Brad Whitehead knows crappies. Though he’s just 30 years old, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, guide grew up with a fishing rod in his hand. And he logs more time each year chasing crappies—about 225 days, conservatively—than some anglers do in a decade.
From his home base he can hit the hallowed waters of Wilson and Pickwick lakes faster than most guys can string a spinning reel, and a day on either that produces fewer than 50 fish is nothing to write home about. So when Whitehead discusses the finer points of putting crappies in the boat, serious slab fans take notes. Got a pencil?
“My go-to technique 12 months of the year is tightlining,” he says in a soft, northern Alabama drawl. “It consistently catches big fish in open water. As a result, I never have to fight the crowds on the bank.”
By Whitehead’s definition, tightlining is slow-trolling tube jigs with the line at no more than a 10-degree angle behind the rodtip. The technique catches crappies year-round on Southern reservoirs and large rivers.
He has put it to good use on lakes ranging from his home waters to legendary Weiss Lake on the Alabama line, and north-central Mississippi’s world-class slab factory, Grenada.
Beyond the South, tightlining is a force on a wide range of manmade and natural lakes across the continent, wherever crappies school offshore or in relatively open water or along breaklines—such as the edges of channel bends—where snags aren’t abundant.
“It works pretty much anywhere you don’t have a lot of scattered vegetation to foul the lines,” he says. Well-defined weedlines and the tops of deep weedbeds are fair game; but fish scattered in grass that almost reaches the surface, let alone emergent vegetation, are tough to tightline.
The difference between tightlining and longline trolling is a matter of degrees—of line-angle, that is. Tightlining uses 10 degrees as opposed to 45 or more in longlining. It might not seem like a lot, but it makes all the difference in the world in precision depth control.
“If the crappies are suspended 18 feet down in 24 feet of water, that’s where I want my bait—especially on days when the fish aren’t all that aggressive,” he says. “When your jig is below the rodtip, you can do that.”
The reason is simple: you don’t have to figure letback into the depth equation. The amount of line paid out is the depth at which the jig fishes.
While some trollers use line-counter reels to monitor how much line they let out—and others just guess—Whitehead favors a simpler, hands-on approach. “I wrap a piece of yellow electrical tape around the rod blank exactly two feet above the reel,” he says.
“When I send down a jig, I hit the thumb bar on my casting reel with my right thumb and feed out the line with my left hand, counting as I go. It’s easy and absolutely foolproof.”
He notes that he starts counting from the point the jig touches the water, to reflect the same critical depth at which fish appear on his sonar.
Whitehead fishes a variety of small soft plastics, but his weapon of choice is a 1/16-ounce Southern Pro Hot Head jig, decked out with a Yum 2-inch Vibra King tube. His top tube colors are pink-and-white (pink head, white tail); black-and chartreuse (black head, chartreuse tail); and a solid white pattern with silver flake.
His pet jig colors include orange-chartreuse, black-chartreuse and chartreuse-and-white. “I look for a jig head pattern that adds an extra color to the scheme,” he explains. For example, an orange-chartreuse jig would be the perfect complement to a black-and-chartreuse tube.
On most days, the solid-bodied tube’s built-in shad enzymes and seductive tentacles are enough to trigger hits. When the crappies play hard to catch, however, Whitehead adds a small minnow to the presentation.
“In extremely cold water, or after a major front shuts the fish down, I add a 1½- to 2¼-inch tuffy,” he says. “Tuffy” is a common name for the ubiquitous fathead, which is often also generically referred to as a “crappie minnow.”
“Minnows provide extra scent and action,” he explains. “I lightly hook them through the lips—just enough to keep them on the hook—so they stay alive and move as much as possible.”
He ties the jig direct to 10-pound test Silver Thread AN40. A relatively new copolymer formulation, the line is limp and pliable for good handling. But according to Whitehead, its most notable characteristic is its thin diameter, just .0112 inches.
“That’s important for keeping the line from bowing and throwing off my depth control,” he explains.
A generous loop knot allows the jig and tube to shimmy around in the water, especially when a wriggling minnow is part of the equation. In case you’re wondering how such a light leadhead stays vertical, Whitehead adds a ½- to 1-ounce tungsten sliding barrel sinker 18 to 22 inches above the jig.
“I don’t like using barrel swivels to keep the sinker from sliding down to the jig, because it reduces sensitivity,” he notes. “Instead, I wrap the line three times through the sinker and snug it down. This keeps it in place, lets me adjust it as necessary, and keeps me in touch with the jig.”
Whitehead spools a low-profile baitcasting reel no more than three-quarters full, to reduce the chance of backlashes while feeding out line. He matches the reel to his 12-foot B ‘n’ M Pro-Staff Troller rod, a graphite stick with plenty of backbone, yet sensitive enough to betray even subtle bites.
“You get two kinds of strikes,” Whitehead says. “Either they load up the rod so it bows down toward the water, or they hit it coming up, so the rod actually straightens out.” In either case, a swift and solid hookset drives the barb home.
Watching a sea of swaying sticks for a strike can be tricky, but Whitehead makes it easier on the eyes by spray-painting his rodtips white. “I use a plastic paint made for patio furniture to touch up the last 10 to 14 inches of the rod,” he says. “This really makes it stand out against the water, especially on a cloudy day.”
To call Whitehead’s typical trolling pace slow is an understatement. “My forward progress doesn’t register on my GPS,” he says.
Whitehead’s tightline system employs a phalanx of rods—anywhere from 16 to 22—to put as many baits in the strike zone as possible. The pod of jigs mimics a school of baitfish, often triggering multiple hits from prowling wolf packs of hungry crappies.
“My typical setup consists of eight rods at the bow and eight at the stern,” he explains. Naturally, the rods are placed in holders. The gunnels of his
19-foot, 6-inch rig bristle with twin four-place, T-shaped Hi-Tek Stuff rod holders on either side of the bow and main engine. Additional holders can be clamped on the side rails as needed.
The business end of the aluminum rod holders adjust vertically and horizontally on the 20-inch-long T-bar, for perfect spacing and positioning. “I want the rodtips about six to eight inches off the water, spaced about two feet apart,” he says. “Having the tips close to the water helps when the wind gets up, and if all your rods are even, it’s easier to see when you get a hit.”
Another neat trick is how he rigs his bow-mount. “I mount the electric trolling motor facing straight ahead, directly on the point of the bow,” he notes. This allows for the large rod-holding racks an offset bracket wouldn’t accommodate, and gives him great control when trolling wandering breaks.
The near-vertical line positioning of tightlining helps keep tangles to a minimum, even when the fish are biting and Whitehead is putting on a clinic.
“My fishing partner and I have run into situations where 10 of the jigs got hit at once,” he laughs. “All you can do is grab a rod, set the hook, reel in the fish and lay the whole works on the floor of the boat, then grab the next rod.”
Being hooked up with 10 crappies in the 1- to 2-pound class—simultaneously —is a problem most anglers would love to have. Not surprisingly, it’s just another reason why Whitehead has no plans to search for a cure for his chronic case of tightline fever.