The Rez: perfect bass and crappie hole right on the scenic Natchez Trace
If people wanted to describe a waterbody with perfect bass habitat, they might as well just say “Ross Barnett Reservoir.” In Mississippi, few lakes can compete with “The Rez,” as the locals call it, for bass numbers or quality. It also offers many other great fishing opportunities.
With abundant grass, stumps and other woody cover, one would think a giant largemouth would erupt wherever a lure lands. In tournaments, anglers often fill their bags with 3- to 5-pound bass. The event lunker usually hits the 6- to 8-pound range. The lake occasionally produces bass in the 8- to 10-pound class with rare catches exceeding 12 pounds.
“Ross Barnett is a good bass lake,” confirmed Buford Lessley, fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks. “We’ve heard multiple reports of people catching 7.5-pound bass in recent tournaments. I’ve heard reports of double-digit bass in 2023.”
Ross Barnett Reservoir borders the historic Natchez Trace just northeast of Jackson. The reservoir stretches across 33,000 acres. About 16 miles long by seven miles wide, the lake dates to 1965 when a 3.5-mile dam and spillway blocked the Pearl River channel. Numerous backwaters create more than 105 shoreline miles.
Varied in depth
The lake averages about 11 feet deep. It drops to about 60 feet deep by the dam. Some holes in the old Pearl River channel dip to 50 feet deep, but much of it runs less than six feet deep. State Route 43 crosses the reservoir. Above the highway, the lake reverts to its former riverine appearance with numerous sloughs, islands, sandbars and weedy backwaters. Many people swim, picnic and camp in that area.
“Ross Barnett is a shallow impoundment with a tremendous amount of vegetation,” said Pete Ponds, a Bassmaster Classic veteran from Madison. “I’ve personally caught a bass over 10 pounds on Ross Barnett. It hit a hollow bodied frog. A topwater frog is a good bait to use around the vegetation. Anybody can work it. It can go over lily pads without snagging and it’s exciting to see a bass blow up on a frog.”
South of Highway 43, the lake spreads out with more open water. Buoys mark the main boat channel wandering through flats punctuated by stumps, fallen trees and some flooded timber. By the dam, anglers find deeper water and riprap.
“The western side of Ross Barnett is a little deeper with more cover,” Ponds said. “The eastern side is shallower, but it also typically holds more fish. In June, I like to throw topwaters early in the morning, such as a floating frog or Zara Spook. I like to fish crankbaits, Rat-L-Traps or Senkos around submerged stumps.”
A separate lake
Almost like a separate lake, Pelahatchie Creek and Bay on the southeast corner of the reservoir, generally offers the best bass and crappie fishing. Many kayakers paddle or fish this area.
“The best bass fishing in the Ross Barnett system is in Pelahatchie Bay and Pelahatchie Creek,” Lessley said. “Some backwater lakes upriver above Highway 43 are also very good. People can fish public piers off Spillway Road, off Highway 43 and at Pelahatchie Creek.”
The system also holds a healthy spotted bass population. Most spots stay in the riverine section upriver or below the spillway by the dam. It also holds big bream and catfish, but excels as a crappie lake. Ross Barnett regularly ranks among the top crappie lakes in the nation.
“The crappie fishing at Ross Barnett is amazing,” Lessley said. “Crappie heavier than two pounds are pretty common. It can produce good numbers of crappie over 2.5 pounds.”
For the biggest crappie, fish from March to May when giant females spawn, but big crappie are caught all year long. Many crappie anglers fish the shallow, stumpy flats on the eastern side of the lake or Pelahatchie Bay.
“The back of Pelahatchie Bay is a good area to catch crappie,” Lessley said. “Upriver, some backwaters off Pearl River can produce good fish when conditions are right. Around Highway 43, people also catch some crappie. Bream fishermen typically fish in the creek channels and around piers. The lake is full of channel cats. Some people catch flathead and blue catfish in the 25 to 30-pound range.”
Striped bass swim all the way up the river from the Gulf of Mexico and stop at the spillway. The state started stocking stripers in Ross Barnett in 2022. People can easily fish the spillway area for bass, stripers and hybrids, crappie, catfish and bream.
While in the area
While in the area, there are loads of things to do. Visit the MDWFP Museum of Natural Science (mdwfp.com/museum/see-visit/about-us) located in LeFleur’s Bluff State Park in Jackson. A little northwest of Jackson, see the Mississippi Petrified Forest at mspetrifiedforest.com in Flora. You can also learn more at visitridgeland.com/reservoir-adventures/.