Kicking the minnow habit

Correctly pairing plastics with jigheads is critical for a natural-looking presentation.
Correctly pairing plastics with jigheads is critical for a natural-looking presentation.

Crankbaits, jigs can be just as effective on crappie, with less hassle

There’s no doubt live minnows catch crappie.

There’s also no doubt that live minnows are a bit of a hassle. Like disposable razors, live minnows have a finite shelf life, after which they are more trouble than what they’re worth.

Rather than try to extend their usefulness, your best bet is to just throw them away and buy some more. Live minnows can be especially aggravating during the summer because they just can’t seem to take the stress of hot water with little oxygen.

None of this stops crappie anglers from buying minnows by the thousands every weekend, as if fishing live minnows is a habit rather than a choice.

“I think most weekend fishermen use minnows every time they go crappie fishing,” said Brad Chappell, a Mississippi crappie guide who, along with his former tournament partner Bo Hudson, still holds the record for the heaviest 7-fish limit caught during a Magnolia Crappie Club tournament — 19.42 pounds.

Chappell says that every time he stops at the bait shop or gas station he sees anglers pulling out their minnow buckets and getting in line regardless of the season.

“No doubt live minnows catch crappie,” he acknowledged, “but out of 100 trips, I might use them two times and then only if something had really turned off the fish. I feel that if the fish are actively feeding there’s no need for me to buy them.”

Yes, minnows catch plenty of crappie, but in warm weather they’re hard to keep alive. Not so with plastics and crankbaits.
Yes, minnows catch plenty of crappie, but in warm weather they’re hard to keep alive. Not so with plastics and crankbaits.

Chappell, known through crappie circles as being a long-line troller, spends just about all of his time on the water during June trolling crankbaits or jigs, depending on where he’s fishing.

And the good thing about crankbaits and jigs is that Chappell doesn’t have to worry about keeping them alive with a pure oxygen tank or watching them die in a minnow bucket floating on top of hot lake water at the surface.

Chappell fishes without minnows at Ross Barnett and Grenada Lake, and he says that June is his favorite time to use artificial lures fanned out behind the back of his boat.

In both cases, Chappell says the crappie will be in very reliable locations where he can pick them off looking for reaction strikes from fish that might not want to but can’t pass up such an easy meal swimming by right in front of their faces.

Ross Barnett

Crappie stack up on the main-lake ledges in Ross Barnett during the summer. The ledges lined with stumps are Chappell’s favorite, and he says that some of those old stumps can hold up to 30 or 40 fish.

“You’re not going to catch them all in one pass or even one day,” Chappell noted. “But, if you have multiple stumps that are holding that many fish you can go by there and pick off the active fish. Some won’t be active when you pass by, but some fish will be active every day. You’ve just got to move around and find them. That’s why I like staying on the move.”

Chappell says the stumps will also replenish themselves because the bigger crappie want the best cover and prime feeding spot. Therefore, when he catches a big fish off a stump, the next biggest crappie moves up to take its place.

The good thing about crankbaits and jigs is that you don't have to worry about keeping minnows alive.
The good thing about crankbaits and jigs is that you don’t have to worry about keeping minnows alive.

“The stumps and ledges I’m talking about are generally anywhere from maybe 10 to 15 feet on top down to 25 or 30 feet at the bottom,” Chappell said. “These spots are nothing more than where trees were growing right on the edge of the old river. They were cut off about 3 or 4 feet up from the ground, and they’re still down there today offering crappie some prime feeding spots.”

Chappell estimated that maybe one third of the old river channel is actually within the confines of the boat channels on Ross Barnett. The rest of the river is out in open water, and he must rely on HotMaps cards inserted into the Lowrance units on his boat.

“I like them better than some of the others because the HotMaps show names rather than only contour lines,” Chappell said. “If you come to Ross Barnett and hear you ought to be at Roses Bluff, the HotMaps will pull up the name of that area.”

In June, Chappell likes to pull crankbaits at Ross Barnett. His setup includes 18-, 16-, 12-, and 9-foot Denali Pryme Series rods and line-counter reels spooled with 15-pound test PowerPro line.

He prefers the braided line because he doesn’t have to put out as much line to get his crankbaits to run deep.

“If I were using mono, I’d have to put longer lines out to get my crankbaits down to the right depth,” Chappell said, noting that the smaller diameter of braid allows lures to run deeper. “If I’m following tight contour lines, the shorter the lines I have out means the tighter I can follow that contour.”

A white crankbait such as this Berkley Flicker Shad is about as good on a minnow imitator as any artificial, and does well when trolled.

Chappell has been pulling a lot of Berkley Flicker Shads the last couple of years, believing their tight wobble more effectively mimics the shad on which crappie feed.

When he has all his poles deployed, they resemble a spread fan from an aerial perspective. He puts the 18-foot pole out almost at a 90-degree angle off the back of his boat then stair steps each successively shorter pole down to the 9-foot pole, which is sticking straight out the back.

“There’s not a whole lot to it with these line counter reels,” Chappell said. “All I need is a trolling depth chart. The fish at Barnett are dependable at what depth they’re going to be. I like 10 to 12 feet. With my setup, I put 55 feet of line out and pull at 1.7 miles per hour. That keeps my crankbaits running right where I want them to be.”

Chappell’s most productive crankbait colors at Ross Barnett are black, chartreuse, white, and orange. Although pink can be a good crankbait color for crappie, Chappell has gotten away from using them because catfish love pink crankbaits.

Grenada Lake

Just up I-55 at Grenada Lake, Chappell loves to stay with his long-line trolling technique, but he switches his baits over from crankbaits to soft plastics.

Chappell often uses line-counter reels when trolling to make fishing the right depth a cinch.
Chappell often uses line-counter reels when trolling to make fishing the right depth a cinch.

“I fish the same kind of areas as Barnett — channel ledges — but fish at Grenada don’t seem to be as structure oriented,” Chappell said. “They’re still going to be somewhere close to that channel, and the channel holes aren’t quite as deep as they are at Barnett.”

Although most of his setup remains the same as at Barnett, Chappell switches from his line-counter reels to spinning reels because he doesn’t have to worry about the exact depth needed to keep his crankbaits out of the stumps.

“I’ve been using the Bass Pro Carbon Lite spinning reels for the last few years,” Chappell said. “They’ve got a good gear ratio for getting fish up on top of the water, getting them under control and in the boat. The longer you fight them under water the more likely they are to get off and to get tangled in all your other lines.”

Chappell’s favorite plastic for long-line trolling is the Bobby Garland Stroll’R. These 2.5-inch jigs have a curly tail with a little paddle on the end of it to give it more “thump” as it comes through the water.

About the most fuss-free and effective artificials are Bobby Garland Crappie Stroll’Rs.
About the most fuss-free and effective artificials are Bobby Garland Crappie Stroll’Rs.

“You put out eight Stroll’Rs and pull them around the channel and they look just like a small school of minnows coming through,” Chappell said. “I put them on 1/8-ounce jigheads and pull them at 1 to 1.2 miles per hour.”

A new color Stroll’R that Chappell has been having a lot of success with is Grenada Gold – a goldish bronze body with gold flake and an orange tail. Chappell actually helped come up with the color.

“I reasoned that we threw so many bronze blades on the Road Runners that it would make sense to have kind of a bronze-colored plastic. I think it really stands out in our dark water,” he said. “Crappie seem to love it.”

Chappell also uses the Horse Fly color, an orange body with a greenish/chartreuse tail, and Bluegill Fire, a bluish body with blue and silver flake and a hot pink tail.

“As much as I like Grenada Gold, that Bluegill Fire has been my No. 1 color so far this year,” Chappell noted.

Habits can be hard to break, but if you’re hooked on fishing minnows every time you go crappie fishing, perhaps the best way stop relying only on minnows is to go cold turkey. Load up on crappie crankbaits and soft plastics and pass up the minnow store on your way to the lake.

If it doesn’t work out for you, having a relapse wouldn’t be so bad. Minnows still catch fish.

Sometimes it takes more than one try to kick the habit.

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To contact Ronnie Chappell about his guide service, call (601) 317-6681.