February 17, 2009 by David A. Brown
Soaking minnows under corks and waiting for a freckled friend to find your bait may be the most common approach to crappie fishing, but anglers in the know realize that sometimes you have to take the game to the fish. Two diverse tactics with a common goal accomplish just that. Pulling (aka "trolling") enables anglers to cover water to find active fish, while pushing (aka "tight-lining," or "lead-lining") holds a tantalizing group of baits right in front of the speckled perch that you've either marked on sonar or suspect to be holding on weeds, docks, etc. Kind of a "tweener" fish that links the low-impact panfish routine with the bass world's more advanced search and presentation strategies, crappies offer a high level of sport, scrappy fights and some of the best filets you'll find in freshwater. Here's a look at how crappie experts get those filets from the lake to the skillet. Getting pushy An effective tactic for when you've found fish or a likely point of habitat such as a dock or weedline, pushing is an excellent finesse technique for crappie fishing. Leveraging the power of persuasion much like a drop-shot rig wears down a curious bass, spreads held on target make it easy for lethargic or otherwise indecisive crappies to find and attack your baits. Probably the most common bait for pushing (and pulling) is a 1/16- to 1/32-ounce jig, usually tipped with live Missouri minnows, hooked bottom to top through the lips. This combo keeps the minnow tethered without nullifying its real-life appeal. Natural smell and taste also help the cause. Usually conducted off the bow, pushing relies on a vertical presentation. To keep light baits on target, anglers rig weights above their jigs, thus explaining the "tight-lining" and "lead-lining" tags. Options include sliding an ounce or 2-ounce slip-sinker onto the main line and then connecting the leader with a small barrel swivel, or simplifying your presentation with an in-line sinker, sprouting swivels at both ends. For optimal versatility, crappie pros often choose a three-way swivel, pre-rigged with a weighted leader hung from the bottom ring and the bait leader tied to the side ring. A main-line snap swivel clips to the top ring, thereby allowing quick changes in rig setups. (Tip: Use lighter line on the weighted leader. If your rig snags on bottom structure, you can break it off without losing all your tackle.) Varying depths and conditions, as well as occasional tangles, often require retying. That's part of fishing, but wrapping premade leaders around plastic, wooden or rubber spools and packing them in plastic storage boxes minimizes down time by keeping replacements conveniently accessible. Be sure to mark spools with details of rig size, length and arrangement. You can also group like rigs together for easy identification on the boat. Furthering the descriptives, the common sight of multiple rods protruding from horizontal racks gives crappie boats a certain arachnid appearance captured by yet another moniker - "spider rigging." Adjusting rod holders to keep rod tips within inches of the surface makes it easier to spot a hookup. Brightly colored rod tips further aid in strike detection, and adding corresponding colors to rod handles ensures that you grab the right one. Pulling strings When you need to cover water to find a hot bite, lay out a spread of baits and "pull" them over likely areas. Eliminating water is part of the calculation, but so is the location of aggressive fish, ornery enough to chase down a moving target. Complementing standard jigs, the inherent motion makes bladed lures like the classic Road Runner very effective. With either, experienced crappie trollers maximize their presentations by running multiple baits from each line with a dropper loop rig. Form this rig by slipping a 1/16-ounce jig onto your line about 2 feet from the end. Make a loop in the line with the jig in the center, and tie a double overhand knot (pass the jig through the knot both times), which leaves the top jig hanging about 5 inches from the main line. Finish the rig by tying a 1/32-ounce jig to the line's end. So arranged, the heavier front jig runs lower than the lighter jig at the end. Anglers fishing solo may opt for a stern deployment, with a sonar unit, GPS and livewell situated within easy reach. This keeps all elements close at hand, while occasional forward glances ensure a clear course. An autopilot is understandably invaluable to lone crappie hunters. When boat setup and manpower allows, lateral rod deployment enables you to stagger rod lengths to spread out the lines and avoid tangling. On port and starboard, start with the longest rod and the longest bait positioned forward and work back with progressively shorter rods and shorter bait lines. This minimizes the likelihood of a hooked crappie running across the spread and fouling other lines. Speed control factors greatly, and crappie pros are fanatical about determining and maintaining their optimal number. GPS units are helpful, but some install speed sensors to their trolling motor heads to further refine their operation. If windy conditions push you along too quickly, dragging heavy link chains secured to the stern with ropes will decrease boat speed. Another chain benefit: Stirring up the bottom flushes out grass shrimp, and that often stimulates crappie feeding. Finding a competitive edge Beyond the basics, committed crappie catchers employ a host of edgy tricks to turn more fish toward their lines. Baits to "dye" for: When crappies are finicky - usually as a result of seeing too many of the same jig colors - savvy anglers will modify their plastics by dipping all or part of a jig tail in colored dye (chartreuse, pink, orange, etc.). Spice it up: Garlic spray jazzes up a jig and minnow with a scent crappies have to inspect. That's a wrap: High-visibility lines help anglers keep track of pulling spreads, but they also make it easier to wrap and unwrap long crappie rods in low light. Smell of success: A ventilated scent dispenser filled with a turkey baster and mounted to the trolling motor shaft releases fish-attracting aroma that the propeller spreads through the water. Rod watch: Wrapping rod tips with brightly colored tape helps an angler detect light strikes. Some wrap their rod handles in matching tape to ensure they grab the right one. At times - the spring spawn, for example - catching a limit of crappies requires little more than soaking a few minnows on the right spot. The trick, of course, is finding those "right spots" before anyone else. Even then, fishing holds few guarantees. Cold fronts, crowded water and cantankerous crappie attitudes all hold day-wrecking potential when you depend on your quarry coming to you. Nevertheless, fish must eventually eat. So when they won't visit the dining table, send them a round of room service - either pushed or pulled.