Crappie USA 2017 Championship…How the Winners Fished

It’s All About Man-Made Structure

by Ron Presley

Crappie tournaments always offer a challenge of one kind or another. This year’s Crappie USA (CUSA) Classic on Kentucky and Barkley Lakes was no different. A cold front moved in to test the skills of competing anglers with rain, wind and cold temperatures.

The 2017 Cabela’s Crappie USA Classic began its third decade of providing crappie anglers with a year ending championship. The trail has provided anglers, sponsors and communities with crappie fishing opportunities for 21 years. This year’s CUSA Classic featured 370 anglers from 15 states competing for a total prize packet of more than $126,000.

This year, as in years past, the anglers stepped up to the challenge and delivered plenty of crappies to the scales. Some teams reported catching more than 200 fish during the two-day event. The challenge was not to find fish, but to find big fish.

“Kentucky/Barkley lakes have historically posted some of the biggest weights on the trail,” offered Crappie USA Operations Manager, Darrell Van Vactor. “There’s never a shortage of big old slab crappie on Kentucky and Barkley Lakes. Now it does change from year to year. We will have years when it’s all about Kentucky Lake and Barkley doesn’t even finish in the money.”

“Occasionally you have a year like this one when Barkley is hot. The Barkley anglers rolled in and nearly took it all this year. It is good to see that we have a good year class on Barkley of 15 ½ to 16 ½ inch fish.”

Barkley did shine in 2017. Most high placing teams, in both the Semi-Pro and Amateur Divisions, fished on Barkley Lake and they fished over structure that they had made and placed themselves.

“Occasionally you have a year like this one when Barkley is hot.”


Semi-Pro Division: The Winning Strategy

When crappie anglers talk about fishing structure in Kentucky/Barkley lakes they may be fishing brush piles, pallets, commercially made artificial trees, stake beds or other sunken wonders. The semi-pro winners and runners up at this year’s CUSA Classic are much more specific. When they are fishing structure, they are fishing man-made stake beds.

First place went to the team of Jim Freeman and Garrett Bridges. They tallied a two-day total weight of 18.20 pounds to take top honors in the Semi-Pro Division. The Eddyville, KY team finished just 0.18 ounce ahead of the second-place team of Henry and Jo Haley who had 18.02 pounds.

Jim Freeman and Garret Bridges wins the Semi-Pro division.

Jim Freeman and Garret Bridges wins the Semi-Pro division.

Man-made cover on Barkley Lake produced the winning bag for Freeman and Garrett. They make their beds by driving stakes vertically in the mud to create cover for the fish. They say the key to their success was having different beds in different locations.

“Practice helped a lot,” said Freeman. “We needed to find out whether the fish were deep or shallow. We did the basic run through in shallow water and then moved out into deeper water. We tried shallow and deep at different times of the day to see if there was a morning bite or an afternoon bite and what time of day and what depth of water that bite was on.”

“We narrowed it down after two or three days of practice so we knew what we needed to do to compete. It was just a matter of whether we were locked in deep or if we were locked into 10 feet of water, or locked into 3 feet of water.”

Practice fishing revealed to Team Freeman/Bridges that the good fish were relatively shallow. They tipped jigs with minnows and vertical jigged to catch their winning fish in 3 to 5 feet of water. They did not catch the numbers of fish others did, but they caught solid fish.

“We knew we had to be around the right kind of fish,” explained Freeman. “We didn’t catch a lot of fish. We just tried to target fish that we thought might compete.”

“Practice was the most significant thing,” confirmed Bridges. “We eliminated a lot of areas that we knew we didn’t need to fish. By eliminating some bays we knew where we needed to spend our time, and that’s what we did.”

“It was a tough bite,” offered Freeman. “When we came in with 9.75 pounds and was in first place, that was saying that Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake are both fishing tough. Very tough. Historically you are looking at 20 to 22 pounds in the fall of the year to be competitive, to win it.”

Second place on the semi-pro side went to long time tournament anglers Henry and Jo Haley. They also fished Barkley Lake and they also fished their own stake beds. The Haley’s construct their stake beds and sink them instead of driving stakes in the mud as Freeman and Bridges do.

“We don’t fish any brush piles, joked Henry. “We get hung in them. We fish stake beds. It’s no secret, we fish built ‘mater’ stake beds, as in tomato stakes.”

“Mater” is a Tim Ridley term,” clarified Jo. “There is a funny story behind that, for another time.”

“We will get hung up two or three times on a brush pile,” said Henry. “Today we got hung up two or three times total. That ain’t very much. With a stake bed everything is straight up. You run a jig through there and it doesn’t hang very often. It’s not like that old brush.”

“What we are doing is target fishing,” explained Henry. “We are spider rigging, but we are spider rigging a target. We’re not just out there in the middle of nowhere. We are fishing multiple poles, usually in a built stake bed. We caught a couple fish yesterday on minnows, but never put one on today. We did use Crappie Nibbles with our jigs. We used a variety of jigs today.”

“Our fish were all the same size,” reported Jo. “It was a lot of the 11 and12 inch fish. We really had a hard time culling. We had a couple of decent fish over the weekend, but for the most part ours was just kind of an even keel.”

“I think the weather may have had an impact on the bite today,” continued Jo. “We caught a lot more fish yesterday. But that’s typical of the weather pattern. We were fishing ahead of the front yesterday and today turned cold and we were fishing on the front. That’s just the way it is. That is a typical crappie slowdown. It is usually better ahead of the front.”

“And the bite was really soft,” said Jo.

“That’s an important point,” chimed in Henry. “We didn’t get those good old BAM bites. That line would just go slack. That was it. You had to be ready.”

“We lost a couple fish,” said Jo. “We usually don’t. Most of our fish came from 12 to 15 feet. We didn’t fish anything more than 17 feet. Regardless, there has got to be structure there.”

“We fish a single hook,” said Henry. “One jig on a line. Today, it was somewhat windy and we just fished 4 poles. A lot of times we just fish 3. Sometimes we think you are better off to do a good job with 2 then to do a poorer job with 3.”

“If it gets really windy we may be fishing with one pole in hand,” added Jo. “We have done that many times.”

Henry and Jo Haley are shown here with Darrell Van Vactor as they receive their second place awards. They also won the Top Male/Female award and the Sportsman of the Year award.

Henry and Jo Haley are shown here with Darrell Van Vactor as they receive their second place awards. They also won the Top Male/Female award and the Sportsman of the Year award.

Amateur Division – The Winning Strategy

T.J. Todd and Brian Hatch snatched the gold ring in the Amateur Division with 17.88 pounds. They fished Kentucky Lake, south of the Leatherwood Resort, in 5 to 6 feet of water.

“We were in open water,” reported Todd. “We were spider rigging stake mats that we had built over the years.”

The team speculated that the bigger fish were chasing shad in the shallower water.

“It was too windy on Friday, but on Saturday we could actually see the shad flipping,” said Todd. “We had not seen any shad for a while.”

“Most of our fish came on straight minnows, but we did catch fish on Strike King Sausage Heads with lime and chartreuse skirts. We did not catch a lot of fish, probably 11 keepers on Friday and maybe 12 on Saturday.

Second place in the Amateur Division was the Alabama team of Roger Milby and Rodger Brown with a total weight of 16.82 pounds.

“We fished the north end of Barkley, reported Milby. “We were targeting our fish on flats off of creek ledges and the ledges themselves. Before the front we were catching fish on Jenko Mermaid Midnight jigs tipped with Barkley Nibbles. When it turned cooler we got more bites on straight minnows, but the jig still worked for the bigger fish.”

“We fished in 5 to 8 feet of water, just off bottom,” added Brown. “We used double jig/minnow rigs on half the rods and plain minnows on other half.”

“I think a big factor in our game plan was going with the wind and using our Corn Field Drift’R Paddles and chains to slow us down in the shallow water. We used the trolling motor very little,” concluded Brown.

T.J. Todd and Brian Hatch fished Kentucky Lake to earn top honors in the Amateur Division.

T.J. Todd and Brian Hatch fished Kentucky Lake to earn top honors in the Amateur Division.

Final Comments

Kentucky and Barkley Lakes produced a lot of crappie for the 2017 CUSA Classic. The winning teams however did not catch a lot of fish, but the right fish.

Roger Milby and Rodger Brown claimed the second spot in the Amateur Division.

Roger Milby and Rodger Brown claimed the second spot in the Amateur Division.

Congratulations to the Crappie USA organization as they embark on their third decade of successful tournament trail fishing. And congratulations to all the anglers who qualified and fished the Classic.

Championship Top 10
Semi-Pro Division
18.20 Jim Freeman and Garret Bridges
18.02 Henry and Jo Haley
16.59 Mark Arnold and Billy Arnold
16.33 Bart Gillion and Tony Hughes
16.16 Roy Logan and Wade Hendren
16.00 Richard Hughes and George Hughes
15.87 Harold Maddux and Brian Oldham
15.84 Tony and Michael Shepard
15.05 Kris and Terry Mann
15.04 Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman

Championship Top 10
Amateur Division

17.88 T.J. Todd and Brian Hatch
16.82 Roger Milby and Rodger Brown
16.07 Roy “Doc” Holladay
15.38 Brently Smith and Colton McCalister
14.62 Dwayne Craig and Johnny Clary
14.37 Cody England and Brent William
13.93 Dewayne and Robert McCord
13.73 Brett and Robert Luther
13.55 Clarence and Jeff Harris
13.46 Daniel and Barry Cash