Story & photos by Brent Frazee
Most fishermen would rather sit in front of an air conditioner than in a fishing boat on days like this. Even in the early-morning hours, it was a scorcher at Truman Lake. Forecasts called for the temperatures to soar to near 100 degrees, and no relief was in sight.
So why was Jeff Faulkenberry, a longtime guide at the large reservoir in west-central Missouri, so confident that he and two friends could catch a limit of crappie without even breaking a sweat?
He knew the fishing, against all odds, had been just as hot as the weather during this stretch in late July.
“A lot of fishermen think the fish won’t bite when it gets like this,” said Faulkenberry, who runs the Endless Season Guide Service on the 55,600-acre reservoir in west-central Missouri. “They think that either it’s too hot for them to be active or that they go deep.
“But Truman is different than a lot of lakes. It has lots of cover and shade for the fish, an abundance of shad, and the crappie stay shallow.
“You might have to move around until you find them. But they’ll bite if you drop it in front of them.”
Faulkenberry paused and laughed.
“I think the fishermen are more uncomfortable than the fish,” he said.
Faulkenberry proved his point just a few minutes after he left the boat ramp at 6:30 a.m. He headed for a spot in the Grand arm and stopped where a tree row extended from the bank onto a flat. So much for going deep. The water was 10 to 12 feet deep at its max.
Then he used a long rod to dip minnows along the trunks of the flooded trees. Before long, he felt a slight tap and he pulled a 12-inch crappie out of the tangle of limbs.
Game on. For the next couple hours, Faulkenberry and two friends – Johnny Everhart and I – steadily caught keeper crappie in conditions that many fishermen would consider a nightmare.
Before the sun got high in a cloudless sky, we were back at the ramp with our limit of 15 crappies apiece.
A fluke? Hardly. Faulkenberry is a year-round crappie fisherman. That includes the numbing cold of winter and the torrid heat of summer. If he’s learned one thing over the years it’s that crappie will bite even in the extremes.
“Truman is an unreal crappie lake,” he said. “It has so many fish, and in a wide range of sizes.
“You can hit the trees in these flooded fencerows and catch two or three crappie out of one tree, then you have to move on to the next one. But you find enough places like that and it won’t take you long to catch a limit”
Faulkenberry found one of those magic fencerows on this trip. And the place had plenty of sentimental value.
“I grew up with this lake,” said Faulkenberry, 37, who lives in Clinton, Mo. “I was born about the time Truman opened (the dam was completed in 1979).
“My grandfather built a home up on that hill and I would spend my summers here, fishing. What we’re fishing was probably a tree row along a hay field.
“The crappie fishing was great then and it still is. For size of fish, it’s better now than it was then.”
Faulkenberry has caught crappie as big as 3.29 pounds, a fish he donated to Bass Pro Shops for display in its aquarium. He has caught one other crappie bigger than three pounds and he guided a customer to another.
Fish that size, of course, are rare. But Truman has plenty of thick-sided, healthy crappie.
No question, it has the look of a top crappie lake. It features a maze of flooded timber and brush, it has the dirty, fertile water that crappie prefer, and schools of shad dimple the surface about everywhere you look.
About the only draw-back is that it is prone to flooding in the spring, making boat ramps and recreation areas virtually inaccessible. But those are the years when the crappie pull off a big spawn and the survival rate of fry is high because of the additional hiding places from predators.
This year has already been a memorable one for crappie fishing. Fishermen are benefitting from an excellent year-class of fish from 2014, many of which are now in the 10-inch range, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Faulkenberry has guided many parties to limits of those fish, and he expects to catch many more in the summer.
Even with the expected heat, he is booked solid. In fact, he already has 268 guide trips booked for this year.
In the summer, Faulkenberry specializes in dipping minnows along trees or swinging one-eighth ounce jigs.
“A lot of times, they’ll hit when you swing that jig and it starts to fall,” he said.
He likes to fish main-lake flooded hedge and cedar tree rows in the summer. He keys on the dark stumps because they absorb the sun, grow algae and attract baitfish.
He often uses a 10-foot ultralight rod, custom-built by the Ozark Rod Co. He uses 15-pound braided line and likes to use bright-colored tube jigs made by MidSouth Tackle. His favorite color pattern: blue sparkle over a chartreuse core.
That isn’t the only way he catches fish in the heat of summer, though. He also uses a small jigging spoon, lifting it three feet and letting it flutter down. He also will go to spider-rigging, putting out multiple rods and rigs baited with minnows, and slowly troll over the top of brush, stumps and timber.
Faulkenberry likes to fish dirty water, and Truman has plenty of that. It is known for its colored, fertile expanses.
In the summer, a thermocline (the layer that separates oxygen-rich water from the zone where it is depleted) often sets up and that helps fishermen. They know that the crappie won’t retreat into deep water because there is little oxygen there.
That’s one of the reasons Faulkenberry stays relatively shallow, even in the summer.
After fishing the lake since his childhood, he knows plenty of places to go. When the fishing gets tough, he often falls back on the tricks his grandpa showed him.
“I’d go out with him and he’d always be catching crappie while I was hardly catching anything,” Faulkenberry said. “I asked him what he was doing. He told me, ‘Drop to the bottom. Crank two times and stop. Crank two times and stop. Crank two times and stop.’
“He would do that all the way until the bait was to the top. It worked. It still does today.”