Have you ever stayed up late and watched one of those high-pressure infomercials on cable TV? The guy with the big teeth and the slick hair and the fast talk tries to convince you that this contraption right … HEEERRE … can do everything from grow hair on your bald head to save you money on your car insurance.

That's the way some crappie anglers are beginning to feel with all the talk about catching crappie on crankbaits.

Yeah, it's a great summertime tactic on one of the big lakes when crappie are suspended up in the water and away from any kind of structure so you don't risk running $40 worth of tackle into the same stump. But they can't do everything, not this time of year.

"They work just as good during the winter too," said Brad Taylor, part-time crappie guide and past president of the Magnolia Crappie Club. "I love to fish them during the month of November in the oxbow lakes, places like Chotard and Lee, even on Lake Washington."

Oxbow lakes are strange animals. Some of them remain tied to the Mississippi River through a variety of inlets or run-out ditches so they are still subject to the whims of the Mighty Mississippi, while other oxbows are completely disconnected. Most years, as November approaches, the river has subsided below the level of the oxbow, allowing it to settle down for the winter.

"The back-and-forth action of river water eats away the outside edges of an oxbow lake," said Taylor. "Most of them are crescent-shaped so that makes the outside deeper and leaves sharp ridges.

"From late fall through the winter, crappie will sit on those steep ridges and ambush baitfish. It can be a lot of open water to fish, which makes it a perfect scenario to pull crankbaits."

Fellow Magnolia clubber Ken Middleton lives on the south end of Lake Washington in the town of Glen Allan. Like Taylor, Middleton is hooked on crankbaiting during the winter both because of its fish catching abilities and its value as a search tool.

"The river usually drops out in the winter," he said. "The water is replenished, and the lakes clear up.
 
"You'll find fish anywhere from the surface down to the bottom. Starting in November, crappie will be really aggressive, and catching good fish is just a matter of trolling down those steep edges with crankbaits."

Middleton says that as the winter progresses, crappie begin to slow down and may not be as aggressive as they were earlier. He still relies on his crankbaits, but more as a search tool than a go-to tactic.

"Some of these oxbows are 3, 4, maybe 5 miles long," said Middleton. "That's a lot of lake to search and too much to troll by just spider-rigging.

"That's why we pull cranks till we find fish. If they stay on the cranks, so will we, but if we can't catch enough on crankbaits, then we'll put out the tightline poles and fish the school we've found."

Taylor views crankbaiting as more of a system than a tactic. He systematically fishes six to 10 rods at one time. Each rod is set up the same way, and each one is pulling a 3- to 4-inch crankbait. The crankbaits are all trolled behind the boat, and they're trolled at a relatively fast speed. He says it's not that hard to learn the basics if you're willing to get set up with the right kind of tackle. After that, it's experience and time on the water that will make the difference in how well you do with it. He's also figured out a way to make trolling much simpler.

"I know a lot of guys troll with their big outboard or a small gas kicker motor," he said, "but for me the most important piece of crankbaiting gear is a Minn Kota Terrova trolling motor.

"I have an 80-pound thrust auto pilot that has the iPilot control system. That auto pilot is the greatest thing ever invented for pulling crankbaits. It handles all the steering and boat control. You just set it and forget it."

In addition to the state-of-the-art electric trolling motor, Taylor has a strict regime on how he gears up for cranking oxbow lakes as the weather turns cooler.

"In my system, I use six trolling rods, three on each side of the boat - an 8-foot, 12-foot and a 16-foot," he said. "Each rod is equipped with an Okuma line counter reel and each rod is secured in a Driftmaster rod holder mounted in one of Driftmaster's T-5100 trolling racks.

"The different-length rods allow me to space the crankbaits out and provide the perfect blend of strength and flexibility to fish them. The line-counter reels are a necessity because they allow you to keep precise track of how much line is out, which is an important factor in how deep you're fishing."

Both Taylor and Middleton target oxbow crappie in the 8- to 17-foot depths, although Middleton says his home lake at Washington rarely holds crappie any deeper than 7 feet deep at any time of the year. Because of the variance in holding depths of crappie, the diving depth of the crankbait becomes a major factor.
 
"Bandit is the only bait I use," said Taylor. "Without a doubt, they run the truest out of the box and never have to be adjusted.

"The 300 series is my favorite because it's the perfect size bait, they dive deeper than most other baits and they have the right noise and wobble to elicit that reaction bite from a school of crappie. Plus, they come in a wide variety of colors just for crappie fishing."

"Washington keeps a thermocline through the winter," said Middleton. "Not as harsh as in the summer - minnows don't die - but it's real easy to fish under the crappie at Washington.

"Most of the time at home, I'll pull a 100- or 200-series Bandit from the front, put it on a 16-foot rod, run a pole length of line out and go. That tends to pull the tips down in the water, but there's no question when you get a bite."

Even in cooler water, both experts agree that the target trolling speed is 1.4-1.5 mph on the GPS. Taylor will stagger the lines on his rods at 70 feet on the shortest rod and go 70, 80 and 90 feet on one side and 80, 90 and 110 feet on the other. The shorter rods are toward the front of the boat and the longer rods to the back. He also likes to make a lot of turns while trolling when he first starts looking for fish. That helps him find the right depth.

He can also adjust the amount of line out to target deeper-holding winter crappie, but always keep the distances staggered. He explained that if you use the same distances on all the rods, when you go into a turn the baits will pile up and tangle. With the lines staggered, the crankbaits slide under and over each other according to the length. Another factor with diving depth is the type of line used.

"I use 10-pound Vicious braided line," he said. "That raises a lot of eyebrows, but you can take two identical rods and run 10-pound mono on one next to 10-pound braid on the other and see the difference in action by watching the rod tip.

"Mono has more stretch and takes action away. I believe the braid is the better choice."

Middleton runs nearly an identical setup to Taylor for his winter cranking, but he also pays attention to some environmental factors for his crappie fishing, not necessarily how he fishes but when he fishes.

"You take a look at the lunar tables (published in the back of this magazine), and you'll find they're usually dead on when fishing these oxbows through the winter," he said. "The cows know it too. If I see them up on the levees feeding on my way to the lake, I know we're going to catch fish. If they aren't, you might as well turn around and go home."

Taylor does not take an approach as scientific as Middleton, but he's got his beliefs when it comes to cranking, and he says there are no short cuts to learning them.

"Like I said - time on the water. You have to get out there and pull them and figure out how to trigger strikes. Look for fish to suspend over depth changes in the bottom. Then it's a matter of getting down there to them and getting that reaction bite when six cranks come busting through the school," he said. "There's no time and no place that this won't work once you figure the fish out."

 


Need an extra hand? iPilot to the rescue

Advancements in technology continue to make fishing easier for anglers willing to give the latest technology a try. One of the many applications designed into the new wireless GPS trolling system for Minn Kota trolling motors is a feature called "Spot Lock." This feature allows the angler to set the trolling motor to lock on to the current position and maintain that position regardless of wind or current. It's the ideal anchoring system without the anchor.

Unlike its earlier predecessors, the iPilot does not rely on an internal compass board to establish boat position. The new system integrates GPS technology directly into the controls of the trolling motor without having to tie into any external electronics.

"It will hold up to three trolling tracks in its memory at one time," said guide Brad Taylor. "First you record the trolling track, and if you end up catching fish on that track, you can hit 'start,' and it will run you back through that same track again."

The iPilot remote is larger than Minn Kota's "Co-Pilot" control which was about the size of a wristwatch; however, there are a number of display features that are present on the iPilot remote, which is about the size of a small TV remote, that were not possible with the Co-Pilot.

"You can read your GPS speed down in increments of 1/10 m.p.h, and also tell when the unit is on and what speed the trolling motor is set on," said Taylor. "I'm also a big fan of the spot lock. Set it when you find a brushpile, and the trolling motor will keep the boat right on top of it while you catch fish."
 
For more information on the iPilot, visit www.minnkotamotors.com.

 


Destination Information

How To Get There/Lake Access - Oxbow lakes are found scattered along the existing Mississippi River channel throughout Mississippi's Delta Region. The more popular ones are located in Bolivar, Washington, Issaqueena and Warren Counties. To locate public access areas on these lakes, visit the ramps and piers page on the MDWFP website at http://home.mdwfp.com/Fisheries/rampspiers.aspx

Best Tactics - Crankbaiting oxbows during the winter for crappie is a systematic approach. Both experts use three to five staggered-length rods arranged on each side of the boat. Depth-counter reels keep track of how far and how deep the crank is running. Stagger the lines so that crankbaits don't tangle during a turn. The ideal speed is 1.4-1.5 mph using an electric trolling motor.

Since crappie tend to hold deeper, 8-17 feet as a general rule, during the cooler months, a deep-diving Bandit 300 series crankbait is a favorite choice. If fish are noted to be shallower, running a 100 or 200 series bait from a long pole from the front of the boat may provide better depth control.

Crappie will almost always relate to the deeper, outside bend in the oxbow channel. Troll the ledges on this side to locate feeding crappie. If fish remain aggressive, stay with the crankbaits. If the bite slows, try fishing live bait on tight lines, or go hunt another aggressive school.

More Information/Fishing Guides
Brad Taylor, 662-820-4581, jbtaylor33@yahoo.com.
Magnolia Crappie Club, www.magnoliacrappieclub.com.