Don’t pass up a chance to try out Mississippi’s best smallmouth bass fishery. April is a perfect time to catch a big one.
Mississippi has thousands of places where largemouth bass can be caught on any given day. That makes it an excellent bass-fishing destination. In contrast, smallmouth bass can be caught in only one, small corner of the state, which includes Pickwick Lake, but it is so good it is also a destination of choice for visiting anglers.
Roger Stegall of Iuka has probably forgotten more about smallmouth bass than the average fisherman learns in a lifetime. Pickwick is his home lake, and for the past 30 years, he has made a business of guiding anglers to places where smallmouths can be caught.
Smallmouth bass, aka smallies, wear that moniker as if they have a chip on their shoulder, something to prove. What they lack in size, they make up for in brute strength and feisty attitude. Mississippi shares Pickwick with Tennessee and Alabama in its northeastern corner. In parts of the lake, licenses reciprocity is practiced but anglers need to know where the boundaries are to avoid a possible ticket.
“Pickwick is not the only place in Mississippi to catch a smallmouth bass,” Stegall said, “but the size of the lake and the smallmouths’ population concentration make it the best Mississippi water to consider.”
Pickwick is a big lake, 43,100 acres, with a wide variety of structure and habitat, Stegall said, and just like their cousins, largemouth bass, smallmouths have their own patterns and preferences. The key to catching these fish is to decode those patterns.
Stegall, has fished Pickwick for 40 years, and over the past 25, he has caught between 40 and 50 smallmouths in the 7- to 8-pound range. The lake has yielded a five-fish tournament limit of 27 pounds, 6 ounces, and another 10-fish catch that weighed 52 pounds.
“I believe the next world-record smallmouth will come from Pickwick,” said Stegall. “Two 10-pound smallmouths have been caught from Pickwick.”
The Mississippi state record, caught in 1987, is a 7-pound, 15-ounce fish caught in Yellow Creek. The world-record smallmouth, caught in 1955 in Tennessee’s Dale Hollow Lake, weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces.
“In April, the secret to catching smallmouths is to work the ledge. That’s what I recommend at this time of year,” Stegall said. “Under normal circumstances the fish are transitioning from spawn and post-spawn in April. Bear Creek and Yellow Creek are excellent places to start looking. It is also a time when the young shad are starting to become the bass’s main diet. It’s like the bass are going to gorge themselves as they recover from the stress of spawning.”
Stegall keys on secondary ledges: anywhere there is a drop of a foot or more from the primary ledge to the secondary ledge. The drop may be as little as a foot or as much as 5 to 6 feet or more.
He provided a great example on an April trip for another fishermen, pointing on his depth finder to sheer drop where the water falls from 5 to 12 feet deep. A tube bait, rigged Carolina-style on a half-ounce football-head jig makes the leap from the first ledge, but never reaches the second. A fat smallmouth comes to the boat for a moment of admiration and instant release.
A Strike King structure jig with a watermelon-red tube is another of Stegall’s go-to baits.
“If I can’t get the bass to bite the Carolina rig, I’ll use the Strike King Series 5 or Series 6 crankbaits,” Stegall said. “My favorite color for big smallmouth is shad. My No. 2 color is chartreuse with a black back. Recently, I’ve found very good success with the red-eye shad. I use the Series 6 if the water is 10 feet deep or more, and I fish with the Series 5 crankbait in water that is 6 to 10 feet deep. I use a slow-retrieve reel to crank the bait down to the bottom. Then, I vary my retrieve and let the bass tell me how they want the bait. Once I’ve determined the retrieve the big smallmouth wants, I’ll use that same retrieve on other humps and ledges.”
“Don’t overlook the smaller drops,” Stegall said. “Even transitions of as little as a few inches can hold bass. The ledges are a common occurrence at Pickwick, and where some structure exists in addition to the dropoff, the bass will gang up.”
Stegall finds smallmouths like smaller baits. Crankbaits, such as the Strike King Spittin’ King or Sexy Daddy are great for locating schooling smallmouths along the ledges. Any of Strike King’s Series 5 crankbaits come highly recommended.
“Where the ledges play out onto a gravel bottom there are often mussel beds,” said Stegall. “They show up as a very solid, bright, yellow line here on the (depth finder). Smallmouths like the beds because they can find a lot to eat there. I keep a rod baited with a Pro-Tour tungsten jig for places such as this. I can feel the bottom really well, and a bite on a braided line is like a hammer falling on the bait.”
Past the ledges, Stegall moves to open water. Pickwick is full of underwater humps and mounds, many actually ancient Indian mounds that were on the landscape before the lake was impounded. To excavate these mounds, archaeologists dug trenches through the center of the mounds; you can locate them with your depth finder. Often, there will be a dropoff on the top of the mound, then the mound will reappear and drop off again. Hills that drop off sharply into the lake are also present, and the smallmouths usually relate to hills and dropoffs closest to the main-river channel, especially when current is pulled through the lake. The best current is when water is being pulled through the hydroelectric plant at Pickwick Dam; the current isn’t as strong when the dam is simply releasing minimum flow.
Grassbeds are another place to find Pickwick smallmouths.
“The baitfish finds cover in the weeds or grass,” Stegall said. “The bass patrol the edges picking off the careless baitfish. If it is a bright, sunny day, the bass simply slide under the grass to escape the sun. When this happens, switch to a punch-bait and braided line to get to the bass.”
Stegall said largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass are often found in the same areas. It is not uncommon for him to catch different fish on consecutive casts.
“They may also be a little competitive,” he said. “Several times, I’ve caught a largemouth and smallmouth on the same lure, on the same cast — like one is trying to take it away from the other. That really adds spice to a trip.”
Stegall said a quality depth finder with side-imaging like the Humminbird unit on his boat is a critical piece of equipment for every bass fisherman.
“The first time I looked at the images, I was blown away,” he said. “In one location, I knew there was some structure holding fish, I knew the depth and could see the structure with a conventional depth finder. The side-imaging allowed me a much-clearer picture; the structure was a couple of sunken sailboats, and you could see the masts and everything. I was ecstatic. The world beneath the surface is no longer a big question mark.”
Stegall said smallmouth bass appear to be a cyclic species, with peak cycles coming every 10 years. He is convinced Pickwick is on an upward swing of this cycle.
“In the 1990s and early 2000s we witnessed more large fish than any time in the decades that followed,” Stegall said. “Now, we are starting to see bigger fish once again. The past several years are enough to make me believe we are again on a strong upward trend. Pickwick has a tremendous number of smallmouths. I have to consider it one of the top-five smallmouth lakes in the United States.”
Tom Holman, a biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks praised the dynamics of Pickwick Lake, saying it is the most diverse freshwater habitat in Mississippi. The most northern of Mississippi’s waters, it is the southern edge of the smallmouth’s range.
“Pickwick has every kind of bass, catfish and sunfish found anywhere,” Holman said. “In addition, there are populations of southern walleye, sauger and some yellow perch. There is little done in fisheries management on a pro-active scale. Our agency works with fisheries officials from Tennessee and Alabama; the three agencies often share data about the lake. The size of the waterway makes it a self-sustaining environment.”
The license equation
Mississippi shares Pickwick Lake’s 43,100 acres with Tennessee and Alabama, and fishing licenses from all three states are recognized and accepted in a large portion of the reservoir — but not everywhere.
Licenses from all three states are accepted in that portion of the lake from the downstream corner of the mouth of Bear Creek all the way downstream to Pickwick Dam.
Licenses from Alabama and Mississippi are accepted in Bear Creek as far upstream as the Southern Railway bridge, and upstream from the mouth of Bear Creek to the Old Riverton Lock at mile marker 226.6.
Only Alabama licenses are accepted in the extreme upper section of Bear Creek, upstream from the Southern Railway bridge.