Catch more winter crappie by long-line trolling

Slabs rule the day for anglers long-line trolling for crappie during the early part of the year. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Long-lining is a great winter crappie tactic

Long-line trolling for crappie is a highly productive method for catching crappies in the Carolinas. During the pre-spawn phase crappies shift from deep-water, bottom-hugging mode and transition to a lengthy process of moving toward spawning areas. They’re often suspended during this period and anglers can catch them in big numbers and sizes.

Long-lining is effective on any crappie lake. But experts use specific techniques to streamline the fish-finding process.

Ed Duke from Concord, N.C. is a retired general contractor who owns Southern Crappie Rods, a crappie-oriented tackle company. Duke has crappie fished lakes throughout the Carolinas much of his life and said productive long-lining for crappie typically begins in late January and can be wide-open by February.

“This is slab-crappie season because big fish are on the move,” he said. “The entire pre-spawn is excellent. But the early portion usually produces many of the largest crappie. 

“Long-line trolling is not a complicated process. But I’ve learned that the most successful fishermen will adapt to ever-changing fishing conditions as pre-spawn activity increases,” he said. “Fine tuning tactics daily to stay on the fish is a key to success.”

Experts use multiple rods of different lengths, spreading the lures out to effectively cover more area and reduce tangling lines. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Stagger rods of different lengths

Duke (704-791-0108) said understanding the proper rigging setup is the first step. He uses an assortment of rod lengths placed strategically around his boat. They consist of 7-foot and 9-foot rods fished directly out of the back of the boat. And off each side of the boat he’ll use rod lengths of 12, 14 and 16-feet. The side rods are positioned with the 12-foot rig at the back of the boat and 14-foot and then the 16-foot rod toward the front, each extending two feet further than the other. All are set in rod holders. 

“This setup enables me to effectively fish a wide swath of water while keeping my lines parallel,” he said. “I can turn the boat to cover specific targets without lines getting snagged. I want to spend time fighting fish, not untangling lines.”

Duke uses 6-pound test line on each rig. He begins a trip with three different lure sizes. He pulls 1/32- and 1/16-ounce jigs and a 1/10-ounce lure he makes called the ‘Spinnie Minnie.’ This allows him to work the rigs at different depths in the water column. He casts the rigs 50 to 60 feet behind the boat and employs his electric motor to troll in the 0.7 miles-per-hour speed range. 

“I’ve found this setup to be the most effective to enable me to find the speed and depth pattern of the day,” he said. “I’ll speed up, slow down and make turns which impacts speed and depth of the lures. And I change locations until I find crappie. 

Ed Duke caught this stringer of crappie while long-lining with jigs and minnows.

It’s a color game

 Duke said jig color is crucial and he’ll use various patterns. But two favorites to begin the trip include the blue and chartreuse, and the pink and chartreuse, color combinations. He experiments with color combinations throughout the day.  

Duke said presenting the lures where crappies are located is essential.

“Long-lining is not random and when pre-spawn activity begins my target area will be in creeks,” he said. “Crappie can be anywhere from the mouth of the creek where the river and creek junction, all the way to the back. I’ve caught limits near the mouth of the creek one day. And the next day we’ll catch them in the back of the creek.”

Effective tactics vary with different lakes but a consistent pattern is fishing the creek channels as they wind back through the flats.

Chris Simpson guides for multiple species of fish at Clarks Hill Lake in South Carolina. And he’ll long-line fish for crappie during the pre-spawn phase.

Chris Simpson likes to troll along ledges and over points when searching for crappie.

Find the right depth first

“It’s a dependable pattern in early spring to catch a lot of big crappies,” he said. “The first thing I do is search with my graph to find a depth pattern for the crappie. When I see an area where a lot of fish are marked, I’ll start working that depth,” he said.

Simpson (864-992-2352) said crappie have specific daily depth preferences. So his lure and line size, along with boat speed determines the depth his lures run.

“Some days I find fish in open water right in the middle of the creek,” he said. “I may find them suspended at mid-depths or near the bottom on one trip. But other days they’ll be holding along a ledge.

“Unless I’m on a good crappie bite, I seldom troll a straight line,” Simpson said. “I make sweeping curves to cover more water. That also allows my outside jigs to speed up and fish shallower water while those in the inside of the turn will slow down and drop slightly deeper.

“It’s a lot of information to process but it’s a great way to piece together a productive pattern,” he said. “When I catch a single crappie, I usually keep going. But hooking multiple fish tells me to work that spot thoroughly. If the action slows, I’m back to searching. But it’s surprising how quickly the numbers begin to add up.”

Target contour changes

Simpson said one tactic that works well is to troll his lures across points that drop into the creek channel. 

“A point provides fish a quick change in bottom depth from deep to shallow that fish relate to,” he said. “Crappies may be suspended 10 feet deep over 35 feet of water in the open channel. But the bottom depth where I cross the point may be only 20 feet deep. But the crappies will still be at the 10-foot depth I’m already targeting.

“The specifics vary. But points, humps and ledges all provide bottom contour changes I can target,” he said. “These specific areas often hold more crappie in a concentrated area. If brush piles are present at the right depth, they’re a great target. And I’ll pull lures across the top of the brush.” 

Simpson said the final destination for pre-spawn crappies are the shallows to spawn. But not all crappies are in the same spawning cycle stage at the same time. So pre-spawn fishing is not a straight-line process from the mouth to the back of the creeks. 

Crappie have a hard time resisting Ed Duke’s Spinnie Minnie, which he often uses when long-line trolling.

Add a minnow to your jig

“Some fish may be beginning the pre-spawn process while others are beginning to spawn,” he said. “Where I catch crappies one day may be much different from the previous days in terms of depth and location. Keep an open mind on finding fish on any given day.”

Simpson said long-line trolling is productive because it enables anglers to quickly and effectively cover water while constantly changing depths and locations until a pattern is obvious.

“But a hot early-morning pattern can morph into something else as the day progresses,” he said. “A sunny day that becomes cloudy, or vice versa, can change patterns quickly. When a productive pattern slows, simply start the crappie-hunting process again.”  

Duke and Simpson agree on another pre-spawn tactic. They both often add minnows to their jig offerings. It’s not always necessary. But it’s something they’ve found can considerably improve productivity on some days. 

“Adding a minnow trailer to the lure can make a dramatic difference in productivity,” Simpson said. “Adding minnows to a jig is one of the first things I try this time of the year.”

Hidden crappie: Never rule out shallow water

Ed Duke said early season crappie anglers often dismiss shallow water as a potential hotspot for crappie fishing success. And that’s a big mistake.

“I rely on my electronics to find crappie when I begin fishing,” he said. “Sometimes the fish are ultra-shallow in the water column, but suspended over deep water. When crappies are shallow in the water column, graphs may not mark them and many fishermen rule out shallow-water suspended fish. 

“Crappie have a tendency to move vertical in the water column and it’s not unusual to find fish suspended 2- to 4-feet deep, even if the water is 20- to 40-feet deep.”

“If I see fish marked at a specific depth, I target my lures and speed to present the bait at those depths,” he said. “If I don’t see any fish on the graph that I think may be crappie, that tells me the fish are possibly shallow in the water column.  

“This is such a potentially strong pattern I’ll fish it until I’m satisfied that they’re not in that segment of water,” he said. “But I often find them shallow in the water column, suspended over deep water, and I’ll catch them like crazy.”

Duke said depending on water clarity and the weather patterns this shallow water action can occur most any time of day at this time of year.

“Early morning is a prime time to troll in shallow water,” he said. “The low light period, after a night of not being disturbed by boats is ideal. Plus, their forage is also often in that water depth. And that’s another reason for crappie to be in that portion of the water column.”

When crappies are ultra-shallow Duke said he can shorten the lure distance behind the boat to help the lures run shallower. He may also increase his trolling speed to get lures shallow enough to catch these hidden crappies.

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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