It was hot, steamy hot — so much so that it was difficult to breathe, and the worst was yet to come.
The temperature on the flat surface of Barnett Reservoir was in the mid-90s by 10 a.m., and its waters were reflecting the radiant heat of the sun back in our faces.
I swear I thought the lake rose 2 inches just from our sweat.
“Rabbit, we’ve been here three hours and we have six crappie, and I am about to die,” I told my fishing partner, Rabbit Rogers, the well-known master of Barnett crappie who’d promised me a summertime limit. “So when is this great bite you’ve been talking about going happen?
“Hope I’m still alive to see it.”
Rogers laughed, turned from his front seat toward the back of the boat, and shook his head.
“Not hot enough yet,” he said. “When that sun gets up there (pointing straight up), they will go to town. But, you have to get here early just in case they decide to feed early. You never know about crappie.
“It’s about time. Did you notice that we caught all six of those keepers in 8 to 10 feet of water? They will shallow up overnight, and that actually slows the bite because they are scattered in the water column. Sooner or later the sun and the heat and the thermocline will push them down, and then it’s on.”
Rogers, I should have known, was exactly right.
The bite started at 11 a.m., and by 1 p.m. our 60-fish limit was filled — and that included culling small fish.
We had a box full of summer slabs, and on that torrid day 20 years ago, Rogers made me a believer: Barnett Reservoir crappie are not just a spring and fall fish, and we have often repeated our summer slaughters.
“I prefer the heat of the summer,” Rogers said. “Anybody can catch them during the spring spawn. You go find where they are taking care of their business, and you catch them.
“But summer can be even easier, if you understand two things about Barnett crappie. The first is that they usually eat if you put something in their face, and the second is that where you put it is a lot more important than what you’re putting there.”
For Rogers — then and now — the “what” is always a jig, offered vertically. The “where” is between 11 and 12 feet deep in the shade.
“Barnett Reservoir has one of the most well-defined thermoclines you will ever find,” he said. “And it’s always that depth in the summer. It may vary a few inches, but 11 to 12 feet is the depth to start. When the sun gets up and the day gets hot, the comfortable layer of water is pretty consistent all over this lake.
“That layer is where 90 percent of our crappie are going to be.”
Thermocline is defined as the transition layer of a body of water where the warm surface waters mix with the cooler but less-oxygenated deeper water. That transition layer gives fish — crappie, bass, striped bass, shad — the best mix of temperature and oxygen.
Understanding that and how crappie relate to cover on Barnett is the key to Rogers’ success.
“Everybody talks about structure, but the key is cover,” he said. “Cover, to me, means something a fish can get under, putting the cover between the sun and his eyes. That’s why you need to find horizontal cover.”
Since Barnett has more standing timber than any other major crappie lake in Mississippi, it has historically been a jigging lake.
Over the past decade, that has changed.
“Used to be that jigging is all we did, all everybody did on Barnett, especially during the summer,” said Paul Johnson, a Rez regular and a former president of the Magnolia Crappie Club. “But when our club started bringing more fishermen from other lakes and areas of the state, fishermen who specialize in trolling, they brought that technique with them.
“We laughed at them. Know what? We didn’t laugh long. They started kicking our butts, and these days you see as many or more fishermen trolling than you do jigging. I am one of them.”
Trollers rely more on structure — natural structure like changing contours of the lake bottom. They can be spotted running ridges, river channel edges, old lake beds and anything else that produces a drop at — surprise — that same level on which Rogers relies: the thermocline.
“Anywhere you can find a drop from around 10 feet down to 18, 20 or even 30 feet, that’s a place you can troll,” said Johnson, who began trolling Barnett with jigs but now uses crankbaits. “It’s basically the same technique fishermen use at Grenada, Enid and Sardis except up there they run the main-lake points.
“We don’t have that here, but we do have a lot of contour changes, and when you find the right ones, you can wear them out.”
Rogers’ advice on where being more important than what also plays out in trolling, and gives trollers an advantage because they cover so much more water as they traverse a long ledge.
“Every ledge has a sweet spot or spots, at least most of them do,” Johnson said. “It might be an irregular feature of the ledge or a place where there is some other structure like stumps.”
Because he’s moving all the time, odds are good that the troller will hit that hotspot. In Johnson’s boat, that mark is entered on the GPS unit and filed away for regular use.
Charles Lindsay, the 2013 Magnolia Crappie Club points champion, offered a third pattern.
“I like to push minnows, or troll if you want to call it, in the summer just like I do most of the year,” Lindsay said. “I use six poles, and my partner and I sit beside each other on the front of the boat, and when it’s good you can hardly keep up with the poles.
“Sometimes we drop to four poles so we can handle it all.”
Lindsay varies his depths from 6 to 12 feet, but noted “that anything deeper than 12 feet is not going to work because the fish are not going below that thermocline.”
While contour changes are important to his fishing style, you can also find Lindsay drifting over deep flats.
“One of my favorite patterns in the summer is fishing over a 10- or 12-foot flat with stumps in the middle of the lake between old lake beds or the river, just somewhere between two deep areas,” he said. “When you get a steady barometer, that’s when I think you can hit those flats.
“The fish will be more aggressive, and they are on the flat to chase shad. That’s when they can really vary in depth from 6 feet on down.”
Of course, there’s the old standby of fishing under fallen treetops on the banks of the river above Highway 43.
“That’s my style,” said Henry Lewis of Madison. “All that other stuff just sounds like too much work. Just give me a couple of poles, a bucket of minnows and my big old umbrella in the front of the boat, and I can usually catch enough for dinner.”
Regardless of the technique, Barnett is still a great option for all seasons.
“Barnett’s crappie are doing just fine,” said Larry Bull, the new assistant chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Bull’s former position was district fisheries biologist for the central area that includes The Rez. His latest stats on Barnett are from the spring of 2013.
“Spring anglers had a good year on Barnett,” Bull said. “We counted almost 1,700 crappie at the landing this year, and the average weight of harvested crappie was .9 pounds — the highest average weight since 2010.
“We had a large number of age-3 fish caught, which led to the larger average weight. We also saw more 30-fish limits than we usually do. Where we usually see one or two limits in a given period, this year we saw six or seven limits.”