With the hot summer sun overhead and the 93-degree heat, professional crappie angler and guide Kent Driscoll pretty well had Sardis Lake all to himself.

It stood to reason that the heat probably kept most people off the water during mid day. Sardis, however, is known for producing good numbers of slab crappie in the 12-inch-plus range, good enough to convince many anglers to brave the sun and heat.

The reason Driscoll had the lake to himself was that a 10- to 15-m.p.h. breeze was blowing down the lake, making deep vertical trolling - a popular summer crappie tactic - next to impossible.

"I hope it blows like this Saturday," said the War Eagle pro-staffer. "I can easily weigh-in a winning weight if nobody else can fish out here."

Driscoll, who has fished Sardis since his days at Ole Miss, lives in nearby Cordova, Tenn., and spends a great amount of time year round fishing for crappie all over the country. But Driscoll says he'd take crankbaiting for Sardis crappie over anything else.

"Crankbait trolling for crappie on Sardis, or any lake for that matter, is a very technical system," he said, "but once you're set up, you can really catch a lot of fish and a lot of big fish through the summer months when most people think it's too hot to fish. With crankbait trolling, the hotter it gets, the better the fishing gets."

 

Getting set up

When it comes to crankbait trolling, Driscoll says he's seen a lot of anglers make tremendous efforts to get their boats and rods rigged, but the mistake they make is trying to short cut, which in the end winds up costing them fish. It's the details that can spell the difference between so-so and phenomenal fishing.

Depth of presentation is paramount in any type of crappie fishing. Driscoll says he has experimented and found the best methods to reach Sardis crappie that are suspended this time of year.

"I have several key ingredients that make this system work," he said, "and while you could substitute a few things here and there, I believe the key ingredients to my trolling system are what make it so successful."

Driscoll pulls crankbaits on eight rods that he runs along each side of his boat, four to a side. The rods he uses are BnM Pro Staffs, a super stiff rod that keeps the crankbait from putting too much bend in the rod while trolled. He graduates the rods in length, starting with an 8-foot rod nearest the transom, then moves up to a 10-footer, a 12-footer and finally a 14-foot rod nearest the front.

The pro has mounted a 4-foot Driftmaster T-5100 trolling bar on either side of his boat at the center of the gunnel. The bar contains four rod holders to hold the trolling rods, which are equipped with line-counter reels. Having the line-counters allows for precise measuring of the distance each crankbait is trolled behind the boat. The 8-foot rod has the longest line, then the distance out decreases as the rod length increases. This way the crankbaits stay separated.

The front rod, the 14-footer, is rigged as a downrod with a 2-ounce egg sinker that is attached 3 feet in front of the crankbait. The weight allows the long rod to run more perpendicular, and targets fish at whatever depth Driscoll finds on his depthfinder.

His line choice is a 12-pound high-vis green. The visibility and higher-than-average test line helps him keep the crankbaits running straight and allows him to retrieve a bait if it gets snagged.

The business end of Driscoll's trolling system is the crankbait itself. Driscoll's hands-down favorite is a hometown bait - Bandit Lures.

The Bandit crankbaits come in assorted sizes and colors, but are popular due to their consistent diving depth. Driscoll uses the 300-series bait, which he says can reach fish down to 15 feet, depending on the amount of line out.

"The 300 is a small, crappie-sized crankbait that runs true and deep," he said.

The lures have proven productive for crappie throughout Mississippi.

"I remember at least 10 years ago, a crappie angler approached us about painting some of our crankbaits in some unusual colors," said Bandit CEO Chris Ross. "He said he was trolling them for crappie, and was really wearing the fish out, especially on the brighter colors. We started offering some of these colors in our 300-series, which is a small crankbait with a deep-diving bill.

"I can still tell when the local crappie get on a crankbait pattern because our bright pinks and pink with silver sparkles just fly out the door."

The depth of presentation of the crankbaits is a coordination of variables including the amount of line out, working depth of the crankbait and boat speed. Driscoll ranges his boat speed between 1.5 and 2.0 m.p.h. Such precise graduations in speed require the uses of a GPS-enabled electronics system that will measure speed to the tenth of a mile per hour.

In order to get his boat to troll at and maintain that speed, the Sardis guide uses the outboard on his 861 War Eagle predator. The main motor is a 115-horsepower Yamaha four-stroke outboard. While the big four-stroke will idle well at extremely slow speeds, he uses an attached trolling plate with which he can adjust the amount of thrust coming from the outboard, even at idle speeds.

"While I used to troll crankbaits with a tiller-steer outboard, the hydraulic steering on the War Eagle frees up a lot of my time. Instead of having to contend with making constant adjustments to the motor, I can make quicker adjustments and hold a course better with the hydraulic steering."

This is especially useful when waves or blowing winds create boat-control problems.

"Somedays the crappie want the bait slower, and somedays they want it a little faster," said Driscoll. "Covering as much water as possible in order to find willing fish is another secret to the formula."

 

Putting fish in the boat

Having a good system set up is only half the battle. Driscoll credits several summertime factors with making his trolling setup successful. The first is that as the water temperatures heat up, Sardis Lake, as well as most reservoirs, will stratify, and a thermocline will set up somewhere in the 12- to 20-foot zone. Not only do crappie suspend out in the main lake just above the thermocline to find comfortable positions, they also find food there.

"Finding the baitfish is important to catching fish," said Driscoll. "Bait can't live below the thermocline, so they end up forming tight schools out in the main lake and at the mouths of major creeks. They suspend around 12 to 15 feet deep out over 20 to 25 feet of water. If I'm marking bait on my graph, that's where I know I'll find crappie."

Since Sardis is a flood-control lake built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lake tends to vary in its water level from year to year. Most local anglers have found that the influence of ample water this year compared to past years has made locating baitfish a challenge. To assist with this, Driscoll relies on the side-imaging capabilities of his Humminbird LCR to locate bait. He says he only has to make a pass in and out of a creek, and can read up to 100 feet out to each side of his boat.

Once he sets up a trolling run, the pro systematically casts out each bait, starting with the short rods that reach the farthest back, and works toward the front of the boat. The uppermost rod on each side is a weighted rod, and that's the one Driscol can play with to see if crappie are holding especially deep or more shallow. The 14-foot rods allow him to get those baits out away from the noise of the boat.

While the rods will hold a decent bend just from the weight of the wobbling crankbait, a bite is pretty obvious as the rod will bend double back toward the fish. Since he never stops the forward progress of the boat, the fish is played in a rather unusual manner.

"Once he's hooked, I stick the rod straight up in the air, and pull him to the surface out away from the boat and above the other crankbaits," he says. "Then I can reel him to the boat without worrying about getting the fish tangled in my other lines. Getting him to the surface also puts less pressure on those hooks that can tear out of a crappie's soft mouth."

Driscoll has learned to judge the overall size of the crappie by the size of its open mouth as it glides on the surface. He can also get a good idea how the fish is hooked and tell how he needs to land the fish.

"I'll ski that fish across the surface all the way to the boat," he said. "If it looks like he's barely hooked, I can get a net under him, but I don't want to reel him in too close. If those hooks come out of the fish, you'll get that crankbait straight back at your face, so I'm always cautious about how any fish is hooked.

"Of course, if he's a big slab I'm going to use a little extra care and ski him right into the net rather than risk lifting him with the rod."

 

Finding Sardis crappie

Local angler Les Smith is a good friend of Kent Driscoll's, and is also an expert at pulling crankbaits on Sardis. Smith, who's from Como, says that as the summer progresses, so do the crappie.

"In June, when the water temps get up to around 78-82 degrees, the crappie move out of the creeks and start filtering into the main lake," he said. "We catch a lot of fish in the upper lake at that time. I'll put in at either Holiday Lodge or Hurricane Landing, and pull secondary points or the edge of the main river channel."

According to Smith, as June turns into July and water temperatures rise into the mid 80s, the crappie begin a migration from the upper lake, and move more toward the mid section of the lake.

"We usually find them around the mouth of Clear Creek and on the south side of the lake at Hays Crossing by July," he said. "Sometimes when the fish get that far, they'll relate to deep-water flats and steep drop-offs, but the key is still to stick with the baitfish."

The hottest part of the summer occurs in August when water temperatures range from 85 on up. The crappie will move all the way down the lake, and can be found within a half-mile of the dam.

"They're going to the deepest water they can find," said Smith, "and that's in front of the dam. There are days I'll even pull along the rip rap in front of the dam, and find them stacked in there."

Typical of crappie fishing, some days are better than others, and environmental factors come into play. Both Driscoll and Smith rely on the "bright colors for bright days and dark colors for overcast days" philosophy.

"A brilliant color seems to work best on a bright day, and something with a matte finish works better on cloudy days," Driscoll said.

In fact, he will often compare notes with Smith on what colors have worked best over the years based on weather conditions.

"One thing we've seen already this year is a change in our water levels," says Smith. "With all the water that's in Sardis now, we're fishing areas that are 20 feet deep that were considered shallow water last year. All the stored water the Corps of Engineers is holding is also making bait harder to find."

One thing is certain, getting out and trolling crankbaits, even on a hot day, will catch a whole lot more crappie than sitting inside waiting for spring.