Long-Pole Papermouths

For some places that crappie hang out in, using a long pole will get you more fish than your favorite rod and reel will. (April 2008)

Fishing guide Brad Whitehead shows one very good reason for his preference for fishing with a long pole rather than with a conventional rod-and-reel outfit.
Photo courtesy of Brad Whitehead.

If your primary crappie fishing rods are less than 7 feet long, you're leaving crappie untouched every time you go fishing.

"Folks who use only short rods are generally the ones who can catch crappie in the spring when (the fish) are spawning and easy to find," said Dennis Watters, a professional crappie tournament angler. "You can catch a lot of crappie with 6 1/2- or 7-foot spinning rods, but I'll wager that if you learn to use long poles, you'll double, triple, maybe even quadruple your catch rates."

Watters and other crappie-catching experts note that using long rods to fish for crappie at the tournament level has evolved into three basic strategies.

Spincasting a jig into the brushy, weedy labyrinths favored by spawning crappie is a good way to empty your tackle box and wallet. The logic, simplicity and tackle economy of lowering a jig or minnow vertically into open pockets inside brushpiles and weedbeds is matched by its effectiveness.

"I can use a 10- or 12-foot-long rod to reach into a brushpile or weedbed along a shoreline and lower it into a hole the size of a dinner plate," said semi-pro crappie tournament angler Cory Batterson. "Sometimes in flood-control reservoirs, the crappie will be in the back of coves, under the floating mat of sticks and twigs and weed stems that accumulates back there. If there isn't a hole in that mat, I may use the end of the long rod to gently move the floating stuff and create holes.

"I leave them alone for a few minutes in case I spooked the crappie under there, and then I go back and use that long pole to lower a jig or minnow in there and pull out crappie that no spincasting angler will ever have a chance to catch."

The advantages of using long poles to reach crappie along trashy, shallow shorelines during the spawn are obvious, but according to pro angler Watters, jigging with long poles allows him to catch crappie year 'round.

"If there's a submerged brushpile in 10 to 15 feet of water, the spincasting anglers can only hope to drag their jigs over or beside the brush," he said. "If they park on top of the pile to vertical-jig, they're probably going to spook the crappie.

"I can use my 12- to 16-foot-long poles and work that brushpile and keep my boat far enough away so I don't spook them. In fact, if I want to I can use my side-imaging Humminbird fishfinder to image the brushpile and precisely lower my jigs down into the pile to get the big ones that are burrowed inside."

Long-Pole Trolling
Watters said, you'll note, that he can anchor over a brushpile and vertical-jig into it if he wants to. In most cases, he doesn't.

"Why sit still and fish one spot on a brushpile when I can move and fish all sides of that brushpile?" he asked. "Long-pole trolling is the way to increase the number of crappie you put in your boat."

Using long poles of varying lengths allows anglers to keep their lines untangled when using multiple rods. The number of rods depends on local laws. Where legal, most long-pole trollers use at least four rods, 7 1/2, 10, 12 and 14 feet in length, so that their jigs/spinners/crankbaits are spaced 2 feet apart horizontally behind the boat. When allowed by law, some pro crappie-catchers run four rods of varying length off each side of their boat, and one 7 1/2-foot rod on each side of their transom, to sweep a 32-foot swath around, over, or through crappie habitat.

"I'll start out with as many rods as local laws allow, with each rod rigged with a different jig, live rig or crankbait," said crappie fishing guide and pro tournament angler Brad Whitehead. "If I pick up a crappie on the jig, I'll switch the others over to jigs -- maybe experiment with different colored jigs -- to find out exactly what they want that day."

Speed is a critical element of long pole trolling, with 1.2 mph to 1.5 mph optimum. As little as 0.1 mph more or less speed can make the difference between catching crappie and merely going for a boat ride -- a slow one! Some pro anglers do sweeping turns while trolling to help determine whether crappie prefer a slower or faster target; if they pick up fish on the lines on the inside of a turn, the former are favored, but if crappie hit the lines on the turn's outside radius, the latter are to be preferred.

Imagine looking down on a boat with four or more long rods, all equal in length, pointed outward on the port and starboard sides from the bow backwards. This setup's resemblance to an oversized arachnid earned spider-rigging its name.

"When I'm spider-rigging, I'm fishing all the same length rods, generally 12-footers," said Watters. "The rod holders kind of splay the rod tips out so they don't get tangled, and I'm barely moving the boat with my trolling motor. The lines are almost vertical in the water. The slow speed allows precision depth control and bait placement.

Using long poles of varying lengths allows anglers to keep their lines untangled when using multiple rods. The number of rods depends on local laws.

"If I'm working a brushpile, when I'm spider-rigged I can gently work around that pile without spooking the fish, but cover every inch of its top and sides. That's the key, to work the whole pile. A lot of times we'll be pre-fishing for a tournament and working a brushpile that's in the same area as other brushpiles that local anglers are fishing. I'll talk to them later, and they'll say they caught a half-dozen crappie, and we'll have taken maybe two or three dozen out of the same general area. The difference is that we're moving around that pile with the long poles -- not spooking them, but working every inch."

Pros like Batterson, Watters and Whitehead carry a full array of jigging, trolling and spider-rigging long poles in a variety of lengths every time they hit the water. Whitehead favors B&M long poles outfitted with lightweight Pflueger baitcasting reels rather than the spinning reels normally favored by crappie anglers.

"I've got a mark 2 feet ahead of the reel seat on all my rods," he explained. "When I want my clients to let out exactly 20 feet of line, it's easier for them to measure off 2 feet at a time f

rom the baitcasting reels than from a spinning reel. Baitcasters work really well for the sort of precision depth control I want when I'm after crappie."

Both Whitehead and Watters recommended that amateur anglers interested in exploring the possibilities of long poles start with "universal" long poles that can do it all.

"If I had to use only one type and length of long pole, I'd get four 12-foot B&M ProStaff trolling rods (and) rig them with low-profile Pflueger Echelon baitcasting reels with 10-pound-test Shakespeare Supreme line," said Whitehead. "That rig would be stiff enough to troll crappie crankbaits, but you could still use it to spider-rig jigs or dip minnows into brushpiles along a shoreline."

While acknowledging that telescoping rods are cheaper than are segmented poles, Watters has observed that telescoping rods have a design weakness apparent only when a big fish such as a bass or catfish takes a liking to a crappie bait. "The line guides on telescoping rods keep getting out of alignment," he explained. "That's no big deal when you're working with 3/4- to 1-pound crappie. But when you hook up to a 4-pound bass or a 10-pound catfish -- and you eventually will, because long-poling catches all sorts of fish -- you can just about guarantee it will be at the moment your line guides are all twisted in a different direction.

"You can land some amazingly big fish with long poles as long as you have your reel drag set light and are patient," he said. "But I guarantee you won't land that big fish if all the line guides on a telescoping rod choose that moment to be twisted in a different direction."

A final long-pole tackle requirement unanimously recommended by our pro crappie catchers: "Use a landing net with a handle at least as long as the rod you're using," said Watters. "You will break a long rod if you try to lift them into the boat. I use a landing net with a telescoping handle that will go out to 14 feet, and adjust it to match whatever length rods I'm using.

"Once you learn how to use long rods, you're going to be landing a lot of fish," he warned, "so you might as well invest in the right landing net before you even start."

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