As many crappie anglers know, March ushers in what the rest of the world refers to as “crappie season.” This can be a time of feast or famine with the major determining factors being wind and weather.
As a general rule, this is the time of year when crappie vacate their deep-water haunts in favor of shallow coves and bays to participate in the annual spawning ritual.
Catch a string of warm spring days on Mississippi’s Ross Barnett Reservoir, and crappie can be caught everywhere you look — they’re around every tree and bush near the shallows.
However, when the weather turns — cold winds blow and temperatures drop back to the days of winter — it’s as if the party has ended and you can fish high and low with not a crappie in sight.
What’s a crappie fisherman to do?
“I troll,” says Charles Lindsay of Pelahatchie, a past president of the Magnolia Crappie Club. “This time of year, you never can tell what the weather’s going to be like. One day it’s warm and sunny, the next it’s cold. That see-sawing brings the crappie up and then pushes them back down.
“Until the weather straightens out sometime in April, it’s hard to know when the crappie will be up in the shallows. The worst part is you miss a lot of good fishing if you wait on the weather to get right. For that, I go to where they hide and troll.”
The term trolling has a myriad of meanings to different types of anglers. Offshore fishermen troll prepared baits, skipping them between waves to simulate fleeing fish. Walleye anglers troll spinners and worm harnesses, bumping their offerings along the bottom.
Neither of these tactics explains how Lindsay fills his creel at Barnett. Trolling typically suggests a random search pattern to find fish in open water. Crappie trolling is a more systematic method of pinpoint presentation of baits to fish that are holding in and around bottom structure. It is a particularly effective tactic when crappie are staging.
“Staging” refers to a crappie’s tendency to hold in a safe area while waiting on conditions to become conducive to spawning. Crappie will stage in an area that allows them access to deeper water, an available food source and structure that they can hold in and above.
Since Barnett is a relatively shallow, lowland impoundment, crappie may prefer to stage in areas that are different from other deeper, more defined reservoirs. On Barnett, look for deep cuts and holes located near bottom structure. One major source for this is the historic Pearl River channel that was impounded to create Barnett.
These are the areas that trollers target once crappie move into holding patterns. By targeting the staging areas, trollers can get a jump on “crappie season” rather than waiting for wind and weather conditions to bring the fish to them.
Lindsay prefers to set up his boat and fish for crappie in accordance with his club’s rules regarding the number of poles and baits. As such, the veteran fishes four rods while trolling for Barnett crappie.
In crappie circles, trolling can mean pulling baits behind the angler’s boat or fishing with lines nearly vertical in the water. The latter is Lindsay’s bread-and-butter method. He uses a 5/8-ounce bell sinker as a dropper weight for what he refers to as a “sharecropper rig,” which is a series of three additional dropper lines tied into the mainline. Tied to each dropper is either a size 1 Eagle Claw 202 light wire hook or a Midsouth Tackle Super Jig.
The droppers allow Lindsay to have three hook sites per rod. His choice of line is 16-pound Stren Magnathin. The crappie veteran saves time by using the heavy line to pull frequent hang-ups loose by straightening the light wire hooks rather than retie broken rigs. The magnathin line also cuts through the water better than other lines of comparable line test, he says.
Tying the sharecropper rig is a matter of looping the main line and tying off the loop using a loop knot. The dropper is tied to allow a 4-inch bow loop in the line. This bow is then cut near the knot to provide a single strand nearly 8 inches long.
Once the hook or jig is tied to the single strand, the dropper will only extend about 4 inches from the main line. This allows some movement of live bait, and helps reduce crossing droppers or lines while fishing. Lindsay’s bait of choice is a No. 8 or 6 minnow. Minnows are available locally around Barnett, and are measured by the weight per thousand. Hence 1,000 No. 8 minnows will weigh 8 pounds, typically a 1½- to 2-inch minnow.
Having three hook sites on each rod allows Lindsay to offer baits at different depths in one location, an important feature when crappie may be holding down in cover and not easily distinguished on sonar or when some fish are in the cover and some fish are suspended above it.
Lindsay ties each hook site an average of 18 inches apart. This gives him a vertical spread of 3 to 5 feet considering that he always wants his offerings to be a foot or two above the crappie so the bait is presented naturally.
While covering a 5-foot vertical swathe of the water column, it’s also productive to have a horizontal spread of baits to cover more water while trolling. For this, Lindsay employs 14-foot BnM Pro Staff trolling rods. With a 14-foot rod secured in a rod holder pointing perpendicular to each side of his boat and a 14-foot rod, also in a rod holder, pointed at a 45-degree angle on each side of the bow, he covers a trolling path of more than 30 feet.
To control his rods and trolling path, Lindsay’s command post is from the front seat in the bow. It’s from this vantage point that he “pushes” his vertical baits just above bottom contours and structure with his foot-controlled, bow-mounted trolling motor.
“A lot of these Barnett fish will be tight to stumps and brush, especially if there’s been a downturn in the weather,” he said. “In order to get to them, you have to lay that rig right alongside the structure.”
Kent Driscoll, pro-staff manager for BnM Poles, is also a fan of springtime trolling.
“Ross Barnett reservoir is a maze of stumps, standing timber, flats, ditches, creeks and the main river channel,” he said. “The upper end above the Highway 43 bridge is a crappie mecca — especially during pre-spawn and peak spawn.
“My favorite tactic is to spider rig the underwater stumps and brush along the river channel. Spider rigging allows me to sweep a wide area with multiple baits at different depths.
“I target the main channel and feeder creeks that run into the shallow-water sloughs. The male crappie will run into the shallow water and spend 3-4 weeks taking care of business while the larger females will hang back in deep water ususally relating to heavy cover on the ledges.
“A slow, vertical presentation is key. If the ledge/structure bite is not on, I will sweep the open water to see if the fish are suspended.”
Two factors come into play to correctly present offerings in a crappie’s face when he’s in less than a good mood. The first is knowing where the structure is and how the crappie are relating to it. The second is boat control.
While time on the water is a big key in knowing how certain productive channel breaks or bottom contours run, having a good sonar unit and being able to interpret the signals from it play an important role in catching crappie.
“Some days the fish will be suspended above the structure, feeding on baitfish,” Lindsay said. “Those fish are pretty easy to catch, especially early in the morning before the sun gets high.
“Other days they will lay on one side or the other of the structure, and you need to go to them from that side or risk getting hung up a lot.”
Whether crappie are suspended, feeding on bait or holding to one side of bottom structure can be determined by closely monitoring a sonar/fish finder. Lindsay will try to put the dropper weight right at the level of the fish.
Measuring this depth is accomplished by measuring the amount of line out against the length of his 14-foot rod. By accounting for the 1-2 feet the rod tip suspends above the water, he can keep a vertical bait at that precise depth.
Controlling the boat is another important factor in Lindsay’s success. Barnett’s shape and layout make it an open-water crappie fishery during the early months. This means any wind makes boat control a handful, and a lot of wind is extremely difficult.
With the rods secured in rod holders laying nearly parallel to the water’s surface, Lindsay keeps a foot on the trolling motor almost the entire day. By knowing the layout of the bottom structure, he can often use a slight or moderate wind to his advantage by trolling into the wind, letting the sharecropper rig tick into the top of the structure, then let off the motor and allow the wind to push him clear while he angles his boat for another approach.
Because wind and boat control are common obstacles, Lindsay, as well as many other MCC anglers opt for larger boats. Lindsay favors a wide-beamed, heavy gauge aluminum boat in the 19- to 22-foot range, while others may opt for fiberglass models of similar size.
Because Barnett is a generally open-water impoundment void of substantially sized tributaries and mouths, most of the staging areas will be in the center of the reservoir near the main channel.
While Barnett has good crappie populations all over the lake, Lindsay concentrates his springtime efforts on the upper lake in the vicinity of the Highway 43 bridge, which crosses the main lake. In fact, among Lindsay’s perennial favorites are the ledges along the rip rap associated with the bridge.
He also has enjoyed good success at areas south of the bridge. These are known as the Welfare Hole, the S Curves and the Sawdust Pile.
One notable area offered by Lindsay north of the Highway 43 bridge is known as Big Lake, which is located near Brown’s Landing.
Lindsay said that while he trolls nearly year round for crappie, the best time is when water temperatures reach the 55- to 60-degree mark. At this time, the crappie will move to the breaklines around these areas and the main channel.
As the water warms from there into the lower 60s, the fish will progress into shallow ditches that lead back into spawning flats from the main channel and other submerged creeks.
Once the water is steadily above 65, the males will move shallow into stump fields and other shallow structure. The timing of this migration is dependent on the weather, but generally starts up the lake in late February, and crappie can still be found shallow as late as the last of April down near the dam.
Lindsay warns that water temperatures will warm up after a string of warm days and the fish may move shallow but will often retreat back to the deeper areas when cold weather causes water temperatures to drop. It is for this reason that finding “fish on the move” is an important factor to success in the crappie-tournament circles.
Updated information about the crappie fishing at Barnett is not hard to come by. One of the primary gathering spots for members of the Magnolia Fishing Club and other local crappie anglers is Tommy’s Trading Post, located just south of the bridge off Highway 43. An early morning breakfast at the restaurant can provide a lot of guidance to the inquiring angler.