Slow Trolling Crappie
July 19, 2015
The slow-trolling method known as spider rigging has been used for years to catch boatloads of crappies on almost any body of water in any weather and water conditions. Boats toting numerous long crappie poles, from bow to stern, are a common sight on Dixie lakes, where crappie crafts look like mutant water spiders skimming across the surface.
Two crappie tournament veterans have improvised on spider rigging to meet the legal requirements of their home state. Tony Edgar, a Versailles, Missouri, angler fishes the CRAPPIE USA trail, and Charlie Hildreth, a Gaston, Indiana, pro has won two CRAPPIE USA events, a Crappie Angler Sportsman Tour (C.A.S.T.) event, and is a former C.A.S.T. national points champion.
"In a lot of places only one rod and one hook are allowed," Hildreth says . In his home state of Indiana, he can legally use three rods and two hooks per pole. "That allows two people to work six poles and a bunch of hooks when spider rigging, which is just asking for tangles," he warns.
In Missouri, Edgar is also limited to three rods by law, but can add more to his rod holders if he puts his name, address, and phone number on the rods and uses fewer than 33 hooks.
Meanwhile, the CRAPPIE USA trail allows competitors to use four rods apiece for each team member or eight rods for an angler competing individually. So the crappie pros scale down their spider rigging to meet tournament requirements. Sparse rigging has multiple advantages.
Loading eight rods on the front of the boat allows Edgar to comply with tournament rules and have a more stable boat for slow trolling. With two persons standing in the front of the boat, the added weight pushes the boat deeper into the water, stabilizing it, particularly on windy days. This prevents waves from constantly bouncing his poles and making his bait bounce up and down. "If the bait is bouncing around a lot, the fish aren't going to bite it," Edgar says.
Since the gas tank on Edgar's Ranger Fisherman is located in the bow, he keeps the tank full to add more weight to the front. At times he also mounts sand bags in the bow to stabilize the boat in rough water. Placing all of his rods in the bow helps Edgar stay in the crappie's strike zone longer.
"I have my transducer on my trolling motor and the graph is up front so I try to position my boat where we're keeping our lures right over the top of sunken brushpiles," he says. He can also keep his boat positioned over the breaklines of a creek channel by keeping a constant vigil on his electronics. "I'm constantly looking at my electronics and then at my rod tip. It's kind of like watching a tennis match where you keep looking back and forth."
Edgar's modified spider system consists of eight 12-foot crappie poles, each equipped with a Shakespeare Wondereel spooled with 10-pound-test line mounted on a Tite-Lok rod-holder system. He usually rigs his rods with two lures or hooks by tying on a three-way swivel and two leader lines of 8-pound test. Edgar's first leader is about 6 to 8 inches long, and he occasionally uses stiffer monofilament to make the hook stand out straight from the main line. He runs a bottom leader (dropper) of about 24 inches for fish holding in a tight school close to cover and extends his leader to 3 to 4 feet for scattered, suspended fish.
Each of Edgar's rigs are weighted with an egg sinker attached to the 24-inch dropper, between the swivel and the bottom hook or lure. He secures the sinker with a double knot about 12 inches below the swivel and then ties his jig 12 inches below the weight. Edgar favors a 1/2-ounce slipsinker for most applications, although he switches to a 3/4-ounce version on windy days. He uses medium-size shiners when he fishes with livebait.
"The main bait on my spider rig is a straight hook and a minnow," he says. "That's simply the most natural bait. If it gets real tough out there, that's what I go to."
He typically uses a #2 gold Aberdeen hook with a flicker or small spinner blade to produce added flash. Most of the time, he also tips the back end of the hook with a Berkley Crappie Nibble, which helps prevent the minnow from slipping off the hook.This adds an appetizer to the menu. Edgar also further enhances minnows and artificial lures by spraying on Kodiak Scent.
A variety of Southern Pro tubes and Crappie Pro solid plastic baits work well for Edgar's spider tactics. He also uses a spinner jighead when crappies are more aggressive in early spring and early fall.
Water clarity determines jig color choices. In dirty water, he uses a lure with a tint of chartreuse. Muddy water calls for dark hues such as black and chartreuse or purple and black; while white or yellow and white, are Edgar's selections for clear water.
At the start of the day, Edgar varies the colors of his lures and the depths of his rigs. "If you start out on your home lake, you kind of know what you're doing already, but on unfamiliar lakes, use four or five different colors of baits and try different depths to let the fish tell you what they want," he suggests. "Start by gathering information from locals and expand from there."
He sets some of his rigs as shallow as 2 to 4 feet, his deepest rigs at 12 to 14 feet. He rarely spider rigs deeper than 20 feet. "Deeper than 20 feet, I switch back to one rod and jig vertically," he says. Using two different lures on each rig allows him to cover two depth ranges with one rod and facilitates the discovery of the day's hot bait. In clear water, he resorts to one lure and replaces the egg sinker with a split shot to prevent spooking. Once he starts catching crappies with a particular lure color at a certain depth he sets some of his other rigs the same way.
When hovering over brushpiles, he sets some rigs so lures barely tick the top of the cover. His electronics show how high the brush rises from the bottom, which indicates how deep sets should be. After slowly trolling over the top of the brush, he backs up so his lures pass over the cover again. If the brush produces fish, after a couple of passes he drops marker buoys on the spot and continues to work it by jigging vertically with a 10-foot crappie pole and a weedless wireguard jig. This tactic allows him to catch fish suspended above the brush as well as crappies holding tight to cover.
"Summer is when spider rigging works best because crappies hold deeper, out on the edge of the channels, relating to a breakline more than cover," he says. Since crappies can be scattered anywhere along a breakline, he likes his chances of catching more fish by spider rigging with multiple poles rather than trying to vertically jig with one rod. When spider rigging an open bank like this, he slowly drifts along the structure. All he wants the trolling motor to do is keep the boat in line. In effect, spider rigging becomes vertical jigging with eight poles.
Watching his lines helps Edgar determine the right trolling speed for his rig. It should be a vertical presentation. Without lines running under the boat.
He usually drifts with the wind. "I do that because most fish seem to be facing into the wind or moving with it, depending on how deep they are and whether or not a reverse current exists at that depth, and depending upon whether or not they're following baitfish that are following wind-blown veils of plankton. Following the wind keeps me on them." If the wind pushes his boat too fast, he slows the drift by dragging a windsock or plastic bucket behind the boat.
Painting the tips of his rods helps him see his line better, which helps him detect strikes easier. He sprays the tips with a white base paint and then applies a coat of orange. When he sees a tap on one of his poles, he acts immediately. "Most of the time when I'm spider rigging I set the hook as quickly as I see the tap," he says. "The first tap tells me the fish is holding the bait, probably creating slack line. Don't wait for a second tap, which could indicate that the fish just spit the bait."
Beating The Wind
Spider rigging on windy days can be tough, to control both your boat and your lure presentation.
Adding weight to the bow of his boat helps Tony Edgar stabilize his craft in choppy water, but the rolling waves can still cause his spider rig poles to bounce too much. He recalls winning a tournament on his home waters of Lake of the Ozarks by rigging his poles with big corks and leaving slack in his lines to allow the floats to roll with the waves. This presentation kept the baits gently rolling with the wave action rather than bouncing up and down in an unnatural fashion.
If the wind becomes too strong for Charlie Hildreth to control his boat in water less than 10 feet deep, he stakes out an area to fish with bobbers. Hildreth has devised an adjustable two-piece PVC pipe with a T-handle and auger that he can shove into the water and screw into the lake bottom. Then he ties his boat to the pipe and tosses out bobber rigs that the wind pushes through the area.
Hildreth alters his rigging tactics by using fewer poles placed in strategic locations. He has a series of rod holders positioned in the bow and stern to allow his partner and him to cover shallow and deeper water at the same time. Two adjustable rod holders are placed on the bow, positioning poles toward the front or sides of the boat as needed. His rod holders on the stern are a fixed system for keeping lures or baits equidistant and straight behind the boat.
Sometimes Hildreth places poles on one side of the boat, while he and his partner each hold a rod and jig vertically into shallow cover. This system helps them catch crappies in the cover on one side while taking suspended fish in deeper water on the other. He notes that they usually catch more fish on the shallow side, but commonly hook bigger crappies on the rigs drifting through deeper water. "It covers a lot of territory, and then when I find the exact pattern, I trim the spread down to one pole," he says.
When fishing in Indiana, Hildreth employs a technique he calls "strolling," whereby he holds two rods while slowly trolling, or holds one rod and places two others in holders. "Holding poles helps me detect strikes easier," he says. "A lot of times the bite is so light that even with 6-pound-test line it barely registers as a little tap. It feels sometimes like the jig is bouncing off a tree limb, or picking up a tiny bit of weed when a less active crappie bites."
Sometimes he strolls with the three-rod system, placing two rods in holders at a 45-degree angle on one side of the boat, holding the third pole to vertically jig timber or weedlines on the other side. This allows him to concentrate on shallow fish in cover with one pole while his other poles draw strikes from suspended crappies at depths of 6 to 8 feet.
In open water, he rigs with three poles spread across the bow. He places a pole in each holder on the front sides of the boat and one hanging straight out from the nose. If he finds a brushpile, he slowly trolls back and forth over it, but if he notices on his electronics that the fish are holding tight to cover, he throws out a marker buoy and jigs vertically into the cover with one rod.
He varies the depths and lure colors on his poles, sometimes using livebait and double-jig systems until he discovers which lure or bait is working best that day. "If I'm catching a bunch of fish I go down to one pole," he says. "If I'm just catching a few now and then, I'll try two poles because I need to find what the big fish want as opposed to what all the fish want."
Twelve-foot crappie poles are Hildreth's favorite rods for spider rigging, and a 10-foot version is his choice for vertical jigging. The longer rods get him 2 feet farther away from the trolling motor. Hildreth thinks trolling motor noise and the clicking of his transducer spooks crappies in clear water. He wants his lures as far away from the trolling motor as possible.
He equips his poles with Mitchell ultralight spinning reels or small Zebco spincast reels. When strolling in dirty water, he ties his baits on 8-pound-test line, but he scales down to low-visibility green 4-pound line for fishing weeds in clear water. He uses tubes for strolling--2-inch tubes for murky water and 1-inch versions for clear conditions. He usually inserts a 1/32-ounce jig into the hollow plastic bodies.
His favorite colors include purple and chartreuse, pumpkinseed, blue and chartreuse, black and chartreuse, red, white and black, and white. One of those colors is right for just about any condition. For spider rigging with livebait, he attaches small shiners to a #2 Eagle Claw light-wire Aberdeen hook.
Unlike Edgar, Hildreth feels that trolling against the wind helps him control the speed of his boat better. He can watch his sonar to determine his trolling speed, which he maintains in the range of .5 to 2 miles per hour. When boat speed exceeds 2 mph, it becomes too hard to control the depth of baits without jigs or weights that are too heavy for crappies to inhale.
He also has two different trolling motor props for windy or calm weather. Through trial and error with various speeds and props, he has mastered the strolling formula. In dirty water you have to go slow, and in clear water you can go almost as fast as you want.
Pole limitation laws prevent anglers in some states from becoming full-fledged spider riggers, but with a few modifications, savvy anglers can still use a variation of this deadly technique to catch crappies. But even in states with few limits on rod numbers, sparse rigging offers more manageable fishing, with a less threatening, more efficient spread for the fish to react to. Sometimes less is more.
6 Arc of Slabs, Northeast Mississippi
Like the Bordeaux region grows world-class wine grapes, the Arc of Slabs is famous for producing giant crappies. Grenada, Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla — it's a tossup which of these reservoirs might be best for giant white crappies during March and April. Jigging in brush and spider-rigging are the best bets. Wading, too, at times. Contact: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
2 Lake Erie, Ohio
The best opportunities are between Port Clinton and Vermilion, says Ohio fishery biologist Travis Hartman. Many marinas and backwaters have excellent crappie fishing in the spring, peaking in late April to early May, and occasionally in the fall. Good open-water spots are East and West harbors and Sandusky Bay. Check connected rivers, too. Lots of fish to 12 inches, with 14-inchers not uncommon, Hartman says. Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters says Lake Erie is a surprisingly overlooked crappie fishery, considering the numbers of fish caught, up to 18 inches, as big as any in the state. Contact: Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934; Ohio DNR, dnr.state.oh.us
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Guide Billy Blakley says the crappie forecast for the 'œEarthquake Lake' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11â„4 pounds and catches up to 23â„4 pounds. The lake contains both black and white crappies. From March through May, spider-rig and jig around underwater wood, and jig around exposed cypress stumps. The bite picks up again in the fall. Top-notch lodging and food at Blue Bank Resort. Contact: Guide Billy Blakley at Blue Bank Resort 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
7 Weiss Lake, Alabama
The crappie outlook is very good for 2013, reports Alabama district fisheries supervisor Dan Catchings. Samples indicate one, and possibly two, strong year-classes of crappies in 2010 and 2011. Expect good numbers of harvestable-size fish from the 2010 spawn this spring, with the 2011 year-class contributing to the fishing in mid- to late 2013. Fishing picks up in February as crappies move shallow. March through early May is best, with April being the peak. Contact: Guide Richard Green, 859/983-0673, or book through Little River Marina and Lodge (256/779-6461); Guide Mark Collins, markcollinsguideservice.com
8 Kentucky Lake, Kentucky / Tennessee
Anglers look forward to the 'œCrappie Capital' living up to its name in 2013, says guide Steve McCadams. Expect numbers of quality fish with a shot at slabs over 2 pounds. While action during the spawn in late March into April is outstanding, don't overlook May and June, when stable lake levels and weather patterns find crappies concentrating around fish attractors at midrange depths, he says. Contact: Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
9 Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir, Virginia/North Carolina
Numbers of crappies from 1 to 13â„4 pounds with a chance for 2- to 3-pounders. Once the spider-rigging bite wanes in shallower creek channels by April, action turns to jigging deeper brushpiles. Contact: Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381.
3 Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma
This shallow reservoir boasts numbers of crappies in the 2- to 3-pound range, with 37-fish limits common. In spring, the action is shallow, doodlesocking flooded buckbrush in high water, or working rocky banks and brush cover in low water, says guide Todd Huckabee. Crappies move to deeper brush later in spring. Contact: Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net
; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com
; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528.
5 Lake Fork, Texas
Numbers of slabs from 11â„4 to 21â„2 pounds tend to get overlooked in this lake famous for lunker bass. Mid-May through June is guide Terri Moon's favorite time for crappies, when the fish head to brushpiles and bridge abutments in 20 to 24 feet of water. Pitching Fork Tackle's Live Baby Shads on 1/16-ounce jigs is a top option. Ivan Martin and Rick Loomis also guide clients to Fork's crappies in November and December, when fish are on points and in deeper brush. Contact: Guide Terri Moon, 903/383-7773; Guide Ivan Martin, 918/260-7743; Guide Rick Loomis, rickloomis.com
; Lake Fork Marina for lodging, food, and tackle, lakeforkmarina.com
1 Lake of the Woods, Ontario
The Woods is top-notch for black crappies to 16 inches, says In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Gustafson. Many crappies on this massive water have never seen lures, so once you find them, the numbers and quality are second to none, he says. Action starts in mid-May, with fish moving to shallow areas with cover. After spawning in early June, target them on weedflats in 6 to 10 feet of water. Float-and-jig combinations excel. Also try small suspending jerkbaits and swimming marabou jigs. Contact: Guide Dave Bennett, davebennettoutdoors.com
, 807/466-2140; Guide Jamie Bruce, brucescanadianangling.com
10 St. Johns River, Florida
The stretch of the St. Johns River south of Lake George offers outstanding fishing. Crappies from 2 to 3 pounds are caught regularly, with average catches well over a pound. This was the scene of an In-Fisherman television episode that airs this spring. Weedflats hold fish that can't resist tubes fished under a float. Or troll channel edges using jigs or minnows. Contact: Lodging at Castaways on the River, 352/759-4522, castawaysontheriver.com
; Guide Steve Niemoeller, 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com