On Eagle Lake:Serenity, view take front seat at county’s known fishing hole|[03/18/07]

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 19, 2007

Thirty years ago, Eagle Lake was known for its game fishing. But in the years since a control structure was built to regulate the rise and fall of the lake, the fish population has declined.

Now the community appears to be gaining popularity for its lakefront lots and water sports.

&#8220Water and recreation are going in the opposite direction,” said Sidney E. Malone of Hattiesburg. &#8220The recreation on the water is offsetting the fishing.”

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Six years ago, Malone bought 2 1/2 miles of lakefront property on Eagle Lake Shore Road and named it Water’s Edge. Since then, 50 of the 125 lots have sold, but buyers are not so interested in the fish.

&#8220They are just attracted to the water,” he said. &#8220Although Eagle Lake has always had a reputation of being a fishing village, I’ve had no one tell me they’ve bought the lots for the fish.”

That’s because they’re more interested in the view, Mark Culbertson said.

&#8220The scenic value and the recreational value of Eagle Lake has only increased,” he said.

In 2001, around the time Malone began developing Eagle Lake Shore Road, Culbertson bought property near the lake, partly because of its location.

&#8220We moved there to be closer to my mother and because of the serenity. It’s a real laid-back atmosphere, and we love it up there. The thought would never enter my mind of moving back to town.”

But, despite the residential development on Eagle Lake, Malone said he does not consider it a &#8220boom.”

&#8220It’s been a slow process,” he said. &#8220I don’t see it as a boom but a gradual thing. That is why I am building five homes at a time and not 30 at a time.”

Initial development of housing around the lake was concentrated along the north and east shores. The land along the south shore, with the exception of a small area near Buck Chute, was owned by one or two people and saw limited development.

That has changed, with Malone’s Water’s Edge, part of that increasing development along the south shore, including modular homes being built on five lots.

They are 1,450 to 2,200 square feet, and may cost around $110 per square foot, realtor Bette Paul said. The lakefront lots may cost about $45,000 each.

Malone said he’s placed restrictions on the properties to regulate the types of housing permitted.

&#8220I’m going to keep building them if people are receptive to them,” he said. &#8220I’ve had enough lots and land on one side to make it look like something nice, and I put covenants on them to protect people’s investments.”

Malone, a real estate developer, said he has fished and hunted at Eagle Lake since he was in college, decades ago, and that &#8220Eagle lake is the prettiest lake I’ve ever seen. It’s like a second home to me.”

Culbertson said he’s glad to see a renewed interest in the community that has seen a fluctuation in population since the 1960s and ’70s.

&#8220Back then, people went to Eagle Lake primarily to fish,” he said. &#8220But it’s probably half as many people there now as it was then. There’s a good bit of construction going on, and it’s building back up now. There are other things you can do on a lake other than fish.”

Nonetheless, Eagle Lake residents love their fish. In a meeting last August with officials from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, they urged the agency to act quickly to destroy grass they said was responsible for the declining fish population.

Department officials said native aquatic plants cover about 513 acres and that the number of young crappie and bass are &#8220some of the major issues.”

John Skains, a biologist with the agency, said in August that officials hoped to raise the spring pool level to 76.9 feet by Feb. 15, using water from Steele Bayou. Just last week, the lake had risen to that level.

Eagle Lake, 30 miles northwest of Warren County, is the largest in the county with public access. It was formed in 1866 when the Mississippi River cut a large looping bend that is now the lake with the Terrapin Neck Cutoff. Although the lake remained connected to the Mississippi River for many years, its connection was severed when the Mainline Mississippi River Levee was constructed.

In spite of that, the lake’s level rose and fell with the level of Steele Bayou and the Yazoo River through a manmade connection, Muddy Bayou, until the 1970s. Following the devastation of the 1973 Mississippi River Flood, a control structure was built where Muddy Bayou joins Steele Bayou. The structure allows the level of the lake to be regulated according to an agreement involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi and Louisiana state and local governments.

But silting has made the lake shallower for years, and oxygen depletion due to heat may regularly cause fish to die.

Regrettably, Culbertson said, fishing in Eagle Lake is not what it used to be.

&#8220The draw as far as fishing through the years has decreased,” he said. &#8220The lake, when they stopped it from rising and falling with the Mississippi River, it pretty much killed it. You can still catch fish, but it’s nothing like it was in the ’70s, when you could catch the finest white perch anywhere. The fishing, at best, is sporadic.”

Frances Sanders, president of Eagle Lake Water Association, has lived at Eagle Lake for 21 years. She said despite dwindling fish population, the community has grown since she moved there with her husband, Jack.

&#8220When I first moved up here, there were 200 meters on this lake,” she said. &#8220There are 585 up here now, and that is tremendous growth. It’s because it is a lovely place to live.”

Outside the summer months, Eagle Lake’s population is about 800, Bowen said. During the summer, it’s about 5,000.

Like Culbertson, Sanders said the fishing changed when &#8220they put Steele Bayou and Muddy Bayou structures in. We had fresh water in here all the time, and now we don’t. All we get is rainwater.”

At Tara Wildlife, though, the story is a bit different. Fishing is not a problem and, like Eagle Lake, hunting is popular year-around.

&#8220We’re known for our hunting,” Mark Bowen said. &#8220We are one of the premier hunting destinations, and everything revolves around it.’

And that’s good for everybody, Culbertson said.

&#8220The hunting would probably rival hunting anywhere in the United States,” he said. &#8220Tara Wildlife has got a management program that’s out of this world. Overall, the good points far outweigh the bad points” on living at Eagle Lake.

Tara is on 12 miles of Mississippi River frontage and 17,200 acres of oxbow lakes and bottomland hardwood forests.