Crappie Kings of Virginia

by Chris McCotter

   When you think of the most popular freshwater sportfish in America what comes to mind? Largemouth bass, right? Perhaps smallmouth bass, musky and walleye also, depending on the region? Well, did you know that the crappie is fast becoming one of the top sportfish in the nation? Yep, with more and more anglers enjoying a catch and cook attitude, advances in modern electronics, crappie fishing tournament circuits and some great fisheries, the freckle is legitimately vying for the title of America’s fish.

  Two Virginia anglers that have been honing their crappie fishing skills for years on the state’s best fishery and gaining national notoriety are Bobby Whitlow, and Bobby Whitlow, II. For the past 55 plus years Bobby, Sr. has fished Buggs Island/Kerr Reservoir for black and white crappie and operates the VA/NC Team Crappie Tournament Trail on the lake out of the family tackle shop – Bobcat’s Bait & Tackle.

  His son, Bobby, II.,  now aged 38, has been there by his side in the boat and in the shop and together they have become one of the top crappie fishing teams in the country based on many tournament finishes on Buggs as well as around the country.

  Recently the duo fished The Mr. Crappie Invitational on Logan Martin Lake in Lincoln, Alabama as part of the Mr. Crappie trail on September 22-24 . The three-day event field 42 teams and a payout of  126,000 with 50,000 for first prize. Team Whitlow finished 4th. 

   We caught up with Bobby Whitlow, Jr. and asked him about the event.

  “We had fish in two primary areas; one being key stretches of stumps on the main river ledge and the other being a couple of stumps on a hidden point in the mouth of a major feeder creek but off of the main lake.

  “We started the first day on the main ledge because we felt the quality of fish were a little better, but something had changed with the bite being non-existent on the main river. By 9 o’clock we had a small limit with one tournament fish.

  “ We knew if we wanted to stay in contention to place in this tournament we had to make a move, so around 9:30 we moved down the lake to our second spot, and by 10:30 we had culled six of the seven fish we had from the morning. So, for Day 1 we were able to bring in a little over eight pounds, putting us in 13th place. The top 21 made the cut to Day 2.

  “The second morning we ran to the spot that we moved to off the main river on Day 1. The first fish of the morning was a 1.88 slab, which ended up being a big boost to our day and the second biggest fish of the tournament. For Day 2 we weighed in around 8.75 pounds and climbed from 13th to 9th, making the final day top 10 cut. 

  “Going into the final day we didn’t have a lot of pressure knowing that the top 10 all get paid. We had also fished what ended up being our primary spot hard for a day-and-a-half already. We went back to our primary spot knowing that the day would depend on what was set up there and how the first hour or two went. 

  “We pulled up and a really good school of fish had set up overnight and we were able to catch five of what would end up being the biggest seven fish stringer of the remaining field. Between 7 and 8:30. we were able to make two good culls of single fish on isolated stumps in the same area; one being a 1.64 and the other a 1.50, which were really good fish for Logan Martin during this tournament.  

  “We wound up with the biggest bag of the day. By our scales we had right at 10 pounds, which was right in line with the biggest bags of the event from Day 1. We wound up climbing from 9th to 4th on the final day and earning a check for $10,000 for the finish.  

  What did Whitlow think of his stay at Logan Martin? 

  “It seemed like an awesome fishery. September is a tough month for clear black crappie fisheries, so we had to downsize line test and lure size. The fish really didn’t want to bite, and we had to slow down a lot compared to what we’re used to, sometimes making 20 or more cast to a fish that looked to be a good one on the screen. If you hit it just right or got on his nerves long enough, something would trigger the fish to bite.”

 We asked Whitlow about the importance of forward-facing sonar in the event and for crappie fishing in general.

  “It has completely changed the game in the last five or so years. You can still go out and catch fish and have fun using old school techniques, but if you want to compete on a consistent basis you are left behind 99 out of 100 tournament days if you’re not using forward facing sonar.”

   The Whitlows currently run three depth finders on the boat: on the bow they have a Garmin 8616 with a lvs34 transducer they use solely for livescoping as well as a Humminbird Solix 12 they us solely for mapping. On the console they have a Humminbird Helix 15 that is used for side and down imaging as well as mapping.”

  The duo fishes out of a Gator Trax Strike Custom 22-foot aluminum bass style center console with a Mercury 300R engine. They have a Minn Kota Ultrex 112-lb. trolling motor on the front and on the rear they have Power poles with Drift Paddles and two rear 40-lb. trolling motors, all of which contribute to better boat control in open water and wind. 

  Whitlow says the boat has all the accessories needed to compete as well as a large front deck and more storage than they need. With it they are also able to get in really shallow water for a boat that size.  The boat is constructed of 3/16 “ aluminum, which makes it really heavy and it sits well in rough water. 

  We asked if there was one technique or lure the Whitlows used most in tournaments.

  “We try to be versatile and use our time on the water when we are not fishing tournaments to practice techniques that we are less confident in to gain confidence in those techniques in case we need them in a tournament situation. Our favorite is casting to open water suspended fish, but there are plenty of times you must adapt and do something different if you want to stay competitive.”

    What about all those secret brush piles and other structure? We asked about the importance of creating structures.

  “From a competitive standpoint, I don’t think it is as crucial as it used to be. I feel like the majority of the best fish, the ones you want on tournament day, spend their time either suspended or on natural isolated structure.”

  We also asked how Buggs Island ranks nationally as far as a crappie fishery and how has fishing it prepared you to fish national tournaments?

   “Buggs is an awesome lake. Crappie sizes are dependent on spawning cycles, and the last couple of years the weights have been down just a little, but things seem to be trending back in the right direction. I think we are just a year or two away from another stretch of banner years for big fish. There are plenty of slabs to be caught for sure.”

  Whitlow also noted that Buggs island is the perfect lake to learn and practice different techniques to use here and on the road.  

  “There are healthy populations of both black and white crappie, and at any given time you can go to the very upper end and long pole for fish in 2 to 10 feet of water or go all the way down the lake and catch fish 20 to 35 feet deep in super clear water.”

  Whitlow’s largest slab to date? 

   “I caught a 3.48 hybrid (black-white) on March 25,  2022 the day before a tournament of course, but I’ll take a three-pounder any day I can get it. Dad caught a 3.30 a few years back. He and his partner at the time, Donald Wall, also caught a 3.79 longline trolling on Buggs a few years back as well.

  The Whitlows plan on fishing all of the Bobcat’s Va/Nc Crappie Trail events in 2023-24 and most of the Southeast Crappie Alliance Tournaments. They are waiting to find out the date and location of the 2024 Mr. Crappie Invitational and may possibly add another national tournament if it works with their schedule and strengths.

  We asked Whitlow , Jr. to relate a story when hisfather’s old school knowledge made the difference in a tournament they fished together.

  “Dad’s pre Livescope knowledge contributes to our success on a regular basis. A particular story doesn’t come to mind,  but he spent decades learning the behavior of Buggs island Crappie when and where they stage and we still fish a lot of the same areas just with a new age approach.

   Of course we asked how Bobby Jr.  thought his father had influenced his fishing and career path?

  “He is the main influence in my fishing and career. I’ve learned incredible amounts of information from him both on the water and in the business. I try to take that knowledge and grow it even more.” 

   Whitlow also noted that when he was a young kid and his father was busy growing the businesses he spent a lot of time with his great granddaddy. 

   “Whether it was sitting on the river banks waiting for stripers and catfish or sitting in a cedar turkey blind with an old Lynch box call or him dragging me to church. he helped instill a passion in me for fishing and hunting that has never left me.”

   The 38-year-old crappie phenom also wanted to note that the Bobcat’s VA/NC Crappie family had helped make him a better angler. 

  “We have a very good group of guys with some really fierce competition that drives us to keep working and learn more.”

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