Hunting Fishing Discussions
Crappies Through the Ice
The Midwest has a large number of crappie fisheries due in part that crappie waters don't need to be huge expansions of water because the little backyard pond you drive by everyday probably has all the ingredients to make itself a good fishery. A lot of times the backyard ponds provide more action than the large bodies of water but don't have the true "slab" crappie. However, sometimes the opposite is true. I know this from experience because two of my favorite waters provide me action--a pond not far from my house (can't spill the beans on that one) and the Upper Red Lake which holds some of the best crappie fishing in Minnesota.
The biological makeup of each body of water determines its "fishable"? value and the only way to find out is to get out and drill some holes. A lot of times you have to decide what you want out of a lake. Do you want a lot of fish which often means fish of smaller size, or do you want fewer fish but trophy size? Which ever you chose, Minnesota definitely will have the body of water you are looking for! No matter which of the types of lakes you are fishing, winter can be one of the best times to target great tasting "paper-lipped" crappies.
The aggressive biting fish is often included as one of the top pound-for-pound fighting fish and I believe that if you can find them, you can usually catch them. Although an aggressive fish, finding them can be the difficult part and that is what I want to touch on first. Locating areas that should hold crappies isn't necessarily a winter only effort. Locating good cover like underwater trees or brush piles can be done during the summer months and many times you can have an area scouted out before the ice even begins to form.
During first and last ice, areas just outside of shallow bays can be a fantastic place to start your search for crappies. Shallow bays provide great homes for all types of baitfish and as the ice forms thicker, fish are forced out of bays into deeper water and the ever opportunistic crappie likes to hold just outside these bays, in deeper water, waiting for their lunch to swim by. If you find an area outside a shallow bay with water levels in the 15-25 feet range your chances for quality crappie fishing will significantly increase. If you haven't had the opportunity to scout an area and you are unsure of its potential, a great tool is your depth finder.
For ice fishing especially, I use and recommend a Vexilar. FL-18. The capabilities with this unit are superior to others on the market and its importance to an angler (especially with crappie anglers) is second to none. Having the ability to quickly find deep or shallow water, locating structure, and pinpointing schools of suspended fish usually means the difference between a bad day and a good day. Okay, there's a difference between owning a Vexilar and properly using one. What I do is simply pour a little water on the ice and then set the transducer in the water. By applying this technique the transducer becomes "water locked" where no air pockets are present to interfere with the transducer's beam. The result is an accurate reading of the depth without even drilling a hole which allows you to find structure or depth faster while saving time and energy. Remember, with dirty ice (honeycombed, layer of air in the ice or too much snow) the above technique probably won't work and you may have to drill holes to find depths. Even if that's the case, you'll still save time. In the above paragraph I mentioned finding depths of 15 to 25 feet for fishing crappies. This is true but for first ice the depth range closer to 15 is probably going to be what you want to focus on mainly because the water has not yet reached too cold for crappie and bait fish are still holding there as well. Once you find the 15 foot mark, scan the immediate area for a break line, structure, to even a school of crappie before drilling holes to fish from. This will allow you a pattern to follow as you drill your holes. Usually, I will punch 6-10 holes over the main target area and then drill another ten or so holes 10-20 yards away in each direction. This is done because if the fish I'm targeting or catching move a little (which they often do), new holes are already drilled and I can quickly move in each direction checking the Vexilar for the moving schools of fish. Again, this can be the difference between a good day and a great day.
As winter progresses and the water cools, I concentrate my efforts of locating crappies to deep holes (20-40 foot deep). I don't think about getting close to back bays again now, until near ice-out. Usually the quickest way to find the deep holes is to use a lake map. If a lake map isn't available for the body of water you are fishing, you'll have to trial and error it with your Vexilar. On many Minnesota lakes, a "hole" is only a few feet different than the surrounding area. For example, 26-foot mark may be a small area surrounded by only 20-22 feet. Once I find the deepest area, I again trust my Vexilar, following the same procedure above. Crappies spend most of their life suspended (especially mid and late ice) and once you find them you can have action all day by following them as they roam that depth of water (which is usually over the deepest holes). I have even witnessed a huge school of crappies only a foot under the ice in 36 feet of water, so if you are not using electronics make sure you set your baits at varied depths. Before I used a Vexilar I would usually go in "quarter" increments--meaning I divided the depths by 4 and set my bobbers at those depths. For instance, if fishing 24 ft. I'd set my first line at 6 ft. (off the bottom), the next at 12 feet, and so on.
Alright, so you have found schools of crappie and now it's catching time right? In a perfect fishing world, yes, but the next step is to get the crappies to respond. Perhaps the best way to aid in that is to share some of the characteristics of crappie. I could probably write a small book on it but I'm sure most of you don't really want another biology lesson, so I'll share two traits that are important in catching crappies. The two characteristics are: 1) Bait level. 2) "Paper" Lips. When fishing for crappies it's important to keep your bait above or at least eye level. Crappies feed upwards because of how their eye sight works. Simply put, crappies see best when looking up and out in front of them. If you have a camera or Vexilar you can see the difference in bouncing bait above, level, or below them,nine times out of ten you'll catch the crappie by keeping the bait above or in their line of view. Another important factor is how the crappie's mouth is designed. I mentioned "paper lips" in the opening couple paragraphs. What I mean by that is crappies have a very fragile mouth. When first starting out in the pursuit of crappies I'd get extremely frustrated when I'd get a hit and set the hook ending in no fish. After finally researching the fish a little more I learned the mouths easily tear when setting the hook. The only advice I can give is to use a light but consistent sweeping set when fishing crappie waters. You may miss a few here and there but it will result in fewer mouth rips. Not that I need to mention it, but this is clearly another reason to purchase a Vexilar!
The good thing about crappies (at least my experiences) is that when you find active crappies, many times they will inhale any lure that comes by them. However, some of my favorite lures are the Angel Eye Jr., Genz Worms and a small "Varmint" by JB lures. I like the heavier weight of these
lures simply because the heavier the lure the faster I can get it back down to the depths the fish are holding at. Once you have your lure of choice a
bobber accompanying it is usually a smart choice. Although crappies are an aggressive fish they are exceptionally good at inhaling your bait without you knowing it. I prefer the Ice Buster bobber simply because it doesn't freeze up. Making it easy to set hooks and real in fish without your bobber interfering! Many people still feel the best bait to use for crappies are small crappie minnows; however, when the fish are aggressive I have found that the new Techni-Glo tails by Lindy Little Joe seem to stand up better to hook sets and also are much faster to re-bait then a minnow. Minnows and Techni-Glo tails are usually a solid choice for aggressive crappie but do not over look grubs, wax worms, or spikes for times when the fish are finicky. Usually a small jig or hook with the worm type baits will trigger the fish. Gradual lifts, bounces or jerks often work best with the above presentations. Winter-time crappie action can be fast and furious and it is important to remember that many small lakes, especially ones that have few fish but true trophy "slabs" cannot handle over fishing. When you are truly on the slabs, it can be common to catch fish as fast as you can get your line in the water. If you get into these good times, think about how many crappies you want to eat, and release the rest. Catch and Release on crappies can ensure that they will be there for years to come. Hopefully you can take a few of these tips, get a lake map and start looking for new areas to target these winter time crappies.
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