For Richard Saunders, any time he can be on the water is the best time to be crappie fishing on Sinclair, but through the winter months, while he is trolling heavy jigs in deep water, he is thinking about March, when the water temperatures begin to rise and the crappie move shallow. His favorite way to catch slabs is shooting docks in late spring, but in March trolling is deadly effective on Sinclair — if you can keep the jigs away from the linesides.
“You’re looking for that magic number, when the water temp hits 60 or 62 degrees. It’s hammer time, then. It’ll look like a carousel with all the boats circling around in here,” Richard said while cruising through Rooty Creek marking fish hanging near the bottom on the graph.
It was February 12, and the water temperature was hanging at a chilly 48 degrees, but Richard was pretty sure we could put a few fish in the boat using methods similar to those he relies on in March. In the back of Rooty Creek, Richard saw what he was looking for on the graph, cut off the motor and began putting out rods. With six rods out the back, and six more spread in reach of the front of his bass boat, we began trolling a variety of jigs to try and key in on what the fish wanted.
Richard’s standard set-up consists of four eight-foot crappie rods spread across the back of the boat with two six-foot rods tucked in close to the motor. On the front deck of the boat, he staggers 12-, 10-, and eight-foot rods off either side. All of the reels are spooled with 4-lb. test.
“A lot of guys fish 6-lb., but 4-lb. is plenty strong. And if the crappie get a little bite-shy, it’s better,” he said. “You can see, even with those big ol’ hybrids, 4-lb. is enough.”
With the limber crappie rods, we both realized quickly that 4-lb. test line could handle fish bigger than it was originally intended for. Keeping those bigger fish out of the other lines was a different trick all together. At about 8 a.m., within 30 minutes of putting the lines out, we had boated four hybrids and a slab of a crappie. Three of those hybrids — by no fault of Richard’s — had run rampant through the lines out the back of the boat, creating tangles and coming into the boat with multiple jigs in knots around their mouths. Richard hauled in the one hybrid that was landed smoothly.
“There’s not much you can do, but get a quick hook set and try to get them away from those other lines,” Richard said when asked about landing hybrids on crappie gear. It was a trick I never figured out, despite repeated opportunities to hone my skills.
The rods in the back of the boat were rigged with assorted colors of 1/16-oz. Triple-Ripple jigs. In a light stain, we fished colors like Acid Rain, John Deere Green, Green Hornet and Yellow Jacket. The rods in the front of the boat were rigged to run a little deeper, with double jigs — a 1/16-oz. jig on the top, with a 1/32-oz. jig tied about two feet down the line. Richard used loop knots on all the jigs to provide a little extra action.
By 8:15, we had landed another hybrid, a white bass and two more crappie, most of them coming from the shallower jigs off back of the boat. The crappie appeared to like the deeper-running jigs, though, because they were taken off the double-jig rigs.
Similar to dropping buoys, Richard uses his GPS to marks spots where he has either trolled through a school of fish or marked them on the sonar. He also uses his GPS to determine his trolling speed. We were pulling lines at about 1.1 mph to begin with but took the speed down a notch to get the jigs lower in the water column. Richard said 1.1 mph is a good speed when the crappie get a little more active.
“They’re a little deeper now, and with the water temp as cool as it is, getting ’em to chase it and jump for joy is hard,” Richard said. “But on into March they should bite a little easier, and I’ll switch to all 1/16-oz. jigs and troll a little faster.”
When the weather warms up, Richard will also have a chance to get his 9-year-old daughter Hannah out on the boat more often. One of the things he enjoys most about being on the boat, is being on the boat with his daughter.
“Man, that’s what it’s all about; time spent with your family makes it all worth it,” he said. “We sit in the boat and we can talk. A lot of the time, it’s catching up on time — talking about school last week. But you’re making memories. Memories like that you can never take away; you can carry them with you the rest of your life. My daddy did it for me. Man, there’s times I’ll never forget being with him in the outdoors.”
Catching fish may be fun, but Hannah likes watching the graph and the boat ride the best.
“I’ll have it running wide open down the middle of the lake and she’ll be hollering ‘Go faster daddy!’”
Which raised the question, why would you need a bass boat to go crappie fishing?
“Cause I had a bass boat,” Richard replied. “I was bass fishing at the time. I wasn’t just going to sell my bass boat when I could screw in a few rodholders. I just screwed ’em in, and I’m a crappie fisherman now.”
Richard has been chasing crappie on Sinclair for about two years now, and said it’s tougher than it looks.
“It’s relaxing, but it can get hectic, and it’s a challenge. You ain’t just going to come out here, throw some jigs, ride around and catch fish,” he said, after directing me to tie 1/8-oz. jigs onto the lines in the back of the boat.
We made a short run about halfway out to the mouth of Rooty Creek and began trolling off the creek side of a point Richard has had a lot of luck on in March. Fishing in about 30 feet of water, with the jigs pulling at between 12 and 15 feet deep, we continued picking up a few crappie and about twice as many hybrids, with a few 2- to 3-lb. stripers thrown in. By about 10:30 a.m., we had 12 crappie in the livewell, including two that weighed a little under 1 1/2 pounds — and we would probably have had more if we could have kept the jigs in the water and away from the linesides.
Looking for hybrid-free water, we ran to Goat Island at about 11:30 a.m. and found a few other boats trolling behind the island. The fishermen all indicated that the fishing was slow, but we put three more keepers in the livewell and released four small ones.
After running up to Crooked Creek to another of Richard’s honey holes, we marked clouds of baitfish hanging in a straight line across the 15-foot mark on the graph, and we put out the lines again. The bite was slow but steady, and we continued to put multiple species of fish in the boat.
“When you see them in a straight line like that, you hardly ever get into them good,” Richard said. “You want them to be a little more staggered.”
With about two-dozen crappie in the livewell, Richard was goaded into heading back to Rooty Creek for another pull through those hard-tugging linesides. Although the intended target for the day was crappie, it was hard to resist the temptation of schools of larger fish eager to take a boat ride. We ran back down to the opposite side of the same point in Rooty Creek, and before we could get all the lines out one of the rods bent to the water with the weight of a good fish.
Richard got a hold on the rod and instructed me to get all the other lines in because, “This is a good one!” he said. With the trolling motor purring, he steered toward the fish giving chase because he couldn’t turn it on 4-lb. test and a 10-foot crappie rod. When he finally pulled the spent fish up alongside the boat, I netted and brought a 7-lb. striper on board. It was quite a fish on lightweight gear, but it wouldn’t be the last.
We got the lines back out, and as soon as Richard got the boat back on the line we had been trolling earlier, another rod started bouncing — then another, and another, and another. We had a dilemma — and a good problem to have. There were four lively stripers on the ends of those lines, and only four hands in the boat. You can imagine the bedlam that broke loose as we worked furiously to get the fish in while keeping the other lines out of the way, all the time hoping that another rod didn’t start bouncing. And then it did.
Among a tangle of line, fish and jigs, we managed to get all but one of the fish in, including one that had to be handlined because of the mess it made running across the lines in the back of the boat.
“I bet there’s somebody in one of those houses watching us and just laughing right now,” Richard said furiously pumping in one of the fish-free rods.
With a better first mate, I imagine Richard could have handled the situation a little better, but I didn’t care. Catching fish is fun, even if you do have to pull them in with your hands. And with the fish still biting, we turned and headed back to Little River Marina with just enough crappie for a mess.
The crappie fishing should be in full-swing this month on Sinclair, and it wouldn’t be so bad if you “accidentally” get into a few linesides, to boot.