Hang around this country's top crappie anglers and you'll learn something that may surprise you. During summer, when crappie move to deeper haunts, many of these anglers don't fish with jigs, minnows, spinners or other baits you might expect. Instead, they use crankbaits to entice hot-weather slabs.
Crankbaits often catch bigger crappie on average than other lures.
Why crankbaits? Three primary reasons are cited by every crankbait aficionado. First, crankbaits quickly reach the strike zone and stay there, allowing you to thoroughly work the band of water where summer fish are likely to be. Second, with crankbaits, you can cover lots of water quickly to find scattered summer crappie schools. And third, crankbaits are excellent big-fish lures. Smaller fish also hit cranks, but crappie 1-1/2 pounds and larger, which often refuse smaller offerings, rarely ignore a crankbait.
If you want to try crankbaits, here are some tried-and-true tactics from three pros that can help you nab slabs this season.
Jim Duckworth and The Bandits
Jim Duckworth, owner of Ducktrail Guide Service in Lebanon, Tennessee, often uses crankbaits to help his clients catch summer slabs in the Volunteer State lakes he fishes. The crankbaits he uses are Bandit Lures' Series 100, 200 and 300. Each of these 2-inch-long baitfish imitations runs at a different depth. The 100s dive 2 to 5 feet, 200s dive 4 to 8 feet and 300s dive 8 to 12 feet.
"I use my fish finders to tell me whether fish are deep or shallow," he says, "then I fish the Bandit crankbait that will run just above them."
Tennessee fishing guide Jim Duckworth uses a six-pole trolling system to catch big summer crappie like this on Bandit crankbaits. (Photo by Jim Duckworth)
Duckworth fishes from a 22-foot boat with six poles -- three on each side.
"On the bow, I use two 16-foot B'n'M Slo-Troller rods with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C3 reels spooled with 20-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth line," he says. "The line on these poles, and all others, is tied to a stainless snap so it's easy to change lures. I place these two rods in Driftmaster rod holders at a 90-degree angle to sides of the boat, and troll the crankbaits on 15 to 30 yards of line.
"In the middle of the boat, eight feet behind the front rods, I use B'n'M's Jim Duckworth 10-foot Crappie Special rods with Abu Garcia Cardinal 802 reels. These are spooled with 20-pound, yellow Spiderwire Stealth line to help me see the lines separately from the front lines. I place these in holders, straight out from the sides of the boat, and with 20 to 40 yards of line from rod tip to lure."
The final two rods are placed eight feet behind the middle pair. These are 6-foot, medium-action Berkley Lightning Rods paired with C3 reels, with 30 to 50 yards of line from rod to lure. They're angled back 45 degrees to narrow the spread.
"I put one fisherman with two rods," says Duckworth, "then I use my outboard motor to troll the lures at a speed of 2.5 to 3 mph around creek and river channel edges, flats edges and baitfish schools. When I determine the depth and lure color that work best, I switch all rods to the same depth and color and continue that way until the fishing slows. Then I change lures until I find the next good combination."
Duckworth's Bandit crankbait technique works great from postspawn through fall.
"Crappie roam this season, chasing shad until winter," he says. "Trolling crankbaits helps me cover 10-plus miles a day so I can find the sweet spots where they are feeding."
Brad Whitehead: The 16-Pole Man
Brad Whitehead of Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a crappie guide on Wilson and Pickwick lakes. When trolling crankbaits for crappie, he's a 16-pole man.
"I troll with four poles in front, four on the sides and eight in back, which helps me catch more crappie," he says. "Some folks think this would be really difficult, but it's not. And the more water you can cover, the more crappie you'll find."
One-fourth of Brad Whitehead's crappie crankbait trolling system: four rods and reels positioned in rod holders with crankbaits plying the water beneath. (Photo by Brad Whitehead)
Whitehead's favorite crankbait is Rebel's 3/8-ounce Deep Wee-R, a 2-inch minnow imitation that dives 8 to 10 feet.
"I sometimes replace the No. 6 hooks with red, No. 4 Gamakatsu round-bend trebles," he says. "My favorite lure colors are Blue/Chartreuse, Black/Chartreuse and Brown Crawdad. I troll with lures in all three colors until fish show a preference, and then change all rigs to match that preference until the pattern changes."
The poles Whitehead uses are all from B'n'M. They're positioned in rod holders as follows: four 13-foot Black Widow poles out the front rack, one 14-foot and one 12-foot Pro-Staff Trolling Rod on each side (14 in front of 12) and eight 6-1/2-foot Buck's Graphite Spinning Rods out the back. He prefers Pflueger Trion GX-7 light spinning reels spooled with Shakespeare Supreme 6- to 8-pound-test.
"Low-pound-test line is a must for this type of fishing," he says. "And you need a GPS to maintain the proper boat speed when trolling."
Whitehead rigs crankbaits one of two ways. At times, he simply connects the crankbait to a snap swivel on his line and trolls the lure 60 to 70 yards behind the boat. But when crappie are on deeper structures, he adds a 3- to 5-ounce egg sinker. The sinker is on the line above a barrel swivel, then a 3-foot crankbait leader is attached to the swivel's other eye.
Two of Brad Whitehead's clients watch the poles at the front of his boat for signs a crappie has hit the crankbaits being trolled below. (Photo by Brad Whitehead)
"The sinker rig is like a Carolina rig," he says. "It pulls the crankbait into deeper water it normally can't reach. With it, I may use heavier line that doesn't abrade or hang up as much. I like this rig because not only do you catch monster crappie, you also catch saugers and walleyes."
Most crappie Whitehead catches on unweighted crankbaits are on flats near river and creek channels.
"Mornings are best for flats fishing," he notes. "Then, as the sun gets higher, crappie move to deeper water on channel edges. That's when weighted crankbaits really shine.
"I make a long cast with each pole, then just watch my graph and GPS and go," he continues. "I start trolling at 1.5 mph. Speed is very important. When you get locked in at the right pace, your day will be full of papermouths. And with crankbaits, those are likely to be big fish -- 13 to 15 inches or more. You won't catch a limit that size every day, but on average, more than half your catch will be big slabs."
Fishing crankbaits for crappie needn't be a big-boat, multi-rod affair. You also can cast and retrieve a single lure for big-fish action.
Oklahoma City crappie guide Todd Huckabee does this using a Carolina-rigged, 4-1/2-inch, suspending Smithwick Rogue in shad-like colors.
Oklahoma crappie guide Todd Huckabee uses a Carolina-rigged Smithwick Rogue to catch summer crappie that want a big meal. (Photo by Keith Sutton)
"When big crappie go deep in winter, their metabolism stays high," he says. "These fish are preparing for the spawn, and they're eating a lot. But during summer, these same deep-water crappie are lazy. If you drop a lure like a jig down to them, often it's not enough to entice them. They don't seem interested in eating something unless it's bigger. That's why I use the Rogue.
"You make this rig with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce tungsten weight above a barrel swivel on the main line," Huckabee continued. "Then tie a 3-foot leader from the swivel to the crankbait. Cast it, let it sink, then crawl the lure across the bottom. Big crappie find it irresistible."
Huckabee often fishes with another modified crankbait rig as well. This one employs Excalibur's Fat Free Shad or Fat Free Guppy.
"I modify each lure by removing the back treble hook and placing a crappie tube skirt on the hook's shank," said Huckabee. "The hook is then replaced. The skirt works just like the feathers on some topwater plugs, giving the lure more action. I like to alternate colors of the components. For example, I might use a crankbait that has a citrus-shad color and add a pink skirt. This seems more effective than using components with similar colors."
Huckabee uses this rig to target crappie when they're feeding on threadfin shad around shoreline riprap and rocks.
"The shad often are right up on the rocks where you can see them," he says. "The crappie position themselves beneath the baitfish, usually in 5 or 6 feet of water. I fish the Fat Free crankbaits just like I might fish them for bass -- working them parallel to the bank, cranking them down to the rocks and making contact with the bottom. Then I slow the lure down and just wait for a big crappie to strike."
Last year Huckabee caught more than 200 crappie, each exceeding 2 pounds, using this rig.
Jigs and minnows will be mainstays for crappie anglers as long as there are crappie to catch. Papermouth fans love to see the bobber go under, to feel the bow in their jigging pole. But during summer, when it's trophy-class slabs you're after, give crankbaits a try using the pro tactics outlined above. Chances are you'll catch the biggest panfish you've ever seen.