June 14, 2023
Midwest crappie fishing is a game largely played by traditional rules and with traditional tackle. Most anglers targeting crappies do so in the spring. This is when fish are readily found in shallow water and around predictable cover and spawning habitats. Not surprisingly, these same anglers catch lots of fish using jigs, soft plastics, floats and countless live minnows.
In the spring, chasing crappies in shallow water and around obvious cover makes sense. Once summer hits, though, the game changes, and these popular fish vacate their usual haunts in shallow water.
Now, crappies seek out deeper water where they find a wealth of suspended forage species and schools of young-of-the-year fish just waiting to be eaten. Many crappie anglers forget that both black and white crappies are aggressive predators. Wherever adult crappies find the most food is where they’ll camp out all summer long.
A MOVING FEAST
Forage minnows that suspend in the water column are prisoners of their food source and environment. The zooplankton that forage fish consume drift around the lake at the whim of the wind and waves. Thus, open-water crappies are similarly constantly on the move, following their own food sources. Unfortunately, this means today’s hot spot could be devoid of fish tomorrow. However, when you do find suspended crappies, the schools are usually huge and the fish are typically all adults.
To successfully catch suspended crappies, anglers must know how to use sonar to find baitfish and crappies before wetting a line. A GPS map plotter is also very important, as it lets you see the boat’s plot trail and waypoints of previously caught fish. Because there typically aren’t any landmarks in open water to serve as trolling references, mapping units are the only practical means of monitoring the movements of roaming crappies.
You’re also best served with fishing tactics that efficiently cover water. Various forms of trolling are usually most productive for this—and they allow you to stay on roaming schools of hungry crappies.
Crankbaits represent a top trolling tactic. Not surprisingly, baits that best imitate common forage fish are prime options when selecting crankbaits for trolling. Because forage species vary from lake to lake, so too should the style, size, brand and model of crankbaits used. Crankbaits that routinely produce crappies can be broken down into three categories: shad-profile lures, wide-wobbling plugs and fat-bodied bass baits. The shad category includes classics like the No. 5 and No. 7 Rapala Shad Raps and similarly sized Berkley Flicker Shads. These cranks adequately imitate the many species of shad and shiner minnows crappies feed on heavily.
In the wide-wobbling category, Yakima Bait’s Mag Lip, Worden’s FlatFish, Storm’s Hot ‘N Tot, Luhr-Jensen’s Kwikfish and Heddon’s Tadpolly are excellent choices. Here again, smaller 2.5- and 3.0-sized models shine for replicating all manner of shad and minnow species.
The Bandit 100, 200 and 300 series dominate the fat-body bass crankbait category. While designed with casting applications in mind, these lures are also excellent crappie baits when trolled. If you’re serious about catching crappies on crankbaits, consider picking up all these classic baits and more. No single crankbait works every day on every water body, so invest in a good selection of them in various colors.
PERFECTING THE SPREAD
To maximize efficiency when trolling, get as many lines in the water as possible per local fishing regulations. Some states limit how many rods/lines/lures an angler can fish, while others don’t. Bottom line: Always check the regs before fishing with multiple lines.
Flat-line trolling is a popular option. However, in-line planer boards are key tools for fishing multiple lines. You want to spread out your gear to cover the most water and be able to detect strikes.
Traditional in-line boards popular with walleye trollers are easily employed for crappies. It takes a little practice to “read” in-line boards when targeting smaller fish such as crappies, though. Fortunately, there are some shortcuts to detecting hooked fish.
Try equipping in-line boards with articulating spring-loaded flag systems, such as the popular Off Shore Tackle Tattle Flag system. When a fish is hooked, the flag folds down, making it obvious that a fish is on the line. The other benefit of articulating flag systems is that the flag will also go down if the lure fouls on floating debris, which helps keep baits running clean and true.
While full-sized in-line boards work well, most manufacturers produce smaller boards aimed at the crappie and panfish markets, too. These work great because they’re designed to be fished with the lighter gear and lines commonly used in crappie fishing. They also make it much easier to detect strikes and hooked fish. Regardless, reading an in-line planer board to detect hooked fish is a skill that comes with experience.
Crankbaits are typically most effective when trolled from 1.5 to 2.5 mph. At these faster trolling speeds, the board noticeably sags backward when a fish is hooked. This is also true of larger fish that weigh more and cause the board to react more noticeably.
At slower speeds or when a small fish is on, the board won’t react as readily, making it harder to tell when a fish has been hooked. To make detection easier, closely monitor rod tips. A hooked fish will bend the rod tip a little more than the others in the trolling pattern.
No one can deny how effective a lead-head jig’s subtle action is on crappies. And slow-trolling, or what some anglers call “jig pulling,” is another highly effective way to target roving crappies.
Small ball-head-style jigs in the 1/32- and 1/16-ounce sizes adorned with 2-inch action-tail grubs are a good starting point. To pull jigs, let them straight out the back of the boat and use varying rod lengths to spread them out a few feet from one another.
An autopilot-style electric trolling motor is ideal for long-lining jigs. For best results, anglers often must creep along at speeds as slow as .75 mph or as fast as 1.2 mph.
Fishing three lines off each side of the boat works well when employing a setup consisting of 7-, 9- and 11-foot rods. Some anglers prefer longer rods that do a better job of creating space between the jigs—and fewer tangles when fighting hooked fish.
Jig pulling is a game best played with high-visibility 6-pound-test line. The high-visibility line makes it easier to steer a hooked fish away from other lines during the fight. It is, however, a good idea to add a clear leader at the terminal end. Adding 6 feet of 6-pound-test fluorocarbon provides an invisible connection between the jig and the fishing line.
Crankbaits and jigs are the two most popular lures used to catch open-water crappies. However, many anglers combine them into one presentation with a simple three-way swivel rig.
In this case, the main line (10-pound-test monofilament) is tied to one of the three-way swivel connection points. A 3-foot leader (10-pound-test fluorocarbon) is then added to the bottom swivel, and the crankbait is attached to that leader. Finish the rig by adding a 4- to 6-foot leader (6-pound-test fluorocarbon) and attaching a jig dressed with an action-tail grub.
In the water, the crankbait dives and pulls the jig along for the ride. This setup doubles the number of lures in the water and gives the fish an aggressive presentation with the crankbait and a more subtle presentation with the jig. A variation of this rig involves substituting the lead jig and action-tail grub with an attractor-style jig such as the popular Blakemore Road Runner or a Crappie Magnet Fin Spin jig.
This rig, of course, fishes very well on an in-line planer board, which allows you to cover more water and ultimately reach more fish. Some states consider these three-way rigs as two lures; others count them as one line/one lure. Again, fully understand local fishing regulations before using a three-way crappie rig. Trolling speeds with three-way rigs can vary from 1.5 mph to 2.5 mph, depending on how active fish might be on a given day.
You can target specific depths with both crankbaits and jigs by manipulating the lead length, line diameter and trolling speed. The popular Precision Trolling Data phone app offers critical trolling data that considers all these variables not only for popular crankbaits but also for jigs commonly used for crappie trolling. This app is sold on the Google Play and Apple App stores.
In the summer months, crappies often disappear from the shallows. In many lakes, these popular panfish venture out into main-lake basins where they suspend to feed on minnows and young-of-the-year fish. Trolling is usually the most practical means of targeting crappies that are constantly on the move in search of food. While open-water crappies can be seemingly here today and gone tomorrow, when you do manage to get on a school, the action will be fast and furious.
- Gear to help fuel your summer crappie trolling expeditions
Much of the gear needed to get started trolling for crappies is comparable to that used for walleyes. Many anglers use the same rods, line-counter reels, 10-pound-test trolling lines and planer boards for both species. Smaller, purpose-built boards do make it easier to determine when crappies are hooked, though, and they work exceptionally well when paired with light-action rods and light lines.
- RODS WITH REACH: Rods suitable for long-lining jigs are specialty products tailor-made for this unique presentation. When long-lining, use rods of various lengths to spread out jigs and cover more water. You normally buy these rods in pairs. A common long-lining setup would include six rods—two measuring 7 feet long, two 9-footers and two 11-foot rods.
- HANDS-FREE MOTORS: An autopilot-style electric motor handles most summer trolling chores with ease. These motors operate silently and interface with GPS map plotter units, which makes it easy to set up trolling routes and duplicate effective passes. Because crappie trolling often requires slow to moderate speeds, a boat equipped with an electric motor can troll all day long without issue.
- LURES, LINES AND SCENTS: Both ball-head and action-style jigs work well for crappie trolling. Action-tail grubs are easily the most popular soft plastic used in crappie-jig trolling. Traditional twister-tail and split-tail grubs perform well. When crappies are actively feeding, the traditional twister-tail grubs shine. When crappies get finicky, split-tail grubs provide more action at slower speeds. High-visibility lines are important for crappie trolling to avoid tangles with other lines. Meanwhile, adding scent products greatly increases how effective trolled crankbaits and jigs are. Because trolling often happens at slow speeds, fish can scrutinize presentations. Adding scent helps trigger strikes from fish that are otherwise non-committal.