When the water starts to disappear out of Mississippi’s flood-control lakes, the crappie don’t have many places to spend the colder months. Here’s how to find them, get to them and catch them.
Despite what has been one of the wettest years in recent history, U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lakes, which include all of Mississippi’s I-55 lakes — Grenada, Sardis, Enid and Arkabutla — operate on a water-level rule curve. This means that regardless of inflows, there will be more water released from these impoundments until that particular lake’s winter pool level is reached.
It’s not just federal lakes that manage to a water-level rule curve, as most lakes have to be licensed through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, so drawdowns are common across the board. For crappie fishermen, that means sooner or later, they’ll be fishing in low-water conditions and changing water conditions.
John Harrison, who guides crappie fishermen on Grenada, not only understands these changes, but looks forward to fishing these flood-control reservoirs at each extreme: in the spring when crappie go as far back into the woods as the water will allow them, and during late fall and winter, when the plug is pulled and plenty of the water drains out.
According to Harrison, getting to the fish during the drawdown is most of the battle.
Before he targets the fish, he has to figure out how to get to the water. The drawdown leaves many boat ramps high and dry. Even when he finds a place where he can get a boat in the water, he may not be able to navigate from Point A to Point B.
“I wear a good pair of chest waders, and I’m obviously fishing out of a smaller boat than I normally use during the spring, summer and fall,” said Harrison (662-983-5999). “When that water starts dropping, it pulls the crappie out of the flat areas and draws everything into the lower areas — typically creek channels, ditches and finally, the main-lake basin out in front of the dam. But along the way, a lot of fish will get trapped in a deep hole or ditch. Those are the crappie I want to get to.”
Crappie tend to follow one of two extremes during the winter drawdown, and there’s both rhyme and reason to these movements.
“A lot of fish will go straight out in front of the dam,” Harrison said, “but here’s what you need to understand about crappie this time of year; they’re hungry, and they know they need to stock up before it gets real cold. At the same time, shad are attracted to moving water; that water that’s coming down the creeks. During the early part of the winter, crappie will gorge themselves on shad, and they’ll either follow the bait upcurrent, or they’ll stick with them in deeper pools and eddies of the river and get caught when the water goes down.”
Crappie in a barrel
In order to get to crappie trapped along a river channel, Harrison will motor as far as he can in his 15-foot War Eagle johnboat, then he may have to get out and pull the boat through shallow water that can’t be navigated. In other areas, he may use a small pirogue or kayak to launch upstream and paddle the shallower-draft boat downstream, fishing as he goes. At other times, he may skip the boat altogether and use an ATV to drive across the mud flats to get to deeper holes.
Once he gets to the fish, the fishing is similar to catching crappie in a barrel. While he may troll for crappie with multiple rods when the water is up, during the drawdown he comes armed with only one or two poles.
“I’m vertical jigging, I use an 11=foot B’n’M BBUL with the bottom reel seat,” said Harrison. “I use 6-pound line and attach a 1/16-ounce jighead with a Sassy Shad body. The fishing area is reduced, so I want to make sure I put that jig in every place that might hold a crappie.”
Harrison said most of the structure will be out of the water, but that a lot of the old stumps that line the channel will be imbedded in the river bank. The roots and base of the stumps will be in the water where the current has exposed them, and that’s where the crappie will be. Any other kind of wooden structure will also hold fish, and it’s possible to catch three or four fish on each piece, then move on to the next one.
“I have been so far up the river that I couldn’t fish a shallow spot from the boat,” he said. “In those cases, I also want to make sure I bring along a good casting rod that I can use to cast a jig under a cork and work the other side of the pool that I can’t get to.”
Jason Golden, owner of Lakeway Sporting Goods in Grenada, is another big fan of fishing low water in winter.
“You know, there’s a part of Grenada Lake over on the Scuna River side that all the anglers who come here to fish in the spring never see,” said Golden. “It’s the great winter crappie fishing we have during the winter drawdown. It’s still Grenada Lake, including all the big, white crappie we catch during the spring, but it’s like fishing an entirely different body of water.”
Golden has just one favorite tactic and one favorite bait.
“A lot of guys troll here during the spring, but when the water is down, it’s time to get out the 10- and 11-foot jig poles and work a single jig around any structure you find on the edge of the river,” he said.
A 1/10-ounce football head jig poured on a No. 2 hook is Golden’s bait of choice.
“I love the football head. It positions the hook where it always catches the fish in the roof of the mouth, and the shape of the head makes it fall slower, and it slides over cover better,” said Golden, who uses his football jigheads with a variety of soft-plastic bodies, his favorite being a re-bait he makes from a black-and-white Sassy Shad body.
“The Sassy Shad body is too tall for the jighead, so I like to take a razor blade and shave the black stripe off the top of the bait,” he said. “Then, I’ll take the remaining body and dip it in a chartreuse dye. It makes a great bait and catches a ton of these big, white crappie in Grenada no matter what time of year you fish it.”
Controlling flood-control lakes
Dereck Redwine is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers engineering technician who works at the dam on Grenada Lake. He said that about this time every year, he starts getting calls from crappie anglers wanting to know what the water level is going to be in the spring. That’s when he gets to explain the ups and downs of the Hydraulic Rule Curve.
“There is no secret,” Redwine said. “We have a daily target rate that we try to maintain depending on the time of year. The curve not only applies to the lake here at Grenada, but to all of the flood-control lakes. They each have their own water levels that we try to achieve going from the summer pool in May to the conservation pool in February.”
As an example, the desired mean sea level (msl) for Grenada during the winter is 193 feet above sea level. That is what’s considered the conservation pool, which allows the Corps enough storage space to collect the typical winter and spring rain run-off. Beginning on the first of February, the lake is allowed to collect run-off at a measured pace until the summer pool — 215 feet —is reached. The Rule Curve targets the first of May to reach this water level.
“There’s a big difference in the surface area of this lake between conservation pool and summer pool,” said Redwine. “At conservation pool, we have 9,810 surface acres of water. At summer pool, we have 35, 820 acres. That means there’s a whole lot more water up on the banks at summer pool than during the winter, and that’s what all the fuss from the crappie anglers is about: how high will the water be in the spring, so we’ll know if it’s a good time to get out there and wade for them.”
Redwine said the Corps only has so much control over the water levels in the lake.
“We are at the mercy of droughts and floods,” he said. “All of these Corps lakes are 100% flood control. We aren’t hydroelectric facilities, so we don’t have power-generation schedules to contend with like some of the other Corps lakes around the country. But if we’re maintaining our rule curve, and we suddenly get 5 inches of rain across the area, that’s out of our control.”
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