Kenneth Kieser: Fishing for big crappie in Mississippi
Angling prospectors seek treasure in the southern United States. Silver deposits, sometimes called crappie, suspend in huge lakes, gorging on gizzard shad and other baitfish while growing fat and sassy with an irresistible southern charm of biting regularly.
Lake Washington, a 5,000-acre oxbow located by Chatham, Mississippi, is one of several in this historic state. The lake is in the Delta region and loaded with large crappie.
A tournament angler said he recently fished a crappie tournament in a different Mississippi lake in which more than 20 crappie weighing 3 pounds each were weighed in. The same result is always possible in Lake Washington, where catching a 3-pounder happens frequently.
“We sell thousands of minnows when our crappie bite turns on,” said Mike Jones, owner and operator of Big Mama’s Bait ’N Thangs tackle shop in Chatham. “I will sell between 15,000 to 20,000 per week to tournament or recreational anglers. The crappie fishing is best between February and May, yet crappie is caught here throughout the year.”
All of that may seem important to most anglers, but Stacy Hamberlin, a 6-year-old fishing prodigy, only cares about hanging with her daddy. Mark Hamberlin, better known as Stacy’s daddy, rigged out his StarCraft pontoon that included a large trolling motor with ample battery power to troll Lake Washington. The larger deck allows Stacy to move around and play, watch cartoons on her iPhone or take photos with Daddy’s Go-Pro camera between bites.
Hamberlin trolls with at least eight rods while dragging Pico Lure’s Square Billed crankbaits that are about two inches long in a variety of colors. When a crappie hits, Stacy takes over and reels in each fish, saving her daddy the exhaustion of fighting these aggressive scrappers.
The square-billed crankbaits run about four feet deep. Lake Washington, like most oxbow lakes, is shallow and long where extended stretches of 6-foot depths are common. The crappie either suspend or congregate on the bottom, just hanging around or searching for forage and commonly swim up to take baits, making a lure running at four feet ideal.
We caught several crappie well over a pound during the first trolling run on eight different Square Billed colors and that is unusual. Crappie generally are picky about the colors they attack. Most anglers on the lake that day were not as successful because of a recent cold front that shut down fishing.
Stacy took the rod on a hit that turned out to be quite a battle. She eventually won the fight with a 2 1/2-pound crappie, not uncommon in this region but likely her largest crappie – so far – and bigger than I have caught in 64 years of Midwest fishing.
Many predict that a 5-pound black crappie will eventually be caught in Lake Washington, or maybe larger, breaking the current Mississippi black crappie record of 4 pounds, 4 ounces. The white crappie 1957 world record from Mississippi of 5 pounds, 3 ounces may be broken here too.
Lake Washington formed when the Mississippi River changed its course about 1300 AD. The first home, a log cabin, was built in 1826. Today the shores have a variety of homes from cabins to million-dollar houses.
The lake draws many activities, especially viewing wildlife. Permits are drawn annually for alligator hunts and they even have a Snake Grabbin’ Rodeo in which the reptiles are caught by hand to raise money for charity. Contestants are suggested to grab only non-poison water snakes, but the bold will occasionally grab a poison cottonmouth because they want to.
The evening ended at the world-famous steakhouse, Doe’s Eat Place, where I informed the manager, Cathy Wong, and the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, Errick D. Simmons, that I was from Kansas City where we specialize in steak. They challenged me to try theirs. I did and enjoyed one of the best steaks ever cooked.
The old restaurant started as a grocery store in 1903 and did well until the 1927 flood. Big Doe Signa soon went into bootlegging whiskey to support the family. Eventually he sold his 40-barrel still for $300 and a Model T Ford. The property became a honky-tonk and eventually a restaurant where today celebrities travel to Greenville for one of these amazing steaks.
That evening I settled into my room at the beautiful Belmont Plantation, the last antebellum mansion in the Mississippi Delta. The day before, a movie company with veteran actor Will Smith started filming a story about the region. The movie crew had flown back to Hollywood.
The mansion that is now a bed and breakfast was said to be haunted. I turned off my lights and laid thinking about the day when something large seemed to strike the opposite side of my bed. I reached my hand over and only felt blankets. Minutes later smaller pounding on the bed like footsteps opened my eyes and a kind of sweet smell filled the air.
Downstairs in the lobby the following morning, I was telling a friend about my experience when another writer on the trip from Virginia, Ken Perrotte, came down the steep steps, looking like he had not slept a wink.
“Something pounded on my bed during the night and woke me up,” Perrotte said with a sick look. “I turned on the light and nothing was there. Then it felt like someone was walking on my bed.”
I wondered if the movie company had somehow rigged the beds for a practical joke. A closer examination of both beds showed nothing out of the ordinary. I told our hosts Camile Collin and Lisa Winters about our experience. They looked a bit shocked and only noted that it wasn’t the first time someone had experienced a ghostly visit.
Few words were spoken as we drove to breakfast while thinking about the haints and anticipating more excellent crappie fishing.
• For more information about fishing Mississippi’s Lake Washington for monster crappie, contact Mike Jones at 662-822-2087. For more information about Doe's Eat Place or the Belmont Plantation, Google their websites.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.