Silently trolling into the far reaches of Spring Creek on the south end of Alabama’s Lake Weiss at first light, B’n’M pro-staffer and owner of Weiss Lake Crappie Guides Darrell Baker remarks on what a crappie angler intent upon long line trolling during the winter can expect.
“For the first hour of so, these crappie will act like everyone believes they should,” said Baker. “We’re here in a quiet creek, there’s little to no wind and it’s been cold overnight. We can troll through here and make several passes before things will change.”
The changes are what Baker refers to as “The Ups and Downs of Long Line Trolling”. Baker stated the first and most important aspect of successful long line trolling, anytime of year, but especially during the late winter and early spring, is the presence of baitfish in the area you are fishing.
“If you find baitfish, you’ll find crappie,” he said. “That’s the way it always is. You may or may not be able to get them to eat, but they will be with the baitfish.”
Baker said he’d prefer to find small pods of baitfish in loosely scattered groups, indicating the crappie have mixed into a larger school of bait and are feeding on them.
Another secondary need is clear water, somewhere between the tomato soup that frequently plagues all impoundments during the winter and spring, and gin clear water. Crappie are most frequently sight feeders, especially where long line trolling is concerned, and clearer water is preferred so the fish can target the baits by sight.
Changes occur throughout the day and this is what Baker refers to as the ups and downs. Most long liners have got the “throw out a 1/16 oz jig or a 1/24 oz jig and troll” methodology down pat. Both environmental and man-made factors will dictate where the fish hold in the water column.
“As the day warms up in the winter, crappie will rise in the water column,” said Baker. “They’re sunfish and that upper layer is getting warmed by the sun. It’s opposite of the spring, when they go deeper as the sun gets higher.”
Baker states it’s very common for crappie anglers to fish through the morning and then stop catching fish and then exit the lake, believing the bite has shut off. The guide has found many times the fish have risen so high in the water column that trollers are pulling beneath the fish.
“It’s common for crappie to hold in that 1 – 3 foot level, so shallow you won’t mark them on downward facing sonar,” he said. “The fish are so shallow, the boat is pushing them away and you never mark them.”
Baker said he realized this when he became proficient at using side scan sonar. He can set the side reading transducer out to 70 – 80 feet and mark fish away from the boat holding just under the surface as he eases by.
“To target those fish, you need to lighten up and speed up,” he said. “I’ll go to a single 1/32 oz jig and bump the trolling speed up to 1.0 or even 1.2 mph. That’s going to put the bait at about 2 feet right in that upper zone.”
Baker also pointed out this method works best in quiet, un-pressured areas. He said that heavy boat traffic will actually have the reverse effect on the fish.
“In a creek with a lot of boats trolling in it, the fish seem to sense that something is up,” he said. “It’s like hunting that big buck, when he feels he’s being pressured, he’ll hide.”
In Baker’s experience, “hiding” means hugging the bottom and waiting for things to settle down. It’s another crappie trait he learned by paying close attention to his graph.
“In heavy fishing pressure, they’ll hug the bottom tight and are almost impossible to distinguish from the bottom,” he said. “A few days ago, I ran into this situation with some clients in a creek with several other boats and we were catching fish three-at-a-time and no one else was getting bites.”
Baker surmised that beefing up jig weight and slowing down would target those fish that were holding tight to the bottom. He changed jig heads again and adjusted his trolling speed. The changes were imperceptible to the boats around him, still struggling to catch fish.
“It’s the little things,” said Baker. “We put on double 1/16oz heads and slowed down to about .5 mph. At times the rod would give that dull bump as the bait hit the bottom. Then after that, it would bow over with a fish on.”
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