Spring Slabs at the Pumping Station

By Vernon Summerlin

“You may not catch as many crappie here as they do on the river, but the size of these crappie more than makes up the difference,” says Mr. T. C. Bailey, a local angler. The “here” Mr. Bailey refers to is the New Johnsonville Pumping Station, a 1210-acre impoundment in the Big Bottoms at the western edge of the Tennessee National Migratory Wildlife Refuge. The “river” is the Tennessee River, just the width of a levee away.

The Secrets
“The secret of this place,” Bailey continues, “is you don’t catch ice chests full like they do on the river, but from here it only takes half as many crappie to fill a chest.” Bailey lives nearby and fishes frequently at the pumping station. He never has a crappie less than 1/2-pound and he always has some slabs. “Most people just want to catch a lot, size doesn’t matter to them. But now that the limit is thirty, size makes a difference to me.” The secret is size. Big. Another secret is, it’s never crowded. Bailey says most anglers fish the pumping station in the spring. On a crowded day you can count all the boats on the fingers of three hands. Bank anglers walk along the rock levy and have access to excellent fishing. In addition to fishing the stumps and trees in the impoundment, they can fish in the river on the other side of the levy. The pumping station itself has walkways on two sides where bank anglers can reach the deepest part of the impoundment right in front of the pump house. The Refuge closes the first part of November, or whenever the migratory birds arrive, and it re-opens about mid-March when the birds leave. This is sanctuary for wintering waterfowl and other birds. Even when the pumping station is open to fishing there may be parts of it closed to anglers because of nesting eagles and osprey. These restricted areas don’t include the best fishing spots that are south of the launch site. This area, called Big Bottoms, was once the largest cornfield in the world. Forty three thousand acres of this rich bottomland was cultivated. “TVA made the levee for vector control and to reduce the mosquito population,” says Mark Musaus, Assistant Refuge Manager in Paris. The levee acts as a dam to hold the water from the creeks and flood this bottomland. “In 1945 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over and began developing the area as a wildlife refuge and we encourage the public to come and appreciate it.” That includes crappie. The features that make this water such a great place for crappie are the forests of stumps, cypress trees growing throughout the impoundment and the shallow water. At low water you can see the thousands of stumps and logs that attract crappie. During times of high water, which rises and falls with the river, the stump tops are just below the surface. This shallow water warms rapidly in the spring sunshine and is one of the first big bodies of water to have spawning crappie. There are two relatively deep channels that lead away from the launch, one to the west and the other to the south. Anglers who know this water can run their bass boats at top speed over these old creek beds. Every once in a while you can hear a “thwock” followed by the whine of an over revving engine. Most boaters are courteous and keep their wake to a minimum around other anglers. There are no guides for the impoundment. Talking to other anglers like Mr. Bailey is the best way to learn the water. But during the spring there seems to be a crappie at every stump and tree, so you don’t need a guide.

Big Bottom Techniques
The prominent method for catching these slabs is with a minnow about eight inches below a bobber attached to a 10-foot crappie pole or a fly rod. The minnow is lifted and plunked down next to stump after stump. Most boats are in constant motion weaving among the stumps and cypress trees. Because of these stumps and trees, canoes and johnboats are the best choices for this water. Some anglers use bass boats but they are limited in the places they can get to and maneuvering these big boats can be a chore. Dancing a jig under a bobber is another excellent technique. Different anglers swear by different colors and styles of plastic bodies. My impression is that just about anything will work if you put it in front of the fish. Using the jig and bobber method is very effective, especially if there is any wind. The wave action will make your jig dance. Usually you would cast beyond a stump and work your bait back. This impoundment is so rich in stumps that you cast and hope it doesn’t snag before a crappie gets it. Use a thin wire hook. It will straighten and save you time and the effort of re-tying. You can heat your jig hook with a match or lighter to remove some of its temper so it can be pulled off the inevitable snag. Using 12-pound test line will help save your hooks too. The crappie don’t seem to mind heavy line. You can sometimes double your crappie action by using the safety pin shaped wire from a small spinnerbait rigged with a jig and a curly-tail grub on the bottom and a number one hook and grub placed on the top wire. This gives a new meaning to “double your pleasure.” This rig works well for schooling fish and is very challenging when used on ultralight gear. My first trip to the pumping station was on a calm spring day with my wife Cathy. We were less than 50 yards from the launch when she caught a crappie. It was the first crappie I had ever seen that weighed over two pounds. We soon caught enough for several dinners, proving what Mr. Bailey said, “you may not catch as many as they do on the river but the size of these crappie more than makes up the difference.” Although crappie are the main attraction at the pumping station, there are plenty of bass caught here. They are usually a bonus to crappie anglers. The impoundment is rich in fish besides crappie and bass; there are catfish, stripe, bream, gar and even a rare sauger.

Directions to Big Bottoms
To get to the pumping station, turn south off Highway 70 West on Long Street. Turn right at the stop sign. Turn left 0.7 miles, then veer to the right when the road forks. Just over the rise is the Tennessee River with the pumping station to left of the parking lot. The community of New Johnsonville is right on the edge on the Tennessee River, where you can find places to eat, camp grounds, a motel and bait. For further information about the pumping station impoundment contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by calling (901) 642-2091 or writing the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, P.O. Box 849, Paris, TN 38242.