Okatibbee Lake has a stout crappie population that seems to climb out of the woodwork in March and April.
Idling across the flats on Okatibbee Lake, Joe Giles alternately studied the LCR and gazed at various points along the shoreline.
Suddenly the veteran angler shut off the engine, stepped to the deck and began casting toward open water.
With a chilly breeze pushing across the flats, the boat had gone a mere 30 feet when Giles hooked up with a crappie on his third cast. Once the hook was set he simply reached beneath his seat, picked up a marker buoy and pitched it overboard.
By the time he landed the papermouth, the boat had blown at least 30 yards past the initial strike zone.
After landing the first crappie on this East Mississippi Corps of Engineers impoundment, Giles fired up the big motor and idled back to the marker buoy, anchoring just parallel to where he had caught the fish. With winds predicted to be 20 m.p.h. along with 25-m.p.h. gusts, he anchored the boat with three anchors tied together.
By now the only other two boats in sight had given up fighting the wind and left the area.
Casting near the strike zone, Giles hooked up with another crappie.
“Pitch your jig right on top of that spot, because they’re usually stacked up this time of year,” advised the excited fisherman. “If you can find one crappie, you’ll usually find a bunch.”
Sure enough, a fat crappie sucked in my offering, and the fight was on. For the next hour or so, we caught or missed crappie on almost every cast. Many times we would cast the jigs within a foot of each other and hook up with a double. The action was fast and furious and got better and better as the wind got increasingly worse.
In the span of little more than one hour, we caught our limit of crappie and culled quite a few in the process.
During the first part of March, the water temperature is still really frigid, but the crappie have internal clocks that tell them spawning time is near.
On Okatibbee, the crappie will stage in pre-spawn areas while waiting for the prime spawning temperature. When the temperature reaches the prime spawning range, the crappie will move to the shallows swiftly and start looking for bedding areas.
However, until the temperature gets right, the crappie will stack up along shallow humps, drops and creek ledges.
It is during this pre-spawn time that the fish will bunch up tight to stumps and any wood structure in the 4- to 6-foot range along those humps. In the process they will become vulnerable to anglers who know where to find them and what to feed them.
One of the favorite pre-spawn areas of early March anglers like Giles is the submerged minnow pond area located in the Pine Springs section of the lake on the east side. Giles concentrates on the areas that have stumps and stick-ups along the drops and creek channels. If you can find structure in the 4- to 6-foot range bordered by a creek channel that’s 8 to 10 feet deep, then you’re in business.
If the lake water level is stable during this time, the crappie will stay in the same area for quite some time. However, if the water level rises or falls swiftly, the fish will move out.
While the crappie will bite during the early portion of the month, they may be lethargic and not ready for fast-moving baits. If the fish are pretty aggressive, Giles will use a jig-and-spinner combo. He puts a jig tipped with a grub on first, about 12 inches above a Beetle Spin type lure that is tied to the end of the line.
The spinner will let him slow the offering down, while allowing him to “feel” the lure. This lets him know just where his bait is located during the retrieve. He can slow it down to get deeper or speed it up to go shallower.
If the fish are aggressive he will know right away. If they’re not, then he might fish the rig all day long and think the perch aren’t biting.
During the aforementioned trip, the crappie were lethargic and would not bite Giles’ spinner combo. However, he was ready for that possibility, and switched to his “finesse rig.”
“I learned to fish a jig under a cork years ago while fishing with my Paw Paw Nolen on Ross Barnett Reservoir,” Giles said. “You can find the fish and really wear them out with this rig.
“Once you find the spot, simply pitch the jig on top of, or just past, the strike zone, and work the rig back over the fish.”
Giles uses a small cork just big enough to hold the jig up, but light enough that a light strike will submerge the cork almost instantly. Once he finds the depth that the crappie prefer, he’ll set his cork at that level to keep the lures in the prime strike zone.
Giles casts the jig and cork rig out and retrieves it back in a stop-and-go motion. A short, snappy jerk will pull the cork across the top and then let the jig sink back down. Most of the time, the crappie will engulf the lure when it’s on the fall.
If there is a little chop on the water, he will simply get the rig in the right area and stop, letting the wind and surface motion of the water provide the action. The motion of the surface waves naturally bounces the lure up and down, and many times that is all that is needed.
X marks the spot when the fish are stacked up, and you shouldn’t be shy about casting to the spot. You can be in the same boat, fishing the same technique, casting the same lure and not catch a fish if you’re not putting it in the right spot. Sometimes you can be off by only a few feet, and it will be feast and famine — feast for the other angler and famine for you.
Giles usually employs the use of light tackle spinning and spin casting rod-and-reel combos when utilizing these techniques. He prefers using hard-bodied tubes.
During clear water conditions, favorite colors on Okatibbee are black/chartreuse, red/chartreuse and green/chartreuse. In times of muddy water, darker colors like black, brown and pumpkinseed are pretty good bets when tipped with chartreuse, hot pink or orange tails.
Giles learned one hot tip from a past crappie master at Okatibbee many years ago.
“Max Hodgins turned me on to tipping my jigs with crappie nibbles,” he said. “Max had been on the lake one early spring day when nothing was biting. Nobody was catching them, except anglers in one boat. When they ran out of crappie nibbles, they quit catching them. Max tried them from then on and swore by them in the springtime when the crappie were still finicky.”
If you don’t believe they make a difference when the bite is tough, just try them for yourself. Or better yet, let your partner fish them and see if you can keep up with him or her.
High water crappie
During rainy years, the water may often rise to flood stage or above. The water will flood the shoreline willows, buttonbushes and move back into the woods. When this happens the crappie move in pretty quickly and venture into the brush as well. Regardless of temperature, if the water rises into the shallow shoreline brush, the crappie will follow. They may have to be enticed into biting, but they will bite, even if they aren’t real active.
Anglers may locate crappie anywhere flooded brush can be found. A couple of hotspots that hold fish during times such as these are above the Pine Springs road on the east side of the lake, and above the Centerhill-Martin Road causeway on the north side of the main lake. These shallower areas will warm much quicker and attract crappie.
The key to fishing floodwaters is to keep your lure either in the brush or tight to it, as the crappie will bury up in the cover. When the water is cool and the crappie are lethargic, they won’t move very far to strike a lure. And they surely won’t chase a fast-moving minnow or lure.
In such conditions, there’s nothing more efficient than a jig pole teamed with a jig.
Many veteran anglers employ a crappie pole and jig on about 2 feet of line. Gary Mayatt of Collinsville is a veteran Okatibbee angler who is very proficient at catching crappie when the water is in the bushes. The retired West Lauderdale High School coach and principal spends many of his days in the spring on the water in search of the tasty slabsides.
Mayatt begins by fishing the outer bushes, and then works his way deeper into the brush. If the fish are really buried deep in the middle of the bushes, he will utilize a tricky technique. With the pole in one hand, he’ll grab his line with the other and pull the jig up to the rod tip. Then he will stick the tip into and through the outer limbs until he gets to the open spot near the base of the bush or tree. Then he drops the jig.
Mayatt’s favorite jig is a 1/16-ounce Paddle Bug that glides down slowly with an erratic motion. The successful angler methodically works the brush with the jig much like a skilled surgeon.
After sticking the rod tip into the bush he’ll let the jig slowly glide down. If a crappie is at home, he’ll probably get a bite on the initial fall. If they don’t bite on that initial fall, then he’ll slowly ease the lure up and let it fall again. If there’s a fish anywhere near, you can be sure he’ll get its attention. If he doesn’t get a bite after a couple of jigs, he moves to the next bush and dances the jig again.
During the last high-water period on Okatibbee, Mayatt worked the bushes over day after day with good results. Once he finds an area that holds fish, he’ll work them over until the bite slows.
After the action subsides he’ll keep on the move and cover a lot of water. Sometimes the crappie will be scattered, hanging near individual bushes, and sometimes they will be wadded up tight in big schools. When they’re scattered, Mayatt will keep the jig in the water and move from bush to bush picking up one or two fish on each bush. With a 10-inch minimum and a 30-fish limit, it won’t take the crappie master long to fill his creel, once he’s found the pattern.
During another March crappie outing, I pulled up into a favorite cove on the west side of the lake just south of the Gin Creek Landing. As soon as I got to the outer edge of the buttonbushes, I started fishing.
After moving back into the cove about a hundred yards without a bite, I noticed a man in a small, flat-bottommed boat dragging them in. He was sculling with one hand and catching crappie with the rod in his other hand. The most impressive thing about the situation was the fact that this man was raking them in while about 20 other boats were going fishless with not even a bite to be seen.
As I fished near the man, I realized he was dropping his jig right into the thickest part of the brush and holding the jig almost motionless. It didn’t take him long to volunteer his “secret.”
While everyone else was running trolling motors and fishing the outer edges of the bushes, he was catching fish almost as fast as he could put the jig into the water. His not-so-secret lure was a jig with a red head and chartreuse body, tipped with a hot pink crappie nibble.
After he let me in on the crappie-nibble tip, I turned my boat around and worked my way back out. I finally stopped in an area that was about the size of a pickup truck bed, and anchored down after catching a few crappie.
The technique was so good and the fish were stacked so tightly that I caught 10 fish in a row beside one stick up. Before it was over, I had caught in excess of 100 crappie in that spot. I culled down to a limit of some of the biggest crappie I’d ever caught without ever moving the boat again. Needless to say I learned a technique that day that has paid off many more times over the years.
While color sometimes is very important, it’s more important to find the right area and to put the lure right on top of the fish.
If you’re looking for some of the finest fishing of the year, then try Okatibbee Lake during the month of March. If the weather is stable, the crappie should ready and waiting.
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