Perhaps today's modern crappie anglers aren't so different from those Native Americans. While few crappie anglers owe their complete livelihood to the pursuit of these fish, it does account for a lot of weekends.
Like the plains buffalo, crappie migrate up and down reservoirs in response to available food sources. Since crappie depend greatly on stocks of threadfin shad in the majority of the waters where they are found, shad migrations dictate where you're most likely to find crappie.
As fall settles in on Ross Barnett Reservoir, schools of threadfin shad begin to stack up like rush-hour traffic along the main river channel and make their way from the deeper areas of the main-lake basin to the headwaters of the lake.
Finding hungry crappie scattered out along the main river channel creates the perfect storm for tournament anglers Brad Chappell and Bo Hudson. Chappell and Hudson have made local and regional news with their impressive tournament results in both the local Magnolia Crappie Club and national Crappie Masters and Crappie USA events. The team credits a shift in their fishing techniques for much of their success.
"Just about everyone on Barnett trolls," said Brad Chappell of Ridgeland. "Most of them tight-line troll from the front of the boat.
"Like a lot of anglers, Bo and I started trolling crankbaits several years ago, and then we had a couple of guys from Georgia join the Magnolia Club that were long-line trollers. They really put the beat-down on everybody in the club, and I told Bo that we needed to learn how to long line."
Trolling for crappie has become one of the most effective tactics to catch numbers of big slabs across the country. Even among trollers, there are two schools of thought as to which presentation works best. In a nutshell, these two schools can be broken down into pushin' and pullin'.
Pushin' is a slow-trolling tactic where lines are kept mostly in the front and to the sides of the boat, the lines stay vertical in the water and the amount of line out determines the precise depth to which the bait is presented. The boat eases around and over the top of underwater structure. The tactic is more commonly known as tight-lining.
Pullin' is a faster trolling tactic and more akin to what most consider as trolling. In long-line trolling, single or double jigs are cast out to the side and behind the boat and are trolled to the rear. Speed, weight of the bait, line diameter and the amount of line out all combine to determine the depth you're fishing.
The team of Chappell and Hudson long-lines on Barnett for the majority of the year, and will long-line just about anytime the water temperatures are between 40 and 85 degrees.
"Crappie get real spread out when the water gets above 85," said Hudson, who lives in Madison and guides for crappie under the business name of Slab Crappie Guides. "They move tight to cover, and that makes it tough to catch them long lining.
"Long lining is a better suspended-fish tactic."
The transition from summer to fall marks the team's return to long lining, and this time frame coincides with shad migrations up the lake.
"Most of the shad are down the lake in the old river lakes and in Pelahatchie Bay through the summer," said Hudson. "They really get the message to move up the river channel once the water temps reach the mid 70s and we start getting those cool nights in October."
By the time the fall shad migration gets in high gear, Chappell and Hudson know they'll be able to intercept both the shad and the crappie following them at the narrowest point on the lake - the Highway 43 bridges.
"We'll really start getting on the crappie during the shad migration from the area known as the "S-curves" below the bridge and all the way up to Caney Creek above the bridge," said Hudson.
Because both crappie and shad orient to the edge of the main river channel along their migration north, the pair trolls the edge of the channel working both the top of the shelf in around 10 feet of water and out into the channel itself which can be as deep as 20 feet.
"The channel edge is fairly straight and pretty well defined on either side of the bridge, so we'll troll for a mile in either direction bumping along from the center of the channel to the edge of the channel," said Hudson.
"When the bite is on, just look for the concentration of boats in the area around the bridges," said Chappell. "The majority will be spider rigging live bait, which I love to see.
"We'll be dodging in and out around those guys and catching a lot more fish because we're covering so much ground."
Chappell takes credit for being the catalyst to move away from other types of trolling and figuring out how to long-line troll. His father-in-law lived in Florida and, as an avid crappie angler, was fairly versed in the technique while fishing the clear waters there. Chappell later spent a lot of time figuring out the technique from fellow club members Earl Brink and Kenny Browning.
"I discovered that it takes a while to dial in on what works," said Chappell. "The biggest element that we found was consistency. You have to use the same jig heads, same bodies and same set up on all of your rods while you're trolling."
To set up the boat for long-line trolling, Chappell recommends using a variable speed trolling motor that will allow changes in the boat speed in increments as small as .1 mph. A T-bar rod holder rack, each containing up to four rod holders, is attached to each corner of the boat. Chappell runs six identical 9-foot graphite rods, three in each rod rack, from the rear of the boat, while Hudson mans four rods, two per side, in the front. While the amount of line out has a lesser effect on trolling depth than jig weight and boat speed, Chappell claims "a good long cast" to be the best judge of line distance.
"The target depth is around 10 to 12 feet deep; that's where crappie most often suspend and feed on shad," said Chappell. "Most of them are white crappie, and they like a big bait.
"We rig two 1/16-ounce jig heads and put Bobby Garland Stroll'r bodies on them. The Stroll'r body puts off a lot of vibration that makes them easy for crappie to pick up on."
To stay in that 10- to 12-foot range trolling two 1/16-ounce heads, Chappell says their boat speed will average between .8 and 1.1 mph as measured on the GPS. Actively feeding crappie will create smaller balls or pods of shad to show up on the sonar graph; then it's just a matter of getting the baits down to them.
"Some days we'll locate them right up on the flat next to the channel, and sometimes they'll be on the edge of the channel," said Chappell. "Other days they'll actually be suspended in the channel.
"Once you figure where they're holding on that day, you pretty much got 'em whipped."