Mississippi River. Both Tunica and DeSoto are connected to the river, and when water levels rise above certain heights, the old oxbows get a surge of incoming water. Because the Mississippi drains water from points north, much of the spring rise is due to spring run-off and snow melt from up north. This water is considerably colder than impounded water found in reservoirs, and has a dampening effect on the spawn.
The result is that Delta crappie won’t go on the beds until after the fish in nearby reservoirs have already spawned.
“The river dictates the whole process,” said Driscoll. “There are years when the river doesn’t come up as much. If that happens, we won’t get the water inflows, and the spawn just fizzles out.
“Take Tunica, for example. If the water levels at the Memphis gauge never get above 10 or 12 feet, there’s no point in trying to fish Tunica. The water will stay inside the old oxbow channel, and it doesn’t put water up on the switch willow banks for crappie to spawn in.
“Looking at this year, I feel certain that won’t be the case. With all the rain, flooding and snow melt they’ve had up north, the river should stay up all year, and we’re looking for some great action on these delta lakes.”
To get an inside look at the wheres and hows of the late spawn at Tunica and DeSoto, Mississippi Sportsman talked with local guides on each lake. Here’s what they had to say about turning back the clock for spawning crappie.
Dawg on Tunica Cut-Off
For more than 30 years, Ed “Dawg” Weldon, who lives in Tunica, has been guiding clients on Tunica Cutoff, and looks forward to rising spring waters flooding the willows that cover the ridges alongside the old oxbow. Weldon said once the water gets right, it’s some of the best fishing of the year.
“Check the Memphis gauge in the paper to make sure the water is at least 15 feet,” advised the guide. “Ideally, the water will be somewhere from 15 feet up to around the lower 20s. That will put enough water in from the west end of the lake so you can get up into the willow trees to fish.”
Weldon favors the northern end of the 3,800-acre oxbow for most of his fishing. Tunica is somewhat shaped like a horseshoe that bends back on itself around a swampy patch of Lee County, Ark. The oxbow channel serves as the dividing line between Mississippi and Arkansas.
By land, the two points of the oxbow are barely more than a mile apart, but by water, a boat would have to travel 11 miles to get from one end to the other. At varying places along the oxbow, one side of the lake is steeper with a sharp drop-off into the main channel, and the other side will be flat, shallow and forested with willow trees, botton brush and cypress trees.
“I’ll generally start out fishing with a single long rod with a jig on the end of the line,” said Weldon. “When the water starts coming up and the temperature starts getting up toward 70, crappie will be on the outside edges of the willows, and we just work our way along a flat dropping that jig around the bases of the trees or any fishy-looking spots.
“Then as the water gets higher the fish will push deeper into the flats. That’s when you have to pick your way back into the tangle, and that makes it harder to get the jig where you want it.”
The Tunica guide said the topography under the deeper tangles of switch willows and brush will form pockets and hollows that will attract fish. In order to reach these honey holes, he may have to cast the jig a short distance. For this type of fishing, he may employ a slip cork a foot or two above the jig.
“Some people will put a minnow on a hook under a bobber and cast it back in there, but I’ve never cared much for minnow fishing,” he said. “I like a 1/32-ounce jig with some kind of tube jig or rubber skirt in red/chartreuse or black/chartreuse.
“Since I’m fishing water that’s anywhere from 1-4 feet deep, I’ll cast the jig under the cork and pop it a little to get their attention.”
Tunica maintains its own population of crappie, but gets an inflow of fish along with water from the Mississippi. Weldon said the average fish on Tunica will be in the 1¼- to 1½-pound size, and be a mix of both black and white crappie. The guide says on a couple of occasions he has even seen black-nose crappie come into the boat.
Dixie Ducks on DeSoto
Torch Tindle hails from Cleveland, and is a full-time guide and outfitter. When he’s not chasing ducks in the winter, he’s guiding for crappie on Mississippi’s delta lakes. This month, Tindle keys in on DeSoto.
“DeSoto is behind a levee, and is tied into the Mississippi River,” he said. “The best conditions will exist on DeSoto when the river level at the Helena (Arkansas) gauge is around 16 feet and there’s no significant rise or fall in the river.”
Like Weldon, Tindle looks for crappie to push up on the willow flats on the inside bend of the oxbow, and he fishes them hand-to-hand combat-style with a single jig on a jig pole. At 16 feet, he indicated there would be around 5 to 7 feet of water up in the willows, and he works his way in there around the bases of the trees.
“With all the snow melt and rain coming down the river, the water will take a while to warm up to the 65 degrees that’s needed to put the fish in spawning mood up in the willows,” said Tindle. “It’s also got a good bit of stain to it, so it’s best to use brightly colored jigs and even something with a little flash.”
His choices of colors are pink/chartreuse and orange/chartreuse. He fishes these colors on a 1/16-ounce Roadrunner jighead. The small blade attached to the Roadrunner provides a touch of flash and vibration that both excites spawning crappie and helps them hone in on the bait.
Tindle has also discovered that when he’s catching nothing but males sporting their spawning colors and dug in deep in the willow flats, he’ll often catch bigger females scattered along the edges of the trees waiting for the right water temperature or proper moon phase to get in there and lay eggs. Under these conditions, he’ll troll for the females.
“When the females are hanging out on the edge of the willows, I’ll tightline the same jigs from the front of my boat and catch them scattered,” he said. “The females will generally hold at about the same depth as the males. These are typically bigger fish that may average a pound and a quarter or more, but we’ve seen them top the 3-pound
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