What’s My Line?
Phillip Gentry
For pro staffers Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman, late winter means pushing baits to crappie using tight line trolling tactics.
– Pro staffer Stokes McClellan pulls baits behind the boat, long lining for suspended winter crappie.
This tight line illustration shows how the amount of line out and a slow vertical presentation determines how deep you’re fishing.
– Long line trolling depth is achieved by a sum of trolling speed, line out, jig weight, and even line diameter.

During the late winter season, many crappie anglers have trouble deciding whether they need to be pushin’ or pullin’ to catch crappie as the fish begin making their early transition that will eventually lead them to the spawn.

Pushin’ is a slow trolling tactic where lines are kept mostly in the front and to the sides of the boat, the lines stay vertical in the water and that determines the precise depth your bait is at. The boat eases around and over the top of underwater structure. The tactic is more commonly known as tight-lining.

Pullin’ is a faster trolling tactic and more akin to what most people think of as trolling. Single or double jigs are cast out behind the boat and trolled to the rear. Speed, weight of the bait, and amount of line out all combine to determine the depth you’re fishing. The tactic is more commonly known as long lining.

Though the name came later, B’n’M pro-staffers Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman brought tight lining to the forefront of modern crappie angling. For Capps and Coleman, it makes more sense to push baits into the crappie, especially in cold water. Capps cautions anglers to slow way down when it gets cold. He said the bite may not be as subtle this time of year but the crappie simply are not going to chase a bait down in less than 50 degree water. He prefers to move just fast enough so that the 2 hook rig doesn’t bunch up in the water.

“When a fish bites, they may knock the heck out of the bait but they want it sitting almost still, just fast enough for the rig to hang right,” said Capps. “The depth your bait is at is also important. Take for example, all our rods are 14 foot B’n’M Buck’s Graphite Jig Poles. We fish 8 of them from the front of the boat. The boat is set up with rod holders that suspend each rod tip about 6 inches off the water, so we I pull the 3/8 ounce weight down to the end of the rod, then set the pole in the holder, we know without a doubt our baits are just above and below that 14 foot level. Of course we can then adjust up or down depending on where the fish are.”

Capps had another tip for anglers using live bait, though he was reluctant about giving up a secret that had won him several tournaments.

“Look at the birds when they start diving on bait in the winter,” said Capps. “”You don’t really see birds working by themselves eating bait all over the lake. When birds feed there’ll be 10 or 12 of them diving into the same spot. I believe that’s what crappie do below the surface, they bunch the fish up and then they ease in and feed. That’s why it’s important to make note where you catch a fish and how deep it was. Mark it on GPS or throw out a marker and circle back and catch more fish. We get dizzy because we circle an area so much but once you’re on that school, stay with it till they shut off then go hunt you some more fish.”

One state east of Capps and Coleman, pro-staffer Stokes McClellan pulls baits across the noses of suspended crappie during late winter. By calculating his depth of presentation, he can entice scattered crappie that otherwise he may not be able to target.

“I can long line troll even when the water is down as low as 48 – 49 degrees,” said McClellan. “There’s a place on my home lake where the river makes a huge bend right there in front of an intersecting creek. We find crappie suspended over that bend from 5 – 7 feet below the surface, basically out in the middle of nowhere.”

To get to the fish, McClellan trolls 1/32 oz.  jig heads at a distance of 60 – 70 feet behind the boat. All of his long line trolling is done with 4 pound test line. It’s a consistent factor in how deep the jigs will go. Though McClellan’s average trolling speed is 1.1 – 1.5 miles per hour, during late winter, he’ll reduce that down to .7 - .9 to achieve the right depth.

“Another good winter recipe for long lining is working your way along ledges, on most lakes, you’ll find there are ledges that come off the main river channel,” said McClellan. “When you troll down the edge of the main channel you’re crossing a series of ups and downs on the bottom where those ledges come into the channel. I catch a lot of crappie over the tops of those high spots suspended off the bottom anywhere from 15 – 17 feet down.”

Running eight B’n’M poles from the rear of his Ranger walleye boat, McClellan increases the rod lengths from the motor out on each side of the boat. B’n’M Sam’s Sensitive rods in 9, 10, and 12 foot lengths occupy the first three Driftmaster rod holders while a Pro Staff trolling rod, in a 14 foot length, is used on each flank.

Whether you push for crappie or pull for them, late winter may be cold, but the best way to warm it up is working out a mess of crappie. If we can help you, look us up on the internet at www.bnmpoles.com or like us on Facebook and show us what you caught.