The challenge for Rabbit Rogers that July day was to prove that yes, you can indeed catch crappie, and a lot of them, in the hottest part of summer, baking in sunshine in the heart of Barnett Reservoir. And, more important, that you can have fun doing it, which, in the torrid conditions, was the real challenge. Torrid? More like brutal.
When we launched at 9 a.m., the temperature was already 88. It topped 90 by 10, and at noon it was 100 and rising, on its way to 103 at 2 p.m.
Without the slightest hint of a breeze, the lake’s flat surface acted like a mirror, reflecting the sun’s rays back in our faces.
“One thing about going after them on a day like this,” said Rogers, who lives in the Fannin area near Barnett Reservoir, “we don’t have to fight for a place to fish. Look around, we’re the only ones out here. I think we got the place to ourselves.”
Two jet skis and a houseboat with a very noticeable, and extremely enviable, air conditioning unit riding on its top, were the only other watercraft in sight for well over two hours.
At 11 a.m., the results were discouraging. We had more empty water and sports drink bottles in the bucket than we had crappie in the fish box.
But Rogers was adamant: “Hang in there, when it really gets hot, things will get better.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when I felt a nice pop on the end of my line. I set the hook and used the 11-foot B&M pole to pull the fish to the surface. It was a slab white crappie, pushing 2 pounds.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” Rogers said, sliding the net under the fish. “Look how deep that fish took that jig.”
I had to dig deep in the jaws to reach the chartreuse and white rubber jig, on a slightly pink head, that was completely out of sight in the fish’s mouth. Before I finished, the boat rocked as Rogers stuck another one, next to the same tree in the Saddlebags Lake area of Barnett.
I helped him net what appeared to be the twin sister to the fish I caught.
Another slab, and more would follow.
“The two keys to Barnett’s summer crappie are depth and the right cover,” Rogers said. “Heat and sunshine are factors in both. The heat helps create a thermocline that produces a narrow range of comfort that holds the fish. The bright sun makes fish want to find horizontal cover to put between their eyes and the light.”
The thermocline is what got my attention. It is a product of a naturally occurring process that involves layering of water with different temperatures.
The surface water, richest in dissolved oxygen, is the hottest — it was 92 degrees at noon as we fished — and the deeper water is the coolest, but lacks enough oxygen to sustain fish. The thermocline is that layer where the rate of temperature change is the greatest, producing a layer that is cool and still has enough dissolved oxygen.
“Somewhere down there is that layer of water fish are looking for,” Rogers said. “On Barnett, it is usually 10 to 12 feet deep, so I look at 11 as a good depth to key on. If you noticed, we only caught a few fish this morning before it started really heating up. I believe that’s because the fish are scattered at more varying depths, some at even 7 or 8 feet deep. I think they move up at night.
“Now, with the heat of the day coming on, all of the fish begin to move into that comfort zone. Once that happens, half of the challenge is over. We know the depth, so we only have to find the right cover. Anything horizontal will do. There are hundreds of old trees standing around these old lakebeds, and all are capable of holding fish sometime. But those trees that have limbs sticking out will hold more fish more of the time.”
We targeted those trees, and some man-made cover Rogers placed in the lake at strategic positions. We’d pull a few off the hot trees, go fish somewhere else, and then go back to the same trees and pull a few more. We tossed short fish, keeping only slabs.
The box filled quickly between noon and 2 p.m., when we hit the magic number — 60, a two-person limit — and then we played catch-and-release another hour.
At 3 p.m., with the temperature reading 102, we hit the bottom of the drink box, and headed for the boat ramp. That fishing trip was 10 years ago, and Rogers and I have repeated it at least once every year since, always with the same results.
The only difference now is that we see more and more crappie boats on the water, getting in on the action. However, most of them are trollers, many pulling crankbaits and working natural structure like ledges along the river channel.
“Guess they like moving all the time.” Rogers said. “Probably keeps them cooler.”
There are not many things more “cool” in life than the feel of a crappie blasting a jig. That tap or tap-tap, when repeated so often, is so refreshing in itself.
The only thing I’ve found to match it is leaving the boat ramp with a box full of tasty slabs, and driving straight to a convenience store that has one of those walk-in beer coolers that keeps a constant 33 degree temperature.
If I ever find one that allows me to clean fish in the cooler…