The image of a typical midsummer crappie fisherman has changed little over the years. Many still envision him as a simple man sculling a jonboat with one hand and working a cane pole with the other, a bucket of minnows at his feet.
But that image doesn’t fit a growing legion of crappie enthusiasts who use cutting-edge approaches to locating and catching summer slabs. These elite members of crappie fishing’s inner circle are continually developing and refining skills we all can learn from.
Years ago, Harold Morgan thought crappies mysteriously disappeared after the spawn and re-emerged in fall. From June through late September, the noted Tennessee crappie guide simply stowed his light tackle and concentrated on other pursuits. But then he made a discovery that changed his life as a crappie fisherman.
“One thing people don’t understand is that you can catch crappies all year long,” says Morgan, who has guided for crappies on Percy Priest Reservoir for the past 30 years. “You can follow crappies throughout the summer months by concentrating on drop-offs and ledges. These places are migratory routes as the fish go through their seasonal changes. It’s actually quite easy to follow them.”
To target these fish Morgan discovered and fine-tuned the double-hook tight-line technique, a specialized method born on Kentucky Lake that allows the angler to maintain contact with the bottom while keeping baits in the strike zone. His version consists of a 3-foot leader connected by a barrel swivel to the main line and a pair of size 2 hooks set 18 inches apart on separate 6-inch leaders. These leaders are tied to the main line using a dropper loop knot (see “Knot It,” page 49). A 1-ounce bell sinker is tied about 18 inches below the bottom hook.
“The tight-line rig is the most productive way I’ve found to catch summer fish,” Morgan says. “First, that big sinker keeps you on the bottom, so you stay in the ballpark the entire time. Despite today’s sophisticated depthfinders, it’s still a game of feeling the cover.”
Another reason the rig is so effective is that it lets you fish two depths simultaneously. “By using two hooks at different levels at the same time, you pinpoint the depth at which the crappies are holding,” he says.
Morgan uses a small minnow and a tiny plastic tube jig on the rig and drifts, trolls or still fishes it. An added advantage is that the weight of the large sinker usually frees the hooks from brush or stumps.
A look at Wally Marshall’s boat suggests the Texas crappie expert uses a traditional spider setup to troll jigs or minnows. But closer inspection reveals a different strategy.
The former guide, known as “Mr. Crappie,” does what he calls “power trolling” crankbaits—one of his most deadly techniques for catching the biggest slabs in a lake or reservoir. “This is a great technique in summer when crappies have moved out to deeper water,” he says. “On lakes that have little cover, it’s a great way to find fish. You can get out there in big schools of shad and stay with ’em for hours. And you’ll stay with the crappies, too.”
Each rig consists two leaders tied off the main line with three-way swivels. The top leader measures 2 to 3 feet and the bottom goes 4. Both are tipped with a 2- to 3-inch, stout-bodied crankbait, such as Bandit 200 or 300s, Bass Pro Shops’ XPS cranks or Cotton Cordell Grappler Shad. He ties a 2-foot line to the bottom eye of the lower three-way and attaches a 4- to 8-ounce bell sinker.
In relatively clear water, he uses white and pearl-colored baits; muddy conditions require chartreuse or pink lures. Watching his GPS unit to monitor speed, he runs his trolling motor at a steady 1.4 or 1.5 mph.
He power trolls using eight of his signature Bass Pro Shops’ Tightline Special rods in lengths of 12, 14 and 16 feet, which are ideal for pulling the cranks and weights on 10-pound high-vis line. Positioned in rod holders on both sides of the bow, two sets of four rods cover a 40-foot swath of water.
“For power trolling crankbaits, you don’t want to be around any cover at all,” Marshall says. “Instead, fish ledges or out over long points, and pull the cranks down the sides or out into the main river channel.
“I work a depth range that varies from eight to 20 feet, depending on how deep the baitfish are holding in the water column,” he adds. “If it’s the summertime, the thermocline comes into play, so you’re going to run your baits from about eight to 12 feet deep.”
Marshall starts at about eight feet in early morning, then downshifts to 12 later in the day, depending on water clarity.
“When a crappie hits a crankbait it inhales it,” he continues. “You would think a crappie couldn’t get a 21/2-inch crank in its mouth, but in places like Mississippi’s Lake Grenada, those 2- and 3-pound crappies swallow the whole lure.”
Minn Kota Field Promotions Director Sam Heaton’s “dead-pole” technique is a more laid-back, but no less effective method for times when crappies are sluggish.
“I use 10-foot B & M poles, and I lay them across the gunnel,” says the former crappie guide. “I never hold them in my hand. I want the jig or minnow to be perfectly still as I watch my depthfinder and use my trolling motor to slowly work right over tops of brush piles or stumps that may be out in the river channel in 10 to 12 feet of water.
“With the dead-pole technique you stay in the productive zone the maximum amount of time,” he adds. “With casting and retrieving, you’re going to fish through the strike zone. But with this method you never leave it. And when the crappies are dormant or suspended, you have to keep the bait right in front of them.” Many times, this tactic has made the difference between striking out and limiting out for Heaton.
Whereas most crappie enthusiasts are shallow-water bank beaters at heart, top tournament angler Alan Padgett pre-fers to concentrate on less-pressured fish. “To catch big crappies, you must find spots to fish where the average crappie fisherman is not,” the Georgia angler says. “Most of the obvious treetops and brush piles will be picked clean.”
A prime example of a low-pressure spot is underwater brush on river and creek channels or at the mouths of creeks. “These places are hard to find and can be hard to fish, particularly if the wind is blowing,” he adds. “But often these are the places where the bigger crappies stay.”
Another great way to find unpressured crappies is to look for isolated pieces of artificial cover other anglers have sunk, but aren’t marked on maps. So how do you narrow your search? Keep a close eye on the shoreline.
Many anglers will cut down trees near shore, or simply cut the tops off them, then tow them offshore and sink them. Although you won’t be able to see the sunken cover, the signs will remain on shore—look for stumps and topped trees as you cruise a shoreline. When you spot any, comb the immediate offshore area with your electronics. With a little diligent searching, you might find a crappie magnet few other anglers know exists.
Tactics like these are proof positive that today’s crappie fishermen have evolved considerably from the cane pole caricature of yesteryear. Adopt these experts’ techniques and use them to develop your own tactics, and slab success won’t be far off.
Crappie master and NAFC member Todd Huckabee recently gave North American Fisherman a sneak peak at four new crappie rods he designed for Quantum. Hailing from Okla-homa City, Oklahoma, Huckabee honed his skills on legendary Lake Eufaula. The Quantum Crappie XP line that bears his name includes 9- and 10-foot versions of the Dippin’ Stik, 10-foot Meat Dragger and 11-foot Pullin’ Rod. All are two-piece; the Dippin’ Stiks and Pullin’ Rod are both medium actions, the Meat Dragger medium-heavy. The Meat Dragger and Pullin’ Rod are spinning/baitcasting; Dippin’ Stiks spinning. Each retails for $59. Look for them this fall.
For details, call (800) 588-9030
Weighted Answers (See Photo 2)
Crappie experts Wally Marshall and Harold Morgan rely on heavy hardware to put their baits in the strike zone during summer. Here’s how they rig up.
Marshall ties two leaders off the main line with three-way swivels. The top leader measures 2 to 3 feet and the bottom is 4. Both are tipped with a 2- to 3-inch, stout-bodied crankbait. He finishes with a 2-foot line tied to the bottom eye of the lower three-way. This hangs a 4- to 8-ounce bell sinker that keeps the rig down as he trolls about 11/2 mph.
For his tight-line rig, Morgan attaches a 3-foot leader to the main line with a barrel swivel, then ties in two dropper loop knots 18 inches apart. He attaches 6-inch leaders tipped with size 2 hooks to each loop. For depth control, a 1-ounce bell sinker is tied about 18 inches below the bottom leader.