Tenn-Tom Does More Than Float Barges
Story & photos by John N. Felsher
Built to shave off about 800 miles of boat travel from Middle America to the Gulf of Mexico, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway created abundant fishing habitat as a bonus when it opened in 1985.
More popularly known as the Tenn-Tom, the 234-mile system largely follows a straightened version of the old Tombigbee River as it creates a commercial water link from the Tennessee River, and thus the Ohio River, to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, 10 lock and dam structures divide the waterway into a chain of lakes with a total surface area of 44,000 acres. The channel also connects myriad waterways, ancient oxbow lakes, creeks and smaller tributaries.
More known for its numbers, the entire Tenn-Tom produces many crappie in the 9- to 12-inch range and some bigger ones. On a good day, two anglers might catch 50 to 100 crappie with many in the 1- to 1.5-pound range. Anglers must release anything measuring less than nine inches in length.
“Some crappie were already in the creeks and the Tombigbee River before the waterway was built,” explained Trevor Knight, a Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks biologist in Tupelo. “When the waterway was built, it created a lot more fish habitat. That helped the crappie population expand. People catch some 17- and 18-inchers, but they are not common. The system occasionally produces some 3-pound crappie, but not many.”
The Tenn-Tom begins in Yellow Creek, which flows into Pickwick Lake near where the Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama boundaries converge. The 29-mile-long Divide Cut connects Yellow Creek to Bay Springs Lake, which covers about 6,700 acres near Tishomingo, Miss. The best crappie fishing in the northern section of the waterway occurs in Bay Springs Lake.
“Bay Springs Lake is deep and clear with some standing timber and good crappie numbers,” Knight advised. “On Bay Springs Lake, the crappie harvested probably average about 11 to 12 inches long. It’s common to catch crappie weighing between one pound and 1.75 pounds. Crappie move up shallow in March and stay there through mid-May. In the summer and fall, the fish move out to the deep brush piles, timber and a few old roadbeds.”
Below Bay Springs Lake, locks create five smaller pools in the Canal Section. Fulton Lock near Fulton, Miss., creates the largest lake in the Canal Section at 1,643 acres. The Amory Lock creates a 914-acre lake near Amory, Miss.
“Several lakes in the Canal Section contain decent crappie numbers, but the area doesn’t have as much habitat as some other places in the system,” Knight said. “Few major creeks flow into this section.”
The best crappie action in the Tenn-Tom system occurs in the lakes of the River Section. South of the Canal Section, Aberdeen Lake stretches across 4,121 acres north of Columbus, Miss. The riverine lake runs about 13.5 miles along the Tombigbee River channel.
The next impoundment down, Columbus Lake spreads across 4,940 acres near the eponymous town. Major tributaries include Tibbee Creek, Catawba Creek, which runs into Tibbee Creek, Stinson Creek and the Buttahatchee River. Several old oxbow lakes created by the Tombigbee River and cut-off channels also provide additional places to fish.
“Year in and year out, the crappie catch rates on the River Section have remained pretty steady,” Knight confirmed. “The River Section produces more 2-pounders than the rest of the Tenn-Tom system. Most of the biggest Tenn-Tom crappie come out of Columbus Lake. It’s a very fertile lake with a lot of nutrients coming into the system.”
When the waterway flooded, it connected myriad channels and sloughs in the River Section. Rising water inundated swamps, creating numerous backwaters filled with lily pads, stumps, weed beds and other structure. Cypress trees grow in shallow waters. In the spring, crappie move up to the banks, around the stumps or near the grass. In these backwaters, many people fish live minnows under slip corks around structure. Drop the minnow as close to structure as possible.
“Below the Canal Section, the River Section probably has the most crappie habitat, for both spawning and the rest of the year,” Knight detailed. “Lakes in the River Section have several large creeks and rivers flowing into them as well as the old Tombigbee River. That creates a lot more oxbows, backwaters and gravel pits that people can fish. In the fall, most people fish the gravel pit areas on the River Section. In the spring, people catch a lot more fish in the water willow areas and fallen trees off the old oxbows and river bends.”
South of Columbus Lake, Aliceville Lake straddles the Mississippi-Alabama line. Also called Pickensville Lake, the largest lake on the Tenn-Tom system spreads across 8,300 acres near Pickensville, Ala. Major tributaries include James Creek, the Hairston Bend Cut-Off area, Pumpkin Creek and Coal Fire Creek. Several oxbow lakes and cut-off channels also provide additional places to fish.
“Aliceville Lake has a lot of timber and ledges that attract crappie,” reported Jeff Honnoll of Columbus who fished the system for more than four decades. “I prefer fishing for crappie in the fall and winter. At that time of year, I fish woody cover, drop-offs and ledges with minnows and jigs.”
In the fall, most people fish with live minnows. Young threadfin shad two to three inches long create massive baitfish schools. With so much natural prey available, crappie don’t need to work hard to find breakfast and probably won’t hit a jig not tipped with live bait. As water cools and natural prey becomes more scarce, crappie start hitting jigs and other artificial temptations again.
“In January and February, I fish sloughs with a cork and a jig,” Honnoll recommended. “At that time of year, crappie are not on the banks, but out around the stumps and structure in the middle of the sloughs. I watch for all the baitfish flicking in those sloughs and make the cork imitate that flicking the baitfish do. When I pop the cork, the jig comes up and falls back down.”
In the summer, crappie often go deep. In deeper water, many anglers troll double jig rigs or Road Runners, often tipped with minnows. Push the boat forward at about 0.5 to 1.5 miles per hour. Around shallow structure, many anglers fish spider rigs. In entangling cover, some anglers prefer to fish with single poles.
“I like to fish with a single pole rather than a spider rig,” Honnoll commented. “I live for the thump of a fish taking the bait. I don’t want to just pick up the rod and pull it in. When crappie go deep, I usually vertically jig or I’ll use a drop shot baited with minnows. Drop that down to any wood along the ledges or drop-offs. That’s also a good technique to use in the fall and winter.”
Farther downstream, people also fish the 6,400-acre Gainesville Lake near where the Black Warrior River flows into the Tombigbee at Demopolis, Ala. The Tombigbee continues southward until it merges with the Alabama River at Mount Vernon, Ala. to create the Mobile River. The Mobile River flows into Mobile Bay near the city that bears its name. Throughout this network of rivers lakes and backwaters, anglers can enjoy outstanding fishing for crappie and many other species.