In June in a normal year, Gene Bishop of Ridgeland would be looking for a first-place check after catching a five-bass tournament limit weighing 18 pounds on Barnett Reservoir.

Not in 2018. No sir.

“We came in with a heavy bag, just over 18 pounds, thinking ‘Man, we got this thing won,’” Bishop said, referring a team tournament he fished in early June. “Shoot, we ended up wondering if we needed to even put the fish in a bag and go to the scales.”

Turns out, he and his partner barely got a check in the event, in which five teams caught limits that weighted more than 20 pounds and several others just missed that mark. 

That’s five fish, post-spawn, averaging four pounds each.

“That many big bags is something you might see once or twice early in the year, during the prespawn, but in June, wow,” said Bishop, three years removed from a Bassmaster Open victory on The Rez that won him a trip to the Bassmaster Classic. In that win, Bishop showed out with 25-pound and 21-pound catches the final two days.

“That was in March, when the conditions got just right for the big females to start moving in during the tournament,” Bishop said. “Fishermen usually struggle on Barnett in June. Not this year. This lake is fishing as good as or better than I’ve ever seen it. I’m surprised, and I am happy.

“It seems some of the things the wildlife folks, the reservoir folks and the fishermen have been doing are working. I just hope it keeps working and it gets even better.”

A Joint effort

Bishop is referring to efforts by the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District (PRVWSD) — the state agency created in the 1950s to build and manage the lake — to involve fishermen in the management of the fishery.

While PRVWSD manages the 33,000-acre lake and about 17,000 acres of land around it, the task of managing the fishery falls to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP). They have done quite well with bass, crappie, catfish and even bream, despite heavy fishing pressure from the metropolitan Jackson area.

Over the past five years, PRVWSD has organized and mediated fishery update meetings with fishermen and the MDWFP with a goal of producing and maintaining good fishing. A bass fisherman advisory committee was organized to work with the agencies on all things bass related, including weed control.

At each winter meeting, Ryan Jones, a fisheries biologist with MDWFP, has given a thorough report on the studies and sampling of the lake and takes questions — and comments/suggestions — from fishermen. Another biologist, John Skains, gives an update on aquatic vegetation, which is an area of growing concern.

Through those discussions, changes have been made to help the fishing, including those mentioned by Bishop.

Improved stockings

The first was an angler-based stocking program each spring. Florida bass grown at the MDWFP Turcotte Fish Hatchery about a mile from the lake are stocked in the reservoir. But instead of a hatchery truck pulling up to the bank and unloading all the fingerlings in one spot, they are placed in large ice chests in bass boats manned by volunteer fishermen. They are allowed to carry the valuable cargo anywhere on the lake to be released, as long as they are placed in excellent habitat with plenty of cover.

“The idea is to give the Florida fingerlings a better chance at surviving,” Jones said. “Our hatchery trucks can only go to so many places where they can get close enough to the water’s edge to release fish. Fishermen in bass boat can get anywhere on the lake, back in the back ends of remote sloughs and pockets where there is prime habitat.

“How much does it help with survival rates? I can’t say a number with any kind of accuracy, but I can say this, it’s better than just dumping the truckload in one spot, and it’s far better than the survival rate of naturally spawned fish in the lake when you consider how many are lost as fry before they reach the fingerling stage. The goal of stocking these Floridas is not so much to increase numbers but to insure that the Florida genes stay in the population.”

How long does it take for the little fish to adjust to their new environment, after having spent their entire lives in a small open stock pond?

“Maybe 10 seconds,” said Jones. “You pour a bucket load into the water near lily pads or other vegetation and watch them. They sit there in the water a second as if they are stunned or in shock, then after a moment, they race over to the cover and get up in it or under it. It doesn’t take long for the survival instinct to kick in.”

The angler stocking has been a popular program, so much so that some anglers have adapted their equipment to make longer runs to insure a good spread. 

“I rigged a 48-quart cooler with an aerator so that I can run up the river to some of the distant backwater areas with great habitat … places I like to fish,” said Jimmy Carruth of Brandon, who does plenty of damage in team tournaments on Barnett with his wife and fishing partner, Paula.

“I appreciate the opportunity to take a few loads, meaning a few thousand fish, and putting them not only where they have a better chance of surviving, but also where I will have a good chance of catching them a few years later.”

Over the past five years, the MDWFP and the anglers have released about a million Florida fingerlings.

A new limit

Getting more fish in the lake was just a start. Protecting them through to maturity and a preferred catch size was the next change that came from the meetings.

“We’d been asking for years for a minimum-length limit bigger than what we had, which was 12 inches,” said Shannon Denson, a third-generation Barnett angler and an outspoken activist for bass management on his home waters. “We’d had a lot of changes in regulations over the past few decades after the fishing declined so much in the late 70s and the 80s, and I kept records of catches tracking numbers and average weights. The best fishing was when we had length limits.”

The first change in the 1980s involved a spring slot length that protected 12- to 16-inch fish during the spawning season. After fishing rebounded, that was eliminated and regulations returned to a 12-inch minimum length.

“We started seeing the fishing fall off again, quickly” said Denson, who, along with a lot of fishermen, began asking for a 15-inch minimum length limit.

“We finally got it, reluctantly it seemed, and I’m not just talking about the biologists. And if you look, you’ll see that average weights and catch rates went up in tournaments,” Denson said. “About 10 years ago, however, some tournament fishermen started complaining that the 15-inch minimum was keeping them from bringing limits to the scales during the summer months. 

“They complained loud enough and to the right people to get it reduced back to 12 inches. In my opinion, that was the worst thing that they could have done to the fish at Barnett with all the fishing pressure it gets.”

And, yes, Barnett gets a lot. Being centrally located and in the heart of the state’s most-populated metropolitan area, The Rez has a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, both from recreational and tournament anglers. 

It’s the tournaments that put the best fishermen on the lake, and there’s so many events that the PRVWSD had to create a draw system to limit the number at each landing each weekend.

“There’s not a weekend day between February and June when there isn’t a registered tournament at the Highway 43 ramps, and there’s usually two or three more at other ramps,” Denson said. “Then, there’s smaller club tournaments or fruit-jar events that don’t even register, and they just go out there are fish.”

The tournaments continue, though at a slower rate, through the summer and into the fall.

“The fish are getting hammered, especially the 12- and 13-inch bass that are the most aggressive,” Denson said. “They are the ones that fishermen can find in a school blasting shad on the surface and sit there and whack ’em. In the summer, when you catch fish and lug them around all day in a hot livewell without taking steps to protect the fish, they are doomed.”

At the 2016 fisheries update meeting, anglers won an increase in the minimum length to 14 inches. 

 “I know they wanted 15 inches, but our data indicated that 14 inches was the better option, in that it protected fish for another two years while giving fishermen a chance to catch more fish,” Jones said.

The timing was good, too, Jones said, because he has been tracking two excellent year-classes of fish. One was a huge supply of fish measuring 11 to 13 inches and another 8 to 10 inches. Protecting those two classes of fish was exactly the scenario Denson and others wanted.

“I still think Barnett has a lot of room for improvement to get the bass fishing where it ought to be, but that was a start,” Denson said.

Grass control

Being a shallow, lowland reservoir, the land underneath Barnett began reclaiming itself the day the dam was closed to impound the lake in 1965. Lakes such as The Rez have a lifespan of between 100 and 150 years, experts say. Siltation begins filling the backwater areas, opening the door to vegetation, which, in turn, attracts even more siltation, which, in turn … 

“It’s a steady process that just keeps happening,” said Eddie Bourne, a fisherman on the advisory committee who is working hard on vegetation and loss of fishable waters. “Sometimes you concentrate so hard on things, like stocking and limits, and (you) can be blind to other factors that are hurting the lake.

“When you start talking about more and bigger fish being caught, I have to wonder how much of that is because of more big fish and how much of that is because of less water. The less water you have, the more the fish are concentrated. Right now, in 2018, we’re looking at a lot less fishable water. We’ve lost thousands of acres already that we aren’t going to get back, and that includes some that historically were the most-productive areas (and) are now dry ground. And worse, we’ve got thousands of more acres that we can’t fish anymore, not because they are dry, but because they are covered in vegetation. If we don’t do something major and get those waters back, I’m afraid we’re going to forever lose them, too.”

Aquatic vegetation is a double-edged sword. It is vital to fish production, providing cover for young fish by creating natural nurseries. It also produces great fishing, since it attracts baitfish that attract big fish. But if the vegetation gets out of control, which it easily and abruptly can and has in areas of Barnett, water becomes worthless to fish and inaccessible to fishermen.

“We’ve got several thousands of acres right now, where we have backwaters as deep as 5 to 8 or 10 feet that are completely matted over,” Bourne said. “I know that PRVWSD is spending a lot of money and MDWFP is working hard to control it, but we’re not gaining on it.

“Look, I used to be in that group 15 to 20 years ago that got mad every time I saw a boat out there spraying grass. Now, I’m here begging that we do more. A lot of us who see the need, but there’s also a lot who think we shouldn’t be spraying at all. I feel that if everybody realized what’s at stake, that we’re losing so much water, they would understand we have to step up the efforts.”

Working with PRVWSD and MDWFP, Denson, Bourne and other fishermen have convinced the agencies that a change in strategy is necessary in addressing the grass situation.

“I know back in the 90s when the hyacinth first arrived and nearly took over the upper river area and backwaters, they were about to lose control of it until they tried aerial spraying,” Denson said. “They did it one year and wiped it out. We believe that’s what it’s going to take again, and our research shows it can be done at the same costs”

Plans are being drawn to begin aerial spraying later this year, after the bulk of corn, soybean and cotton in surrounding fields have been harvested. Most of it will be done in backwaters on the east side between Highway 43 and Ratliffs Ferry area, with a few pockets further up the river in areas that are part of PRVWSD.

“Yeah, it could hurt fishing for a year or two, but those of us who care about the long-term fishing on Barnett Reservoir, not just for us but also for our children and their children, we’re willing to make the sacrifice,” Bourne said. “If we can get control of it, and clear those backwaters, I think we will create the fish nurseries we need to keep this lake full of bass for years to come.”