Windy summer day in northern Minnesota, boat parked on a weedline, bobbers out. Bluegills were the target, but we were catching everything — bass, some decent crappies, big 'gills, even a couple rogue dogfish in the 8-pound class.
But a gentleman in a small 14-foot pontoon boat had our undivided attention whenever the bite slowed down and we were forced to reposition further down the wind-blown weedline. "He's got another one," my partner would blurt out with no small amount of incredulity.
Pontoon Man was alone, trolling slowly over depths of 12 to 20 feet. He appeared to be using about a 1/16-ounce jig with a 3-inch white twister tail. After landing another "Holy cow" slab, he would just pitch the jig back out and proceed on his way without seeming to care precisely how far behind the boat his lure was traveling.
"Why is he catching bigger crappies than we are?" my partner asked. The answer seemed rather obvious. Ostensibly, we were fishing for bluegills. But hats off to Pontoon Man. In a day and age when humanity has research vessels traveling completely outside the Solar System, over a light year away from earth, few anglers care to venture away from shorelines, weedlines, brushpiles, and other physical, tangible things to catch crappies, despite decades of editorial and television advice describing open-water success.
That would include In-Fisherman articles like Drag-Jigging Crappies in 2005 with Guide Tom Neustrom, who finds basin crappies by pulling jigs and plastics with a little more science and technique. Eight years prior we wrote about trolling cranks behind boards for open-water crappies in southern reservoirs with walleye pro Tony Puccio. And we covered Tommy Skarlis winning the 2013 Bass Pro Shops Crappie Masters Championship in Mississippi with planer boards and crankbaits, but he didn't stop there.
"Using trolling boards to deliver jigs to precise depths and spots can be even more consistent and productive than trolling cranks in open water where nobody else is doing it," Skarlis says. "It's so consistent and easy, I call it the PBJ — the peanut butter and jelly approach. In this case, PBJ stands for 'planer boards and jigs,' which could easily revolutionize the way anybody anywhere fishes for crappies. It's not just an open-water tactic. PBJ can be applied in and around cover, too."
PBJ is a stealth program that takes the boat farther from the quarry. Not only will a trolling board and a jig prove more effective than spider-rigging or longlining for clear-water crappies in the open, the system effectively reaches out and plucks crappies from shallow weeds, stake beds, and brushpiles. In either case, jigs maintain specific depths consistently. The key is tethering light jigs that sink slowly behind a weight system that maintains a constant depth.
PBJ is not a light-line, light-tackle technique. Skarlis uses some of the same trolling gear he uses for walleyes. "Use rods and lines you'd hook up to a standard board," he says. "I use 10-pound low-vis green Berkley Trilene XT most of the time, but a twist for crappies would be bright green line like XT Solar, which I like because I can see it. A lot of crappie pros believe it helps catch more fish by leading crappies to the bait. In cloudy water especially, I think crappies are less line-shy than they are attracted by bright lines."
Skarlis PBJs it with 8-foot St. Croix Eyecon trolling rods. "You need a rod that can stand up to a trolling board," he says. "The Eyecons, though, are designed to hold onto fish. No matter what you present boards with, heavier lines, weights, and tackle tend to help fish rip free. The Eyecon is stout enough to stand up to a board while being flexible enough up top to keep fish on the hook."
The board is an Off-Shore Tackle OR12R equipped with an OR12TF Tattle Flag upgrade. The orange Tattle Flag acts like a sensitive bobber, and was designed to indicate strikes from light-biting fish like walleyes and crappies. It also clues anglers in to small strands of weed clinging to the hook.
"I use #1 Off-Shore Tadpole Trolling Weights to guarantee the jig is right where I want it in the water column," Skarlis says. "We use the #2 for walleyes, but the #1 is great for crappies because you're going slower. I put two 1/32-ounce jigs behind it on the same leader. The 10-pound XT leader is tied to a barrel swivel behind the board. The first jig is 4 feet below the swivel, tied on with a triple-loop knot, then I tie on another jig or fly 2 feet behind that — where permitted. In Wisconsin you can only use three rods per angler with only one jig or two rods per angler with tandem-jig rigs. No tandem rigs are allowed in Minnesota, so check your local regs."
Skarlis says successful trolling for crappies requires slower speeds than trolling for walleyes most of the time. "Tadpoles are effective because it takes guessing out of the game," he says. "Tadpoles are diving trolling weights, giving you more depth for each ounce of lead than traditional sinkers. Tadpoles are consistent at delivering baits to desired depths, which are terribly dependent on speed. Jigs can run 3 to 5 feet higher at 1.5 mph compared to 1 mph. At 1 mph, which is a great speed for trolling crappie jigs, and with very little line behind it, the jigs are pretty much straight behind the weight. I think you can put a jig 6 inches behind a Tadpole and still catch fish, when trolling around a lot of cover. Sometimes we pull them right over brushpiles."
Skarlis puts Tadpoles out at a 2:1 ratio. "At 1 mph, Tadpoles are placed 6 to 15 feet behind the board, most of the time," he says. "Wherever you go, North and South, 6 to 12 feet down is a good zone for crappies. We run up to four boards on each side of the boat, depending on what the laws of the state allow, and I stagger Tadpoles and jigs at different depths until a pattern emerges. If we're marking fish at 10 to 12 feet, we run one Tadpole 15 feet behind a board, another at 13 feet, one at 12, and so on until the crappies tell us which length to use on all the lines."
Jigs, Flies, and Plastics
Skarlis uses light jigs or flies most of the time. "Light jigs won't dangle down into weeds or cover," he says. "I use 1/16- to 1/32-ounce — sometimes even lighter and smaller. Or I pull Hutch's Tackle Flies — the same ones we use for walleyes, tied on #2 Aberdeen hooks. You don't want too heavy of a jig because when you turn you don't want jigs on the inside boards to fall too far too fast. The important thing is having a good-size hook on the jig. At least a #4, to accommodate whatever size minnow, softbait, or material crappies are preferring. Larger hooks hold onto 'paper mouths' better, bringing more of them to the boat when trolling with relatively stout tackle."
He makes a lot of his own jigs with Do-it Molds. "Then I tie on a little tinsel or bucktail," he says. "The added flash is critical in cloudy water, often resulting in more action than relying on the scent trail left by minnows and other livebaits. But we often use minnows, pieces of crawler, or waxies because sometimes jigs tipped with bait catch the most fish — but when it comes to crappies finding a trolled jig, I think flash is sometimes more important."
Skarlis often uses tandem rigs, with two jigs, two flies, or a jig followed by a fly on the same line. "Both jigs are the same size," he says. "We hand-tie jigs, but we also tie a lot of simple crappie flies, using tinsel, mylar, flashabou — different materials on #4 to #2 Aberdeen hooks. We run up to four boards per side with these tandem rigs, where allowed. I use line-counter reels to measure line from Tadpole to planer board. It's easier to duplicate everything precisely. If you eyeball it, you're going to be off by a few inches to a foot or so every time. We've had it happen where everything is biting on one lead length. We keep experimenting with it, but we stagger them to begin, until we find the depth at which crappies are biting best."
He often uses jigs tipped with softbaits. "A 2- to 3-inch softbait trolls nicely," he says. "Spider-riggers use tubes a lot at very slow speeds, so why not other shapes? Most of the time, various plastics outfish bait when trolled. Plastics maintain shape, scent, and profile to catch more fish, making them more efficient. I like to troll with small Berkley PowerBait Grubs and Ripple Shads, other little soft swimbaits, tubes — just keep an open mind. If you have a certain jig, tail, or color that works on your water, that's what you should tie the rig with.
"We mix it up with a marabou jig on one and a fly on the other, a small ice jig as the tail gunner on another line, and two different kinds of plastic on a third line — trying to get the pattern solved quickly. We started by using minnows exclusively, but we've found we rarely need them. Most of the time we use plastics or flies. Bait leads to more freshwater drum and other undesirables," he says.
Skarlis says that crappie pros often use longline trolling techniques as opposed to spider-rigging in the lakes of Florida and Louisiana. "Wherever you have a lot of clear, shallow-water lakes, longlining tends to be popular," he says, reminding me of the exploits of Pontoon Man. "But the average angler can set out two presentations with Tadpoles faster than you can send back one longline. Boards are more efficient, and clear water is where PBJ is really successful. The longline guys catch fish by turning the boat to get the jigs into spots the boat didn't pass over. With planer boards, you can troll a straight line. You don't have to do a lot of zigging and zagging to get baits into spots the boat didn't pass over."
It was in Florida where Skarlis discovered the real value of the PBJ approach. "We were at a Crappie Masters event in Tavares on the Harris Chain of Lakes," he says. "We were in 13th place after the first day and didn't troll. Everybody was singing the blues because of the clear water. The second day we did the PBJ thing and brought in the biggest bag weighed in at that tournament in four years. They all said planer boards and cranks would never work in Florida. They were right. So we fished planer boards and jigs and started lighting them up. We jumped into second place and almost won. That day crappies wanted 1/32-ounce mylar-jigs tipped with small minnows and we caught a lot of crappies, some up to 1.5 pounds. Color can be critical at times, and pink, orange, and butterscotch heads were hot."
On Rend Lake in Illinois, on Grenada in Mississippi, on Rathbun in Iowa last year, Skarlis said Hutch Flies outfished crankbaits three to one. "Everywhere we go, PBJ works once crappies leave the shoreline structure and cover in summer," he says. "And it works in January down south before crappies move shallow. It might even work during the spawn with short leads."
Clear water is definitely the best venue for PBJ, but don't discount it anywhere, any time. "PBJ can be amazing in cloudy water because crappies are amazing," Skarlis says. "They're incredible at finding a mylar, tinsel, or marabou jig even in dark, stained water. I think it's because Berkley Solar line and the Tadpole itself act as attractants. The Tadpole is always pushing water steadily, creating vibration crappies investigate. Then they follow the bright line down to the jig. Tying glow materials to the jigs, like glow Flashabou, can help."
On small bodies of water, in smaller craft — even in kayaks or canoes — Skarlis suggests using a smaller board with lighter tackle. "You can run jigs directly behind an Off-Shore Tackle OR34, without the Tadpole," he says. "It's a little less efficient, but once you spot crappies on sonar, all you have to do is keep changing the length of line behind the board until you strike a nerve. You can use spinning gear that way. Start by just tossing out a light jig as far as you can get it, then clip on an OR34. It's less precise, but stacked, open-water crappies often bite through a range of depths."
Or follow Pontoon Man's lead and longline a jig. Skarlis thinks that would be missing out. "Trolling planer boards is fun," he says. "Most people get bored from trolling, but boards are visual — like great big bobbers. I would never want to tell anyone they had to use Tadpoles or a tandem rig to do this. The important thing is to think outside the box. You can put any lure you want to behind a board. A small stickbait, a hook and a cricket, a small spoon, a spinner, a minnow — sky's the limit. But jigs work every day. Jigs are consistent."
Just like peanut butter and jelly.