Guide Brad Whitehead nets a crappie for his son, Nathan, on a late summer side-pulling trip on Cedar Creek Lake in northwest Alabama.
So, You Want to Side-Pull
by Greg McCain
Turn the boat to cover water
Amid a crappie culture that continually searches for the next big thing, the technique of side-pulling remains an efficient method of production some 40 years after its inception.
Originating on Pickwick Lake, the technique continues to evolve with the addition of advanced tactics, boats and rods designed for the technique, and electronics that pinpoint fish.
As the story goes, Pickwick crappie-fishing legend Roger Gant discovered side-pulling when he lost power on his boat, and the wind swept him away from his normal fishing locations. Gant kept fishing and soon realized that crappie liked the presentation of the sideways drift, lines dangling out the side of the boat. Soon he was refining the new approach, and it quickly became his signature technique as he guided clients.
Fast forward to the present. Alabama guide Brad Whitehead acknowledges that he gets some incredulous looks as he continues to polish the practice of side-pulling. Combine the right equipment, basic knowledge of crappie behavior, and perhaps some innovative tweaks, and side-pulling endures, even in a crappie culture that continues to leave multi-rod set-ups behind.
“Side pulling still catches fish,” Whitehead said. “Roger is the master side-puller, but it can still work for anyone. I made a few changes that fit what I do. When you get out on the water and put everything together, it can be as effective as any technique going for catching crappie.”
Whitehead fishes out of a War Eagle 754VS, a boat designed specifically for the task. He says other aluminum boats will work but perhaps not as efficiently as the War Eagle. Whitehead sits in the rear on a pedestal, swivel seat within reach of the tiller-steer Yamaha, various Humminbird electronics, up to four rods, and an 82-lb.-thrust Motor Guide mounted on the right side of the boat. Middle and front pedestal seats on the right complete the fishing arrangements with livewell and battery compartment built on the left side to provide balance.
Fishermen sit facing the left side of the boat, which also features up to nine Hi-Tek Stuff rod holders.
“With this arrangement, fishermen are covering fresh water all day long,” Whitehead said. “One of the complaints that I got while spider rigging is that people in the front were catching the fish before people in the back had a chance at them.”
Whitehead said he still practices some of the techniques that Gant used for years. Side-pulling is best on those windy spring days when other trollers find conditions difficult.
“Roger Gant won a national championship on Ross Barnett when other people in the tournament couldn’t sit out there in the wind in 21-foot glass boats,” Whitehead said.
B’n’M developed a rod specifically for the technique. It’s called The Difference by Roger Gant and comes in eight-, nine-, and 10-foot versions. Whitehead favors the eight- and nine-footers, which he pairs with baitcasters filled with 10-lb. Vicious low-vis mono.
Whitehead doesn’t ask his clients if they can cast but rather if they can count, meaning he strips off line in one-foot increments in order to place baits at precise depths.
He drops the lines with two heavy jigs, usually ¼-oz., plus another weight above the top jig. Whitehead has experimented with many types of jigs but recently settled on Fin Spins as his go-to jig head. He pairs them with the Charlie Brewer 2 1/8” Double-Action Minnow or Crappie Magnet plastics.
He uses the plastics almost exclusively after previously using little other than hair jigs.
Average pulling speed for Whitehead is close to one mph, as low as .3 in the coldest water but at least one mph in 70-degree water.
“One of the things that I didn’t realize is that you’re not targeting structure, tree tops or other types of wood structure,” Whitehead said. “We don’t want our lines hung up or tangled up all the time.
“We want to cover a lot of water in a short period of time. I never believed that you could catch a crappie doing 1.2 or 1.3 mph. I know you can in the summer time, but I’m talking about in the spring. That’s one of the things great about this technique. You can get out there in the wind and go.”
The standard on-the-go approach is not always best, however. Those situations have caused Whitehead to re-evaluate pulling under certain conditions. On slick, high-pressure days, the fish may hug structure, which creates havoc for regular side-pulling. Whitehead changes his approach to either vertical jigging with a single pole or bumping or easing over structure with multiple rods out.
For one-poling, Whitehead jigs with 7½’ Richard Williams Crappie Wizard rods by B’n’M and opts for lighter line, six-lb. Vicious clear. His lure of choice for the vertical approach is a ¼-oz. Deep Ledge Jig by Steve Welch. He uses the same plastics used in pulling. Whitehead will tip with a minnow if the water temp is below 50.
For easing over the structure on a dead calm day, he likes longer rods, preferably the 12’ Duck Command Double Touch Models by B’n’M. Typically, he downsizes to 1/32-oz. jigs for this approach.
“When you get out on the water and put everything together, it can be as effective as any technique going for catching crappie.” – Brad Whitehead, Alabama Crappie Guide
“There are a lot of things you can do other than just traditional side-pulling,” Whitehead said. “People often want to say that side-pulling limits what you can do. That’s just not the case.”
Whitehead said he has considered going the “live” route with his electronics but has decided against making the switch. With the transducer to his Humminbird units pointing in the direction of boat movement, he can see what’s coming up. He adjusts accordingly, occasionally slowing down to tempt fish or speeding up to raise baits over potential snags.
“Side-pulling benefits the way that I like to fish,” Whitehead said. “Yes, people still give you those looks, but most of them have never experienced a good day of side-pulling. If they had, they would know just how good and how much fun side-pulling can be.”
(Greg McCain is a former educator and newspaper writer. Now a freelance writer from prime crappie country in northwest Alabama, he has hundreds of credits in state and regional print and digital outlets.)