Spider-Rigging For Lake Weiss Cold-Water Crappie

Sonny and Coy Sipes have honed their skills at catching tournament- winning strings of heavy slabs.

Roy Kellett | February 1, 2008

Sonny (left) and Coy Sipes’ boat is rigged with tandem seats in the bow so they can sit side-by side to fish an array of rods pushing baits in front of the boat.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how the cold can cut you to the bone, but there was no time to worry about that. I was standing on the deck of a Triton boat, right foot crossed over left with the butt of a 16-foot B&M rod wedged between my knees. In my right hand, which was semi-frostbitten from countless submersions into an icy bait bucket full of minnows, I was holding another 16 footer and swinging a crappie over the side of the boat. I could hear recently caught fish flopping in the floor momentarily as Guilford “Sonny” Sipes picked them up one at a time, measured them to make sure they were at least 10-inches long, and threw them into the livewell. I unhooked a fish, half threw it over my shoulder, lay the rod in my right hand down and took the
other from between my knees, using my left hand to land another crappie.

Sonny’s cousin Coy was to my right, also too busy landing fish to do anything else.

For a solid hour on a Monday morning in mid January, it was like that. It took all of one pass over the top of a ledge where a shallow flat dropped abruptly into the river channel to catch a limit of black crappie with a technique seasoned crappie catchers call spider rigging.

I met the pair, who are crappie-fishing experts, a little after 7 a.m. in Cherokee County, Ala. at a marina on Hwy 9 right before a long bridge cross- es Lake Weiss, a body of water known hereabouts as one of the best crappie lakes in the country.

The boat the boys took home as the winners of the 2004 Bass Pro Shops Crappie Masters tournament was easy to spot, with a custom wrap, sponsor logos and loads of long rods strapped down.

The cousins, who originally hail from Arkansas, of course like the option of sitting in a duck blind, taking shots at mallards from time to time, and they might indulge in a little deer hunting now and then, too, but what they love above all else is crappie fishing. They were taking me to show me how it’s done.

I followed them down the road to a boat ramp, we hopped aboard and soon we were idling out of a long cove toward the main lake so the pair could show me a way to catch plenty of fish on Weiss in February.

“We’ve got a bad habit of trying to catch big crappie,” Coy explained as we motored along. “In tournaments we’re trying to weigh the seven heaviest fish we can catch. A lot of guides can put you on 100 fish a day, but we’re typically going for bigger crappie.”

Coy and Sonny aren’t strangers to big crappie. The last tournament they fished at Weiss, the Sipes Fishing Team weighed in seven fish that went almost 10 pounds. Most impressively, they set a record with their two-day weigh-in total of 37.88 pounds of crappie the year they won the Crappie- Masters tournament in Granada, Miss., besting 167 other boats with 20 fish that aver- aged nearly 2 pounds each. Needless to say, when you catch crap- pie like that, you best have a bigger-than-normal frying pan at the ready when summer rolls around and you get the fish cooker out on the back porch.

When Sonny arrived where he wanted to begin trolling, he turned the big motor off, hopped to the front deck, lowered the trolling motor and started hooking minnows through the lips.

I sat down in the passenger seat of the boat with my pen before Coy exclaimed, “You can write later, Roy. Right now you’re going to catch some fish!”

He was right, and the catching didn’t take more than five minutes to begin with a tactic that anybody with the right gear and a little patience can learn.

I’ll not say that pushing minnows slowly with a spider rig is foolproof. Nothing about the outdoors is. However, the tactic is simple and effective, especially this time of year.

“Crappie fishing on Weiss will be great from mid February on,” Coy explained as we began our outing. “In February, especially when you get a few warm days in a row, the fish will really turn on.”

To effectively fish a spider rig, your boat needs to be set up a little differently than normal. First off, there need to be at least six rods across the bow at different angles so that an assortment of rods can be set out at varying angles. That allows you to cover plenty of water, and the different angles will keep lines from becoming tangled. Also, while not a necessity, a dual pedestal that allows two side-by- side seats means you and a fishing partner can have equal access to the rods.

Sipes’ pre-made crappie rigs use a 3-way swivel to tie-in a dropper hook and minnow and a second line runs from below the 1-oz. weight to a Roadrunner jig head rigged with a minnow.

That’s important when you run through a school of crappie and you start catching fish one after another.

Another important piece of equipment that is relatively inexpensive are the fishing rods. When I fished with Sonny and Coy, we were using 16-foot poles made by B&M, one of the team’s sponsors. The first time I hooked a fish I began reeling, but Coy explained the usefulness of the extra-long fishing rods.

“I started off fishing with 12-foot rods, but Sonny likes these long ones and they only take a few minutes to get used to,” Coy said. “When a fish takes the bait, all you have to do is lift the rod tip, pick the fish up without reeling and swing the fish into the boat.”

Sonny elaborated on long-rod fishing.

“Sometimes when it’s cold and clear, the fish are spooky and the farther you can get your bait from the boat, the better they’ll bite,” he said.

Pushing minnows isn’t as effective unless you can present the baits the right way to waiting fish. Doing so requires a rig that Coy and Sonny rely on heavily this time of year. Sonny and Coy like 6- to 8-lb. Triple Fish fluorocarbon line. Fluorocarbon is not only invisible underwater, it’s also very sensitive, a critical element when the fish get finicky. A three-way swivel is tied to the line. Off the side of the swivel, a short piece of line is used to tie on a small hook, such as a No. 2 Tru-Turn hook with an offset shank. An egg sinker of up to an ounce is placed on another piece of line a foot or two long. A small barrel swivel goes on the line below the egg sinker. A short leader is tied to the opposite end of the barrel swivel, and a Blakemore Roadrunner jig head is tied to the terminal end of the line.

Sipes’ pre-made crappie rigs use a 3-way swivel to tie-in a dropper hook and minnow and a second line runs from below the 1-oz. weight to a Roadrunner jig head rigged with a minnow.

“It’s important to note that the Roadrunner needs to be on a loop knot so it will run right in the water,” Sonny explained.

Sonny and Coy put a minnow on the hook and on the Roadrunner jig heads.

“That Roadrunner head puts out some flash and some vibration, so it draws more strikes,” Sonny said.

On the day we fished, we used orange-and-yellow 1/32-oz. Roadrunners. The orange head proved to be more effective, but the Sipes boys say it can change remarkably fast. They keep an assortment of colors and sizes with Indiana and willowleaf blades on board the boat for such occasions. “There’s a lot of high-tech stuff out there that people are trying,” Coy said. “But they have been making the Roadrunner since 1959, and it’s still a fish-catching machine.”

On the day I fished with the Sipes boys, we caught more than 3-dozen crappie in short order. While a few of the fish were caught on Tru-Turns with minnows, the majority of them came on the minnow-tipped Roadrunners.

When trolling a spider rig in February, the boat should be kept moving between 1 and 1.5 miles per hour. Coy says trolling into the wind is easier because it’s easier to adjust the motor and stay at a constant speed than when you are being pushed faster by the wind. The heavy weights will keep your lines nearly vertical in the water, allowing your minnows to stay in the strike zone longer.

“You have to really watch the line when it’s cold because sometimes the fish won’t really hammer it. Sometimes you’ll just see it twitch a little,” Sonny said.

Spider rigging will be effective for most of this month. As the weather warms, the crappie in Weiss will move from the river-channel ledges to the mouths of creeks. Soon, they’ll be back farther in the creeks, getting ready to move shallower for the spawn. Keep an eye out, and you’re bound to find some crappie.

“We pull jigs, shoot docks… we do it all, but this is what we like to do most,” Coy explained.

Coy and Sonny Sipes know how to catch crappie. You can take their tactics for spider rigging to Weiss this month and load up with a limit of keeper crap- pie. You’ll thank the Sipes boys when it’s time to fry fish.

I know my neighbors will be thanking them for fish come.

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