When it comes to establishing a pattern on any of Mississippi's well-known slab-crappie fisheries, Arkabutla is one lake that refuses to play by the rules. By the late summer, water temperatures can be at their highest of the year.

By the end of September, cooler overnight temperatures and shortening days bring some relief to the sweltering heat, and things start to change.

On most lakes and reservoirs around the state, crappie anglers would be spending their time finding the deepest water available and working around some type of structure to catch crappie. Patterns on Arkabutla, however, are more akin to spring patterns than summer, so you'll need to come prepared to fish shallow water and cover lots of ground.

Arkabutla Lake is one of four Flood Damage Reduction reservoirs in northern Mississippi. Located less than 30 minutes south of the Tennessee state line, Arkabutla is the only U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project (aside from Mississippi River maintenance) in the Memphis metropolitan area.

The lake has a summer recreational pool of just over 11,000 acres, and when drawn down to its conservation pool during the winter, may cover less than half of that amount. This provides for widespread fluctuations in water levels and lends a few clues as to why the lake doesn't fish like some of the other flood-control impoundments.

Like the lake itself, seven-time national crappie champion Ronnie Capps isn't much of a rule follower when it comes to crappie fishing. He and his partner Steve Coleman have won the Crappie Masters Mississippi State Championship twice in the last five years, both times fishing Arkabutla during the late summer, early fall season.

Capps lives in Tiptonville, Tenn., and is a full-time wildlife officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He's also a part-time crappie guide at Reelfoot Lake, another highly productive shallow-water crappie fishery. The crappie pro has found two otherwise unconventional patterns for fishing Arkabutla during the month of September.

"The first thing I do when I get to the lake is look at the water level," said Capps. "They usually start dropping the water by September so they can get it low enough for the winter drawdown. I'll look for green bushes that line the edges of the long points or channels coming into the lake, especially around the Hernando Point or Coldwater River areas.

"If the water is high enough, you need to get back there in those bushes with the fish. I know that sounds like a spring pattern, but crappie aren't in a big hurry to get away from those bushes until the water goes down."

As for fishing tactics, Capps and Coleman have always won the lion's share of their earnings by slow vertical-trolling minnow rigs. Even when Arkabutla's crappie are holding along the edges of green bushes in water that's less than 5 feet deep, Capps still relies on multiple-rod trolling as his go-to tactic.

Arkabutla regulations permit up to five rods per angler, which means Capps' boat will fish no fewer than 10 rods with two people on board.

"A lot of anglers think the only way to catch crappie around any kind of submerged brush is by single-pole jigging deep in the brush," he said. "What we do is either follow a vegetation contour, like a brush row or a weedline, or we'll follow a depth contour.

"Steve and I have made it a point to mark every good fish we catch while trolling on our GPS, just like we do if we come across a brushtop. At the end of the day, we'll pull up our fish log, and it really jumps out at you that most of the better fish were on some type of contour line. We use that to establish a pattern."

Whether fishing for fun with his wife Kay or chasing down another tournament win, Capps makes Hernando Point, on the east side of the lake, his base of operations. From that point, he'll ride southeast to the headwaters of the lake to the intersection of Coldwater River and Hickahala Creek.

"Where Coldwater and Hickahala meet, there's a bunch of little cuts and ditches that cross the top of the bar," said Capps. "I'll get in there and follow those cuts, pushing a set of poles up that ditch. I might use straight minnows or I might tip a jig with a minnow, but I'm always going to be using live bait. There's a lot you can learn this time of year by using live bait and paying attention to what your bait is telling you."

Capps rarely fishes any deeper than 6-8 feet at Arkabutla. His main reasoning is that when summer thermoclines set up, he's got to be fishing above the thermocline to catch fish. His best indicator of what depth the thermocline starts is by watching his live baits.

"I might be running a double-minnow rig with the hooks 3 feet apart," he said. "If the bottom minnow is hanging at 8 feet and the top minnow is at 5 feet, and I go to check my baits, the bottom minnow may be dead and the top minnow still kicking. That means I need to adjust the whole thing up because that thermocline is right there about 7 or 8 feet deep."

Another veteran crappie angler who spends a good bit of time fishing Arkabutla is Wade Hendren of Ripley, Tenn. Like Capps, Hendren travels the country fishing national crappie tournaments. He's also a fellow TWRC wildlife officer. Hendren calls Arkabutla for what it is, a trophy lake where you're going to find bigger fish and fewer numbers.

"I have six mounted crappie at home, all of them over 3 pounds, and four of the six came out of Arkabutla," said Hendren. "I've caught so many crappie from different lakes all over the country that I don't care much about catching lots of fish. I'd rather trophy fish and try to catch the big ones.

"I only live a little over an hour from Arkabutla, so it's hard to drive past it to go fish somewhere else where you might catch a limit of fish, but not the size."

Hendren's favorite spots for late summer, early fall fishing are the flats out in front of the mouths of Mussacuna and Cane creeks. Though these areas are within sight of the dam, the water depths are only 8-9 feet at their deepest, again depending on the prevailing water levels.

"Fishing deep in the river channel doesn't work at Arkabutla," said Hendren. "You'll catch a boat load of small catfish in there, but very few crappie. The 4- to 6-foot depths are the best average depths when fishing for crappie."

Like Capps, Hendren favors multiple-rod trolling over single-pole jigging. He finds it easier to maintain a single jig on each pole rather than load up with multiple minnow hooks, especially if he's fishing on the shallower flats, but agrees the minnow rigs have a bit of an advantage.

"You can put a 1- to 2-ounce egg weight on a minnow rig and push it a lot faster than fishing single jigs," he said. "That's an advantage because those crappie are roaming the flats feeding on bait, and having the heavier weight lets you troll faster and cover more ground."