Lethargic in the heat of summer, fish need time to choose a meal. Spider-rigging is the perfect answer.
Crappie fishermen who troll with spider rigs base their success on the same theory of snack hawkers at a baseball game, girl scouts pushing those diet-busting cookies outside the local grocery store and the ice cream man blasting the Music Box Dancer throughout your neighborhood.
They succeed by making tasty treats clearly visible and easily accessible.
Spider-rigging — also known as pushing or tight lining — means having a boat bristling with multiple rods on the bow. Baits hang vertically from the poles, ideally in front of some crappie-friendly haunts.
Slow and steady is the name of the game, as success relies on keeping the food in front of fish that just aren’t gonna run very far for anything.
“In the summertime when it’s real hot, you find the fish with multiple poles,” said crappie tournament pro Whitey Outlaw. “If they are holding to structures and ledges, you can work them really well with a slow presentation because the water is hot and the fish aren’t real active.
“You can get your limit, get out of the heat and back into the air conditioning pretty quickly.”
Here’s how it’s done.
With countless hours on Mississippi powerhouses Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid, Granada and Ross Barnett, as well as various oxbows, Outlaw’s fellow tournament veteran Matt Morgan finds summer crappie relating to areas that satisfy their trio of needs — comfortable water temperature, oxygen and forage.
“Those three things are what (summer) crappie call home,” Morgan said. “For me, that’s probably going to be a ledge where the fish can move up and down in the water column to find cover to ambush their food, while staying in a place where they feel safe.”
Common depth range for summer ledges is 10-18 feet, but Morgan won’t hesitate to fish ledges as deep as 25.
Outlaw is also a fan of ledges, but he knows spider-rigging can tempt fish in front of standing timber, deeper docks and flats dotted with scattered stumps and brush.
“Throughout the summer months in Mississippi, I like to target open waters in the middle of the lakes anywhere from 8 to 14 feet of water,” Outlaw said. “Once we locate the crappie, they’re easy to catch. In 15 minutes, you will know what’s there. If it’s suspended fish on a flat, we may fish the area all day.”
Morgan also values persistence, along with mobility. You won’t find him sitting over one set of stumps very long; rather, it’s all about staying active and finding the fish.
“You’ve got to keep moving, you have to stay on the move. You have to be the predator,” Morgan said. “I might do circles around a (key spot) or some left-and-right patterns, but I’m always moving.”
That’s a point worth clarifying. When you’re spider-rigging in front of a dock or a particular brush pile, a static approach may serve the objective. However, for working large areas such as a ledges and flats, you’ll want to maintain forward progress, sometimes at a glacially slow pace.
“Speed determines how many bites you get,” Outlaw said. “You want to slow down and give the fish time to bite. If you are going too fast, the sluggish fish won’t bite due to the hot weather.”
Rate of return
So, how slow is slow? Some might peg it at around .2 or .3 mph for search mode, but Outlaw finds he does best when he pays more attention to fish response than the speed reading on his GPS.
“I don’t usually use a GPS to mark my speed; I let the fish tell me what to do,” Outlaw said. “If I’m fishing open flats, I adjust my speed up and down until I start catching fish. If I’m fishing summertime structure such as ledges, stake beds or brush piles, I usually let the bait sit still in the structure until I can catch fish.”
For Morgan, the unhurried rate of movement is essential for dialing in the right areas.
“Fishing as deep as we do in the summertime, you have to slow down because you can’t cover the water in an effective way,” Morgan said. “To find those fish and get them to bite, you have to move slowly enough to present your baits from 10-18 feet deep along the ledge.
“You’ll find out pretty quickly where those fish are relating next to the ledge. Are you catching some at 12 to 14 feet, but not at 18 feet on the bottom of that ledge? And are they not up at 10 feet on the top?”
As Morgan notes, time of day influences crappie positioning. Morning finds them higher in the water column, but intensifying sunlight will push them lower by late morning. The key driver, though, is bait school positioning.
“You have to be able to adapt,” Morgan said. “Those fish are like us, they have to eat every day. They can move up and down hour to hour and being able to find them and change throughout the day is a key point.”
Varying line lengths is a grassroots tactic for fish location that remains effective, if not unnecessarily time consuming. Modern anglers rely on their electronics for initial area scans, as well as periodic searches throughout the day.
“I use my Humminbird 1199 side imaging to scan a large area so I know what’s there before I fish it,” Outlaw said.
“With today’s technology, we can ride down the edge of a ledge and see where most of those fish are holding,” he said. “Sometimes, you’ll see a good group of fish that are suspended off of that ledge. Sometimes, you’ll see them right up next to some stumps.
“The only way you can effectively fish a ledge is to use your electronics. If a ledge is, say, a mile long, then there might only be 400 yards of productive area. That may be 25 yards here, 50 yards there and 100 yards up the road. The whole ledge isn’t going to hold the same quality of fish. The electronics allow you to eliminate a lot of unproductive water.”
Feed ’em right
Morgan said he and his tournament partner Kent Watson primarily fish minnows on No. 2 Eagle Claw hooks during summer, as the sluggish crappie generally need a lot of coaxing. It’s not uncommon for them to dress their hooks with colorful tubes and swapping hooks for light jigs is another option spider riggers may entertain.
Whatever the offering, double rigs are the norm, as they offer crappie twice the targets. Premade setups like the Mr. Crappie Troll-Tech Crappie Rigs offer a convenient option, but meticulous tournament types typically build their own.
Morgan’s double rig starts with his main line tied to a cross line 3-way swivel. The side ring holds a 6- to 8-inch side tag line of 15-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a No. 2 light wire Eagle Claw hook. The bottom ring of the 3-way swivel holds an 18- to 24-inch leader that wraps three times through a ½- to 3/8-ounce egg sinker, with an 8-inch tag end holding another No. 2 hook.
“This rig gives the minnow enough line to present a natural look, but not so much that you frequently get hung in the bottom,” Morgan said. “The reason we use the heavier (main) line is that we get hung up, we can grab our main line and pull our hooks straight without breaking them off and having to retie. We can rebend our hooks, rebait them and get them back in the water without losing so much time.”
Outlaw uses a similar double rig design, only instead of an egg sinker and a bottom hook, he streamlines the terminal hardware with the Outlaw Max Game Changer, a specialized jig he helped design for Rockport Rattler.
Essentially a rattling round head jig with two additional light wire hooks flanking the main hook, this specialty jig increases the grabbing ability and prevents short strikes.
“This jig will hook that crappie no matter what angle he hits it from,” Outlaw said.
Preferring 14-foot B&M jig poles with spinning reels, Outlaw and Morgan both use eight-rod spreads, except where local regulations limit anglers to three each.
Rod holder options are many and while a simple spreader bar system certainly gets the job done, individually mounted holders like the Driftmaster Crappie Stalkers isolates each rod to prevent transferred movement from one rod to the others. It also allows fishermen to adjust each rod’s specific angle.
One person manning multiple rods can be a bit of a scramble, but it’s doable with coordination. With a two-angler team, splitting duties means you’re watching fewer rods and when one dips, you only reach for the ones on your side of the spread.
Of course, teamwork implies watching out for one another.
For operational efficiency, Morgan suggests splitting the rod spread with each angler numbering his half starting from the middle outward. Simpler than numbering the entire spread across the bow, Morgan’s system facilitates the quick reference that allows for efficient strike response.
“There are times I can see a bite on Kent’s (third) rod that he may not have the right angle to see and I can say ‘Number 3,’” Morgan said. “This numbering system simplifies things.”
It’s all about speed control
Spider-rigging requires a super-slow pace to slowly and methodically hang those baits in front of persnickety crappie.
Tennessee tournament pro Whitey Outlaw says there’s one way to be sure a boat is going slow enough.
“Remember you do not want your lines running up under the boat,” Outlaw said. “To keep your lines in front of the boat, you must slow down to keep them where they need to be.”
Working into the wind with low trolling motor speed is preferable, but when too much wind bounces the bow, anglers struggle to maintain proper rod positioning with the tips just inches off the surface.
Rather than fight this untenable scenario, savvy crappie anglers put the wind at their back and drift across the target zone. This can create another problem, if the wind is strong enough to push the best too fast for the necessary vertical presentation.
The solution – dragging chains on lead ropes.
Depending on the scenario, anglers may get by with one chain centered off the back of the boat for straight tracking. In relatively shallow water and moderate winds with a small/light boat, you can get by with a single chain. However, for larger fiberglass boats, deeper water, strong winds, or river current, doubling up is the way to go.
Chain size affects the drag, but depth plus rope length determines how much chain actually touches bottom. Essentially, the more chain that contacts the bottom, the more drag you create. Adjust this variable by deploying more or less rope.
Tweaking rope length is kind of like feathering a baitcaster spool. Gloved hands and grip knots tied in the lead rope help, but you’ll greatly facilitate this process with motorized chain systems like the Minn Kota DeckHand Electric Anchor Lift or the Trac™ Electric Anchor Winch.
Tennessee crappie pro Mark Williams likes the simplicity and precision of his DeckHand.
“With just the flip of a switch, I can adjust my rope length,” he said. “It’s faster and less work.”
For manual deals, attach your chain rope for optimal reach and adjustment. Some fishermen use a swivel clip to connect a single rope to the rear seat pedestal (seat removed). For two chains, use a karabiner clip to latch chains to the boat’s rear tie-down rings.