The American Crappie Trail National Championship

Story & photos by Ron Wong

Lake of the Ozarks, a 110 mile long lake in Missouri welcomed the 44 qualifying teams to the inaugural American Crappie Trail (ACT) national championship tournament. The best of the best crappie fishing teams started with practice days of October 16-19. Dock talk throughout the practice days focused mainly on the large numbers of fish that would be caught. However, the larger pound and a half fish were really hard to find and catch.  With almost $125,000 (total purse) to be won, the fisherman knew that a couple of kickers each day would help their respective cause. There was no doubt, that everyone could catch a limit of 9-inch crappie.

Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman win ACT Angler Team of the Year, a difficult title requiring consistent finishes against many good fishing teams.

Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman win ACT Angler Team of the Year, a difficult title requiring consistent finishes against many good fishing teams.

Heavy fog and calm winds over the lake greeted the anglers on the first day of the tournament, October 20 (Friday). Weather became clear and warm throughout the day with temperatures the mid 80’s by weigh in time. Just as they all talked about during the practice days, limits of crappie were caught by all except for one team.

Charlie and Travis Bunting took the first day lead with 9.28 pounds and had one good crappie weighing 1.60 pounds to help their cause. Second place for the first day was the male/female team of Paul and Liz Turner weighing seven crappies at 8.99 pounds. Third place team was Wes Cooper and Keith Mueller with seven crappie weighing 8.73 pounds. They also had big fish of the day with one weighing 1.80 pounds.

On day two of the tournament, no fog however a cold front was moving in and the early morning temperature in the mid 50’s warming to the high 70’s for the anglers. The wind has also picked up for day two with winds reaching 15 miles per hour during the day. To compound adverse matters, it is Saturday and many pleasure boaters were out cruising the massive lake, especially from mid-lake to the dam. Because of the bluff walls or concrete seawalls which adorn much of the lake, the wakes created by these boats just bounced back to the middle of the lake making navigating rough on the anglers. As the last fishing day was drawing to an end, the rain clouds began to in however it stayed dry throughout the final weigh-in.  After the final crappie was weighed, the 1st place trophy went to Charlie and Travis Bunting with a total 2 day weight of 17.59 pounds.  Rounding out the top five teams were: 2nd place – Wes Cooper/Keith Mueller; 3rd place – Shannon Beckmann/Rusty Brown; 4th place – Doug Muench/Scott Watson and 5th place – Kyle Schoenherr/Rodney Newhaus. Largest crappie of the tournament was 1.81 pounds caught by the team of Schoenherr/Newhaus.

Always good to see results of tournaments, but what we really want to know is something about the winning teams and how they did it. So, let’s learn about the top five teams on what they used, how they caught the fish and where. Charlie and Travis Bunting of Jefferson City, Missouri won the tournament wire to wire. They consider Lake of the Ozarks their home lake. Using 12 foot B”n”M ultra-light rods with B”n”M spinning reels spooled 12 pound test Vicious main line and 8 pound test leader, the Buntings fished in 7-14 feet of water in the upper part of the Osage river. They were spider-rigging using a double rig with a minnow on the top and a ¼ ounce Muddy Water jig on the bottom. As Charlie told us, they had placed over a 100 fish attractors in the upper river but because of the advance technology in electronics, other teams found most of the attractors. So he and Travis used their Hummingbird Solix units with 360 scan to find new pieces of cover, mainly old tree stumps with a decent root system to catch the majority of their fish. The Buntings said they couldn’t be as successful as they are without their sponsors (some of which are mentioned above), others being: Power Pole, Mercury, Dub-L-Seat, Off Shore Tackle, Balzout Mounts, Engel Coolers, Missouri Goldfish and Tite-Lok rod holders.

The second place team of Wes Cooper ad Keith Mueller, both from Wentview, Missouri fished the mid part of Lake of the Ozarks. They targeted brush piles that were in anywhere from 6-18 feet deep. Using 16 foot Lew’s Mr. Crappie rods with Lew’s spinning reels, they spider rigged double minnow rigs with a homemade deer hair tippets. They found multitudes of brush piles on their Hummingbird Helix units to fish during practice on both sides of the lake thinking that they needed a plan to deal with wind direction changes. They caught somewhere between 75 to 100 crappie a day and culled many times during the day.

Tim Blackley and Jackie VanCleave spider rigging. VanCleave announced his retirement from crappie fishing this year after many decades of competitive fishing.

Tim Blackley and Jackie VanCleave spider rigging. VanCleave announced his retirement from crappie fishing this year after many decades of competitive fishing.

The local team of Shannon Beckmann and Rusty Brown from Stover, Missouri finished in 3rd place.  Using American Rodsmith 7 foot bass spinning rods, Lew’s 7 foot medium action spinning rods with both Garcia and Lew’s spinning reels which were spooled with Stren 8 or 10 pound test line, they either cast or shot docks for all of their fish. They used a 1/16th ounce Bobby Garland jig tipped with a Bobby Garland Baby Shad in Tennessee Shad color or a Mid-south Tackle tube.  Interesting enough, Shannon said that they didn’t need to use they electronics a single time during the tournament. When shooting docks, it was a matter of getting the Bobby Garland jig in the shadiest area and when fishing rock banks, the jig must land right next to the bank. They fished from the dam to the Captain Ron’s area of the lake.  In 4th place were Doug Muench and Scott Watson fishing out of their Yellowfin boat powered by a Mercury 350 horse power engine. The Jenko Fishing team pulled bright colored Jenko crank baits throughout the entire tournament.  They used Jenko Fishing medium light spinning rods both the 7 and 12 foot with Garcia reels spooled with Mr. Crappie 8 pound test yellow line. They caught their fish in the Osage river near Bolinger creek fishing 20-23 foot deep ledges with 35 to 40 feet of water nearby. The 5th place team of Kyle Schoenherr and Rodney Newhaus, both from Illinois, caught their fish in the upper Osage River. Using their Lowrance Carbon electronics after studying Google earth maps, they found pockets off the river that held 2-3 feet of water with cover to spider rig with a single 1/16th ounce Pro Roadrunner jig rigged Muddy Water bodies on 16 foot B”n”M poles. They were using straight Gamma 15 pound test braided line throughout the tournament.

As all of the anglers crossed the stage during the daily weigh-ins, they all were very thankful and grateful to have the opportunity to participate in a very well organized tournament starting with the first ever “drive-through” weigh-in to the live release boat to return the fish back into the lake and the very generous total purse. Interestingly, every team expressed an interest to fish ACT in 2018 with promises of larger payouts.  They all also talked about the wonderful comradery and transparency afforded by the organizers.

Until 2018, practice good water safety and tight lines. For complete results, go to: www.americancrappietrail.com .

ACT Top 10
17.59 C Bunting/T Bunting
17.38 K Mueller/W Cooper
16.89 R Brown/S Beckman
16.33 D Muench/S Watson
16.18 Schoenherr/R Newhaus
15.99 C Porter/D Thompson
15.87 B Morrow/C Maupin
15.67 R Capps/S Coleman
15.66 P Turner/E Turner
15.55 T Blackley/VanCleave
Bunting/Bunting: $42,400
Mueller/Cooper $8,660
Capps/Coleman AOY & 8th: $26,800