Doreen Conner sat in the shade of a big pine, about 30 feet from the bank of Simpson Legion Lake, with her two sons, ages 7 and 9, sitting on overturned 5-gallon buckets, fishing poles in hand.
“Larry! Larry! Son, your cork went under,” she hollered. “You got a bite.”
The youngest boy pulled back on his pole, but his orange bobber just popped back to the surface.
“Well, you had one, son,” Conner said. “You have to pay attention to your lines. We’ve got to have a few more fish if we’re going to have enough for dinner.”
The Conners were enjoying a shady May morning at the lake. She was up on a slight hill with a perfect view of the kids, “and where the breeze is hitting me head on.”
They had a 50-yard stretch of the shoreline to themselves, but the 100-acre lake between Magee and Mendenhall just off US 49 was dotted with similar groups trying their luck.
Among them were two more moms with kids, one whose husband was on active military service overseas, the other one, like Conner, a single mom hoping to get her children interested in something other than playing on electronic gadgets.
A grandfather was patiently fishing with two grandchildren, who seemed less interested in pulling fish from the lake than in digging in the dirt for more worms.
There were young adults on a date, several family groups and a couple of husbands and wives sharing a peaceful day, hoping it would end with enough fish to fry that night.
It did for the Conners. When little Franky was told by his mom to show off their catch, he held up a stringer of bluegill and redear that held about 15 to 20 hand-sized fish. Well, the size of a kid’s hand, but large enough to make the traveling squad home.
“Hope they are as interested in helping me clean them than they are in catching them,” Conners said, laughing. “Shoot, they’ll be asleep by the time we hit the Jackson city limits sign.”
The scene was surely repeated all across Mississippi on Memorial Day weekend, especially at state-owned lakes managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks or by the Pat Harrison Waterway District — small lakes ranging from less than 100 to as many as 500 acres, all a much-needed and valuable resource.
Conner put it best. “I needed a place or places to take my boys to fish, just like my parents took me and my brothers and sisters when we were young,” she said. “I know just enough about fishing, tying knots, getting tackle and baiting hooks to get by. When we moved to Jackson two years ago, I went online (www.mdwfp.com) and researched places to go and I found the state lake system and the state parks ... and that’s how we got started. We’ve fished here a few times, Roosevelt and Lake Lincoln State Parks and that other lake down at Mize (Prentiss Walker Lake). That lake at Mize has some great bream and a lot of catfish, but this one here has been mighty good to us, too. This summer, I plan on taking time to try more of them, maybe get a cabin.”
So many options
Conner will have a lot of destinations from which to choose, and that’s if she just sticks with the MDWFP state lakes and parks. The Pat Harrison Waterway District system, headquartered in Hattiesburg, adds a lot more overlooked options, including cabins for extended stays. The U.S. Forest Service adds many, many more.
While fishing from a boat expands opportunities, most all of these lakes cater heavily to bank fishermen. Some have cabins, most have campgrounds and all have pretty fair fishing.
“I live in Hattiesburg, and I’ve got a lot of opportunities within an hour’s drive,” said Tom Jackson. “I have a 16-foot, square-stern canoe that my son and I can fish out of with a trolling motor and paddles. That’s all you need for the state lakes and the Pat Harrison lakes. We go just about every day that we can, and we have lakes that we go to for different fish.
“Like for bream, we go to Lake Perry at Bogalusa or Black Creek Water Park at Lumberton. For crappie, we go to Flint Creek Water Park at Wiggins, and for bass we like Bogue Homa at Laurel, Bill Waller at Columbia and Simpson Legion at Magee. For catfish weekends, we book a cabin at Johnson State Park south of Hattiesburg and have a hard time loading the ice chests back in the truck — they’re so full.”
Jackson has raised his son fishing that way, but he is facing a change.
“He’s big enough now that he wants to get more on his own when we fish, so I’m looking at upgrading to two kayaks,” said Jackson, whose son is 13. “He’ll be driving soon, and I’m pretty sure I know he’s going to fish. These small lakes have helped me raise a fisherman.”
Northeast Mississippi is loaded with state lakes and parks that are worth a long drive for fishermen. John Thomas of Tupelo only has to choose a direction to travel, and he can be at a great fishing hole in a matter of minutes.
“Ever since they reopened Lamar Bruce Lake at Saltillo a couple of years ago, we’ve been going there regularly, and the fishing has been stupid great,” he said. “My wife and I we take our grandchildren all the time to that lake, but we also go to (Elvis Presley), because we can catch so many fish that the kids don’t get bored.
“One of my favorites, when a buddy and I can get away for a day, is to drive down to Davis Lake (a U.S. Forest Service lake) near Houston, just off the Natchez Trace. I caught a 10½-pound bass there two years ago, biggest I ever caught.”
Thomas was sad when the lake at Trace State Park had to be closed for repairs to the dam, because the “Chinquapin fishing there was so tough to beat, big mammerjammers,” he said. “I hope when they get it fixed and reopened that the chinqs (a.k.a. redear, shellcracker) come back as strong as they were. Until then, I can drive over to Tippah County Lake near Ripley. For parents and grandparents who don’t have a boat but have kids that want to fish, it’s perfect. The bank fishing there is outstanding. That’s where the state-record chinquapin (3.3 pounds) was caught, and a little boy sitting just down from me last year caught a bluegill that had to be close to 2 pounds.”
Cheap and clean
A big attraction to fishing at the state parks, state lakes, Pat Harrison and U.S. Forest Service lakes is the cost.
At MDWFP lakes, kids under 16 fish for free. Seniors 65 and older and disabled fishermen pay a $3 daily or $32 annual to fish from the bank, a $5 daily fee for fishing from a boat and $150 for an annual pass that includes every guest in the boat. Anglers ages 16 to 64 can fish daily from the bank for $5 and from a boat for $7, and an annual permit is $52 to fish from the bank and $150 from a boat that includes all guests.
At Pat Harrison, daily lake-use fees are $5 per person with a $10 boat launch fee that includes owner’s lake use fee. Boats rent for $20 per day at lakes where they are available. Seniors ages 65 and over and disabled anglers can get a lifetime permit for $250 that includes boat launch, fishing for both spouses and park entrance. The annual entry fee for all others is $50, and the annual boat launch fee is $100.
At U.S. Forest Service lakes — and they are greatly under-utilized — the fee is a simple $5 per vehicle per day.
“I don’t care whether you fish from a boat or the bank, those are cheap rates,” Thomas said. “The main reason is that these lakes are so user friendly. The banks, especially in the best fishing areas, are clean and mown. That’s important, because if my wife sees a snake on the ground, we’re out of there … and in a hurry. Our grandkids like to sit and play on the ground, and that’s easy on our minds when it’s so clean.”
Larry Pugh, fisheries bureau chief at the MDWFP, said that when the agency thinks about enhancing lakes and piers, it’s because bank fishermen are foremost in their minds.
“We create bank-fishing opportunities in several ways, from creating earthen piers when possible during renovation — and wooden piers where possible — and then placing fish attractors in close proximity where bank fishermen can reach them,” said Pugh, who managed about 10 lakes when he was the Northeast Region fisheries biologist. “We manage fish, which is what people think we do, but more than that, we manage fishermen, too. We strive to create the best fishing opportunities for every person, regardless of whether they have a boat or a fish from the bank and whether they fish for bream, bass or catfish.”
Rick Dillard, a U.S. Forest Service biologist who supervises management of several lakes, said his agency’s goals are similar to that of the MDWFP.
“We want a safe, clean, fish-producing environment that lends itself to a quality fishing experience for any angler,” he said. “We have big lakes with great facilities for that, but we also have dozens of small watershed impoundments on our national forests that are ideal for short outings for fishermen or families who are able to handle a more natural and remote style of fishing.”
Mississippi’s national forests offer slightly more than 6,100 total acres of water in small lakes, impoundments and oxbows that are open to fishing, as well as 650 miles of creeks and streams.
“From as small as about 5 acres to as big as 750, we’ve got lakes to fit any family,” Dillard said.
Camping and cabins
Just about all MDWFP lakes and parks offer camping, and most state parks have cabins. Some of the developed U.S. Forest Service lakes have camping areas, too, or commercial campgrounds nearby. Pat Harrison lakes have plenty of camping space, and most have cabins available.
Take this to heart: if you want to rent a cabin at any of the lakes for a fishing vacation, plan early and make reservations; they book fast.
“That’s the ticket down here,” Jackson said. “The Pat Harrison Waterway system has great cabins at Little Black Creek Water Park, Maynor Creek Water Park and Flint Creek, and that’s just the ones we’ve used. All are air conditioned and heated, which in Mississippi is an absolute must. If you got children, or even better, grandchildren, and you can get away for a week, the cabin stays at a lake are priceless.
“You wake up every morning on the banks of a lake with your boat or canoe or whatever, already launched and waiting for you to get in and go fishing. You take a break and come in for a cool lunch, maybe a nap, and then back to fishing for the afternoon bite. Take this to the bank: a fish fry at a lake cabin with fish you caught that day or the day before is the best meal you will ever eat.”
Told what Jackson had said, Conner’s reaction was wonderful.
“Oh Lord, yes.… Oh my God, that’s exactly what I want to do with my kids this summer,” she said. “As soon as I get home, I’m going to get on the computer and start Googling these cabins and lakes and pick one for me and the boys. These bream are going to taste good tonight at home, but I can just imagine how much fun it would be and how good it would be to fry them at the lake, eat them watching the sunset and then doing it again the next day.
“Yes sir, I’m going to look that up as soon as I get home.”
These websites can lead you to some great family fishing opportunities this summer:
Pat Harrison Waterway: http://www.phwd.net/index.html
U.S. Forest Service: https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/mississippi/recreation/fishing.