Bama's Crappie Masters

Want to catch more papermouths in North Alabama this year? If you listen to these experts, that should be fairly easy! (January 2009)

Wintertime crappie action in North Alabama is different from what most anglers expect when it comes to fishing for one of the state's leading game fish. Winter water temperatures have moved the fish far from the bank and placed them in deep water -- so this is no time for cork-and-minnow fishing.

Gil Sipes displays the kind of slab that he and his cousin, Coy, take from Neely Henry Lake.
Photo by Phillip Gentry.

The good news is that if you bring the right tactics and the right attitude to the water, the pursuit of wintertime crappie can result in some of the best angling -- and biggest fish -- of the year.

The Crappie Masters Tournament Trail is one of the most popular competitive circuits in the country. Known for having some of the largest payouts ever for a national trail, Crappie Masters draws the best teams from around the country to compete for points for the Crappie Masters Angler Team of the Year.

Two of the most consistently ranked teams hail from Alabama: the Blakemore Roadrunner team of cousins Gil and Coy Sipes and the father-and-son Foodsource team of Steve and Kevin McElroy. These guys know their sport!

The Roadrunner Fishing Team won the Crappie Masters National Classic at Grenada Lake, Miss., in 2004, setting the mark for the highest recorded weight for a two-day weigh-in with 10 fish that combined for 37.88 pounds. Gil and Coy Sipes feel confident that this world-record tournament weight will likely never be topped -- not least because the tournaments have reduced fish limits to seven per day.

Gil hails from Moody, while Coy lives in Pell City, so the team considers Neely Henry to be their home lake, which is in part due to the amount of time the two spend planting brushpiles and stakebeds in the Coosa River impoundment.

During the winter months, the Sipes team will be found tightlining small Roadrunner Jigs tipped with live minnows over the tops of these locations. "Coy and I spend a lot of time putting structure into Neely Henry," Gil Sipes stated, "and when the weather gets cold, crappie move into that structure and we'll spider-rig double rigs down to them around 12 to 14 feet deep. We use a special double rig with a minnow on a Tru-Turn hook above a small marabou Roadrunner Jig tipped with a live minnow."

The Sipeses meet with their best success by fishing beds in the Greensport area. Their particular favorites are Beaver Creek and Big Canoe Creek. They concentrate their efforts on the mouths of the creeks and then adjust back into the feeders along the creek channel as the water temperatures and weather dictate.

"A lot of times," Gil said, "those fish are coming up after bait when the sun gets up during the day. Believe it or not, they can get pretty active. We'll slow-troll around the brush working back toward the creek channel looking for bait on the graph. Once you find the bait, the crappie won't be far behind."

The cousins set up for spider-rigging from the front of their boat; as local regulations only allow three rods per angler, both fishermen use 16-foot B'n'M Pro Staff rods, the idea being to get as much spread in the baits -- and, typically, bites come farther away from the boat. According to Gil, the faster they move, the heavier the weight required to keep the baits vertical in the water column. They typically opt for a 3/4-ounce egg weight threaded into the rig, but may move up to a 1- or 1 1/2-ounce weight if they're fishing particularly deep with more line out.

They keep a watchful eye on the sonar graph mounted in the bow of the boat while they're spider-rigging. Gil Sipes indicated that you must pay attention to the depth at which you start catching crappie. Wintertime fish tend to layer out over brush in colder water, rather than hold at varying depths as they do in summer, so it's important to have those baits right in the face of coldwater suspended crappie or slightly above them in order to get a bite.

"I've found the bite is much better if we can catch the latter part of a two- to three-day string of bluebird skies that are slightly warmer," Gil noted, "especially right before a front. This is also a great time to catch some bigger fish. The typical catch for Neely Henry will be 11/4-pound fish up to 2 pounds, but in the winter when the females start developing eggs and feeding aggressively, it's common to catch fish that top the 2- pound mark."

"One of our favorite spots is on the south bank of Beaver Creek. The shoreline there is real steep and that gives crappie a good drop. The other side is good too, since the northern bank gets more sunlight during the winter. Those pockets warm a little quicker," said the pro.

Gil's quick to point out that winter crappie are notorious for light biting, but he's also found that the lighter the bite, the larger the crappie at the other end of the line -- assuming that the angler's paying attention and can catch that fish.

He and his cousin Coy rig for the light bite by using a set of homemade rod racks that get the rods up off the deck of the boat and suspend them out front where the duo can detect the slightest movements of the rod tip. The extended racks also help manage the sometimes-cumbersome 16-foot poles that the team uses.

Beginners might opt for using shorter poles -- something in the 12-foot range -- until they get the hang of it, Gil suggested, adding that the cousins recommend the B'n'M rods (for which both he and Coy are pro staff members) that they use on the bow. He favors the Pro Staff rods because they're sensitive but still have enough backbone all the way out to the tip to suspend a big 1 1/2-ounce egg sinker without bending double or bouncing excessively. Either of those situations can set off excessive movement in a bait, thus discouraging strikes and making seeing the bites difficult.

The team outfits the rods with light-action spinning reels spooled with 8- to 10-pound monofilament main line. The setups are modified Kentucky rigs with the two droppers tied with slightly lighter 6-pound leaders. The hook size for the top dropper depends on the size and type of crappie that they expect to catch. If black crappie, which typically have smaller mouths, are prevalent, they opt for a 1/16-ounce Roadrunner Jig; they may go up to a 1/4-ounce jig if they're targeting white crappie.

The final piece of the puzzle: determining how fast to move across the brushpiles so that they still pick up crappie. "If we start out at Big Canoe, we can put in at the ramp on County Road 24

south of U.S. 411 on the west side of the lake," Gil offered. "There's a great spot right out in front of that ramp -- a big 'S' bend in the creek channel that holds a lot of fish. On the other side is a good flat all the way out to the Riddles Bend area."

"We will vary our trolling speed until we figure out what they want on that particular day. Some days they don't want it moving at all; on those days we do better just letting the boat drift and hold as still as possible. Other days they want it moving.

"The best thing to do is watch the GPS indicator on the sonar in the front of the boat. We'll start moving at about a half-mile per hour and go up or down from there. If they like half, then we stay at half until the fish tell us something else."

The father-and-son Foodsource team won the last eight tournaments in a row that they fished at Logan Martin Lake. The McElroys admit that they've had their share of luck on their home lake, but they also put the time in to know what to do when ordinary patterns aren't producing. Suffice to it to say that Steve and Kevin know the lake well and have consistently performed well on the Coosa River impoundment.

"In January, we can pretty much count on Logan Martin's crappie to be coming off the main river channel and setting up in the major creek channels like Cropwell Creek, Rabbit Branch or Blue Eye," said Kevin McElroy, the "son" half of the team. "The fish change locations but stay at the same depths. In other words, if we caught them around 18 to 20 feet deep out on the main Coosa channel back in December, we can expect to find them at 18 to 20 feet deep in the Cropwell Creek channel -- if water levels and water temperatures are at their normal patterns in January."

Kevin stated that the most important factor in finding and catching crappie at this time of year is baitfish movement. In January, shad move into the mouths of the bigger creeks and hold on these locations until sometime around the end of February. The crappie key in on the shad and move in with them. The crappie don't pay any attention to much else other than staying with their food source, he added.

"Crappie on Logan Martin don't pay any attention to typical shoreline structure," he said. "I firmly believe that the biggest crappie in this lake live and die spending their entire lives in deep water. These open-water fish make use of the multitude of trees, stumps and humps that are available to them even in 18 to 20 feet of water. They spawn on these deeper structures and spend the rest of their time suspended out over deep water leading a nomadic life and chasing baitfish."

For instance, Kevin explained, the crappie stay closer to the lake bottom when they move into Blue Eye Creek just north of I-20 at this time of year. Then, as the water at the surface begins to warm, they make their move upward in the water column and suspend in 3 or 4 feet of water. Eventually they move on up to the spawning flats back toward Clear Springs, but for now the better fish will suspend out in open water. This, he said, is the absolute best time to catch big fish at Logan Martin.

"Dad and I fished a tournament here that took place right after a warming trend," recalled the team's junior partner, "and some crappie had moved up close to the bank. It was pretty common knowledge that fish could be caught up closer to the bank in about 4 feet of water.

"Then the weather turned, like it always does this time of year, and that bite all but dried up. There were still a few stragglers left in that 4-foot range, and that's where everyone else was fishing, figuring it was just going to be a tough bite. We moved back out to the deep water, but figured out that the fish were still suspended at 3 to 4 feet. But they were suspended out over 20 feet of water on the creek channel."

In that tournament, the Foodsource team's weight of 22.86 pounds blew the field away, the second-place finishers coming to the scales with 14 to 15 pounds for seven crappie. After the weigh-in, several competitors confessed to having thought that the McElroys must have lost their minds, as Foodsource opted to fish out in the middle of the lake even though everyone "knew" that the papermouths were shallow.

The tactic used by the McElroys both on that particular day and on the majority of days before and since is long-line trolling, which involves placing a number of lines far behind the boat. The tactic looks like spider-rigging from a distance, with multiple rods sticking out from the boat in porcupine fashion. The difference is that the baits are trolled a considerable distance behind rather than directly under the boat.

In January, when crappie can be holding at depths down to 18 feet, the McElroys troll two jigs on each line. They choose combinations of either a 1/8 and a 1/16 ounce, or, if they need to get deeper, a 1/4 and a 1/16. In either setup the heavier jig is tied to the main line via a loop knot ahead of the smaller jig; the heavier one works like a plow, digging down deep, while the smaller jig swims a foot or two behind and above the first jig, the trolled baits resembling a checkmark moving through the water. In order to achieve the appropriate depth, the duo will troll the rigs anywhere from 60 to 70 feet behind the boat

Since the number of rods that can be used at one time on Logan Martin is unlimited, the team fishes up to 16 rods, with half out the front of the boat and half out the back. They start with the longest rod -- a 16-foot Ozark -- at the tip of the bow and gradually decrease rod lengths to 14-, 12-, and 10-footers on each side of the boat. The 20-foot wide gap that's left across the back is filled with 9-foot rods spaced a couple of feet apart along the transom. The rods are equipped with light action spinning reels spooled with 6-pound Hi-Vis Viscious line.

"The Viscious line is a real asset," said Kevin. "First, with that many rods and lines out, we have to be able to see the line to keep everything straight. Second, I believe the tensile strength of their 6-pound test is greater than anything we've tried. You need the 6-pound diameter so the jigs will run deep and true, but when a 12-pound stripe or big catfish grabs the jig, we can also get him in the boat before he has a chance to do any damage to the rest of the setup."

The last piece of equipment that the McElroys rely on is their MinnKota trolling motor. The auto-pilot function lets them fish without having to make continual course adjustments. The motor also helps the team make sweeping "S" turns that cause jigs on one side to rise in the water column while the other drops, a big plus when figuring out the depth the fish prefer.

The McElroys' jig selection runs the gamut of anything and everything. With 16 rods baited with twin jigs, they can offer a smorgasbord of 32 different styles colors and actions to let the fish decide what they want.

Rather than tipping the jigs with any type of live bait, these anglers use synthetic products from their primary sponsor, Foodsource. They consider the synthetic bait to have all of the appeal and taste of natural bait.

"Cropwell Creek is

where we do most of our winter trolling," Kevin McElroy emphasized. "Cropwell has more bottom contour -- humps, drop-offs, old roadbeds, flooded ponds -- and these contour changes are magnets for crappie to suspend over. Another favorite is Blue Eye, just north of I-20, and then Rabbit Branch, on the south end of the lake."

To get to these winter hotspots in Cropwell Creek and Rabbit Branch, Team Foodsource typically launches at a private pay ramp at Leon's Town and Country Store off of U.S. 231, just south of the Cropwell community. The Riverside Public Ramp is the better access point for Blue Eye Creek.

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