March 14, 2018
A porcupine 40 feet wide swims steadily along, its quills extending 18 feet to each side. But the body is actually a boat, the quills composed of fiberglass and graphite, four on each side, ranging from 8 to 18 feet in length.
A rod tip bends, steadily dipping down. Brad Chappell grabs the rod, points it at the snag and rips the jig free. He reels in, checks the point, and makes a long cast. While setting that stick back on the rack, another rod tip begins to dance. A crappie comes flipping and flopping over the gunnel. Then another, and another.
The technique is called longlining or "pulling," the antithesis to spider-rigging or "pushing." Spider-rig enthusiasts largely work with livebait or tubes. Chappell uses only soft swimbaits like the Bobby Garland Stroll-R, on horse-head underspin jigs he pours with a Do-it Mold, similar to classic TTI-Blakemore Road Runners. He's a tournament angler who also guides for crappies in a region we affectionately call the Arc of Slabs in Mississippi, primarily on Grenada Lake and Lake Washington. Some waters in the Arc have more 3-pound crappies than most entire states. Might be an exaggeration, but it's the impression you get down there when the timing is right.
And the right time for longlining is almost all year. "After spawning, crappies do about everything they need to do in open water," Chappell says. "Longlining for crappie shines when they're suspended. It works on structure, too, but you have to be precise, paying attention to the amount of line out, the speed you're moving, and the weight of your jigs. Around heavy cover, crappies have to be up high and active for longlining to work best. I only target fish in the top portion of cover. I want to strafe the cover — not run through it, but just over it or along it. If I see the rod tips bobbing a little, it's time to speed up. If the tips never bob, or we never snag, it's time to slow down."
Chappell longlined around and over timber to finish second at the Crappie Masters tournament on Lake D'Arbonne in Louisiana in February, 2017. "D'Arbonne reminds me of Toledo Bend," he says, "lots of timber. There's no way you can longline, they told me; too much wood. I let the fish tell me what I can and can't do. We lost a lot of jigs but ended up in second on a lake I'd never been to before. We fished into and through timber. The wood didn't deter me. I've won crappie tournaments trolling crankbaits, which we approach much the same way. It's a relatively new tactic and it's dynamic. Longlining has great potential for winning tournaments."
Chappell uses Denali Rods Pryme Series Trolling Poles made in Arkansas. "Denali designs crappie rods for pitching, trolling, spider-rigging, longlining, and pulling cranks," Chappell says. "The longest ones I use are 18 feet and and I place them on the outside pointing straight out. The next longest is 16 feet, angled a bit more toward the stern. Then down to 12- and finally 9-footers closest to the outboard. I use Driftmaster rod holders and I rig eight poles when longlining."
He matches them with Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris spinning reels spooled with 6-pound Crappie Max High-Vis mono from Bass Pro. "I pour my own horse-head jigs so I can incorporate the size hooks I want," he says. "I use 1/0 hooks on 1/4-ounce jigs and a #4 on a 1/32-ouncer. Matzuo, Gamakatsu, and other companies make the sickle hooks I like, but I break them off or change them so fast I can't say whose is best. Sickle hooks hold crappies well when you have to drag them in against the pull of the boat. I'm particular about blades as well. I use standard willowleaf #1 to #3 blades on jigs weighing 1/32 to 1/4 ounce."
Jig weight, blade size, line length, and speed determine how deep baits run. "Starting with the shorter inside rods, I make long casts of 45 to 65 feet to get lures out from the boat," Chappell says. "I don't care if they're staggered a bit — some back farther than others. That way some run a little deeper, some a little higher. They all don't have to run at one depth. Staggering rods from longest on the outside to shortest on the inside, positioning the rod rack to keep tips spaced and at different angles, and trolling straight keep lines from tangling. The length of the boat separates baits trolled from the front from those trolled from the back."
The Bobby Garland Stroll-R is squishy soft. Its auguring tail starts thin and widens toward a tip that has a perpendicular disc. "That flat spot creates vibration," he says. "It creates the most vibration you can achieve with a softbait this size. In dingy water, you need something that vibrates so fish can find them."
Chappell sometimes pulls tandem jigs, tied with loop knots 3 to 4 feet apart, and sometimes singles on each line. "Speed and weight are critical factors," he says. "A single 1/32-ounce head is the lightest in the lineup. At 50 feet back, that jig is just under the surface or 1 to 2 feet deep at 1 mph. Tandem 1/4-ounce jigs get down 22 feet or so. Adjust depths regularly. The general rule is to start shallow and work deeper. See how far they rise to eat a jig."
"Longlining for crappie is all about establishing patterns," Chappell says. "It's like a chess match to me. You have to get a pattern going in various dimensions with color, jig size, depth, and speed. That's why I'm intrigued by this method. When I start the day on new water, I cruise and look for fish in the water column over likely flats and slow-tapering breaks. "When I see a lot of fish at 10 feet and deeper, I start at 10 feet. I always start with the shallowest fish I see on my Lowrance HDS12. I use side-imaging on new bodies of water, but I rely on down-imaging most of the time. It shows me what the baitfish are doing. If they're in tight balls, they're being threatened and hovering tight. If baitfish are scattered, active crappies are few or absent. If I see loose schools of baitfish, I move to the next spot."
His program allows him to target any portion of the water column from the surface down to 25 feet or so. If a single 1/32-ounce jig isn't reaching fish, he goes to a tandem, then to a 1/16-ounce jig, and so on. If jigs start dragging bottom, he speeds up. "If I'm using 1/16-ounce jigs and they drag bottom in 10 feet, I might speed up from 1 to 1.2 mph," he says. "Go from .8 to 1.0 mph and you raise a 1/8-ounce jig from 15 feet to 13 or 14. Let the bottom of the lake tell you how fast to go. The weights I use most are 1/16- and 1/8-ounce. I often start with a single 1/16-ounce jig, progress to a tandem rig with 1/16-ounce jigs, then to a 1/8-ounce single. If I'm guiding novices, I use singles — but most of the time I run two jigs. A single 1/8-ouncer at 1 mph runs at 7 to 8 feet, though current can affect it. If you're going into the wind, jigs rise. But wind and waves don't hamper the effectiveness or the formula I use. I can reach the target zone by going heavier or slower into the wind, and lighter or faster when moving with it."
Speed is a variable to be adjusted constantly. "I've learned that crappies don't always want lures moving slowly," Chappell says. "I go as fast as crappies let me. When we're catching fish I speed up if I need to cover water and explore. If we're still catching fish, I speed it up to 1.4 or 1.5 mph. Often, it makes no difference in the number of fish we catch."
Fishing with Chappell on Toledo Bend in Louisiana and Texas, I noticed that we often took the shortest route between point A and point B. When I asked him about making turns to speed jigs on one side and slow them on the other, he laughed. "I don't maneuver much," he told me. "That's one of my secrets. Crappies follow jigs at times, and they seem to prefer running down a jig that doesn't alter course much. But you can't turn much with this program or you get a bird's nest of epic proportions."
Color is a pawn in Chappell's chess game, but every master knows pawns can become queens. "I've found that all lakes have a distinct personality when it comes to color," he says. "In Lake Washington they like lures with blue. In Ross Barnett they like purple and chartreuse. On Grenada crappies go for shades of orange or dark colors like black and deep purple. I don't live and die by a fixed color selection, though — I try the colors they usually like but keep experimenting. We begin with a variety of colors and pare down to the ones catching the most fish. The neat thing about long-lining is you can experiment with color all day and keep proven colors out when you run up to 16 combinations at a time. Keep an open mind."
Crappies may rise 10 feet for an underspin, but conditions and mood play a part. "It depends on how aggressive fish are," he says. "They chase baits. If you get to within 3 feet of them they come up and get it most days. You need to be more precise in dingy water, but in clear water they rise a lot farther." He runs his longline program throughout the year. "When the water's cold, like in the mid-40°F range, it works just as well as it does in warm water. It depends on the temperament of the fish. After a cold front, not so much. But if they're actively feeding, it can be dynamite."
If you've ever seen a porcupine try to swim, you know how hilariously futile this activity seems. But if you see one 40 feet wide swimming in a straight line, give it a wide berth and watch the rod tips start dipping and bobbing.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an enthusiastic crappie chaser, from Central Minnesota to waters across the country.