Pulling crankbaits to catch crappie in the state of Mississippi is almost a guarantee to catch at least some crappie on any given day of the year on almost any body of water.
Historically anglers thought of the big U.S. ARMY Corps of Engineer Flood Control Project lakes along I-55 as being the best, and summertime was the only time trolling with crankbaits worked.
Truth is, one body of water at a time, one month at a time, anglers learned that fish still bit crankbaits.
The theory behind cranking is that it targets suspended crappie. If you rule out the actual spawn, when crappie tend to hunker closer to the bottom, crappie spend a lot of time suspending upwards in the water column, particularly white crappie, which dominate most of the crappie populations across the state.
Another theory is that pulling crankbaits only works during the summer, which might have evolved because few other tactics do work in the summer and cranking was the best way to fish in the heat.
An argument can be made that pulling crankbaits in the fall is actually the best time for several reasons. First is that the month of September might be a summer month or it could be a more temperate month.
When it’s hot, thermoclines will still be in place and crappie will continue their summer patterns and, as discussed, cranking is a favorite summer tactic.
Veteran tournament angler Kent Driscoll said targeting thermoclines in September is still spot on, until water temperatures start to drop later in the month. He targets Sardis, Enid, and Grenada for the most part but admits any lake with enough depth and available open water will yield crappie to crankbaits.
“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.”
Driscoll pulls crankbaits on eight rods that he runs along each side of his boat, four to a side. The rods he uses are B’n’M Pro Staffs, a super stiff rod which keeps the crankbait from putting too much bend in the rod while trolling. 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.
“That’s your basic set up,” he said. “You’re going to want to vary your speed from 1.5 to 1.7 or 1.8, sometimes faster if you can get away with it,” Driscoll said. “Sometimes (you need to go) slower if the fish are in a negative mood. You’ve just got to vary speeds to figure out what they want.”
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 on average between 1.5 mph and 2.0 mph. Such precise graduations in speed require the uses of a GPS enabled electronics system that will measure speed to the tenth of a mph.
In order to get his boat to troll at and maintain that speed, Driscoll uses a 24-volt Minn Kota trolling motor. He can control the trolling motor from anywhere on the boat while he watches his graph for fish and his chart for humps and ditches over which white crappie love to suspend.
The pro has mounted Driftmaster rod holders on either side of his boat at the center of the gunnel. The rod holders securely hold the trolling rods, which are equipped with line counter reels, while pulling cranks.
Having the line counters helps him precisely measure 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 down-rod with a 2-ounce egg sinker that is attached three 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 choices are10-pound Vicious Hi Vis green in stained water, and clear line in clear water. The visibility and higher than average test line helps him keep the cranks running straight, and allows him to retrieve a bait if it gets snagged.
Driscoll said watching his graph while trolling crankbaits will alert him to how deep the fish are suspending. In order to target suspended crappie, he uses a line-out formula.
Example: If he wants to target fish that are holding 12 feet deep, he lets out 110 feet of line.
His formula is: Amount of line out divided by 10, plus 1 foot. So to get to 12 feet he lets out 110 feet of line (110 divided by 10 plus 1).
For the down-rod calculation, using a 2-ounce weight above the crankbait, he simply doubles the amount of line out for the depth he wants to fish. So to reach 12 feet, he lets out 24 feet of line.
“Some days the crappie want the bait slower and some days they want it a little faster,” said Driscoll. “Covering as much water as possible in order to find willing fish, especially after the thermoclines start to breakup and fish get scattered, is another secret to the formula. When you get those variables figured out, you can really wear out some big white crappie.”
Even Driscoll’s fishing partner, Grenada Lake guide John Harrision, isn’t immune to the trolling bug.
Harrison said fish at Grenada will hold off the ends of long points and wait for baitfish to move by. Even as the water levels start to drop, crappie will pull back to the deeper areas but treat a point the same way all the way out.
“There are a lot of different setups for pulling crankbaits,” said Harrison. “I’d rather have all my rods where I can reach them from the back deck of the boat. Then you can put two guys back there and they can reach each side.”
Harrison said he uses a variety of crankbaits for trolling in the fall, but prefers Bandits in the 200 and 300 series. Bandit makes a variety of colors specifically for cranking for crappie, but Harrison said he compares the color and style of crankbait to the weight and color of a jig when he’s jig fishing.
“You want a color the fish can see, with an action that they like, especially in the fall when there’s all kinds of bait to be found,” Harrison said. “As for the style, you can adjust that with the amount of line out, but the angle and build of the lip on the crankbait is also going to tell you how deep that bait is going to dive.”
After you get a boat rigged and ready to troll crankbaits for crappie, it’s all a matter of covering enough water to find where the fish are. Like Driscoll, John Harrison’s No. 1 tip is to look for baitfish on the graph before putting lines out.
“I want to make sure I’m seeing baitfish in scattered pods in the area I intend to fish before I start trolling,” said Harrison, who targets open water areas exclusively for this tactic. “Scattered baits means nervous bait and that means predators are down there pushing them around and likely feeding on them. Those predators might be catfish or drum, but hopefully they’ll be big crappie.”