Fishing does seem to come full circle in the fall, especially for panfish. In late winter and early spring, with no ice of course, targeted areas were mostly warming waters with thin vegetation. Main lake flats, shore side drop-offs and creek channels particularly in shallow bays and coves were the aiming point for panfish, and for crappie in particular.
Back in that new season, the chief offering was small jigs. The lead heads were used to present either tiny twister tails or live bait, namely minnows.
Now in late fall and early winter, the circle is circling.
At this time of year, with water temperature falling like stock prices on a bad day, I like to add another item to my boat before taking off for a day of crappie angling. I like to include a tray or two of small to medium-size crankbaits.
In this period, you can catch both schooled tightly-packed crappie or schooled loosely-packed crappie. Most anglers will land the former. Using the traditional jig, they’ll work beside traditional crappie locations, particular bankside laydowns and cover, and catch a number of fish. But when those numbers run out, and the cooler is still not filled, the question remains where to go and what to do next. It’s then I pull out my crankbaits and troll deeper fall locations.
Crankbaits aren’t generally considered trolling lures but in fact, they are highly effective when pulled, somewhat steadily, behind a boat. They can be fished plain, that is, with the crankbait itself, or they can be worked with an assortment of trolling sinkers and rigs. This latter idea is very important for cold-water crappies and I’ll detail the rigs shortly.
The need for trolling crankbaits is pretty straightforward. Many crappie schools will be sparse or spread out. In addition, I often find the looser fall schools occupying a deep horizontal plane as opposed to a standard stacked vertical array. All this adds up for the need to cover more water with a working lure rather than attacking a singular spot as with a jig, unless powering a jig.
Crankbaits are eagerly taken by crappie but you need to select the right kind. For the most part, crappie are hot for thin-bodied minnow baits as well as short, tight-wobbling models. They aren’t a big fan of wide wobbling or highly erratic crankbaits. The material of which the crankbait is built is also important. Slender body minnows made of balsa wood are effective but balsa crankbaits actually take a back seat to plastic crankbaits which rise faster. Often suspending are good as they right in a crappie’s line of sight — when rigged correctly. In addition, many of the smaller, front-wide crankbaits originally intended as walleye baits make excellent crappie crankbaits.
There is no big mystery to trolling stand-alone crankbaits for crappie and there is no need for heavy trolling equipment – downriggers, cannonballs and the like. Instead, the bait is freelined behind the boat and worked at a speed that solicits the best of the bait.
Using simple rod holders, point the rod tip low to the water and drop the line about forty feet behind the boat. This distance is totally subjective as it all depends on water depth and possible obstructions. The point is, for those unfamiliar with flatline or freeline trolling, you don’t want the bait close to the stern and you don’t want it so far away that you can’t set the hook.
In flatline trolling there is a line size consideration: you need to balance the concept of getting the bait down with light line versus the ability to free a snagged line without breakage. Four-pound test would be ideal for the size of most baits but that size line breaks too easily when hung on the bottom. Ten is way too much to get the bait along the bottom in short order, so the average is six or eight pound test.
When freeline trolling you want your crankbait bouncing seductively over the bottom or riding inches above it. A bait that is several feet above the lake floor will catch some fish, but a bouncer and scraper will garner more, even though a crappie favors looking up for food. The trick is to make repeated changes of speed with your trolling motor (electric is best) so that the bait rises gentle on its own and into the line of sight of the up-eyed crappie.
Often I use some type of trolling weight to get the crankers down.
My favorite piece of equipment for this tactic is the bottom-bouncer sinker. These sinkers are built on a large wire frame, shaped much like a wide-open safety pin, with the weight molded onto one of the arms. The bottom of the wire frame is only a thin point of wire that slides easily over a lot of obstructions. The top of the frame is shorter and carries a snap swivel. You tie a shank of line to the swivel and the other end to the floater/diver. The bait can rise no further than the height of frame and the length of the line. I find a 12- to 18-inch piece of line, plenty long.
The bottom bouncer is trolled touching and ticking the bottom. A neat trick is to maintain a hold on the rod and move the rod tip forward, backward and frequently stalled. Keep tension on the line so the frame remains upright and when stopped or slowed the floater will rise.
There are also other sinker types that I’ll use to accomplish the same attack. If I’m not being bit on a bottom bouncer, I substitute a half-ounce egg sinker or a rubber-core sinker. Build a rig like a Carolina worm complete with a swivel in front of the sinker. Rolled and pulled along the bottom, the egg or straight rubber core sinker is less obtrusive and it has the added attraction of raising silt and stuff ahead of the crankbait. This drama appears like a minnow pursuing whatever is kicking up the bottom. Paint your egg and rubber core sinker fluorescent red or chartreuse if you have time.
When setting the hook on a crappie that has struck a trolled crankbait, don’t waste any time. There is already a problem with line stretch so you shouldn’t fuddle around. Sweep the rod away from the line on a straight, level pull. Do not lift the rod high. That movement will only throw slack into the line.
Finally, change the hooks on most crankbaits to a brand that sticks — even when a fish breathes on the bait. By Vic Attardo