June 19, 2013
Competitive fishing has honed today's specialized bass and walleye boats. Lately, the growing popularity of crappie tournaments has stirred anglers to seek a rig that can handle the variety of tactics employed by crappie experts. Tournament competitors have in some cases converted bass and walleye boats into customized crappie boats, but marine manufacturers have also begun to offer boats specifically designed for crappie fishing.
At the weigh-in ceremony of a national crappie circuit, you see a variety of boats, ranging from 16-foot aluminum jonboats to 21-foot fiberglass rigs. The array of boats favored by pros suggests it may be difficult to describe an ideal crappie rig for all situations. Indeed, pros concur that the waters you fish and the tactics you rely on determine the type of boat best suited to your style of crappie fishing.
Crappie Boat Buying Considerations
"If you fish areas that are shallow and have plenty of stumps, an aluminum boat would be best for you," says Mike Walters, who has teamed with fellow Ohio angler Rick Solomon to win several Crappie USA events and qualify for 12 Crappie Classics. They own a fiberglass bass boat (Ranger 520) and an aluminum boat (Fisher GT-19), allowing them to match boats with fishing conditions on the variety of waters.
"Some anglers like multispecies boats, but I prefer a bass boat because its lower gunnels catch less wind," Walters says. He likes fiberglass because it's heavier than aluminum, which he says makes the boat more stable.
Boat size also depends on where you most frequently fish. For large, wide-open waters, Walters recommends a longer, wider boat. "In such conditions, width is more important than length in making a boat stable," he says.
Tournament veteran Whitey Outlaw runs a Ranger 521 bass boat, whether he's fishing among stumps on his home waters of Santee-Cooper in South Carolina or the wide-open, weedy waters of Florida. "It's a long, heavy boat that sits deep in the water," he says. "That makes it stable. The design of the pad on the transom also keeps the stern from swinging when you're tightlining off the bow." The South Carolina pro also likes the Ranger's low profile and the way it handles rough water.
Alabama crappie guide Brad Whitehead ran a Bumblebee bass boat for years but recently switched to a Triton TA-196 SC Crappie Series Edition fiberglass boat. "It's almost like combining a bass boat, bay boat, and walleye boat," he says. The weight of this fiberglass boat serves Whitehead well for his crappie tactics in most situations, but he adds 125 pounds of lead to the front of the rig to keep the bow down when trolling in rough water. "When you're using 12- to 14-foot poles, you need stability in your presentations," he notes. "When fishing in 10 to 20 mph winds, many boats tend to bounce. Weighting the bow helps stabilize your boat and poles."
Other features Whitehead likes in the TA-196 include a vinyl floor for easy cleaning; deep sides; three pedestal seats, allowing two anglers to fish from the front; and a 35-gallon baitwell in front of the steering wheel. Another handy feature is the trolling motor mounted in the center of the boat's nose. "Placing the trolling motor directly in the middle is ideal," he says. "It keeps you from having to turn your rod holders whenever lowering your trolling motor in the water."
The added weight makes the boat slower, but Whitehead believes speed isn't such an important element in crappie fishing. "Most crappie anglers don't run far," he says. "So most don't have a motor over 150 horsepower." Although crappie anglers may have less need for speed than bass tournament competitors, they do need enough horsepower for their rigs. Walters recommends an outboard to match its Coast Guard maximum-hp rating.
"It's like driving a car," he says. "You don't drive the street with the pedal to the metal, but you have power to accelerate when you need to."
The team of Gilford and Coy Sipes fishes from the Triton 186 bass boat they won at the 2004 Crappie Masters national championship. Sipes says the 'glass boat gives them speed to cover more water in tournaments, but feels aluminum boats are easier to manage while trolling in windy situations. He says fiberglass boats tend to turn and rock in waves, causing the trolling rods to bob up and down. Aluminum boats, by contrast, cross squarely with the waves, preventing rods from bouncing too much.
Tournament competitor and guide Kent Driscoll recently helped War Eagle Boats design the War Eagle Predator 861 aluminum boat, which features a 23-degree V-hull. "It was built specifically for crappie fishing," he notes. "When you're in the front of the boat, it's like piloting a jet or a helicopter, because you have all of the controls right in front of you."
Driscoll favors aluminum boats for the waters he fishes in Tennessee and Mississippi. "Aluminum is tougher," he says. "I fish the Corps of Engineers flood-control reservoirs that are full of stumps. I've knocked holes in some of the fiberglass boats I've owned and cracked some hulls, too."
Whether it's a high-dollar bass boat or a more moderately priced aluminum rig, experienced anglers recommend placing accessories in strategic locations.
Trolling Motor: Nearly all crappie pros mount the trolling motor on the bow. While many favor foot-control models, Walters and partner Solomon prefer a hand-control motor. "A hand control provides more boat control. If you take your foot off a foot-control motor in the wind, the boat quickly spins around," Walters says. "Moreover, many crappie anglers use the variable speed dial on the trolling motor when trolling breaklines. With a foot-control motor, they're always bending over or using their toes to adjust power to compensate for wind or current. This task is easier with a hand-control motor, since the adjustment is on the handle."
Pole Holders and Storage: Crappie pros often rig boats with double or triple pedestals in the bow so they can fish side-by-side with a partner when spider-rigging. They place rod holders for spider-rigging and other drifting tactics on gunnels close to these bow seats in the front of the boat.
"We added a rack to the bow of our Triton to hold trolling rods," Cory Sipes says. "We also use this bow rack for pushing baits." Sipes designed an aluminum rack that allows them to fish 8 poles off the bow.
Storing long poles while running has always been a challenge for crappie pros. Sipes: "When moving from spot to spot in a tournament, we needed a way to get all our poles back fishing as quickly as possible. It's frustrating to place poles on the boat floor for a run, only to find them all tangled upon arriving at a spot."
Sipes solved this problem by making iron rod holders than can accommodate four poles up to 20 feet long on each side of the boat. One end of the holder has sections of PVC pipe to accommodate pole handles, while the other end has rod rack-slots and a snap to secure rod tips.
When running his single-console Ranger, Outlaw places all his 14- to 16-foot poles on the portside of the deck. He recommends single-console bass boats rather than dual-console models, for easier storage of long poles.
The locker system in Driscoll's War Eagle allows him to store six 8-foot rods in tubes, and there's additional space that he uses to secure long trolling poles. Both sides of his boat have a flat surface so longer rods can be laid on the carpet and strapped down for a run. "The biggest reason we break poles is through mistreatment, and one of the worst things is to let them rub on an aluminum surface. The metal quickly rubs the finish off a pole," Driscoll warns. "Once you get a weak spot on a crappie pole, it breaks soon enough."
For pulling crankbaits, most anglers place holders on the stern. Driscoll also designed a rod rack system for the rear of his boat so he can hold eight long rods for a different technique he plans to employ later. The rack allows him to slow-troll with minnows in the morning and then switch to another tactic later in the day, without having to break down the poles and store them.
Minnow Buckets and Livewells: Since live minnows are used often, the War Eagle Predator 861 has an aerated, insulated plastic minnow bucket built into the bow. Driscoll notes that other manufacturers place minnow buckets on the sides of their boats, but that the War Eagle's central placement means you don't have to turn to get bait, which prevents watching your poles.
Driscoll's boat also has a compartment next to the aerated minnow bucket that holds marker buoys. "We designed it so two buoys fit inside," he says. "Other than your trolling motor and poles, buoys are the next most important tool when fishing reservoirs. We immediately drop one to mark a brushpile, stakebed, ledge, or drop," he adds.
Livewell placement varies among boats, and opinions vary as well. Some experts prefer a front livewell on their rigs. Driscoll's War Eagle has a divided livewell with recirculating system directly behind the front seats. It has a cord running from the corner of the seat to the livewell lid. When he turns, the cord lifts the livewell lid so he can quickly deposit his catch. The War Eagle also has a divided livewell on the rear deck, along with two ice chests.
Walters and Outlaw, by contrast, have no problem with the livewells on the back of their Ranger boats, though Walters would prefer a larger one. "Some bass-boat livewells aren't big enough for a limit of big crappies," he says. "I'd rather have a bit more water." He solves this problem by carrying an oxygen tank that he refills at a welding supplier. He believes injecting pure oxygen helps keep his fish alive.
Whatever waters you fish, and whatever your favorite tactics, more options than ever are available in boat style, size, and features. When considering a boat, talk to crappie experts and pros and discuss options with boat dealers. Catalogs and company websites also allow you to comparison-shop from home, looking for features and price-points most important to you.
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 'Earthquake Lake ' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11„4 pounds and catches up to 23„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 'Crappie 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 13„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 11„4 to 21„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