Using good rod holders and multiple rods, trolling puts your lures in the effective strike zone all the time. However trolling is most effective during the pre-spawn period, typically February through early April in much of the South. (Photo: Richard Simms)
By Richard Simms
If you are ready to fill your freezer with one of the best-eating fish in freshwater, go now! March and April are the months to catch crappie, especially using one of the easiest techniques that exists.
Slow-trolling for crappie is perfect for everyone – whether you’re an experienced angler or a novice who barely knows how to spell crappie.
LOOK FOR CRAPPIE HIGHWAYS
Focus on “crappie highways,” creeks and embayments extending from the main channel, deep water areas into shallower creeks and embayments that lead fish from the main lake back into spawning.
Put enough lures in the water for long enough and you’ll find them.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists say their surveys show that crappie anglers statistically harvest less than one fish per hour on my home lake (year-round average).
In March and early April of 2018, my boat averaged nearly five keeper crappie per hour.
Factor in the small fish under our 10-inch size limit and it was probably closer to 15 fish per hour.
IT BEGAN BY ACCIDENT
I turned into a crappie troller by accident. Twenty-five years ago I preferred drifting jigs & minnows on open-water drop-offs.
And then one day the wind died about the time I ran out of minnows.
The lake turned slick as glass, and I wasn’t ready to go home.
I was just a few fish shy of a limit, so I fired up the trolling motor, laid a rod out each side of the boat with a crappie jig tied on.
It didn’t take long for me to finish my limit and I thought “Hmmm?”
It was a slow transition because, like many, I was biased against trolling.
But I freely admit that now I am a full-blown crappie troller.
The boat is outfitted with six-rod holders.
The two on the rear seat face straight backwards; the two on the center seat face backwards at a 45-degree angle and the two on the front deck face 90 degrees straight out.
The configuration allows for six rods and lures out with enough room to avoid tangled lines.
With all six rods out, I’m cutting at least a 20-foot wide swath of crappie jigs.
Add planer boards and I can increase that to a 100-foot swath.
DO SOME EXPERIMENTING
Early in the day, we might experiment with some different trolling speeds and different colors and usually, the fish tell us what to key on.
Trolling or casting, crappie want tiny lures.
A one-eighth ounce jig head is huge and we’ll rarely use one trolling unless the wind is horrible.
More often it is a one-sixteenth ounce jig head outfitted with a tiny tube.
The six-pound test line is my preferred but sometimes four-pound works better.
A heavier line creates too much drag in the water and simply won’t let the tiny jigs settle no matter how slowly you troll.
And it is important to have the same size line on all of your rods so each one responds the same way to changes in lure sizes and boat speed.
It is hard to troll too slowly. If you’ve got a GPS, use it.
As noted earlier, 0.7 miles per hour is good. If you’re moving faster than one mile per hour, you’re probably going too fast.
We prefer creek channels that are 12 to 18 feet deep.
At 0.7 miles per hour with about 50 feet of line out, my one-sixteenth ounce jigs are running 8 to 10 feet deep.
That’s one reason it is a good idea to experiment with different trolling speeds early in the day.
Basically, you are experimenting with different depths.
But that’s why speed & boat control is critical.
Let’s say you start nailing fish on one size jig and switch all your rods to that size.
But then the wind picks up and your boat speed increases from 0.7 to 1.1 mph.
You’re probably changing the depth of your jigs by three or four feet.
No matter what problem you are trying to solve, it is critical that you change only one variable at a time.
If you’re constantly changing jig sizes, line sizes and boat speed you’ll never be able to repeat a successful pattern.
IT’S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
Once you’ve found a pattern that works, just troll.
It’s easy to be patient and cover lots of water non-stop when you’re confident that you’ve got lures in the strike zone non-stop.
And when you hit an area with fish, stay with it.
You’ve come across a particularly busy section of the crappie highway.
When you hook a fish, don’t worry about “setting the hook.”
When you’re trolling the boat speed will usually set the hook, especially using small sharp jigs.
Just lift the rod and keep the line tight. But you can’t quit moving. Remember you’ve still got several lures out behind the boat.
Admittedly it is not the purest form of fishing. But once you’ve got your pattern down, it’s easy, it’s relaxing, and you will put meat in the freezer.
On one particularly successful day, my friend Ed McCoy summed it up very well as he was reeling in a hefty crappie and said, “You know. When you’re trolling it doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you keep going.”