It no longer comes as a surprise to crappie anglers in Mississippi that many who chase this popular game fish around the calendar have a third alternative when it comes to choices of bait.
For most of the year, it’s either a bucket full of minnows or a box full of jigs. Anglers who can’t decide may even use both at the same time.
Now the alternative is a box (or three) full of small to medium crankbaits that look more at home on the end of a bass fisherman’s line than a crappie angler’s. But who can argue with success, especially when that success is measured in crappie fillets?
Summertime makes trolling crankbaits just the ticket across the state for crappie anglers, most of whom would rather you not know that trolling crankbaits also works at other times of the year as well. While there is an argument that plenty of black crappie, or specks, fall prey to crankbaits, most of the papermouths that inhabit Mississippi’s reservoirs and readily strike the bigger baits are white crappie.
A look at the build and habits of the white crappie, often referred to as white perch, might explain why crankbaits have made it into the coveted “minnows or jigs” selection. White crappie have a tendency to suspend in the water column, either laying in ambush for prey or just loafing. Often they will hold at a specific depth. The fish also have an overall larger mouth structure, enabling them to swallow 3- to 4-inch crankbaits in one bite. These characteristics play important roles in anglers’ strategies.
Flatlines and drop poles
Like the majority of crappie anglers who use trolling tactics to catch fish, veteran crappie angler Leslie Smith of Senatobia doesn’t use just one rod when trolling crankbaits for crappie on his home waters of Sardis Lake.
Smith employs a systematic approach incorporating six lines that run behind his boat and two that run beside it. He refers to the back lines as “flat lines” and the side lines as “drop poles.”
“June is the best month to pull crankbaits at Sardis,” Smith said. “This time of year, crappie are moving out away from the banks, and are working their way toward the deeper water where they’ll spend the summer. The best places to find them now are the shelves and drop offs that fall into deeper water.”
In order to keep so many lines from tangling, Smith varies the amount of line out when he trolls cranks. He runs four rods on each side of his boat, positioning each rod in a rod holder. The front rod, the “down pole,” is rigged Carolina-style with a 4-ounce egg weight so that the line and bait troll nearly vertically and don’t interfere with the others. The remaining “flat lines” are staggered. Line from the second rod is let out 100 feet, while the third rod goes back 125 feet and the fourth rod ranges from 130 to 150 feet back.
“I use line-counter reels so I know exactly how far out each bait is,” he said. “The drop pole is let out between 15 to 18 feet so that I know it’s running in the 12- to 14-foot depth range when trolled.”
Unlike conventional crappie trolling, which employs an electric trolling motor, Smith prefers to use the outboard on his boat and reduces his speed by increasing drag via a trolling plate mounted just behind the propeller. This allows him to achieve his ideal trolling speed of 1.7 to 1.9 mph as measured on his combined sonar/GPS unit.
“Speed isn’t as big a factor in getting the baits to run at deeper depths as you’d think,” he said. “I’ve found that the diameter of the line I use will increase or decrease depth more than speed.”
If there is a pioneer in the use of trolling crankbaits for crappie, it’s Kent Driscoll. Driscoll and Smith have spent countless hours comparing notes on how best to tweak their crankbait setups for different situations. Noticing that early summer crappie tended to prefer shallow, clear water, a fact that often caused them to shy away from the boat, Driscoll began searching for a way to troll crankbaits farther away from the boat.
“Walleye pros up north have been trolling cranks to catch walleyes for years,” said Driscoll. “I thought there might be something they do that would help down here when I’m targeting spooky crappie.”
Driscoll’s answer came in the use of a planerboard, which is a wedge-shaped side planer that runs on the surface and out to the side of the boat when attached to the line. By staggering the distance between boards, Driscoll can fish both to the side and farther away from the boat than allowed by even the longest rods.
“In depths of 15 feet or less, I have to get my baits out away from the noise, shadow and vibration of the boat,” he said. “It’s also a big deal when we have high-water years and all the grass and vegetation in our lakes filter the water and make it a lot clearer than normal.”
When using planers, Driscoll opts not to use a drop pole, since his goal is to get the baits out away from the boat. He allows the board on his front rod to be the farthest from him and runs each successive rod closer to the boat as he moves toward the stern.
“I keep the same distance of line out as I would without using the boards,” said Driscoll. “I just count from the board back to the bait rather than from the rod tip.”
High on the list of factors that anglers need to pay special attention to when trolling crankbaits for crappie is water color. Too muddy, and the fish can’t see the baits; too clear, and they are easily spooked by the commotion and shadow of the boat.
Of the two extremes, however, clear water is easier to overcome.
“Arkabutla and Grenada are two great crappie lakes that see very little crankbait action,” Driscoll said. “That’s due in large part to the near-constant muddy-water conditions that persist on these two lakes. You really need to be able to see at least 2 feet into the water to have enough water clarity for cranks to be effective. In years where high-water conditions prevail, Arkabutla and Grenada can be good places to pull cranks.”
When it comes to clear water, Bevan Berry, who lives in Tuscumbia on the Alabama side of Pickwick Lake, has a few tips that work when trolling the clear waters at Pickwick.
“I almost exclusively use three colors,” said the veteran crappie angler who relies on Bandits in the 200 and 300 series to catch slabs. “A black with bubblegum bottom, pink with silver sparkle and red craw are my go-to colors.”
Berry offers that Pickwick provides literally miles of open-water mid-depth flats that are prime for trolling. He admits that Pickwick’s clearer waters do not warm up as quickly as some of Mississippi’s other lakes, and he prefers to wait until a mild thermocline sets up before he starts trolling crankbaits.
“I want to see a solid 72-degree surface temperature for at least three days before I’ll trade my springtime jigs for summertime cranks,” he said. “Then I know that the white crappie will hold 2-4 feet above the level of the thermocline. Then it’s just a matter of locating the water depth they’re hanging on that day.
Two more differences that Berry has found effective in clear water are using his electric trolling motor to troll cranks and lightening up his choice of line.
“Some guys troll with a small kicker gas motor, but I’d rather use my electric trolling motor,” he said. “I can control the boat better using my tiller-steer from the bow of the boat. I also like the fact that it’s much quieter than running the big outboard. I also use nothing larger than 10-pound-test monofilament line. I prefer it in the low-vis green color.”