If you’re a regular reader of this monthly column you know that I love to tournament fish for crappie.

I had a big hand in starting the Magnolia Crappie Club; I am one of two surviving, active charter members of MCC, and I have fished almost every tournament for the last 22 seasons.

Let me tell you about crappie tournament fishing.

I’m going to take you through tournament preparation, prefishing techniques, tournament-day strategies, and even tailgating rules and regulations.

I really look forward to the once-a- month tournament schedule that MCC runs beginning in September each year and ending with our big two-day Magnolia State Championship in late May and early June.

I admit that this particular season I have tried some things just to say I tried them that didn’t work on T-Day, and, as a result, my team’s showing for the 2013-14 season is as low in the points standings as I recall ever being.

But, hey, winning isn’t everything. And, I’m very hardheaded — to my own detriment sometimes.

I was determined back in November that my tournament partner, Gil Woodis of Brandon, and I could catch them on crankbaits at Sardis. That belief was based on great successes that I had been having all month long on cranks at Barnett Reservoir before going to Sardis.

Gil and I showed up with nothing but cranking equipment. We caught one crappie in 2 ½ days of fishing. We “boloed” on T-Day for the first time ever.

My fault, Gil. I just knew that Sardis, the home of cranking for crappie in the state of Mississippi, would bring us fame and fortune on that November tournament day.

I was wrong — my bad.

Tournament prep

Prepping for a tournament is as important as actually fishing a tournament to me. And, yes, we’ve had teams that didn’t prep a minute, didn’t know anything about the lake or the current conditions, perhaps had never even seen the lake before T-Day and ended up being the winners at the end of the day.

Skill, knowledge and luck all play a role in a team’s outcome.

One of the first things I want to know before T-Day is the weather forecast. Particularly, how high is the wind going to blow and from what direction? Is there a weather front on the way or has one just passed? What is the surface water temperature? And, if the lake is fed by a river, what are the river stages and flow rates in the lake?

Let me give you a couple of online places where I get up-to-the-minute answers and forecasts.

I love my Navionics system. Not only is it my lake mapping software on my tournament boat, but it also provides me online access to current and projected wind directions and speeds for lakes I plan to fish.

The Navionics wind forecast is pretty darn accurate and updated frequently. I check it three days before heading to the tournament, and I check it on the morning of the tournament.

For more-complete weather details, including wind forecasts, go to the hour-by-hour forecast on the NOAA website. The NOAA site gives me everything from barometric conditions to sunlight percentages to temperatures and wind speeds. It is especially helpful for determining what to wear and whether or not to bring my rain gear.

Just type in www.noaa.gov/wx.html. Then enter location by zip code or city and state. This will give you an hour-by-hour look at all things weather-related for your next fishing trip, and it’ll give you the ability to prepare several days ahead of time.

Another great website is rivergages.mvr.usace.army.mil/WaterControl, which is provided by the Corps of Engineers. Try it if you haven’t already. This wonderful resource shows stream by stream and lake by lake current lake and river levels, recent precipitation levels and even a history of several years for your favorite lake — just in case you want to check how the tournament lake this time compares to the last time you fished it.

All vital parts of the puzzle when putting a game plan together for tournament action.

Other sites I find useful include www.weather.com/activities/recreation/outdoors/fishing, www.wunderground.com and www.lakesonline.com.

The website www.huntfishsport.com/web.aspx?cmd=calendar provides a calendar that shows sunrise times, phases of the moon and major feeding times for your favorite lake.

All this info tells me how to prepare my boat, my fishing tackle and even my clothing for the next tournament.

Prefishing techniques

There are techniques for prefishing? Yeah, and some more serious than others.

From the get-go, the worst thing you can do is catch all your tournament fish on your prefishing days. And, trust me, brother, I am guilty of that more times than not.

What you want to do if you take the time to scout the lake is to fish several locations on the lake and use several fishing strategies. Another word for prefishing is “practice” fishing.

And, like any other sport, practice, practice, practice helps improve your performance when it counts.

Of equal importance to actual time-on-the-lake, lure-in-the-water time are the observations and suggestions you can glean from other fishermen, both tournament competitors and non-tournament competitors alike. Of course, you have to be able to decipher the truths from the lies when you meet up around the grill or tailgate the night before the big day.

Beyond the tall tales you might hear while prefishing, use your “sherlocking” skills. Look around you, friend. What do you see other fishermen doing? Where are they fishing? Are they catching any good fish? What depth and lures are they using successfully?

Tournament-day strategies

T-Day is game day, friend. Get your game face on. Get up early, and put a quick step in your stride and a determined look in your eye. When you hit the water, do it with a sense of urgency, paying close attention to every detail.

Everything should be in your boat and in tournament-working condition. Now is not the time to be restringing your reels or loading those crankbaits into the boat. You should have done that yesterday.

This is T-day and every minute counts.

Gone are the days of “blast-offs” — that’s every boat in the tournament blasting off from the same place when someone yells “go!” We stopped doing that years ago in MCC for safety reasons.

Forty-five boats blasting in every direction from the same little area is the single-most dangerous thing we’ve done while fishing tournaments. 

Today, MCC gives tournament competitors the “start fishing” and “stop fishing” times. That allows every boat the opportunity to get to their first spots safely without racing other boats up the river or down the lake.

I always have a game plan based on what I’ve learned while prefishing. I’ll start with Plan A, but I’ll almost always have a Plan B in the boat with me.

That November day at Sardis, I didn’t have a Plan B, and it cost us.

My point is that you should have a plan, and, at the same time, you should be willing to amend, adapt or abandon that plan should you find it not working the morning of tournament action.

Example: If we’re going to slow-troll minnows from the front of the boat, we’ll usually set our six poles at different depths and with different-colored hooks. We hope to learn quickly that one key detail that will bring success on that particular day.

Managing the variables — oh, my goodness, the number of variables — can mean the difference in victory or just another day on the lake. Things like depth, lure color, location, presentation, trolling speed, location, fish with the wind, fish against the wind, location, fish attractants, minnow size — did I mention location?

The strategy that does well on T-Day is usually not by stumbled on by accident or just plain luck. 

I love to tournament fish. I love the competitive nature of it. I love the kidding and tall-tale telling around the grill on Friday night with my fishing pals. I love trying different techniques — something no one has tried before — to catch ’em as big as they grow on T-Day.

Come join the fun. Check out www.magnoliacrappieclub.com for more details and dates on crappie tournament action in your area.