By Terry Madewell
Crappie fishing boats come in all shapes, models and sizes in an attempt to fit the needs for every situation an angler encounters. When working open water areas many expert anglers and guides are beginning to discover the potential of the pontoon boat.
Guide Buster Rush, from Camden South Carolina, has been guiding clients to big crappie catches for 33 years and Rush has embraced the pontoon as his boat of choice for crappie fishing professionally since 1993.
Oh yeah, swinging in some crappie makes the day fun and enjoyable.
“The simple fact is it works for me personally for fun and in my guiding business,” Rush said. “I guide on several different lakes in South Carolina, from the huge 160,000 acre Lake Marion as well as on Lake Wateree a 13,000 surface acre lake. I also guide on Fishing Creek Lake that’s less than 4,000 surface acres and Stumpy Pond, a small but highly productive 870-acre, stump infested, crappie-filled body of water. But my pontoon handles all of these unique situations exceptionally well year round.”
Rush (803-432-5010) said the pontoon works so well he has two. He keeps a 27-foot boat on Lake Marion and trailers a 24-foot pontoon to the other lakes. He said these stable platform boats have many advantages and a few downsides. He’s weighed the positives for his style of fishing and has found workarounds for the few downsides.
“Whether guiding or fishing with a few friends, the pontoons are roomy and comfortable,” he said. “That’s important to a quality day of fishing and it’s also conducive to success in the fish-catching department. A comfortable angler will have better focus and they will see or feel the subtle bites of crappie. Plus it helps me stay focused on finding just the right spot.
“One thing many anglers don’t realize until they fish from a pontoon is these boats are quite maneuverable and respond well to the electric motor,” Rush said.” Some things I’ve learned the hard way, by experience. Because of the size of the boat and wind catching potential, I must have adequate power in the electric motor to produce the needed thrust. When fishing in windy conditions I always work into the wind or despite my best efforts the back of the boat will swing around. Unless the wind is real strong, I can hold over a specific spot and fish effectively when fishing into the wind.”
Rush trolls multiple rods with jigs during certain times of the year and his mobility is not impaired with the big rig.
“I’ll work along inundated creek channels, ledges around humps and over sunken woody cover,” he said. “I often utilize the big motor on the boat as my power source when trolling and by putting it in reverse and using drift socks, or multiple socks if needed, I can control the speed to within a tenth of a mile per hour. I prefer 0.7 to 1.1 miles per hour speed, varying with time of year, depth, time of day and water color. Plus with the motor running in reverse and using graphs, I can snake along just about any creek or ledge on these lakes. Many channels have twists and turns that I must negotiate to stay right on target. I do pay close attention to the graph and maneuvering the boat because I have much less room for error with a big rig, but it is very effective.”
Rush said another big plus is that by going in reverse, he can utilized the entire front and sides of the pontoon for multiple lines, enabling him to check different jig sizes, colors and potential depths quicker than using fewer rods in a smaller boat.
“We have no limit on the number of rods we can use in South Carolina so I’ll run three off each side and up to six out of the front, since we’re reverse trolling,” he said. “This way I maximize my search for a productive pattern and quickly get my rigs set for maximum efficiency. For me, more fish equals more fun.
“I do have to be careful when I need to make 180-degree turns,” Rush said. “That can lead to tangled lines if I try to turn tight so I make a gentle turn and I often reel in a few rigs. On normal twists and wiggles along my target path it works well because I vary the length of my rods so the inside lines won’t interfere or tangle with others. I keep the longest rods to the outside and have shorter rods progressing into toward the middle. The rods on the sides are 14, 12 and 10 feet long respectively and the ones directly behind the boat are eight-feet long. It’s a simple but effective system.
“When trolling I rely on Driftmaster Rodholders to secure my rods,” he said. “The pontoon rails make it easy to set up and have the rods set the way I want them. I can effectively cover up to about a 35-foot swath of water.”
Rush said the pontoon is the ideal boat for nocturnal fishing with lights. He said to use quality anchors and ensures a solid, tight-roped anchor set on both ends of the boat before fishing.
“All of my friends that fish for crappie at night have pontoon boats,” he said. “It’s just a logical choice with the room, comfort, ability to fish numerous rods and even snooze a bit when tired of catching fish. In addition, all the guides that I know using pontoons have also set up a private, enclosed area for a restroom. That’s handy anytime, but especially when I have families or couples fishing.”
Pontoons offer plenty of room and are excellent for trolling.
“It’s also surprising to some how well the boat works in shallow water,” he said. “I can get into water as shallow as most “V” hull type boats and effectively fish,” Rush said. “What I can’t do is get into tight places where there’s close quarters standing timber or into swamps where cypress trees are clustered.”
He said tradeoffs are inevitable when selecting any boat over another. With the pontoon he can make long open water trips in comfort and reasonable speed that small boats suited for swamps and tight quarters cannot.
Rush said that very windy conditions will also create more issues using the pontoon boat.
“Up to a point, I like the advantage of a stable platform in windy conditions that pontoons offer,” he said. “But the wind will occasionally reach a point where my boat control won’t be as precise as it often has to be and in those cases I fish sheltered water.”
Rush said that despite the limiting factors, the pontoon is his boat of choice to make his living.
“I guided part time for 11 years and used a small boat and it performed well,” Rush said. “But when I started full-time in 1993, I bought a pontoon and that’s all I’ve ever needed and now my son Russell also guides and he uses a pontoon. The pontoon excels in open water fishing and is very adaptable to other types of crappie fishing, up to a point. Like any boat it has positive features, but some drawbacks. If an angler has the right set of conditions the pontoon can be a great tool for crappie fishing. It’s more effective than many anglers realize.”
BEST TIME OF YEAR FOR PONTOONS
According to crappie guide Buster Rush, the best times of the year for a pontoon boat can vary from one place to another based on prevailing weather conditions, but some considerations are universal.
“One ideal time for pontoons is the summer,” he said. “I often fish open water in the middle of the lakes and the pontoon is ideally suited for that. Plus, when it really starts getting hot, such as in August, we’ve got a top canopy as a sun shield and even a little shade can help a lot. The canopy also provides cover during a pop-up rain storm if caught out in that or on those drizzly, no lightening type rains when fish bite like crazy the pontoon is perfect. I think the summer is when they excel but also during cold weather, again when fish are often found in open water and the need for a shelter and the ability to move around a little to help stay warm is beneficial.”