A popular idiom for simplicity is to compare something to “shooting fish in a barrel.” It has no better application than some winter fishing opportunities on the Pearl River when the waters in the spillway below Barnett Reservoir begin to rise.

Fishermen targeting crappie congregate in great numbers, and few go away disappointed.

When conditions are right and the fish are present, limits can be caught in a relatively short time. Some anglers compare the spillway fishing to the bite during the spring spawn. Read on, and discover how you too can get in on the action.

When the water gets right

To understand the phenomenon of spillway fishing for crappie, anglers needs to understand the big picture. 

Rains in the Pearl River basin upstream of The Rez must cause an inflow significant enough to sharply raise the main lake’s winter level. Like a domino effect, the inflow requires reservoir managers to increase the discharge through the spillway.

This action creates a strong current in the main lake near the gates. Crappie, being somewhat lethargic in the 40- to 50-degree water — and naturally being deep during the winter — go with the flow and are either pulled or swim with the current through the gates into the river below the dam.

There, they find water that is slightly warmer and contains a higher amount of dissolved oxygen. As they settle into their new environs, they find food plentiful, even though some of it comes with a hook. 

About 100 yards below the spillway structure the flow slows somewhat and eddy currents form where the river widens — most prominently on the west side, downstream of the boat ramp. But crappie aren’t the only finfish holding in the slack water. Shad are there as well. 

Hungry fish meet available bait, and nature takes its course. The bite is then officially on.

Also helping the cause are some warmer days that always happen in January. The old joke is that with the opening of the new legislative session, hot air in the area is inevitable.

Slow rise, slow fall

Rapid changes in the water level at the spillway will turn the bite off. For that reason a slow change, either rising or falling, will yield the best results. Remember to follow the fish, which move up and spread out with rising water and pull back to the channel when it falls.

“There are fish in the river pretty much all the time,” said Tom Holman, a fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. “I talked to a guy (in mid-November) that had a cooler full of very nice crappie that he caught using minnows around shoreline brush and log jams.”

Holman explained why the crappie are where they are this month.

“During the winter — and the colder the better — crappie become torpid and just ride or float along with the current. This is why the ‘Welfare Hole’ below Highway 43 is so good,” Holman said. “The fish get hung up in the big eddy below the bridge. Increased rain means increased current, so they come to a dam and get sucked out.

“The warmer the water, the more able they are to avoid a downstream ride through the dam because they can swim out of the current. Also, if it’s a dry winter, there’s less flow, so fewer fish move through the gates, regardless of temperature.”

Once the water is up and crappie are in the eddy, the shooting or catching fish in the barrel should be simple, right? 

Well, maybe not so much.

Remember, the fish are still sluggish, the water is stained and getting the proper presentation may take some effort.

“It has been our experience that the perch may be suspended at 8 feet in 15 feet of water, or 9 feet in 12 feet of water,” said angler Charley Golden of Taylorsville. “We have used a double-hook rig with lip-hooked shiners about 14 to 18 inches apart to locate the fish. Two anglers can do this with single poles and cover a lot of water until the school is found. A single angler may use two or more poles — rules only allow one from the bank — or a spider rig if the conditions allow. 

“Once you are seen catching fish you find out, you have lots of new friends. It’s not uncommon to see boats gather pole-lengths apart or even closer.”

Golden keeps an assortment of jigheads and tube bodies on hand and tips the jigs with small shiners, about 2 inches long. He also uses a bare hook at times rather than a jig, again baited with a shiner hooked through the back. Another thing he does is dance a Road Runner on a spinning rod until he finds the fish. He allows the lure to fall to the bottom, brings it up a few inches and makes the bait rise and fall while moving from side to side. 

“The late Billy Joe Cross taught me a trick that I really think makes a difference,” Golden said. “When tying on a single jig, tie it so that the jig and hook hang 90 degrees to the line. Even if it takes a little drop of super-glue to keep it from slipping, it seems to make a difference. The company that makes the Road Runner (TTI-Blakemore) offers a tandem rig that is deadly when trolling along the dam around the spillway and the inlet to the Jackson water plant.”

When the water’s not right

So we know why crappie are in the eddy currents below the spillway, but what about those times when the winter rains are more fickle but the cold persists just the same. The current will still bring the fish to the dam, but there is just less chance they will get pulled through the gates. This is when trolling with a spider rig can pay with dividends, according to angler Ron Neal of Forest.

“As I understand it, the riprap gets some warming from the sun and air,” Neal said. “Thus, the water near the rocks is slightly warmer and is inviting to baitfish such as small shad. So the crappie may be a bit shallower, but the fish are a little more scattered — wherever the bait is.”

Neal uses an assortment of jig styles and colors, with eight or more baits in the water at any given time. He will adjust the depths as he catches fish or sees promising images on his fish finder. He’ll fish that the successful pattern until the fish either move or turn off.

Neal and his son, Tyler, fish as many crappie tournaments as time allows. Members of the Magnolia Crappie Club, Ron likes to use 6- to 8-pound monofilament line and jigs weighing 1/8- to 1/16-ounce. 

“Just about anything with a chartreuse color is a winner,” Neal said. “Sometimes chartreuse and black is the ticket, and other times it’s pink and chartreuse. There seems to be little difference in the jig being a tube body or one tied with feathers. It’s a little more hit-and-miss, but a square-lipped crankbait in a shad pattern seems to catch bigger fish. (It) just depends on whether you want a big supper or just a few bigger fish.”

The lowhead option

Upriver from The Rez, close to where Rankin, Leake and Scott counties meet, is the reservoir’s headwater dam, the Lowhead Dam. Lowhead refers to a specific type of dam that allows a constant flow over a certain elevation, but at Barnett, it has become the nickname for a fishing hot spot.

Here, water from the upper Pearl River flows constantly over the concrete structure into the river below. On the Scott County side, there is the concrete structure that once promised to ferry recreational boaters past the Lowhead to the river above. The Easter flood of 1979 pretty much ended that idea when it washed away the transfer apparatus.

The eddy currents around that platform will hold crappie in the winter. Fishing there is better off the bank, but a boat is not out of the question.

The Madison County side of the Lowhead is only accessible by boat, and the eddy current there is usually a little smaller. Still, the fish will hold there, but be forewarned, there is a lot of trash in the water, and hang-ups are not uncommon.

Expect a light bite

More often than not, anglers will adjust a float to the depth required to catch fish. A simple, orange Styrofoam float is very common and about all that is needed. My late father, Eber Hawkins used floats made from the quills of turkey wings when fishing for crappie. He said they offered less restriction to the bait and the bite. If the quill lay flat or went down, there was a fish on. 

Golden said he often lifts his pole to check or move his bait and finds a crappie already on the line.

“There is a 30-crappie limit,” Golden said, “but you’ll need 60 to 75 shiners or more to get that limit. The rest will be used feeding the little catfish. In the 30-plus years I have fished below the spillway, I’ve caught everything but a spoonbill and a grass carp.”

When conditions come together for the perfect storm, the water will be crowded with boats, and the bank and riprap will be thick with anglers. With a little patience, everybody will get in on the action. 

Two things to remember when fishing at the Spillway: 

• First, you litter, you lose. The Pearl River Valley Water Supply District has already promised to close the spillway area to all use if littering does not stop. So when you leave, gather everything around you and place it in a garbage can or take it to another proper disposal site. 

• Second, wear an approved personal flotation device, aka life jacket, if you are in a boat. The water temperature will be in the 50s, and heavy clothing will double or triple your weight, making it next to impossible to swim. Hypothermia sets in quickly and death can follow in a matter of minutes. Don’t take the risk. Be prepared.

Watch the rain clouds and the local weather forecaster; keep all your crappie gear in ready condition, and when the gates open at The Rez head to the spillway.

Catching crappie there can be just like shooting fish in a barrel.