By Vic Attardo
Bobby Mustang starts most mornings about 4 a.m., launching his boat, on a summer’s day, with a distant red glow in an otherwise dark sky.
Let me say quickly, I’m not sure Mustang believes in the adage, “The early bird gets the worm,” or if he just wants to avoid getting his three girls ready for school. Or camp, or horsey practice. Let me also add, Mustang it not his real last name. He asked me to disguise it in order to save his marriage.
I’m not sure a guy who rolls out for recreation at 4 a.m., four or five days a week, has a marriage that’s going anywhere — except to the Missouri lawyers at Cordell and Cordell. Mustang says that about himself so it’s no great revelation, but another good reason to alter his name.
Anyway Bobby Mustang is a heck of a crappie fisherman and I often see him holding more crappie by 8 a.m. than most anglers catch all day. He quits fishing at eight to do his day job. “Here’s the way I think about morning fishing,” Mustang said. “The hotter and the brighter it’s been, and the hotter and brighter it’s going to be, the more you want to get out early.”
When I fished with Mustang on the Harris Chain of Lakes in Florida, I got the real definition of what hot and bright means. In mid-summer it’s stifling, even before the sun comes up, and then as the sun crests the shoreline’s low trees, the expanding humidity makes it more intense. Once the white orb is released into full view, you’re already downed two bottles of water and searching for your third. The breakfast Gatorade isn’t too far behind.
But Mustang is smart in the sun. His boat position on the water keeps us in the shade as long as solarly possible. In the middle of July, he’s working the shoreline weeds where he dips a good number of crappie.
“I’m playing a pattern here,” he tells me. “The weather has been brutal for days and there’s no change in sight. The crappie aren’t happy but they have to eat. Some of them head into the channels during the day and stay there. You can catch them in the deeper water during the day but it’s a struggle.
“In the evening a good number of them roam into the weeded shallows and they stay there overnight. They eat during the night but I don’t think they’re quite satisfied.
“But in the early morning, things in the shallows are waking up so to speak. There’s a period of an hour, maybe two, when there’s a lot going on under the weeds and certainly the crappie are eating.
“This is the when I get after them — in the summer.” As if on clue Mustang plucked a good crappie from the outer edge of a thick pad field. It was his fifth in less than an hour.
“There’s very good fishing before the sun comes up and through the first hour of full light,” he went on. “Then it usually shuts off like a switch. Once the sun gets on the weeds, most crappie leave the shallows and head for the channels. Some will work back very tight to the bank but these fish are hard to get at. Just poling a boat into those spots chases them off.
By 8 a.m. we were touching the dock at the ramp. The fishing day was over and Mustang’s work time was just beginning.
“Well, now you’ve seen it,” he says. “In summer it’s critical if I want to catch a good number of fish — and three girls and a wife can eat a lot of crappie — I need to get out early.”
Working along the Coosa River in northern Alabama, US Boat rep. Dustin King — fortunately his real name — also sees the pluses of getting out early.
“It’s very good to get out early in the morning, especially in summer, and there are several reasons,” King said.
“Crappie are structure fish. So in early morning in low light they’re holding in schools tight to cover. Many fish species like to feed in the morning — which gets everything started — so this plays a big part in it.”
I watched as King shot a jig under a canopied boat house, flexing the short rod and precisely placing the jig in the shadows.
“Also, another factor to this would be that before the sun comes up and gets high, crappie tend to move more making them easier to catch. Once the sun gets up, crappie will relate to structure tighter and not ‘chase’ a bait like they would in the early morning hours. Once the sun rises and starts penetrating the water, they’ll hide behind cover in order to keep the sunlight out of their eyes. Crappie will hide behind stumps, in trees, and other structure and become very hard to catch,” King said.
Of course, knowing you have to dangle an early worm is one thing, knowing where to place the figurative worm is another.
“To catch early morning, summer, crappie I would try to find schools of crappie in creek and river channel locations,” King went on. “On the Coosa River this can be depths from 10-15ft deep typically. You will locate schools on your graph and vertical jig to those fish.”
And the how?
“My standard setup is 4-6lb. line on a spinning reel, fishing with a Roadrunner and jig combo,” King said. “Also I pay close attention as the bites are very light and hard to feel at these depths.
In southern Illinois, the sun shines bright on the waters of Lake Kinkaid, a crappie factory that’s shadeless as a low desert.
But Kyle Schoenherr isn’t going to put his rods away because the sun is beating on the water. Instead he reveals in the conditions. The hot, bright season is his Christmas.
“Summer is my absolute favorite time of the year! It’s definitely the most consistent crappie fishing of the year,” he says.
“The obvious reason I get on the water early would be to beat the heat. Even on the hottest days of the year, you generally will get three or four very pleasant hours on the water before the heat of the day sets in.
Illinois is certainly different that Florida and Alabama. Three or four hours is longer that the South’s-heat shortened days. But while comfort is nice, catching crappie is the real reason to start the day at dawn.
“The most important reason to get on the water early would be light penetration. Kinkaid is fairly clear with 2 – 4 feet visibility from the surface on down,” Schoenherr says.
“I’ll target shallow structure that is ‘less dense’ early in the morning when light penetration is at its least.
“These types of areas are generally hard to find fish in clearer water when the sun is high.
“An example of structure that is less dense would be old tree tops that have decayed over the years and are left with the trunk of the tree and main limbs.
“Some of my biggest fish of the summer will come early in the morning from shallow water. Once the sun starts to get high, I’ll then switch over to weeds.
In Schoenherr’s plan the composition of the place dictates the scheme.
“Kinkaid, has huge amounts of milfoil which is terrific habitat for black crappie through the summer months. It grows in maximum depths of 15 feet and offers cover and shade.
“On Kinkaid, we have a great population of black crappie and also natural hybrids. The natural hybrids are basically a cross between a black and white crappie. You’ll generally find these hybrids on lakes and rivers that have a good population of both black and white crappie. These hybrids have characteristics of both blacks and whites in their appearance but their patterns, preferred habitat and diet are more like a true black than a white.”
And for all those reasons, Schoenherr, like Mustang and King, present the early worm.