Photo By Ron Sinfelt
The cold weather days of winter were breaking up, as evidenced by more frequent strings of warm, sunny weather. On the second day of what I hoped would be a warm spell that looked to carry over into the weekend, I called Judy, who works the regular shift at my local bait shop. I only have to ask one question of Judy and I get all the information I need.
“You selling any minnows, Judy?” I asked on this particular afternoon.
“We ran out of them yesterday and I’ve got to place another order to have enough for the weekend.” was her reply.
Music to my ears. Higher minnow sales mean crappie were on the move from their deep-water haunts and starting to stage in the mouths of creeks and tributaries.
By 7:30 a.m. the following morning, I was perched in my usual spot in the bow of my crappie boat, watching the sonar graph with one eye and the GPS with the other and making micro adjustments to the trolling motor speed. I was also watching with interest as eight rods pointed off in the direction of my trolling motor wake. Each rod seemed poised to be the first to indicate that the tripletail grub it was attached to had been abducted by an early-season papermouth.
Just 50 yards into my first sweeping right turn of the season, number 3 stuttered, then began a vibrant arch back toward the horizon. Gingerly plucking the limber Shakespeare rod from its perch in the rod holder, I eased back on the rod, relishing the weight of a chunky early-spring crappie. Before the first fish could get lonely in the livewell, rod number 7 produced a partner, rod number 4 made the group a trio and then in short order, numbers 1, 6 and 8 turned the group into a “half dozen.” When rod number 8 was in the process of bowing to a feisty crappie, I took a second to toss a bright orange marker 30 yards out to the side of the boat. It’s been my experience that a spot that yields six fish in one pass is likely to hold a large number of fish in the same location. That spot deserves another pass.
This method of crappie fishing goes by a variety of names: long lining, flatlining, fast trolling or just trolling. What this tactic isn’t, is a vertical presentation. Vertical presentations are what most folks in crappie circles call spider rigging. For the purpose of long lining, rods are deployed solely from the back of the boat. The boat moves forward under the power of an electric trolling motor and the baits on each rod trail behind the boat. In order to get a better feel for long lining, let’s break the tactic down into each component. (Continued)
As mentioned, I use eight rods to long-line from a relatively small 15-foot aluminum boat. I have fished up to 12 rods, but that takes a good bit of practice, especially when pelagic fish, such as stripers, catfish or white bass, are present in the area, or worse, you troll through a brushpile. Some locations may limit the number of rods allowed per angler. Make sure you comply with the rules and regulations of the water you’re fishing. The tactic works well with fewer rods, though it may just take a little more time to home in on the fish.
Regardless of the number of rods used, each rod is deployed by placing it in a firm rod holder. Rod holder systems have become prevalent on the market today based in part on the popularity of trolling for crappie, stripers, and even catfish. I prefer a Driftmaster T-5000 trolling bar. (www.driftmaster.com). The rod holder system is stable and easy to space, and the welded rod holders are simple in design, which means they work every time.
I space each rod an equal distance apart by twisting the rod holder in the base it screws into until all eight of the rod tips are evenly fanned out across the transom. When using this many rods, I like to use identical rod-and-reel combinations. I find a limber rod, such as the Shakespeare Ugly Stik crappie rod, to be invaluable. A limber rod provides some give to a biting fish without tearing the jig hook out of his mouth. Rod length is a matter of personal preference, but the longer the rod, the easier it is to achieve some spread in the lines. Spreading the rod tips out will assist in preventing tangles. However, unlike longer 12- to 16-foot rods, shorter 9-foot rods do allow you to work on twists and tangles in the line without having to stick the reel in the water to reach the rod tip.
The diameter of the fishing line used and the amount of line out is a factor in how deep your bait will troll. A high-visibility, abrasion-resistant mono line in 6-pound-test is a good choice. The high vis will allow the angler to notice if lines are crossed back behind the boat, and such line also makes detecting a light-biting fish easier. Abrasion resistance is necessary because the best fishing grounds tend to be near some type of cover.
A simple knot that can be tied quickly is best. Having experimented with different knots, I stick to using an overhand figure 8 loop knot. The loop knot allows the jig total freedom of movement. When multi-rig trolling, stopping the boat to retrieve a hangup will cause all the other baits to sink. One hangup then becomes eight. You can quickly tell the difference between a bite and a hangup because the hangup will make an even, slow steady pull backward. Quickly grab the line in front of the rod tip and pull the line free. Expect breakoffs. When a line breaks off, you’ll find it easier to leave the rod in the holder and let it trail behind the boat until you’re clear of the obstruction. Make it a practice to work from the rod holder, even setting the hook and returning the rod to the holder if other fish are on.
One final line tip: Don’t lay rods in the boat; you’ll either step on one or the line will hang up and pull the rod out of the boat.
Depth of presentation when crappie fishing is often the key factor in catching fish. Being upward feeders, crappie will respond better to your bait if it passes right at or within a foot or two above the depth the fish are holding. Crappie seldom chase a bait up very far and almost never take a bait below their level.
The easiest and most effective way to control the depth of presentation when long-line trolling is the weight of the jighead used. The standard is a 1/16-ounce jig on either a No. 2 or No. 4 hook. In water shallower than 6 to 8 feet, anglers need to scale back to a 1/32-ounce head on a No. 4 hook. As water temps increase and fish move deeper after the spawn, moving up to a 1/8-ounce jighead or tying double combinations of 1/16-ounce jigs on the same line will bring the baits down in the water column.
Jig bodies come in a wide variety of sizes, styles and colors. Experiment
with different baits until you find the one that works best. Because trolling lacks the variable retrieve or jigging action that an angler casting or flipping a bait would impart to the bait, baits that have some built-in action tend to work best for trolling. My personal preference is a triple tip curly-tailed grub.
Start off your trolling day with eight different colors. I attach an adhesive-backed piece of Velcro to the base of each rod holder to hold a second bait of the same size and color as the rod in that holder. This way I don’t have to try to remember what was on that line if it breaks off or starts to catch fish. As a fish preference pattern emerges, change baits to take advantage.
Speed is the final factor in long-line trolling. A variable speed trolling motor is essential to making minor adjustments in trolling speed. Trolling speeds can vary from 2.5 mph on the high end to as slow as .5 mph. Most GPS units now accurately determine speed in 1/10s of a mph. A good rule of thumb is to troll at 1.0 mph and vary the speed according to where you mark fish on your sonar unit. As mentioned previously, trolling speed, jig weight, line diameter and the amount of line out are all major variables that will affect your depth of presentation. Generally speaking, a 1/16th-ounce jighead trolled 40 feet behind the boat (what I consider to be a standard cast length) on 6-pound-test at 1.0 mph will run about 8 feet deep. Consider this the equivalent of bore sighting a riflescope: It’ll get you “on the paper,” but to zero in you’re going to need to spend some time at the range.
The final piece of the trolling puzzle is to avoid trolling in long, straight lines. While this provides a consistent presentation, it doesn’t allow for any variation in depth. Making zigzagging arcs while trolling will cause inside baits to sink and outside baits to rise. Pay attention to which side gets bites and adjust your speed, jig weight or line out to present at that level.
I ended my first day with 102 fish. Ninety-two were returned to the water and 10, all good fish over 10 inches long, were invited home for dinner.