Trolling Crankbaits for Crappie

By: J. White

I have been asked by some of my good friends here on Crappie.com to share my experiences with trolling crankbaits over the last six years or so, and I am happy to do so. Just keep in mind though, this is just what has worked for me. There are a quite a few folks trolling crankbaits now, and I’m sure I could learn from a lot of them. Even though much of this has been discussed in post before, I hope putting it all in one place will help those of you who might just be getting started.

Before I get into specifics, first I’d like to talk a little about what I feel are some of the advantages of trolling crankbaits, for those of you who might be wondering why a person would even want to fish this way.

Trolling for crappie

Covering water: At the faster speeds used, you cover a tremendous amount of water in a days time, and you can learn a lot about the lake by watching your sonar as you troll, observing depth changes, cover, baitfish and larger fish. It helps with learning a new lake, or if you have been away for awhile and have no idea where the fish are holding.

Depth control: Even if, in the beginning, you have no idea how deep that bait is running, if you catch a fish, and can repeat the amount of line out and boat speed, you can put it right back in the “zone” time after time, and adjust your other rods to the same. Boat speed + amount of line out, with a given lure, will put you right back at the
same depth with ease.

Reaction strike: I believe Crappie will often nail a crankbait when it comes wiggling by their nose out of a sort of involuntary reaction, even at times when they  are non-aggressive and not in a feeding mood.

Outstanding in rough water: When it’s rough, due to wind, boat wakes, or both, no other method I have ever seen is as unaffected as long-line trolling crankbaits. I’m not saying it is without it’s challenges, but you can catch fish right up to the point of what your boat can handle without sinking.

Big fish: Even though I sometimes catch Crappie that are not much bigger than the lure, I have caught more fish over two pounds trolling crankbaits than all the other methods I’ve used combined. It is truly amazing just how large a bait a slab Crappie will eat.

Interested yet? You might be saying, “There must be a downside”, and there are a few. One, for me, is that this is not always a technique for catching large numbers of fish on a single outing. Occasionally, I do get a limit, but far more often it is just five or ten good fish a trip. One reason for this, is that depending on how many rods you have out, and how far back you are running your baits, when you pass through a school of fish, it takes some time and distance to turn and get back on them again. If you can get them to bite a vertical jigging or even casting presentation, these are probably faster ways to load a cooler. And it can get stressful if there are a lot of other boats in a small area. If due to weather, or whatever reason, the fish are buried way down in the brush on a particular day, it can make for a tough bite. But where crankbaits shine for me, is consistency – being able to catch a few good fish just about every time out, and finding the areas that hold fish on unfamiliar waters in a reasonable amount of time.

So with that being said, I will get into the nuts and bolts of what I do, long-lining crankbaits out of the back of the boat.

Trolling for crappie

Tackle: Lets start with line. Lately I have been using 12 lb. test Berkly Fluorocarbon line. There are a lot of advantages to some of the braided “superlines”, first in my opinion is long life, followed by lack of stretch. However, the braided lines create some challenges when used with release clips on planer boards (more on these later) which at this point are more than I want to deal with, so for now I’m sticking with the fluorocarbon. “Why so heavy?”, you might  ask. Well, for several reasons. One is that I often hook into other species of fish, some of them big. I’ve caught cats, stripers, smallmouth and  largemouth to name just a few. I don’t care so much if I get these fish to the boat, as much as I don’t want them breaking off and getting away with my lure! This is the level of tackle I have arrived at using to keep that to a minimum. Secondly, I’m lazy! With 12 lb. I can generally go at least one full day, if not several, without having to cut back and retie lines. It is not unusual to find a school of fish and catch several quickly, then hit a lull – you don’t want to be re-tying lines (or untangling stuff) while “It’s On”. I have never felt that this size line adversely affected the bite, and I do fish in some really clear water at times. Rods and reels: I know some will differ with me, but I feel too soft a rod action makes it harder to “stick” fish on the strike. I like 7′ medium action Ugly Stick casting rods, tough and not terribly expensive. I use Daiwa SG17LCA linecounter reels now, and like them a lot, but there are lots of other brands out there that will work. I started out using the linecounters that clip onto your rod – they are better than guessing, but didn’t work well, or at all with braided line for me.  It is important to me to know how much line I have out, not only to have an idea of how deep the lures are running, but to feel confident I am repeating what I was doing when the fish bite, then stop for awhile. Just tossing the baits out, if the fish stopped biting, I was always wondering if maybe I was unknowingly fishing shallower or deeper than I had been earlier.

trolling for crappie

Boat set-up: I use the gas motor most of the time, using a trolling plate that I built myself similar to the Happy Troller plate. It slows down my 50 horse Honda to the right speed, usually 1.4 to 2.0 mph. Without the plate, I could only slow down to 3 mph or so, too fast for Crappie in my experience. I am monitoring my speed with a Lowrance GPS, and also using the plotter screen to mark brush, fish caught, and to retrace my path when I want. There are other ways to slow down, such as dragging  5 gallon buckets or drift socks, or ideally, trolling with an auxiliary “kicker” motor. Another trick I have seen is dragging the electric motor in the water, to slow down the trolling speed of your gas outboard. Doesn’t make a huge difference, but if you are close and need just a little more “slow down”, it might be the ticket. There is nothing wrong with trolling with your electric motor – if your batteries can hold up to the task. I started off using the electric, I just went with the wind if there was any, and in calm conditions, I tilted my outboard out of the water. Dragging the lower unit of an outboard through the water eats up a lot of battery power. Rodholders need to be sturdy and secure. I like the Attwood gear-lock type. A baitcast reel nestles down into the cut-out really nicely, and you don’t have to worry about a rig being pulled overboard if it hangs up and you can’t stop right away, or a big fish is trying to take it away from you. I have my sonar and GPS set so I can see them at all times, sitting or standing, and when sitting, face almost straight back. I spend most of my time looking back and forth between the screens and my rods, and yes, I have ran over things! It helps if you are part owl, or have eyes in the back of your head. I run anywhere from two to six rods at once, depending on conditions like wind, the likelihood of hanging up, or how well the fish are biting. My most common spread is two planer boards off each side of the boat, and one rod straight out the back.


Bass Pro Shops - Free Shipping on orders $50+

The lure itself: OK, I wouldn’t want to take all of the enjoyment of finding your own pet “killers” away from you… But lets just say the 200 and 300 series Bandits are a good standard to judge all others by. They are proven, they work, and I use them quite a bit. A plus, Bandits come in a huge variety of colors, including the wild, fluorescent ones I like at times. I use some baits that are larger bodied, some that dive deeper, some with different actions, but day in, day out, the Bandit is hard to beat. I mainly buy 300 series, as I can make them run as shallow as I want by just shortening the amount of line I have out. At times, I might only be running them 20 or 30 feet behind the rod (or planer board). At the other extreme, I rarely let out more than 100 feet. If I need to get deeper, I’ll switch to a deeper-diving lure, or occasionally use weight ahead of the lure. Some considerations in picking a lure: Almost without exception, the baits I use will come from the factory with #6 treble hooks installed. This is just a result of body size, but it is a quick and easy guideline. Another is action. I seem to do better with baits that have a medium to tight wiggle. I have tried some with slow, lazy wobbles and so far have been disappointed.  How do you know how deep the lure is running, or will run? There are charts/books you can buy that will tell you this, but I’ve always relied on trial and error. If for example, you are trolling along in 20 feet of water with 300 Bandits, with say 60 feet of line out, and you cross a shallow spot where the bottom comes up to 15 feet, then drops back off, watch the rod tips. If you don’t see them bounce, you know you are shallower than 15 feet. Later, if you cross a spot where it comes up to 12 feet, and the baits dig bottom for a second, you can say you are at least 12 feet deep – you will soon get an idea of how deep a given lure and amount of line out will run. As for colors, I have learned certain colors work on particular lakes and times of the year pretty consistently, but it is largely just a matter of experimentation. Don’t be afraid to try “silly” colors, even in clear water. That is part of the beauty of trolling with several rods, you can start out with several different colors and depths, and let the fish tell you what they want that day.

Bass Pro Shops - Cabin Fever Sale

Where to fish: This may not mean anything to you on different types waters, but it is what has worked for me. Any of the lakes I fish have at least a main creek channel running towards the dam, if not a river channel. It is not often that I catch fish that I can’t in some way say a channel is involved. It may be over the main channel in the Summer or Winter, or over branch or feeder creeks in the Spring and Fall – or on the flats or a point beside the channel.
And when I say “over the channel”, I mean just that – I may catch fish only 7 or 8 feet deep, suspended over a channel that bottoms out at 40,50,60 feet or deeper at times. This was the biggest “light bulb moment” to me in my learning curve with crankbaits – You don’t have to be anywhere near the bottom, or anything for that matter, to catch fish more often than not. They may be relating to something on the bottom, but be hovering 40 feet over it.  Which is not to say you can’t target specific, deep water brushpiles – on lakes where I know the locations, and how deep the top of the brush is, I can skim baits over the top within feet, if not inches, by knowing just how much line I can let out on that particular pile without getting hung up. You do have to take into account though, when lakes are unusually low, like in winter draw down. This is learned by trial and error, and experience with a plug-knocker!  On depth, I have had more trouble with fishing too deep than not deep enough. Get below the fish, and it is pretty certain you aren’t going to catch them. One thing to watch for – if you are only getting hit on the inside rods when you turn, you may be too deep or too fast. If you are only getting bit on the outside rods when you turn, you may need to speed up. Some days you may have to vary the speed to interest the fish, and trolling “S” curves will do this, and is easier than adjusting motor speed up and down for me. A trick: If you are trolling over a particular spot that should be holding fish, and can’t get a hit, try “stalling” or stopping the boat just as the baits come over it for a few seconds, then taking off again. It takes a little visualization to picture how far behind you the baits are, and where they are in relation to the brushpile or whatever you are targeting, but sometimes this will make the fish go wild.

One little disclaimer here – I am starting to see, after fishing in some far-off waters with some of my new Crappie.com friends, that if in your particular lake the fish don’t often suspend in open water, and spend most of the time hanging close to cover, trolling crankbaits may be of less value to you than it has been to me.
Also if the population where you fish is predominantly Black Crappie, you may have more trouble making it work for you. I do catch some nice “specks” from time to time, but most of what I catch are White Crappie.


Seasonal patterns: Nothing unusual here, I treat Spring and Fall a lot alike, and Summer is a lot like Winter. Shallower and further up-lake in the first two, deeper and further down-lake usually in the latter. I would say from pre-spawn staging till Fall is best for trolling crankbaits, with the “dog-days” of Summer maybe the best, but I have yet to find a time of the year when you can’t catch a few doing it. One thing worth mentioning is that up until this past Winter, I had not tried much cold weather trolling. Although we had a mild Winter this past one, I did give it a try and was pleasantly surprised. I caught some of the biggest fish I had caught in years in water as cold as 40 degrees, and was not really fishing much slower than I normally would, still around 1.5 mph. I was trolling through balls of baitfish 20-25 feet deep, over 50-60 feet of water.

Helpful hints and things to have: First is the plug-knocker, it pays for itself quickly with baits saved from snags. Another is a snap on the end of your line. Not only does it make it quick and easy to change lures, but when the inevevitable snarl of two or more lines happens, it is a life-saver. When you get your hands on the first lure,
un-snap it and lay it aside. Keep doing this as each lure involved in the mess comes aboard, closing the snap after you remove the lure. Lines with just a snap on them are a whole lot easier to untangle than fighting with treble hooks grabbing on to you and everything in the boat! The net: I spent way too much time at first getting hooks out of landing nets – now I use a neoprene rubber “stretch” net. Heavy and ungainly, but sure beats the time lost untangling trebles from netting.


trolling for crappieFine tuning : You should make sure all your baits run true beside the boat at the fastest speed you will use. A bait that is running sideways will probably roll and twist your line, plus it won’t achieve the depth it is capable of – or that you are expecting. Some of the deepest diving lures just can’t handle as high a speed as other baits,
they will “roll out” and spin. You will hear of bending the line-tie eyelet to make the bait run true. I haven’t had a lot of luck with this. Most of them run OK out of the box, but I have run into a few individual lures that I just couldn’t tune, and they get retired to the shop wall. I have always experimented with changing to different size hooks on either the belly or tail of baits, you can make slight changes to the action of the bait and how fast it rises (or suspends) on a pause for example by switching out one or both #6 trebles to bigger (heavier) #4 hooks. I have never hesitated either to replace the junky hooks that come on some baits with high quality hooks. I like Gamakatsus, but any premium hook is way ahead of what comes on some baits. You might think that on a soft-mouthed Crappie it would not matter – but I was surprised by the difference it can make. I have not really formed an opinion on red hooks yet, but I have had a few trips where they seemed to catch more fish.

Planer boards: Only in the last three years have I started using these, but they have quickly become a big part of my trolling. For anybody who isn’t familiar with these, they carry your lines out to each side of the boat, allowing you to cover as wide a path as you care to. I use the boards from Offshore Tackle Company, and have been well pleased with them. A really nice option for these is the spring loaded flags, which give you an indication of when you are dragging a small fish or piece of trash on your lure. This style of board clips onto your line with rubber-padded, spring-loaded clips. You just let out however much line out you would normally if you were fishing straight off the rod, clip on the board, and continue letting line out till it is as far away from the boat as you like. The boards will run out away from the boat on roughly a 45 degree angle. I often run boards at 30 and 100 feet from the boat, off both sides. A whole article could be written just on planer boards, but a lot of information is out there already. I would suggest reading anything you can get your hands on about using planer boards for Walleye, and just trolling for them in general. There’s lots of good information there that will directly cross over into Crappie fishing, not only trolling techniques, but boat rigging and control as well.


Added weights: I don’t often do this, though I hear of a lot of people who put weights ahead of their crankbaits with good success. Some of the reasons I have been reluctant to do this, are that if you have several lines out and have to stop, for example to retrieve a snagged bait, unless you reel them in quickly, your other
lines will drop to the bottom and you risk having several hung up. Also, I just haven’t really needed to get deeper than the baits will run without weight on many occasions. Another reason is that I feel sometimes having the baits far away from the boat is a good thing. I believe a lot of boat traffic, particularly in clear water,
spooks the fish and without weight you generally fish further from the boat. When I do add weight, I like to use another trick I picked up from the Walleye guys, snap-weights. This is just a release clip similar to what you use with the planer boards, with a weight attached directly to it, usually no more than 1 or 2 ounces.
You let out 20 or 30 feet of line, clip on the weight, and let out enough more line to get the depth you want. When you get a strike, just reel in to the weight,  un-snap and drop it in the boat, and reel in the fish. With a 2 ounce weight 30 feet in front of a 300 Bandit, then an additional 70 feet, you can get all over the bottom in 40 feet of water, I found out this past Winter. Not very often you would want to fish this deep, but it can be done if that’s where the fish are. Another wrinkle is using huge weights, 4 ounces or even more, to keep the lines almost vertical and close to the boat. I am experimenting with that technique  now, because I am interested in the advantages in maneuverability it gives you when you are trying to troll along a twisting depth contour, or weave between
other boats in close quarters. From what I have seen so far, this is going to take some very specialized tackle, mainly rods and rod holders to make it work as well as I’d like. Maybe this will be a subject for another article someday.

Don’t be discouraged if you try and don’t succeed at first, you might just try tossing out a crank when you are trolling from one top to another, when you are doing other types of fishing. I tried off and on for a year or more before it started coming together, I was trying to make it too complicated. When you get in the right place at the right time, it’ll seem as easy as falling off a log! Just watch out for all those treble hooks, most of the time only one will be in the fish, and when it’s flopping around in the net or boat, it’s really easy to end up with the other one stuck somewhere you won’t like! I hope this helps any of you who are wanting to give trolling crankbaits a try, and that you get as much enjoyment from it as I have.

VIA: Crappie.com