Keep Moving For Crappie

One of the best ways of locating springtime papermouths is trolling. Try out these tips at the recommended places this month -- and see what happens.(March 2008).

Photo by Keith Sutton

For us Alabama anglers, the quality of our state's crappie fishing is no great secret. From the Tennessee River valley down to the reservoirs along the lower Coosa and Tombigbee river systems, catching slabs is an annual rite. But now, either for better or worse depending on your point of view, other folks are recognizing this outstanding fishery.

For instance, the miles keep rolling for Russ Bailey, host of the Sportsman Channel's Midwest Crappie. As part of his television show, he travels around the country interviewing and fishing with crappie guides and tournament pros. Over the last couple of seasons Bailey has discovered that the state of Alabama is home to some great crappie fishing -- and some monster slabs. That's the reason Bailey covers a lot of miles between his studio and some of Bama's best crappie waters.

"One of the greatest benefits of what I do is that I get to see how great crappie anglers from different parts of the country fish for crappie," Bailey pointed out. "I fish for crappie a lot of different ways, but last season I filmed shows with a couple of professional guides on lakes Weiss and Logan Martin. These guides had specialized tactics for catching crappie, especially during the pre-spawn and early spawn in March and April, which really impressed me. The tactic is referred to as 'long-line trolling.'"

In the majority of Alabama reservoirs, crappie begin at some point in late February to move from their deepwater winter haunts, gravitating toward major creek mouths and arms in the first stage of the spawning process. In pre-spawn mode by the first of March, these fish move farther into the creeks then, and are usually to be found hanging out around creek channels and ledges near flats that they use during the spawn.

If these fish are not holding tight to cover, they may be scattered and relating above cover or breakline structure, suspended in the water column. Any underwater cover such as brushpiles, stumpfields or stakebeds will attract the crappie.

While this sounds simple, the actual process is far from it. Although water temperatures generally creep from the low to mid 50s during March, frequent warm and cold fronts can have air temperatures in the mid to upper 70s one day and drop to the lower 50s the next as the front move through. To make matters worse, passing fronts are usually accompanied by gusty winds that make fishing open water a lot more difficult.

Crappie ride out these fronts by staging along the first dropoff in 8 to 10 feet. The fish stay there until the water temperature becomes conducive to spawning. Long-line trolling provides a way to get to these staging crappie and enjoy some fast action.

Let's take a look at two guides from two great Alabama crappie lakes that can explain the mechanics of targeting pre-spawn crappie on their home lakes.

LOGAN MARTIN LAKE

Long-line trolling is a specialty of Joe Thomas, a Logan Martin crappie guide from Pell City. Thomas is a big fan of this type of fishing because it allows him to put his clients on Logan Martin crappie during the pre-spawn, spawn and even during the post-spawn before fish move deep for the summer.

March and early April on Logan Martin finds the fish holding in open water on one of two patterns. "Fish will either be tight to cover or scattered out in open water," the guide explained. "Long-line trolling is a great tactic to catch fish either way."

By this time of year, with water temperatures reaching into the low 50s, Thomas said that crappie have moved shoreward from the wintertime deep-water haunts and toward the mouths of creeks. Ordinarily the fish follow some type of edge in from the main lake. Once they reach suitable water, they await the proper water temperatures to invade shallow flats and coves to begin the spawn. Stumpfields or submerged brushpiles in 10 to 12 feet of water are where crappie hold during this pre-spawn.

To reach these fish Thomas fans rods across the transom of the boat and may use a couple of longer rods from the front end of the boat. The key is to stagger the rods' lengths, ranging from 9 to 12 feet in length, so that crossing of lines trolled back behind the boat is minimized.

"A number of long, limber trolling rods are made for this type of fishing," Russ Bailey commented, "and I've used a bunch of them -- but I prefer to use the B 'n' M Poles' trolling rods for this type of fishing." (Bailey did point out that B 'n' M sponsors his TV show.)

The rods are outfitted with small lightweight spinning reels spooled with Stren Hi-Vis Gold 6-pound-test line. "It's important to be able to see the line so you know they're running straight behind the boat," guide Joe Thomas chimed in.

Tied to each line is a single 1/16-ounce jighead with a 1 1/2- to 2-inch trailer. Soft-plastic baits come in a myriad of styles, but it is important that the bait have some type of swimming action so that it resembles a baitfish moving through the water.

Two of Thomas' favorites are the Charlie Brewer grubs and sliders. Recently Thomas was introduced to the Brewer "Charlie Bees," which incorporate a tiny willow leaf spinner blade attached to a jighead with a paddle tail body. The blade adds flash that can get more fish in the boat on bluebird days just after a cold front has moved through.

Veteran anglers can attest that it's usually the little things, like adding a bit of flash to a bait or changing from a heavier 1/16-ounce jig to a lighter 1/32-ounce when the fish move up in the water column, that spell the difference between a good day and a so-so day. That's especially true when weather and water conditions are less than ideal.

Pulling eight or more rods while keeping track of lines and baits can be a daunting task -- especially where hanging up on stumps or brushpiles is a common occurrence. Thomas employs a rather ingenious method of keeping track of which line has what bait attached to it. And with his system, it also helps to have replacement baits easily at hand.

"To long-line troll with this many rods means having an organized rod holder system in place. In the front of the boat I use a four-rod trolling bar on each side of the boat and a similar set up in the back," Thomas described. "The rod holders are spaced 6 to 8 inches apart, which allows me room to place a 6-inch section of Styrofoam between each rod on the trolling bar."

The Styrofoam -- actually a piece of one of the "pool noodles" used by swimmers during the summer -- provides a place to hook 3 or 4 jigheads already rigged with the same color bait that is on that rod. If a breakoff occurs, there's no guessing as to what color was on that line. The guide simply reels in the broken line, attaches another bait that's right at his finger tips.

Speaking of attaching baits: Thomas uses a simple overhand loop knot on all his trolling baits. He indicates that these are quick and easy to tie and the loop gives unrestricted freedom of movement to his baits.

Logan Martin is widely known for its abundance of good crappie. Thomas said that the average fish on the lake runs between 12 and 20 ounces, with an excellent chance of catching some fish that exceed 2 pounds.

Thomas generally targets the Cropwell Creek, Clear Creek, and Rabbit Branch areas of Logan Martin. These waters produce for Thomas all the way through the spawn as fish congregate in the mouths of these tributaries early in the season and then move farther back into the shallows as the spawn begins sometime in April.

WEISS LAKE

Terry Whaley is a Weiss Lake crappie angler who grew up on the reservoir and then entered the military. He retired in the early 1990s to return to his roots and now guides for crappie full time on the 30,200-acre northern Alabama impoundment.

Several years ago, Whaley got involved in a grassroots organization known as Crappie Unlimited. In a nutshell, this organization is dedicated to building fish habitat in public waterways. Coincidentally, these planted brushpiles and underwater structures are some of Whaley's favorite locales to target Weiss Lake crappie. For the month of March and into April, his go-to tactic is long line trolling.

Much of the holding structure for crappie in Weiss Lake, a relatively shallow reservoir, lies along channel ledges and ditches in the 8- to 10-foot depth range. Whaley starts trolling around the mouths of major creeks at junctions along the main Coosa River channel. From there he works toward the backs of the creeks as the spawn approaches. Whaley fans rods out along the transom of his boat and uses high visibility line to make sure his lines are straight. (Be aware, however, of the regulation on Weiss Lake that limits anglers to only three poles at a time.)

Whaley has determined that Weiss crappie prefer deeper water than do other species of fish in the lake. "A good rule of thumb is if you are catching white bass and stripers, you are trolling too fast," the guide advised. "Adjust your speed and slow down until you begin catching crappie."

Whaley begins his trolling day pulling jigs on a 1/16-ounce head early and then switches to a 1/32 ounce through the day as crappie move up within the water column. The Weiss veteran explained that the key to long-line trolling is depth of presentation.

Three factors work together to determine if a crappie jig pulls above where the crappie are feeding, below the fish where it's likely to not get noticed, or in the strike zone. "Boat speed, jig weight, and the amount of line out all determine how deep I'm fishing," Whaley said in summing them up.

To begin the season, Whaley starts with a 1/16-ounce jig pulled 50 feet behind the boat at a speed of less that a mile per hour. Based on this combination of variables, he knows his jigs will be ticking the tops of the brush at 8 feet.

As the season progresses, he alters his variables to match the depths at which the crappie are holding. Other factors that influence this depth include the diameter of line used, water currents, and wind currents.

Long-line trolling is efficient down to depths of 12 to 15 feet, below which a vertical presentation of weighted baits is usually more effective.

The exact depth of presentation varies with minor details, as each boat is set up a little different than the next. Mixing jig weights is not usually a good idea, as different weights causes lines to cross during trolling turns. Tying two jigs on one line adds weight, tracks deeper and can help define the depth preferred by the crappie, but also causes complications while making turns.

Armed with a variable speed trolling motor and a combination fishfinder-GPS unit, Whaley can tailor his offerings to the level that holds the most crappie.

Even the experts have a hard time picking one area of Weiss Lake that has better crappie fishing than another, which is probably the reason the impoundment is touted as the "Crappie Capital of the World." Most guides have a favorite location simply because they are more familiar with it than some other locations.

When pressed, Whaley indicated that he can always count on Trotter's Cove, Yellow Creek, and Big Nose Creek as places to find willing slabs. The guide's final recommendation: Have several locations that offer shelter from heavy winds out of various headings mapped out. Such conditions are a recurrent problem at this time of year.

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