"The key to catching pre-spawn crappie is finding them,” advised Rollin McFarland, an avid crappie angler from Russell Springs, Ky. “It’s almost like hunting. We have to find them before we can bag them. We intercept them along their migration routes. In early February, they are still in deep water, so I start looking for crappie along the creek channels before they start migrating into the shallows."
To find more crappie in late winter or early spring, anglers must often cover substantial tracts of water. Fortunately, crappie anglers can borrow an old technique and adapt it to a new species. For decades, walleye and striped bass enthusiasts deployed planer boards to fish multiple baits. Then, some walleye anglers showed up at crappie tournaments and surprised a lot of people.
"I was just ‘simple trolling’ with crankbaits when I came by these guys with planer boards out," crappie pro Chris Bushart said about the first time he saw people pulling planer boards for crappie. "I had never seen anyone doing that for crappie before."
Essentially a brightly colored floating plastic block, planer boards come designed and specifically angled to run either to the left or right when pulled behind a boat. Most boards come with a small red or orange "tattle flag." The tattle flag pops when a fish takes the bait. It resembles the red flag raised on a mailbox to alert a postal worker to pick up outgoing correspondence.
"Planer boards are fairly new to crappie fishermen, but the technique has been around for a long time," commented Barry Morrow (660-723-2667, barrymro.com), a walleye and crappie pro who also guides. "It’s a great way to fish. I’m a jig fisherman at heart, but planer boards give anglers more advantages over other fishermen.”
A planer board holds line with different clips. One clip releases the line when a fish takes the bait and the other stays attached so anglers can reel the board back to the boat. To get small jigs and other light lures to the right depths, many board fishermen add a diving weight called a "tadpole." To the tadpole, tie a length of fluorocarbon leader for the lure.
"The line comes through the board to the tadpole," explained "Crappie Dan" Dannenmueller, a professional crappie angler. "A tadpole almost looks like a crankbait, but it’s a diving weight. From the tadpole, we put out about a four-foot leader to the lure. The longer the leader, the longer a person must pull the fish up to the boat to net it."
For years, many anglers looked for crappie in late winter or early spring by trolling with multiple rods. However, they could only spread their rigs as wide as the length of their longest rods. In addition, with simple trolling, baits run through or adjacent to water disturbed by the boat and motor.
With planer boards, anglers greatly increase the spread width and length, allowing them to cover much more water while fishing multiple temptations at different depths to search for fish. Theoretically, anglers could deploy planer boards as wide as the waters allow or to the ends of their reel capacities to run their baits through undisturbed waters far from the boat.
"Planer boards are the best search techniques for crappie because we can cover so much more water," Bushart confirmed. "We can cover more territory with planer boards in an hour than others can cover in five hours using other techniques."
Big, fat crappie in prespawn mode frequently congregate in deeper channels and hover along drop-off edges waiting for the water to warm sufficiently so they can move into the shallows and spawn. In rivers and some reservoir creek channels, anglers have the option of setting their baits to run parallel to the drop-off edges on either side of a channel. When fishing channel drops, set some lures to run on the shallow side of a drop-off, some right at the edge and others along the bottom of the drop or in deeper water to determine where fish are feeding. Anglers could also circle hump edges or fish brush piles and other bottom contours to look for fish.
"People can use planer boards to find crappie anytime all year long," Bushart recommended. "In the spring, pre-spawn fish stage in deeper water before moving into the shallows, so that’s a great time to fish planer boards. Any good channel is a great place to run boards. We’ll run through big staging areas and stumpy spawning flats. About the only place we can’t run boards is through standing timber."
A spread usually includes two lines without boards running directly behind the boat. Where legal, anglers might add two to four rods off each side rigged to run at varied distances from the boat. In general, anglers pull boards under electric power at about one mile per hour, but experiment with different speeds.
"Sometimes, we fish three boards on each side and run flat lines on the inside," Bushart detailed. "If the fish turn spooky and we’re not catching crappie right close to the boat, we’ll run four on each side. When we start in the morning, we put boards about 25 to 100 feet behind the boat at 25- to 40-foot increments. Sometimes, we’ve put them out as far as 200 feet or even 300 feet, but we like to keep them closer to the boat where we can work them easier and see them better."
Serious crappie enthusiasts specifically rig their boats with multiple fixed rod holders. However, people who use the same boat for many different purposes require flexibility. Many companies sell temporary rod holders that attach to the boat sides or other places with clamps. Some holders fit into holes established for pedestal seats. In a small boat without rod holders, one person might hold one or two rods while the other drives the boat. When fishing alone, an angler can secure a rod or two off the boat sides, perhaps one or two off the stern. Anglers could even fish boards from kayaks with holes drilled for rod holders.
With planer boards, anglers can pull practically anything that might tempt a crappie. Popular enticements include shad-colored lipped or lipless crankbaits, small jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, tubes and traditional crappie jigs. To determine patterns, experiment with different lure types, sizes and colors fished at various depths.
Dannenmueller explained, "We also catch crappie on blade baits and spoons. I pull a lot of Johnson Thinfishers and 1/8-ounce Rat-L-Traps. Many people use small Road Runners or Bobby Garland baits with 1- to 3-inch plastic trailers. Sometimes, we'll use bigger grubs when targeting larger crappie."
Dannenmueller sometimes combines baits into what he calls a “Dan Rig.” This consists of a jig or Road Runner jighead spinnerbait placed above a crankbait. The flashing blade on a Road Runner attracts a fish’s attention.
"In the spring, I like to pull a jig or a Road Runner on the upper part of a double rig and a crankbait on the bottom," Dannenmueller suggested. "The crankbait trails behind and below the jig or Road Runner and dives a little deeper. Since the crankbait is more visible, it acts like a teaser. Some fish might want the jig and some might want the crankbait. Sometimes, one fish hitting a bait gets other fish excited enough to hit the other bait. We catch a lot of doubles on this rig."
While most anglers pull artificials, some prefer the real thing. Jigs tipped with live minnows add appealing scent and flavor to an offering, particularly when crappie turn finicky in cold water. Some anglers strictly use live minnows or threadfin shad hooked through the lips and out the nostrils.
Since anglers can vary the number of boards deployed, depths fished and baits used, running planers could work just about anywhere. Whether fishing a tournament for cash or just trying to bring home dinner, anyone can catch big fish if they get on board with this technique.
Use an App for Trolling
Crankbaits closelyresemble shad and other baitfish, prime crappie forage. Large crappie will hit bass lures, but for more consistent action, downsize the selection.
"We use crankbaits and other hard plastics that most people think of only as traditional bass baits," explained Dannenmueller. "I like crankbaits about 2 to 2.5 inches long. Small jerkbaits can also produce a lot of big crappie. In the winter, a jerkbait working across brush tops can prove highly effective for tempting suspended crappie."
When trolling a crankbait or any other offering, depth matters. Crappie typically look up to feed. Anglers use electronics to find suspended shad and want to put their temptations as close as possible, but slightly above the baitfish.
In the past, such precision required considerable guessing and luck. However, a smartphone app from Precision Trolling Data (precisiontrollingdata.com) helps remove the guesswork from trolling. The app provides tables for different trolling situations, as determined by factors such as the lure type, trolling speed, line size, type and length. The tables detail how to put specific lures at the desired depth. Then, anglers just need to let out the correct amount of line, run at the right speed and wait for the next bite.
"Depth is determined by the amount of line out and the speed," Dannenmueller advised. "We check the app to get precise trolling data for different baits and lines and see how much line we need to let out to get that bait at the right depth. We set our lures at different depths to find the best range. Once we determine the best depth, we adjust our baits accordingly. I use line-counter bait-casting reels loaded with 10-pound test line when pulling planer boards."