JACKSON, Mississippi — The Mississippi River and associated oxbows form an ecosystem that teems with life.
But since the historic flood of 2011, it's practically been a dead zone for angler Billy Harthcock.
"Everybody up and down the river where I fish, my brother and I have talked to them, and they've verified what we're seeing," the Brandon native said. "All of them reported they aren't having any luck on crappie, bass and bream."
Harthcock said he's been fishing Palmyra Lake on Davis Island, south of Vicksburg, for nearly 25 years and witnessed some of the best fishing.
"The bass fishermen told me the bass fishing was great," Harthcock said. "The bream and crappie was always great. We caught some of the biggest bream I've ever seen."
However, in recent years, the seemingly endless supply of quality fish in some of the oxbow lakes has dried up.
"It really started after the 2011 flood," Harthcock said. "I've found one good bream bed since then. I always thought I was a good bream fisherman, but we haven't been able to find any lately. It's just been real bad fishing."
"People ask me all the time about fishing in the oxbows and the river," said Nathan Aycock, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks' Delta region fisheries biologist. "They're concerned about it."
Mississippi anglers aren't the only ones noticing the issue. Aycock said biologists from other river states are seeing and hearing about the low numbers of gamefish.
He's heard anglers peg the flood of 2011 as the culprit. Aycock disagrees.
"I don't think the flood of 2011 had much of an impact on what we're seeing now," Aycock said. "I think 2012 is what we're seeing."
Aycock said high water is generally beneficial to fish populations as they move into the food-rich floodplains, put on weight quickly and generally have successful spawns. Unfortunately, the positive effects of the 2011 flood were soon dismantled. But there's more.
In 2012, the river hit historically low levels that slowed barge traffic and left miles of beaches where boats would normally travel.
In the connected oxbows, it negatively impacted reproduction success and the existing population of sport species.
Aycock said gar were less affected because they can better tolerate poor water. That left a healthy population of gar feeding on smaller and more concentrated groups of gamefish.
Aycock said population surveys seem to back this up.
"Last fall, we shocked three or four oxbow lakes and the numbers of bass, crappie and bream were down," he said. "In some cases, it was a dramatic decrease.
"In general, the numbers of bass, bream and crappie have declined, and the number of gar has increased."
Catfish are possibly the only species typically targeted by anglers that haven't shown decrease.
"The catfish have apparently not been affected," Harthcock said. "We've caught a lot of them on trotlines and while we were bream fishing."
In the river, fishermen targeting cats continue to see success.
"The catfishing has been great since the flood," Bob Crosby of Blue Cat Guide Service said. "Last year was a great year."
The fishing was even better during the 2012 drought.
"During that historic low, we were smoking them," Crosby said. "We were fishing places in the middle of the river we've never fished."
Somewhat like gar, catfish are also more tolerant of low water conditions. Also, if they have a poor spawn one year, the following spawn generally makes up for it, Aycock said. With those characteristics, anglers such as Crosby possibly won't see a negative impact from 2012's drought.
For the bass, bream and crappie fishers, Aycock said the populations could improve soon. He surveyed a few oxbow lakes, such as Lake Beulah, and reported good crappie spawns in 2013.
"That gives me hope that in 2015, 2016, that year class will be entering the fishery," Aycock said. "There's a good chance it could get better soon."
In the end, the Mississippi River itself will determine how soon the fishing will rebound.
"The fish community is different every year," Aycock said. "It's a natural part of it.
"Years of low water and years of high water are just part of it, and it's been that way for thousands of years."
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com