Natchez Knuckleball

Jigs are popular on the lake because they can be fished on the channel drop-offs and for bass spawning on logs in 6 to 8 feet of water.

You may not hit one out at Natchez State Park, but the lake there is loaded with singles, doubles and triples.

If you think your 13-year-old daughter is temperamental and mercurial, you haven’t ever spent much time with a Florida-strain largemouth bass.

Just like that silver-smiling adolescent, a Florida-strain largemouth will zig when you thing it will zag, and it will serve up a Phil Niekro-style knuckleball when you least expect it.

About the only difference I see between a teen-aged girl and a bass lake full of Floridas is that I could leave the lake for greener pastures if things get a little too unpredictable. The girl? I would have to stick around and do my best to figure her out, or at least absorb the tough times until things got better.

Obviously, no self-respecting dad would abandon his daughter just because he no longer understands her. Why, then, do so many bass anglers abandon their favorite lakes just because they struggle catching fish?

Just like a dad who sees his daughter through adolescence by understanding the situation is rewarded with a fine young woman that eventually proves she was listening all along, a bass angler that sticks with his favorite lake through the uncertain times will eventually be rewarded with a lake full of fish that just so happened to be there all along.

Natchez State Park in Adams County is just such an example of this conundrum. Located off U.S. Highway 61 near Stanton approximately 10 miles north of Natchez, this 250-acre lake has lived a long and full life. So full, in fact, that it produced the current 18.15-pound state record bass in 1992.

Those were the best of times.

The lake was already going through changes before Anthony Denny caught the record bass. It was drained and renovated in the mid-1980s, and was subsequently filled with Florida-strain largemouth bass. Like a boomtown that sprang up around an oil well, Natchez State Park was the center of the Mississippi bass fishing world right after the record catch.

But like a ghost town, the anglers are now largely gone, boat ramps are quiet and the once enormous pressure has faded from a yearlong pounding to a spring fling.

Boomtowns become ghost towns because the well dried up. Natchez State Park hasn’t dried up, though. The bass are still there, and the anglers who stuck with their favorite lake through the tough times are often rewarded with 8- to 10-pound bass tugging on the ends of their lines.

Natchez State Park was created in the 1970s when a large hardwood bottom was flooded. All the trees were left standing, so the primary cover immediately became the standing timber. Things have changed since then, but the lake is still full of cover and structure that bass find appealing.

“There’s not many trees left standing, though,” said MDWFP District Biologist John Skains, a 17-year veteran in the department. “There are a lot of stump fields out there, and there are several small channels that run through the coves, which are lined with some of the stumps and timber.”

The channels within the coves typically span 6 to 10 feet, and they mainly drop from 3 or 4 feet down to about 10 to 12 feet. The drop is pretty sharp, and veteran anglers know that a sharp channel drop coupled with cover on the edge of the ledge provides a bass with a spot at which they can spend most of their lives.

Other than the wood cover and creek channel structure, bass can frequently be found around the few remaining patches of pondweed. Grass carp were introduced to the lake in the past in an effort to control the pondweed, but Skains says there is still a smattering of it around the lake.

In an effort to provide a more desirable vegetation to the lake, Skains and the MDWFP are working on introducing lotus pads to provide bass a means of overhead cover coupled with open water lanes underneath.

“The bottom of the lake is some really fertile soil, and we get some algae blooms in the summer,” Skains said. “And the lake is fertilized, so it greens up really well in the summer. During the remainder of the year, the lake never really gets too muddy because the water that runs into the lake is all coming out of the hardwood land. It’s well buffered.”

If there is so much good going on with Natchez State Park, why are some anglers shunning it in favor of trendier spots like Lake Calling Panther?

According to Skains, it has a lot to do with the leveling out of the lake after the boom that came with the initial Florida bass stocking in 1984.

“The record bass was caught nine years after the initial stocking,” said Skains. “We assume it was an original fish that was stocked. What we see in all our lakes is that they get big trophy bass after that initial stocking. Ten-pound bass were very common back then. (The first record) was a 14.92-pound fish that was caught in 1991, and then we had the 18-pound fish in ’92.”

The dates these big fish were caught fall right in line with the trophy surge that happens after an initial Florida bass stocking. This is when launch ramp lines are long and fishing pressure is high.

The trophy craze eventually peaked, and the number of big bass began to level out. The size of the biggest fish also declined.

“We had a 15-inch minimum on bass for several years,” Skains said, “but we went to an 18- to 22-inch slot limit in 1992 to try to prolong the protection that the larger fish received.”

In the 15 years since the state record was caught, Natchez State Park has continually produced good fishing for those anglers who grew and adapted along with the lake. The fish remained there all these years; they just got a little smarter and tougher to catch.

Those who put in the time and effort to figure out new patterns, places and techniques continued to catch fish while everybody else was fishing the flavor of the month.

“I fished Natchez State Park pretty heavily after that big fish was caught,” said James Davis, an FLW tournament angler from Ferriday, La. “The fishing got tough for a while just because there were so many people out there on the lake. The lake got the most pressure it’s ever had from the early ’90s to the late ’90s. You could catch some fish, but it seemed that the more you fished it the harder you had to work for them.”

Davis stuck with the lake for several years, and he eventually figured out that consistently catching bass meant moving off the banks and over offshore structure like the channel ledges and piles of fallen timber. He believes the lake is set up great for anglers who don’t mind fishing stuff they can’t see.

“The lake is primarily what I would call a structure lake,” Davis said. “It’s the kind of lake where you can catch a few on the banks. But if you move off and learn how to fish the less-pressured underwater stuff, you will catch more and bigger fish. It takes time to learn exactly where fish congregate, but once you figure it out, you can have your own little honey hole.”

Danny Smith, a member of the Bryan’s Marine Triton Team in Vidalia just on the other side of the river, has fished the lake some the last several years, and he also believes the anglers who know how to fish structure do better at Natchez State Park than those who don’t.

“When I say structure, I mean changes in the bottom depth,” he said. “It could be an underwater point, a creek channel or a small hump out in the middle of the lake. Finding structure that has cover like stumps or log piles on it is key to catching fish.”

Smith typically sticks with fishing the sides of the creeks with typical structure presentations like Carolina rigs, crankbaits, jigs and Texas-rigged soft plastics. The spots he likes the best are where the small feeder creeks run into the two main arms.

“During the spring, you can catch some fish on the minnow-type baits like a Rogue,” Smith said. “Soft minnow baits like jerk worms will also catch some good fish. You can catch fish along the bank when they’re up spawning, but you’ll still catch more and bigger fish by getting out in about 6 to 10 feet of water where they spawn on old logs.”

Before bass get locked onto the beds is when Smith tries to pull them up out of the logs on the jerkbaits. But once they get locked on, he has to hit them on top of the head to get them to bite.

“That’s when I fish something like a Texas-rigged tube or the Stanley Bugeye Football Jig with a small plastic trailer,” Smith said. “You can get both of those baits down to a deeper bed and just let it sit there until the bass decides to bite. I like that football jig because it will make the trailer stand straight up while it’s sitting on bottom or a log.”

Since the lake is so small, there really aren’t any secret spots where anglers can get away and fish. However, according to Skains, if there were a secret spot on the lake, it would have to be the cove right by the boat ramp.

“That spot holds more fish than just about any place in the lake,” Skains said. “We’re really not too sure why because it’s not really any different than the other coves. Other than that, one off the other good coves is the one behind the park office. It’s a big cove into the spillway, and it’s a busy spawning area.”

Skains says that some of the best patterns he knows for the lake are fishing pumpkinseed plastics along the channel ledges so that they drop all the way to the bottom of the creeks, fishing jerkbaits around the remaining patches of pond weed, and fishing topwaters and spinnerbaits around the banks.

While Skains doesn’t expect the lake will ever produce any more giant bass, he says it is reasonable for the lake to give up quite a few 8- to 10-pound bass each year with an occasional 12-pounder.

“The first fish that were stocked didn’t have any competition for food,” he said. “Since then, the subsequent generations of fish have created competition to the point that they don’t just keep growing and growing. We still have some good genes in the lake, there’s just more competition.”

As for the future, Skains says the MDWFP doesn’t have any immediate plans to help Natchez State Park regain its trophy reputation. They would eventually like to renovate it, but for now there are enough big fish coming that they are content to let it be — aside from introducing the lotus pads to the lake.

“It may not be as popular as it used to be,” he said, “but it still has a pretty good reputation. The giants may not be there, but as far as a good fish lake goes, there aren’t many better opportunities in the area to catch a 10-pound bass with a real good possibility of one better than 10.”

Anglers just have to remember that Florida-strain bass aren’t exactly like native largemouths. They’re just a little bit more ornery and a little bit more moody. Like the old saying goes, these fish not only know what kind of bait it is, they know what brand it is.

Vow to understand these Florida bass in Natchez State Park, and accept that you’re going to have to work to catch them. Only then will you understand that knowing smile you get from other anglers around the lake — kind of like the “I feel your pain, but isn’t it great” half-crooked smile that dad’s give to each other at cheerleader practice.


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