By Don Wirth
Doubles! Harold Morgan's heavy sinker rig is one of the deadliest crappie methods ever devised.
But it's a fact -- Morgan's a metalhead.
No, he hasn't traded in his axe for a Les Paul and a stack of Marshall amps. Harold, you see, is as skilled at catching crappie as he is at coaxing those shimmering notes out of his steel guitar. And he has a system for probing structure and cover that'll be music to any crappie angler's ears. It's based around sinkers -- big sinkers. The weights Morgan relies on are heavier than those used by most catfishermen, let alone panfishermen. But once you understand why they work so well, we think you'll become a metalhead, too.
Just Shy of an Ounce
No question, crappie fishing is viewed by most folks as an ultralight sport. Tiny minnows and jigs, buggywhip rods and wispy lines are favored by the vast majority of crappie anglers. They leave the heavy stuff to the bass and catfish crowds, believing that in the world of the papermouth, the light touch reigneth supreme.
But Harold Morgan doesn't buy into that line of thinking. The friendly Nashville crappie guide is a legend in the Southeast for his uncanny ability to find and catch these scrappy gamefish regardless of season or conditions. I've shared a boat with him on many occasions, and can promise you his approach is anything but light.
Morgan routinely uses heavy sinkers when hunting slab crappie. No, I'm not talking about a couple of BB-sized split shot pinched on 4-pound line -- I'm talkin' magnum-size sinkers, ones that weigh, as he puts it, "just shy of an ounce."
Morgan keeps plenty of sinkers on hand -- breakoffs in deep brushpiles are common.
Morgan selected a pear-shaped bell sinker with "7/8" stamped on its side. "If you took all the split shot in the average crappie fisherman's boat and melted it together, it wouldn't weigh as much as this one sinker!" He then took out a spinning rod that appeared stout enough to do battle with one of the Priest Lake's big smallmouth bass, and tied the hunk of lead to the end of his line. He next baited up two tuffy minnows to leader lines dangling stiffly off the main line -- an unorthodox-looking rig if ever I'd seen one. The weight caused the tip of his rod to sag. "Let's see if we can hit one over the head," he joked as he lowered the ungainly-looking setup over the side of his boat into the tangle of brush below.
The rod tip relaxed, indicating the sinker had hit bottom. Morgan engaged the reel spool and began s-l-o-w-l-y turning the handle. In a matter of seconds, the rod buckled and he lifted not one, but two slab crappie into the boat! "Love those doubles," he smiled, dropping both fish into his livewell. He rebaited and handed me the rod, urging, "Here, you try it."
The heavy sinker swinging from the end of the line reminded me of some bottom-fishing rigs I'd used for stripers in the past. I flipped the bail and THUNK! the sinker dropped to the bottom like a Buick falling off a bridge. Following Morgan's instructions, I held the rod steady and turned the reel handle slowly. When the weight lifted off bottom, I instantly felt one, then two fish on my line.
Harold and I fished for a little over two hours and caught over 70 crappie -- all from the same brushpile, all on his heavy metal rig. Hmmm . . . so much for ultralight fishing!
"The first time I saw the heavy sinker rig used was on Kentucky Lake years ago, long before there were any depthfinders," Morgan said. "After the lake was formed, we fishermen needed a way to find submerged structures such as creek channel drop-offs, humps and ditches. Many of us started sinking brushpiles for crappie, and we needed a way to locate these as well."
When combined with tube jigs, Harold Morgan's heavy sinker rig is pure dynamite on big crappie.
But even after Morgan got his first "green box" sonar unit, he kept relying on that magnum chunk of lead. He experimented with the heavy rig and eventually refined it into a deadly crappie fishing tool. "The way I use it now, it's a combination bottom probe and presentation device," he explained. "No other crappie technique I've seen gives you more precise control over your bait or lure, especially in thick cover and deep water."
Morgan's heavy-metal crappie system is unusual and ingenious. Here are the elements that make it work:
- A heavy bell sinker, from 1/2 to 1 ounce. After years of fishing the rig, Harold has grown most comfortable with a 7/8-ounce weight. The sinker is tied directly to the end of his fishing line.
- Abrasion-resistant monofilament for the main line, normally 8-pound test.
- Two 6-inch leader lines of stiff, heavy monofilament -- Morgan recommends bargain-basement 20- to 30-pound catfish line for this application. "Don't use premium line for your leaders -- it's way too limp," he cautioned. "You want the leader lines to be stiff and springy so they'll stick out at right angles from the sinker line. This will present the bait or lure more effectively to fish in thick cover, and will help prevent the leaders from wrapping around the main line."
- Two 1/0 or 2/0 Eagle Claw lightweight gold crappie hooks baited with tuffy minnows, or two 1/32-ounce tube or twister jigs. Tie either to the stiff leader lines.
- A 6- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rod. This is a much heavier stick than most crappie anglers are used to fishing, but necessary for handling the heavy sinker. "I don't like an ultralight rod with this setup because of the sinker's weight, and because the rig often catches two fish at a time," Morgan noted.
- A standard-size spinning reel, not an ultralight. "The spool of an ultralight reel is too small to hold a good quantity of 8-pound mono," he said. "You need some line capacity because when you fish thick cover like I do, you have to constantly check your line for abrasion and retie often."
Morgan attaches the first leader line 18 inches above the sinker, and the second 18 inches above the first. This gives his presentation a 3-foot spread, ideal when crappie are suspending. The leaders are attached to the main line with loop knots so they will not slip.
Tube jigs and heavy metal -- a winning combination for crappie.
The best part of Morgan's unorthodox sinker rig: it's amazingly tangle-free and user-friendly. "Unlike standard crappie rigs, this one is very cover-intensive," Harold said. "It bumps, knocks and crawls over brush and branches without hanging up, letting you present your bait or lures right where the fish are. The sinker gives even a novice angler a positive feel of what's down there, so they can react quickly and lift the rod or reel in the line to stay out of trouble. And if you do happen to get hung up, it's easy to get the rig out of the brush -- just tighten down until there's a bow in the rod and release the reel's bail. The line will pop off the spool and nine times out of 10, the sinker will flip off the branch."
Movin' on Up
Morgan demonstrated a deadly tactic he's developed with his heavy rig. He bumped the sinker along the bottom near a submerged creek channel in 23 feet of water. Soon he encountered a deep brushpile; he slowly circled this while keeping an eye on his LCR. When the graph revealed fish suspending in the 18-foot zone above the brush, he shut off his electric motor and slowly began reeling the sinker rig straight up. About halfway to the surface, the rod bowed and two fat crappie came aboard.
"Suspended crappie are hard to catch on conventional rigs," Morgan said, "especially when they're deeper than 15 feet. You invariably lose touch with your bait or lure in deep water on a standard split-shot rig. But with the heavy sinker on the very end of your line, everything's tight and your line is straight under the boat. Bites are easy to feel since the hooks are above the weight."
Morgan continued, "By reeling straight up from the bottom, you'll eventually reel your bait or lure through the fish, and when you do, multiple bites are common. This technique is also conducive to catching the biggest crappie in the school, which often hang out at the bottom of the pack. By using the conventional approach of lowering a bait down through a suspended school of fish, the smaller, more active fish usually bite before the big boys even get a chance to see your presentation."
Morgan uses his heavy sinker rig throughout the year. Here's how he alters his approach to meet changing seasonal conditions:
Spring -- The heavy rig is not intended for shallow spawning areas -- Morgan opts for a conventional float rig when fishing for spawners in 7 feet of water or less. "But not all fish will be on the beds at once -- many will be in the pre- and post-spawn mode; these fish will be suspending on drop-offs adjacent to the spawning areas," he explained. "Look for a ledge that falls from around 10 to 20 feet, drop the sinker rig to the bottom, then reel up slowly until you contact fish. These drop-offs are usually ignored by other anglers in spring, but they can hold a ton of fish."
Summer -- "This is usually the hardest time to catch crappie, but you can load the boat if you locate suspending schools. Follow the edge of a channel drop-off with your electric motor on low speed, and troll several sinker rigs at various depths. When one of them gets bit, quickly mark the line with a marking pen and adjust the other rigs to that depth. I often have better luck using jigs in the summer than minnows."
Fall -- "Crappie will return to spring bedding areas, but don't go as shallow as they did when spawning. The 12- to 15-foot zone is often loaded with fish, and the sinker rig lets you put your bait or lure right in their faces."
Winter -- "Crappie can be super-deep -- I've caught 'em in 56 feet of water in January! Keep the sinker very close to the bottom and try to be extra careful not to bang into brushpiles too much -- for some reason, these fish are extremely spooky in cold water, and the entire school can vanish in a heartbeat."
J. Percy Priest Reservoir guide Harold Morgan can be reached at (615) 227-9337.