Crappie anglers who are still plying their trades on Mississippi's famous I-55 corridor crappie lakes during the first of September are also starting to notice the change. Crappie that have been holding out around the wide open reaches of these Corps of Engineers reservoirs are slowly but surely beginning to reverse the tide and making their way back in the direction from which they came in the spring.
At this time of year, any lake that can and will develop a thermocline has done so. The turn over of the stratification of this thin layer of water in which temperature changes more rapidly with depth than it does in the layers above or below is still many weeks away.
This means that crappie will most certainly be holding at specific depths in stratified reservoirs to take advantage of the cooler water that provides the highest dissolved oxygen. The change noted by anglers is the movement of forage, the food supply that crappie rely on for their survival, beginning an amoeba-like movement toward river arms and tributaries foreshadowing the change of seasons.
To understand the seasonal movements of crappie during the expansive summer months, you have to be constantly on the water monitoring them. Such is the case with the crappie fishing team of Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman. "Capps and Coleman" is as close to a household name, if everybody in the house fishes for crappie, as you'll find. The team has won an unprecedented seven National Crappie Championship titles, and their names adorn crappie gear and tackle from rods to lures to fishing line.
Paving their way to success has been a crappie-fishing tactic that is often referred to as "tightlining" or "spider-rigging" or more simply "trolling." The tactic allows the partners to sit in the front of their boat and present either live or artificial baits at precise depths. Using eight or more limber poles hanging off the front of the boat, the pair siphons the water for crappie.
"About 6 to 7 feet is the standard depth to catch crappie this time of year in this part of the country," said Capps. "That's where the fish will hold because they're right there in the thermocline.
"I don't care how deep the water under them is, whether it's 17, 18 feet deep or if it's 30 feet deep."
Capps says the best way to judge the thermocline is by the life of bait he's using on his double minnow rigs. If he raises the minnow up too high, the heated water will quickly kill the bait. If he drops the bait below the thermocline, the lack of oxygen from the decomposition of plant and animal material on the lake floor will also kill the bait.
"Here on these Mississippi reservoirs, the thermocline tends to be higher than it will be in a clear-water lake like Pickwick or Kentucky Lake," said Capps. "That still leaves a lot of water to fish in, but you can narrow that down if you can find some type of structure that fish can hold around."
Anglers often confuse the terms "structure" and "cover." Simply stated, structure is any terrain feature that crappie or other fish will find favorable given the time of year. Cover is a physical object, a stump, tree, rock pile, bridge piling or boat dock, that usually rises vertically in the water column to either break current or provide a hiding place. Coleman puts together the second and third pieces to the puzzle, which involve structure and cover when fishing thermoclines.
"We've made a living fishing break lines," said Coleman. "We'll get on a specific break line and just follow it all over the lake.
"Since we already know that crappie are suspended at the level of the thermocline, the key is to put the baits right in the top of the thermocline and then follow the break line until you come across the fish holding on or above some kind of structure.
"I'll give you a good example of why we learned to do that. Ever since we started fishing with GPS units, we started marking every big fish we caught. At the end of the day, we'd go back and map out where we caught our best fish, and just about every one was caught on a break line and in the same particular water depth for that day."
"A lot of anglers will go to single-pole fishing this time of year, basically fishing the same pattern that we troll but with only one pole," said Capps. "Where Steve and I have the advantage with multiple poles is we're subject to catch a fish roaming out away from structure, so long as the water is colored, which it almost always is here in Mississippi, and because of that you don't always see that limb or stump that comes up to within a foot or two of the surface that's holding that fish."
They use trolling rods that bear their names, and are particular about what they drop down.
"We rig each rod with a Capps & Coleman double-hook minnow rig because it's straight live bait fishing while the water is still hot, and now we're using our own brand of line."
Speaking of baits, the pair uses nothing other than live bait while the water temperatures are still well above the 80s, but it's not always the same live bait everyone else is using.
"I haven't bought a minnow in the last two months," said Capps. "I carry a cast net with me in the boat all the time.
"One thing I can say is that there are days, especially when it's hot, that something different, like a natural bait, will catch you more fish than store-bought minnows. I usually don't leave the ramp without at least 3 pounds of shiners, and I'll have to run those on an oxygen bottle to keep them alive and healthy all day. Still, if I pass by some running water or a culvert, I might make a throw or two to have something extra in the bait tank."