For wintertime crappie, try these deadly trolling techniques on any of several Louisiana lakes.
There are as many ways to catch crappie as there are names for the tasty fish. Some prefer dipping a cork and shiner in tree tops, some use nothing but jigs in open water, and still others rig up multi-pole “spider rigs” with both jigs and shiners to fish flats and deep holes.
My love for the sport definitely came from my mother, who would sit on the bank of Dugdemona River for hours at her favorite stump hoping to snag a white perch while I ran yo-yos.
After dunking shiners in countless North Louisiana tree tops over the years, I moved on to jigs and eventually learned that open-water fishing could be even more productive than tops.
Recently, Markham Dickson introduced me to yet another way to fill the ice chest with crappie.
Dickson is well-known among hard-core Louisiana crappie fishermen for his trolling technique. The idea of trolling is to cover a lot of water to find fish that are willing to bite instead of sitting in one spot and hoping one will swim by.
Trolling is really a hunting strategy, and it works best in areas where there are few stumps or other hang-ups. Winter is the best time to troll because in cold weather crappie school up in deep open water to feed on shad.
D’Arbonne and Larto are two lakes that are perfect for this method of fishing. I recently met up with Dickson and his high school buddy Justin McDonell at Lake D’Arbonne to witness crappie trolling first-hand.
It was bitterly cold, and the duo were bundled up sitting side by side in the bow of a large bay boat intently watching an array of poles jutting out in front of them. To say the least, it was not the typical crappie rig one sees on North Louisiana impoundments.
The lake had undergone a drawdown, and previously hidden stump fields were now exposed. Most of the other fishermen I had seen were positioned in the middle of the channel in the deepest water, but Dickson and McDonell were slowly moving down the stumps that ran along the channel.
This was their second day of fishing, and they had zeroed in on the crappie.
“The big fish aren’t out in the channel today,” Dickson explained. “They’re along the old tree line on the edge, and we’re getting hung up a lot. We’re just dropping it to the bottom, and then bringing it up a bit.”
Following alongside in my boat, I watched as the pair constantly worked the poles, missing some bites here, hauling fish in there, and frequently rebaiting their rigs.
“We kept 47 yesterday,” Dickson said.
When asked how he came to troll for crappie, Dickson said it started in his childhood.
“I never did catch many fish just dropping anchor when out with my dad,” he said. “It always seemed like we caught more if we kept moving around.”
Over years of trial and error, Dickson found that trolling was the best way to seek out hungry crappie. Now he has perfected two different techniques — vertical trolling and long lining. For both, he uses a spider rig on his big bay boat.
Vertical trolling is when the bait is kept directly under the boat on a rather short line, and you move slowly through the water trying to find fish.
Dickson has two four-bank Tite-Lock Black Widow rod holders mounted on both the bow and stern. His boat can accommodate 16 rods, but 12 are the most he normally works at a time. On this particular day, Dickson and McDonell were just working four.
Dickson’s rods are 10- to 12-foot Crappie Wizard poles fitted with small spinning reels and 4- to 8-pound line, depending on water clarity. The placement of the rods is critical.
“I position the rods off the bow pointing straight out as much as possible,” Dickson said. “The more parallel to the boat, the less bouncing with the waves the rod tips do.”
When there’s a lot of wave action due to passing boats or wind, Dickson believes the worst position for a rod is a 90-degree right angle to the boat.
“I think it must be because the boat tends to rock more drastically side to side than bow to stern when encountering waves from wind or boat wakes,” he said.
Once Dickson finds a suitable place to troll, he first uses his sonar to look for fish holding near a creek channel, brush pile, drop off or other deep-water structure.
“You absolutely have to have a good sonar mounted on your trolling motor so you can see what’s right under your boat when you move over a 40-foot hole filled with shad,” he said.
Dickson uses two sonar units — a Lowrance X510C is mounted on his trolling motor to find fish and an older LCX-15mt model is at the console for navigation.
When his sonar starts displaying fish arches and baitfish concentrations, Dickson notes their depth and drops his bait to a foot or so above the fish. Then it’s simply a matter of trolling through the area. Dickson’s Lowrance unit is so sensitive he can actually see his bait as he drops it beneath the boat. This allows him to place it precisely at the right depth.
If you don’t have a sonar unit or can’t find fish on it, Dickson suggests going on the hunt.
“A safe bet is to set your rigs at various depths until you catch a couple and then set all the rigs to that depth,” he said.
Boat control becomes critical once you pinpoint an area to troll.
“You need a good trolling motor and must be able to use it to keep the boat moving slowly despite any current or wind,” Dickson said.
Speed is the most critical thing.
“The trick to it is to go slowly,” he said. “You can’t go three mph, and keep your line straight. You can sort of figure out the right speed by watching the angle of your line. You want it to stay straight up and down with the water or just a slight angle.”
Staying on a straight course is also important to keep the many trolling lines from tangling. If you do make any turns, make sure they are wide and slow so the lines will not contact one another.
The wind can often play havoc with any fisherman, but it is especially a problem when fishing for crappie on open lakes. Dickson, however, does not let the wind deter him.
“In windy conditions on wide-open water, you can use a drift sock instead of a trolling motor,” he said. “You can actually catch more fish with a drift sock because it will slow you down and let you drift in a straight line over an area holding fish. It’s hard to go in a straight line using a trolling motor in the wind.”
When using a drift sock, Dickson also finds marker buoys can come in handy.
“If you pick some (fish) up on the drift, throw out marker buoys to mark those areas for the next drift,” he recommended.
Long lining is a slightly different trolling technique that Dickson accidentally discovered while fishing on Toledo Bend years ago. His party had been fishing behind an island, and was picking up an occasional fish. However, he could not help but notice what appeared to be about a 10-year-old boy nearby who was catching 10 fish to their one.
“He tore us up using a Road Runner jig,” Dickson said. “His dad was running the motor, and the boy just threw the jig out and trolled it around in wide circles.”
I also accidentally discovered the long lining technique while searching for post-spawn crappie on Saline-Larto one late-spring day. I had spent hours fishing jigs down deep in all my favorite spots, but had enjoyed no success. Then out of nowhere, a nice crappie hit my jig just as I was pulling it out of the water. He couldn’t have been more than a foot deep.
I began dragging the jig right under the water’s surface, and started catching more fish. Then it occurred to me that I could use my trolling motor to troll a small Beetle Spin on my ultra-light rig. I picked up a couple of crappie every time I made a pass over the hotspot, and wound up with 40 fish.
Dickson’s similarly serendipitous moment on Toledo Bend led him to develop his own long-lining technique.
“You put on the lightest jig you can, like a 1/32-ounce or smaller, and let it out on about 50 to 80 feet of line to troll behind the boat,” he said.
Regular jig heads and small spinners such as the Road Runner can be used, or small spinners can be clipped to plain or colored jig heads.
As with vertical trolling, Dickson uses a number of poles set at different angles to cover as much water as possible. Normally, he sets out eight poles that can cover approximately 30 horizontal feet.
One difference between vertical trolling and long lining is that more speed is required with the latter method. The trolling motor should be adjusted to about three or four mph.
“It takes a lot of practice to learn how much line to let out and at what speed to troll to get the bait down to a certain depth, but it can be very effective for catching crappie and bass,” Dickson said. “You can also use a weight to get it down to the bottom if you want.”
When long lining, you can go in a straight line or even make wide circles if you don’t have too many lines out to get tangled. Dickson claims this technique works well even in the wind. You just need a lot of open water that does not have many snags.
Long lining can also work with a wind sock and small boat. One of Dickson’s favorite places for this type of fishing is Grand Bayou Reservoir after it has been lowered several feet to control aquatic vegetation. After such drawdowns, you cannot launch a large boat, and have to improvise.
Dickson drags his canoe to the water, and then deploys a wind sock to drift long lines across the deep open water near the dam.
This ability to adapt the trolling technique to different lakes and boats makes it a highly effective way to fish. Whether you prefer long line or short, big boat or small, trolling for crappie will put more fish in your freezer this winter.
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