By Ron Presley
Trolling requires the right equipment and good concentration. A good set-up includes having baits spaced as far apart as possible, a wide trolling path, strong holders, good baits and an eye on the sonar.
Expert Tennessee crappie angler Jim Duckworth has a decision to make when he wants to go crappie fishing in June. He needs to decide whether to go to a lowland lake like Percy Priest where most fish are caught between 10 and 25 feet of water, or go to a clear highland lake like Center Hill where the fish will be staging in 5 to 55 feet of water.
Duckworth describes Center Hill as all rock, deep and super clear. Percy Priest is areas of rock, gravel, dirt, clay and sometimes a mixture of all that in the same place. The lake is relatively shallow with a little bit of color to the water. Both are good crappie lakes, but in June Duckworth has reasons to prefer Percy Priest.
“In June I would go to a lowland reservoir because the crappie are 10 to 25 feet deep. Crappie in a highland lake in June can be 40 to 50 foot because of the visibility and the fact that when you get 10 yards from the bank it is 30 plus feet deep” He says those conditions simply make them harder to catch. “The highland lakes just don’t produce as well trolling, and it takes too long for a Road Runner to fall 50 feet if you are vertical jigging.” He explains that the deep water results in 1/3 of the casts that you would get on a lowland reservoir in a given period of time and that translates to fewer crappies.
A fisherman’s underwater eyes are critical for depths, temperatures, seeing fish and baitfish, and mapping. Duckworth says a quality locator is the best tool in a fisherman’s boat. It makes an average fisherman into a very good fisherman.
With the decision to fish a lowland lake Duckworth explains how multitasking helps him put more crappie on the dinner table. The techniques he employs will work well in many lakes across America.
The June crappie bite in Tennessee consists mainly of trolling, but Duckworth complements it with vertical jigging. The trolling catches plenty of crappie, but switching from 7 poles in a long line trolling scenario to one pole in the anglers hand can add significantly to the daily harvest.
Duckworth explains it like this. “The June crappie bite is troll, troll and troll. However, if you watch your down imaging on your Humminbird to locate cover that’s holding crappie you can come back later and fish it. Mark the structure with a waypoint and throw out a marker buoy.” That does two things for you according to Duckworth. First you can use the marker to go back through and troll the area again. Secondly the marker shows you a place to come back to later and fish the spot vertically.
A good shot at a wide-spread trolling set-up using Driftmaster Trolling Bar and staggered-length BnM Poles. The results can be very good.
Where to Troll?
Duckworth’s trolling takes place along break lines. “I like the edges of the flats the fish used to spawn on. As temperatures warm I will get out to the creek channels or the river channels because it’s cooler and the shad will be out there. Find the food and you find the fish. Just remember those channels are not straight and you want to track the actual contour as closely as you can.”
Maps and electronic charts will help you plan your trip. You can determine what part of the lake has stump beds, lay downs, brush piles, etc. “Since it is hard to troll laydowns or brush piles the stump beds are always a good place to start,” explains Duckworth. “My crankbaits will often times kick off a stump and not get hung up as easily as in a laydown or brush pile. If I am getting hung up a lot I will take the front hook off, or cut off the bottom shank of the front hook. Then I don’t get hung up as much.”
“I could give you specific spots to fish,” says Duckworth, “but trolling is not about spots, it is about big areas. Trolling will allow you to cover 5 to 8 miles a day. As you make more and more trips to the lake you will develop trolling patterns where you will consistently catch crappie.”
In the lowland lakes like Percy Priest the crappie roam around chasing shad in the big bays. “Most of them are less than 30 feet deep,” says Duckworth. “The less than clear water sets up great trolling possibilities.”
Duckworth trolls using a 5-rod Driftmaster trolling bar. He sets the outside holders about 5-degrees forward with 16-foot B’n’M Trolling Rods. Next to the 16-footers he uses his own B’n’M signature model Jim Duckworth 10-foot Crappie Special set at a 45-degrees to the transom. The center holder is filled with a 7-foot medium action Berkley Lightning Rod extending up and over the engine. “I fish the 16-foot rods at about 100 feet back; the 10-foot rods at about 60 feet and the center rod at about 80.”
On each side of the bow he deploys 12-foot B’n’M Trolling Rods on single rod holders. “I use Driftmaster single rod holders with 12-inch stems to raise them up off the deck. I fish the front rods about 60 feet back. This spread keeps everything from tangling.” He reminds anglers to stay wide on the turns and over points to maintain the spread.
Teamwork is required when you get a fish on either of the 2 outside rods. In this case the front rod on the same side as the fish needs to be retrieved to prevent tangles. The front rods are always the last to be deployed. Duckworth adds a special 2-lure wire rig on the back outside rods. “That gives me 7 rods out with 9 Bandit Crankbaits in the water,” comments Duckworth.
He chooses light, sensitive rods for trolling crankbaits. “When you are trolling you will notice the rod tip quivering. When you see it stop quivering you either got a fish on or you picked up a piece of trash that you need to clean off.”
He spools low-profile baitcasting reels with 8-pound test line. “Anglers might break more baits off, and if that’s a problem, I recommend going up to 12-pound line, but no greater. Crappie can be line shy and the bigger you go the easier it is for them to see it. The more color in the water the more you can get away with larger line.”
Duckworth adds a snap on the line to allow quick bait/color changes. “I like to change colors often until I find the one the crappie are liking on any given day. All my baits are what I call a minnow color.”
His favorite bait is a 200 Series Bandit. “The 200 Series Bandit will get down about 10 feet on 8-pound test line and that is exactly what I want on most of the lowland lakes.” He customizes his crankbaits by replacing the front hook with a red Daiichi Bleeding bait hook. “Putting that red hook on the front causes the fish to bite it more than the back hook. I catch and land a lot more fish by controlling the strike.” He adds that in deeper water he switches to a 300 Series Bandit because it will dive to about 15 foot on 8-pound test line.
Duckworth reminds anglers to check every drag on every reel before the trolling begins. “Crappie are what we call paper mouth, because they have a very tender mouth and a hook can pull loose. I want a fish to start pulling drag the minute it hits. I always watch my rod tip looking for a bite, but if I see line going off that reel it also tells me I have a fish on.” He also admonishes anglers to let the rod holder set the hook.
The angler’s tasks are not over with the bite. “When you get a bite, pull the throttle back to neutral, let the prop stop, pop it into reverse and back up on the fish. During this time your partner should be clearing other lines out of the way if necessary.” When the pressure is taken off the fish, Duckworth reels it slowly, but steadily to the boat, being careful not to pull the hook.
The caught crappie is ripping and pulling the lure and slowly making the hole in its jaw larger. “I use a Stowmaster dip net by placing it under the fish so if it falls off you catch it in the net,” comments Duckworth. “Avoid putting the fish in the net deliberately, because you end up tangling treble hooks in the net and spending too much time untangling them. Hold the net under the fish and get back to trolling quicker.”
Duckworth’s techniques suggest that crappie anglers may have been the original multi-taskers. In the process of trolling for crappie he is constantly checking the sonar, water temp, water depth, and boat speed. In Duckworth’s case he is also marking brush piles to come back to later and vertical jig.
When he is finished trolling Duckworth uses his Fenwick 6-foot medium-action spinning rod to fish the various structures that were marked while trolling. His reel is an Orra SX ABU with 20-pound Spiderwire Stealth on the spool.
Duckworth ties a Kentucky Lake Rig directly to his braid. “I tie directly to the lures and use all braided line. I don’t believe it hurts me and it keeps me from breaking off lures. The rig consists of a 1-ounce bell sinker on the bottom with 2 drop-loops tied in at about 2 and 4 feet above the weight. Those distances are just general guides. I watch my down imaging on the bow depth finder to make a final determination on where to set the drop-loops.”
“I will fish 1/8- to 1/4-ounce Road Runner’s or Tru-Turn Blood Red hooks on the drops. If using the hooks it is because I want to fish with minnows. Sometimes I will tie a Roadrunner on the bottom with a hook and minnow on the top.”
The presentation is a slow, up and down, jigging motion. He moves the boat right up on a brush pile and drops the rig vertically into the structure. “You have to make sure to raise and lower your bait in a smooth motion and have no slack in it for the jigs or live bait to tangle in. If it is a particularly thick brush pile I lift the rod as high as possible before letting it down in a different location. If you try to pull it sideways you are likely to get hung.”
A Roadrunner will often bump the wood and bounce back allowing free vertical movement without getting hung. If you do feel a hang, drop it down immediately before you drive the hook into the branch. “If I feel a snag I let it fall back fast because the sinker will pull you free. Sometimes you have to raise and lower the sinker several times when you’re hung, but usually it comes loose.”
This is where the 20-pound braid comes in. “When I do get hung up, braid is strong enough to straighten a hook so I get it or the lure back. I can use a pair of pliers to reshape the hook and get right back to fishing. The other advantage of the braid is sensitivity. I can feel every little bite because the line has zero stretch.”
According to Duckworth it is important to have a sonar unit on the front of your boat when vertical jigging. “Using sonar is how you stay on the structure and determine how populated it is. All brush piles don’t hold fish; so don’t spend too much time on one if you are not getting bit.”
Duckworth advises anglers not to shake a brush pile or laydown, because it will spook the fish. If you happen to spook the fish just leave the area and come back later after the crappie have had a chance to regroup.
Duckworth has one final tip. “Anglers can create a more natural looking presentation when jigging by moving the knot to the back of the jig eye. Simply take your fingernail and push the knot to the back of the eye. The result is a jig that hangs horizontal and looks more natural to the fish.”
Combining crankbait techniques with vertical jigging techniques allows Duckworth, and you, to catch more Crappie Now.