It was late spring, just after Memorial Day, giant balls of shad were popping up all over the surface and it was the day after a full moon. We arrived shortly before noon, which is my favorite time to fish - or even hunt - on a full moon.
Using electronics, we set buoys to mark the edge of a drop from a 12-foot flat to a 30-foot old lake bottom about a quarter mile from the old Pearl River channel on the lower main lake.
"We'll troll this edge with crankbaits and see if we can find a school, but keep your eyes out there over that big flat," I told my fishing partner. "At some point between noon and 2 p.m., with all those balls of shad on top, the stripes are going to explode."
On our second pass, my partner hooked up on a Bandit 200 and line started screaming off his reel.
"Got one! Got one!" he said.
I told him to keep his rod high and let the fish have line.
"If I keep going forward, I might yep, there's one," I said, awkwardly trying to get a hand free to put the boat in neutral. "We got a double."
By the time we were able to get the boat turned broadside to our fish, both of us had nearly 100 yards of line out. Three times we had to do the striper two-step, a move requiring us to dance around each other to keep our lines free.
In 15 minutes, Dustin Frucci had his fish alongside the boat, and I used my free hand to net the 9-pounder.
A few seconds later, he returned the favor on my 7-pounder.
"Stripes, not hybrids," I told him, pointing out the cylindrical, missile shape of the fish. We unhooked the stripers, took a couple of pictures and put them on ice before spinning the boat to make another pass.
We never made that pass.
Across the broad, deep flat, water started splashing like someone was throwing bricks - those gray mason bricks, at that - in the water.
"THERE THEY ARE! THERE THEY ARE!"
I was pointing with my rod tip to a school of stripers tearing up shad on the surface.
"Sit down and hold on," I hollered, gunning the throttle on the big engine and racing the 250 yards. "We got to get there before they go down so we can tell exactly where they are."
No problem. The fish were still blasting shad when I killed the big engine and let the boat slide into casting range.
This time, we grabbed 7-foot medium-heavy spinning rods and launched soft-plastic jerk baits into the school. Within seconds, after a couple of twitches, we were both hooked up.
As we fought the fish, the carnage around us grew. The entire flat, at least two or three acres square, was erupting with fish.
It lasted an hour or more, including several runs when the action was so close to us that shad flew into the boat in their attempt to escape the predators.
We had the limit of 12 fish- six each, over 15 inches - in 30 minutes. Most were caught within 10 yards of the boat, and nearly all them brought a few friends along to the boat. All 12 were over 6 pounds - the biggest being 11.
It was insane.
What's crazier is that, despite that kind of action, striped bass and hybrid striped bass fishing has never really caught on at Barnett Reservoir. Outside of a small, loyal legion of striper chasers, including this writer, the fish remain an enigma.
"Never have understood it," said Ron Garavelli, the director of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. He's a big fan, too. "When we do creel surveys on the lake, the combination of stripers and hybrids, which are counted together, remains one of the least fished-for species.
"But, we know that the guys who do fish for them are devoted."
Like Rick Andrews of Brandon.
"I was always a bass fisherman first, who would crappie fish during the spawn," Andrews said. "Then one day, I was bass fishing on one of my favorite cuts in the river in April with a crankbait, and I hooked up with something that nearly pulled my arm out of socket. Turns out it was an 11-pound hybrid. My first one was an 11-pounder, still the biggest hybrid I've ever caught.
"My buddy and I caught about 50 of them that day, and to be honest, we didn't really know what they were or what the limit was. Back then, it was only three a day and, fortunately for us, that was all that would fit in my livewell."
That afternoon, Andrews sought out a conservation officer at the MDWFP's nearby Turcotte Field Station, and was told the fish were hybrid stripers and the limit was three apiece - and had to be at least 15 inches to be legal.
He also learned that the lake had two types of these odd fish, both members of the temperate bass family. One is the striped bass, which is native to Mississippi's coastal rivers, including the lower Pearl River far south of where it was dammed to form Barnett Reservoir near Jackson. The other is the hybrid striped bass, a lab-produced cross of striped bass and the white bass that is native to several river systems in Mississippi - but not the Pearl.
But the main thing Andrews learned was that catching them was fun.
"We went back to that same spot five straight mornings that weekend and caught no less than 30 a day, all over 5 pounds, all before work," Andrews said. "Ever since then, I've been hooked on those fish.
"We've had some up-and-down years, but when they are there, I'd rather chase them than anything else."
Those "up and down" years are to be expected with stripes and hybrids, which are lab raised by MDWFP biologists and are unable to spawn in nature. It is a "put and take" fishery, which helps keep either species from taking over the reservoir.
Another limiting factor is that stripers have a tendency to follow current and escape through the dam.
According to records from the MDWFP, 2009 was a big year for striper stockings with 399,747 fingerlings (1.5 inches, average) released. Subsequent stockings have been much lower: 84,065 in 2010, 80,500 in 2011 and 119,650 in 2012.
Hybrid stockings are much lower: 12,300 in 2009, none in 2010, 119,650 in 2011 and 20,000 in 2012.
Stockings of striped bass began in the early to mid '80s but because of the escape rate through the dam, the MDWFP switched to hybrids, which have a lot lower escape rate.
Biologists eventually brought stripers back into the picture, and now stock both species in varying numbers based on hatchery production.
"Both of them do well in Barnett," Garavelli said. "We have a 12-month growing season for stripers. They grow so fast that they have short life spans. That, and the shallowness of Barnett is why we don't see the giant - 30-, 40- and 50-pounders - you see in other states."
Despite the population control, bass fishermen, and crappie fishermen to a degree, fear a detrimental impact on their favorite species.
"Basically, I don't like the competition for the shad," said Shannon Denson, an avid tournament bass fisherman. "What happens if we have a really down year of shad production? I know they said it is not a real threat, but how can they be sure?
"Plus, there's a lot of us who would rather see spending that money rearing more largemouth bass to stock in the lake. Since there are far more bass fishermen and bass fishing's economic impact is bigger, it just makes sense."
Of course, Denson will fish for stripers when not tournament fishing or preparing for an upcoming event.
"Like, if my son and I are out there, and they are biting on top, yeah, we enjoy it," he said. "The problem I've been having - and a lot of other bass fishermen, too - is that we're starting to see more stripes on the ledges that have traditionally been our bread-and-butter bass spots.
"Last year, it was unbelievable. We'd pull up on a spot, throw a deep crankbait and, bam, you'd think you had lunker all wrapped up. Then it'd be a 10-pound striper, and then another. We'd have to leave."
As more of that 2009 class of striper stockings diminishes in the population, that problem could cure itself.
"We did have an incredible jump in striper fishing the last two or three years, so I think that big stocking in 2009 is the reason," Andrews said. "I think 2010 and 2011 were the best years we've ever had, and 2012 was kind of down.
"But I guess the reason it was down is that they had moved to new areas, like the bass holes."
Small fish dominated a slow 2012 spring and summer season, with fish averaging 11 to 13 inches, which had to be released. It was an equal match of stripers and hybrids, which makes sense when you look at the near-equal stockings in 2011.
Those fish surpassed the 15-inch minimum later in the summer, thanks to that rapid growth rate, and should average 3 to 5 pounds this year.
There was also a big run on the 2009 stripers last fall on the lower main lake near the river channel, and those fish should be in excess of 10 pounds this year.
It should be fun.