A big Kansas crappie left no doubt that it wanted to eat a
bright-colored crankbait trolled past its face. (Photo: Brent Frazee)
Break Out the Bandits for Crappie
by Brent Frazee
Joe Bragg is a well-known Kansas crappie guide, and often fishes professional tournaments. After competing in a national crappie tournament in the Deep South, Joe Bragg decided to bring a little piece of Mississippi back to his home state of Kansas.
Up until that time, Bragg always fished vertically for big crappies. But watching the Mississippi boys dominate the tournament by trolling crankbaits, he realized that he needed to add a horizontal approach to his arsenal.
“I bought some crankbaits and tried trolling them down there, and it worked right away,” said Bragg, who runs the Thump 30 Guide Service on Milford Lake in northeast Kansas.
“I thought, ‘I have to try this in Kansas.’ Now it’s one of my favorite ways to fish in late spring and early summer.”
Bragg still spends much of the year using his live-imaging sonar, which shows real-time movement of crappies, to fish vertically. But he will get his crankbait box out of storage when the fish scatter and suspend on the main lake.
That generally happens after the crappies have recovered from the spawn and they work their way to the main lake to chase shad. They’re hungry, and they’re roaming in search of food.
They often will not relate to structure and will abandon their ambush tendencies. Instead, they’ll follow the shad on their nomadic journey.
An outing last June on Melvern Lake in eastern Kansas was a perfect example of how effective trolling can be. While many other anglers were dropping jigs or minnows into deep brush, Bragg was on the move far off shore.
He used his trolling motor to control his course and a kicker outboard motor to move him slowly along a charted path. The bright-colored crankbaits he had at the end of four lines cut through the clear water at varying depths.
It didn’t take long for a bright chartreuse and blue bait to attract the attention of a big fish. The rod rattled in the holder, and Bragg quickly reeled it in.
Once he got it in the boat, he found his bait halfway down the crappie’s throat.
“You think they’re hungry?” Bragg said with a laugh. “It takes a big crappie to get a crankbait that size down his throat.”
Bragg was using Bandit 300 and Strike King crankbaits on his trolling rods. He kept his baits about 12 to 15 feet down in 25 feet of water. He maintained a speed of 1.6 to 1.8 miles per hour, just enough to keep the baits moving but with a tight wobble.
Bragg used B’n’M trolling rods from 8- to 16-feet long that he places in holders along the side and back of his boat. That allows him to cover a wide swath of water.
He knew he the crankbaits were tracking correctly when the rod tips were constantly vibrating, indicating the wiggle of the baits.
Bragg kept the baits on a steady path, trolling over underwater points, channel-swing banks, gravel humps, road beds and ledges.
By the time we were done, he and I had reeled in 34 crappies, most of them exceeding Melvern’s minimum size limit of 10 inches.
At a time when other anglers complained about how tough the fishing was, Bragg was satisfied with his success.
But he wasn’t surprised. He has used the same tactic to catch limits of crappies from other Kansas reservoirs such as Milford, Pomona, Hillsdale, and Perry.
“When the crappies scatter on the main lake, trolling is a great way to cover some water,” Bragg said.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN MISSISSIPPI
Such success is nothing new at reservoirs in Mississippi, where trolling is a summer way of life. As soon as the fish spawn and move to the main lake, guides such as Brad Chappell move into trolling gear.
Fishing primarily on Ross Barnett Reservoir this year, Chappell trolls Bandit crankbaits to catch the large crappies that have brought Mississippi fisheries national acclaim.
“Instead of parking on one brush pile, I’ll troll a half-mile run where I’ll bring my baits over multiple stumps and brush piles,” said Chappell, who runs the Brad Chappell Guide Service. “I target ledges with structure and we’ll troll over 25 to 40 pieces of structure.
“Especially in the summer, when those crappies are active, that increases your chances.”
Chappell uses his trolling motor to stay on course, relying on the power provided by lithium batteries to stay out for long periods of time.
“I took the kicker motor off my boat,” he said.
“When the crappies scatter on the main lake, trolling is a great way to cover some water.” ~ Joe Bragg, Crappie Guide
Chappell will put his lines out 55 yards behind the boat. The bite will get better as the shad grow large enough to match the size of the 2-inch-long Bandit 300 crankbaits he uses.
“It’s one of those match-the-hatch type situations,” he said.
As summer progresses, a thermocline (a zone separating the oxygen-rich warmer water and the oxygen-deficient colder zone) sets up, and that plays a big part in trolling strategy, too.
Bragg likes to troll his baits just above the thermocline, where the shad tend to ball up. That’s often 15 to 20 feet deep on many Kansas reservoirs, though it does differ from lake to lake.
He uses an app on his cell phone, Precision Trolling Data, to know how much line to let out to get his crankbaits to dive to the depth he desires. He has line counters on his reels to determine when he has let out enough line.
He generally lets out 100 feet of line to get his crankbaits to dive to the depth where the baitfish are holding.
Whatever the case, trolling can be an excellent way to catch a limit of big crappies in late spring and early summer.
“We’ll troll all the way from late spring to early October,” Chappell said. “As long as the crappies are suspended and scattered, it’s a great way to catch them.”
Brent Frazee is an award-winning writer and photographer from Parkville, Missouri. a suburb of Kansas City. He was outdoors editor for The Kansas City Star for 36 years before retiring in 2016. He continues to freelance for magazines, websites and newspapers.