Professional crappie anglers Steve Coleman and Ronnie Capps with proof-positive that Northern Mississippi reservoirs, such as Grenada, are the most productive crappie lakes in the country. (Photo: Richard Simms)
The Most Productive Crappie Lakes on the Planet
Welcome to the Yazoo River Basin
by Scott MacKenthun
Across a wide swath of northwest Mississippi, south from Memphis and along Interstate 55, exists some of the best crappie fishing in the United States. The names of the massive reservoirs are familiar to avid crappie anglers – Arkabutla, Enid, Grenada, and Sardis.
The extremely fertile reservoirs have optimum temperature offerings for crappie growth for much of the year and take advantage of their southern exposure and long growing seasons. The results are some of the biggest crappies taken in the country year in and out, heavy bags from fishing tournaments, and remarkable photos of fish in excess of 3 pounds. Fishing plugged along until the word got out around 2000 and fishing pressure and harvest increased. Although there is no statewide size limit in Mississippi, on these highly-productive reservoirs biologists reduced the bag limit to 15, and instituted a 12-inch minimum size limit.
“Certain reservoirs in Northern Mississippi produce the fastest growing crappie on the planet.” – Scott MacKenthun
All 4 of these reservoirs are a part of the western Yazoo river basin. They were impounded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Today, their operating levels are managed by the Corps using rule curves, which shoot for a seasonal target pool elevation to avoid downstream flooding. With flood mitigation the primary objective of water level management, seasonal manipulation for fish spawning is a far lower consideration. Water levels are a critical component of fishing success on these reservoirs. At low water levels, the fish are concentrated and once found, easy to exploit. At high water levels, the fish are spread out and harder to catch. Similarly, water levels are also critical to the crappie spring spawn and discharge also plays into how many young crappie recruits are washed away post-hatch.
Jonah Dagel, Fisheries Specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, worked on his Master’s thesis at Mississippi State University with Dr. Steve Miranda, examining the role of both cove or arm habitats and backwater habitats in producing young of year crappies in Arkabutla, Enid, Grenada, and Sardis. The study, along with other fish and aquatic habitat studies done by Dr. Miranda and his students on the set of reservoirs, helped inform water level management decision making, absent downstream flooding concerns. Water level manipulations don’t always occur when they are most beneficial to fish, but if they can be altered to work with seasonal fish habitat use, both priorities can be met.
“There’s really two types of habitats for spawning crappies,” explained Dagel. “There are cove or arm habitats, but based on the steepness of bank slope, their area changes little as the water recedes. These areas are basically barren, clay flats at low water. There are also backwater habitats. These are the critical areas.”
Dagel notes that when water levels are low during the winter to build capacity for spring rains, the backwater areas are empty which allows for the growth of vegetation. Once inundated in the spring, the environmental effect of flooding the terrestrial lands is a big surge in productivity.
“You get that ‘boom’ response in the backwaters with flooding. There is always terrestrial plant growth and then it’s flooded and you’ve got cover, you’ve got insects, and you’ve got exposed nutrients,” said Dagel.
In short, crappies have a perfect environment to spawn and hatch their young.
“The frequency of inundation is way less in the backwaters,” Dagel relayed. “You might see a few sunken structures in the coves, but they don’t look very different in high or low water.”
Dagel proved his point with a quick tour of photos on Google Earth. At high water levels, both the coves and backwaters hold water. But at low water levels, coves and arms look bright and empty while the backwaters are decidedly green and growing.
Dagel’s research found that backwater habitats outproduced arms and coves in producing young crappies. He also found, by looking back at water elevation history, that timing of flooding mattered. If flooded too early, even the backwaters weren’t as productive. Because of differences in elevation, vegetated habitats were flooded in time for optimal crappie spawning about once every other year in backwaters and less frequently in coves and arms.
Because the reservoir river system is very silty and turbid, white crappies dominate over black crappies. Shad also thrive in the turbid waters, both gizzard shad and threadfin shad. In most places, gizzard shad and threadfin shad are important forage items for short periods of time as they quickly grow beyond the size to be susceptible to predation and the size of their predator’s mouths.
But on the Arkabutla, Enid, Grenada, and Sardis reservoirs, their growth is slow while the crappie growth is off-the-charts good. Crappies on these systems reach a pound in three years and can reach three pounds in five-to-seven years. That is some of the fastest crappie growth on the planet!
Dagel, now a decade removed from his time in Mississippi, misses seeing and handling those huge crappies. When asked for his fishing advice on the water, he circled back to his time sampling (with electrofishing rather than hooks and line).
“You’ve got to fish them like the locals do – get in the cover and don’t be afraid to lose tackle. Sure, you can spider rig them when they school in open water when the fishing is easy. But when it’s tough, you have to go to the habitat,” he said.
Scott Mackenthun is a fisheries biologist and freelance outdoor writer from New Prague, Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org