Like fighter pilots controlling a complex system of observation and tactical response, crappie anglers perched on the bow in tight-lining operations must control a bristling array of rods, while constantly monitoring speed, heading and targets on the periphery. 

Sure, no one’s shooting at the crappie angler, but, you know, it’s a cool allusion and I’m going with it. 

Spend enough time observing the crappie scene and you’ll see some pretty creative designs, no doubt the result of countless hours of analysis and spacing consideration. 

Where do you want the marker buoys positioned? 

How high should those holders sit? 

What’s the right spot for your graph?

I’ve seen some pretty impressive custom jobs in which anglers have built PVC or stainless steel frames for their bow and placed everything from rod holders to drink holders exactly where they want them. Such creations are generally works in progress, no doubt shaped and tweaked by years of trial and error.

Boat size and design influences many cockpit decisions, while personal preferences address the fine-tuning. That being said, considering the features common to the boats used by crappie tournament pros will provide several reference points for outfitting your vessel. 


Rod positioning

Rod rack systems vary and some like the simplicity of a fixed T-bar design with individual holders that slide laterally for spacing adjustment. Crappie tournament pro Whitey Outlaw wants total control of each individual rod’s position so he uses the Driftmaster Crappie Stalker system (driftmaster.com) with individual rod holders independently mounted to his deck. Each holder rotates laterally for directional adjustments, while also bending forward and backward for specific angles.

“This is an important element because each day you may have to adjust your rod holders many different ways due to boat weight — changes due to gas, people and equipment,” Outlaw said. “You also have to adjust your rod holders in wind.

“You also want to be as close as possible to your rods so you can get to them quickly when you get a bite. The adjustable rod holders allow me to move those holders right over my knees. My fishing partner might need his positioned at a different angle and he can move his where he wants them.”

Outlaw also stressed the benefit of angler attentiveness. With rod holders connected only to the boat deck, strikes move just the lucky rod. Less time determining which rod has the fish leaves you more time to respond to the strike and boat your crappie. 

“The individual rod holders seem to make you fish a little harder and pay more attention so when a fish bites it only moves one rod and not four (as with a T-Bar setup). This increases your odds by 10 to 15 percent in a day’s run.”

Dan Dannenmueller, a crappie tournament veteran from Alabama, also likes flexible rod holders with individual mounting because they enable him to quickly transition from a multi-rod trolling setup to a single-rod vertical jigging operation by simply laying the rod holders flat to his deck. Preferring the Tite-Lok Widow Maker (www.titelok.com), he said this design optimizes cockpit versatility.

“With individual rod holders, anglers of any size can comfortably sit with the rods up against their knees,” Dannenmueller said. “Also, I can lay all of these holders flat when I’m running.”

Here’s another tip for rod efficiency: Numbering your rod holders and taping number tags to rod butts can help avoid fish-losing confusion during those sudden flurries of activity.


Keep ’em safe

Crappie rods are a lot longer than bass rods, so just laying them on the deck is much more cumbersome, while stacking them next to the passenger side seat can create a jumbled mess. Crappie pro Bart Gillon invented the Rod-Safe (rod-safe.com), which holds a full complement of eight rods in a lockable, elevated horizontal rack.

Dannenmueller uses a similar product, the Driftmaster Rod Locker, which he says offers an appreciable combination of security, convenience and tackle maintenance.

“This system is very helpful for keeping your rods in order,” he said. “Also it keeps the rods elevated and protects them from accidental damage if someone were to step on a rod.”


Be seated

It’s simple physics, the longer you have to reach, the more time it takes to grab a rod and boat a fish. For this reason and for presentation purposes, experienced crappie anglers like a snug fit for their pedestal seats.

“Seat pedestal placement in the cockpit is crucial,” Outlaw said. “You do not want to sit too far back from the poles because the further you have to reach the more fish you miss. When we are placing our rod holders on the boat, we try to place them as far up the front of the boat as we can. Also, the further forward they are, the further away from the boat your baits will sit.”


Power to the people 

“A good trolling motor is critical for tight lining because without total boat control your fishing is a disaster,” Outlaw said. “I prefer the 36-volt 101-lb. thrust MinnKota Maximum. I am a firm believer that you need more trolling motor power than most boats require because of heavy winds or current.”


Rigged and ready

Dannenmueller puts a lot of time into meticulous rig building, but the effort is meaningless if he can’t reach them in a hurry. For optimal organization and access, Dannenmueller holds rows of individually packed Rig Rap boxes (rigraponline.com) snapped into quick-release trays in his boat’s center tackle storage. When fishing, he snaps several loaded Rig Raps into custom tracks positioned next to his rod holders. With a short reach, he can replace a lost/damaged rig or switch out rig design or color.

For his more cumbersome double rigs, Dannenmueller employs the Tackle Buddy rollers (carlsonmachineandtool.com). Wrapping rigs around this rubber core ensures neat, convenient access and quick visual identification of specific design.

Crappie pro Doug Cherry shares the appreciation for organization, but he offers an inexpensive option for do-it-yourselfers: “I use foam pool noodles,” he said. “I can buy them on sale for $1 apiece and I can cut (several) rig holders out of one noodle.”

He said matching the noodle width to the appropriate tackle tray affords a customized storage system that anyone can make. 


Clean and comfy

The snap-in foam flooring pads Dannenmueller installed on his bow in front of his pedestal seats offer dual benefit.

“This provides cushioning for your feet,” Dannenmueller explained. “Even though you’re sitting, your feet still get tired. If you have to stand, the padding is more comfortable. This also keeps you from squishing minnows into the carpet so your deck doesn’t get slick and dangerous to step on.”


Tools for the task 

Boats with built-in slots for pliers, snips, etc., make it easy to keep what you need close at hand. Lacking such standard features, zip ties or Velcro straps will fasten just about any tool container to those rod racks or the base of your pedestal seat. Open bins keep marker buoys handy for rapid deployment, while adhesive strips hold soft-sided containers like Tackle Webs to the undersides of storage boxes. (Dannenmueller keeps his spare buoys here.)

And what about “fish hands?” 

Dannenmueller uses D-rings to fasten fish rags (the kind with built-in clips) to the base of a rod holder. This keeps the cleanup item at close reach and prevents it from blowing out of the boat while running.


Tight teamwork

Crappie pros Matt Morgan and Kent Watson work together during the week, so their regular interaction affords them a familiarity and intuition that serves well their tournament efforts. As Morgan explained, angling efficiency is much more than pleasant conversation and motivational exchanges — it’s a well-oiled performance in which two people with space-conscious discipline.

“Interaction among two guys long lining is crucial,” Morgan said. “With enough time and practice you can usually tell after a strike if you’ll need help netting the fish. It is a fairly easy task when long lining for one guy to get up (while the boat is still moving) and help the other dip the fish.

“From time to time, it is also very important if one or the other has a really good fish on, the other may need to reel in lines to keep those lines in the water from pulling the jig out of the mouth of the fish being reeled in. Practice and time on the water makes the relationship and amount of fish being caught gel when pressure is on.”