During the winter drawdown on I-55 lakes in Mississippi, Clay Blair says, “Fish ledges and points for crappie.” (Photo: Ron Wong)
Winter Slabs on the I-55 Lakes
by Ron Wong
Catching Crappie After the Drawdown
Each year, the big 4 lakes: Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid and Grenada on I-55 in Mississippi experience major drawdowns of lake levels. All these lakes are the property of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and were built for flood control. During the fall, each lake is lowered to their respective winter pool.
Due to the lower water levels, most cover is out of the water and many of the boat ramps are not usable. Upper ends of all these lakes are either super shallow or dry except for the respective rivers. Some fish can be caught in the rivers with a small boat; however, the best fishing will be in the lower end of the lakes. Professional crappie fishermen will all agree, the lower part of the lakes is best to catch crappie. We spoke with several professional crappie fishermen to get tips and techniques to be successful on these lakes during the winter when the lakes are all low.
John Harrison, owner of JH Guide Service has more than 40 years of experience on the I-55 lakes. He is also the first professional crappie fisherman to be inducted into the Mississippi Fishing Hall of Fame. When possible, John will fish in the rivers of the I-55 lakes using a small boat.
“The crappie will be in the eddy water of the river and a small presentation such as a Bobby Garland Baby Shad or Crappie Magnet works best. If any cover is in the river, fish it slow, do not move your bait to entice a fish to bite,” said Harrison.
When fishing the lower end of the lakes, John will spider-rig a double minnow rig very slowly while watching his graph for baitfish. He will use his livescope to identify bait fish. John spends most of the time fishing the lower end of the lakes during the winter.
Some of Harrison’s favorite equipment and sponsorships include B’n’M Poles, Driftmaster Rod Holders, Gamma Fishing Line and War Eagle Boats.
Jeremy Aldridge lives in Batesville, Mississippi and has crappie fished all his life. He won the American Crappie Trail tournament on Grenada Lake in August 2020 with more than 33 pounds of fish (7 fish limit for 2-day tournament). He has been a crappie guide, Reel Deal Guide Service, since 2013 on all the I-55 lakes.
“During the winter when fishing any of these lakes, use the wind to your advantage, put the wind to your back,” he said. “This will reduce boat noise while fishing.”
He said to slow your boat if it is too windy. He suggests using Power Pole paddles or a drift cock. An 8 to 10-foot length of heavy chain tied to rope can also be helpful to slow down.
Jeremy likes to fish in sight of the dam on all the I-55 lakes during the winter. Spider rigging with just one hook or jig tipped with a minnow is his most successful way to catch fish during the winter.
Some of his sponsors include B’n’M Poles and Silent Stalker.
Clay Blair, a 10-year tournament fisherman with 40 years of crappie fishing experience likes to fish during the winter as fishing pressure is exceptionally low and lots of fish can be caught. Clay is one of the guides for Harrison’s JH Guide Service.
“The first thing I do when fishing during winter of any of the I-55 lakes is to motor near main lake points and ledges looking for baitfish,” said Clay Blair, Professional Crappie Angler
He likes to spider-rig with a double-minnow rig once schools of baitfish are found and will lower his rigs just below the baitfish.
His sponsors include B’n’M Poles, Driftmaster Rod Holders, Gamma Fishing Line and War Eagle Boats.
Tips and techniques that all these professional fishermen offer for a successful winter crappie outing on the I-55 lakes are:
- Because of weather, rain and wind, water clarity is either stained or muddy, fish shallow, 4 to 10 feet over deeper water on all the lakes
- Start looking for fish and baitfish on your graph near main lake points and ridges on the lower part of the lake
- Use the lightest weight on your spider rigs, increase weight based on the wind conditions
- When using a spider rig, fish slowly – start at 0.1 mile per hour and never fish faster than 0.5 miles per hour
- When first out fishing, use various depths on your spider rig, once a few fish are caught, adjust all to that magic depth
- Should you have a successful drift, once the fish bite slows, motor back to your beginning point and start again
- Use a longer pole with a sensitive tip such as a 16-foot B’n’M BGJP pole. This keeps your offering away from the boat and will produce more bites. A rod with a sensitive tip is important as crappie during the winter will mostly be exceptionally light.
- All the pros said, although you may be a jig fisherman only, always have minnows with you during the winter, they can save the day from not catching anything
Winter crappie fishing can be very exciting, and some big fish caught as they are eating before the spawn. Remember to practice good water safety, wear your PFD and dress warmly.
(Ron Wong attended Memphis State University (now U of M) on a music scholarship playing saxophone. He spent four years in the U.S. Navy, retired from FedEx after 34 years. An avid fisherman and journalist, Wong co-hosts the weekly radio show Outdoors with Larry Rea which airs on Saturday mornings from 6-7:30 a.m. on ESPN790.)