Crappie, Hold the Ice

The author has discovered a "secret weapon" for taking crappie from open-water hotspots, and you won't believe how effective -- and underutilized -- these lures really are!

by John Murdoch

Depending on where you live, "ice-out" means one of two things: The refrigerator quit, so it's room temperature drinks all around. Or the frozen mantle on the lakes finally broke up, so it's time for fishing from a boat instead of from a snowmobile.

Technically, "ice-out" is a relative term to anglers in the Great Frozen North, where people have refrigerators uphill of the Mason-Dixon Line, too. In any case, the ice-fishing gear is packed away by now in favor of longer rods and "conventional" tackle. But doing that could be a big mistake.

Abandoning ice-fishing lures because there is no ice is like deep-sixing the TV because football season is over.

Inquiring minds want to know what all this has to do with them. The answer: Crappie!

As a many-generation open-water angler, I always thought ice-fishing was the pastime of those afflicted with cabin fever and/or Eskimos. Although, there was that one time back in the winter of 1983 when our local lake froze over so thick you could drive a car all the way across, and a few of us hacked some holes and went fishing just for the heck of it. But that doesn't really count. That was before I discovered ice lures.

Just because you're dabbling a tiny ice-fishing jig for crappie doesn't mean you have to dress like an ice-fisherman! The itty-bitty lures catch crappie in open water just as effectively as they do under the ice. Photo by John Murdoch

The point I am so delicately trying to creep up on is that ice lures are the most effective crappie baits this side of a live shiner.

If you think about it, the only thing really different about ice-fishing is the need to chop or (if you're smart) to auger a hole in the lake's surface, through which to proffer a bait. Beyond that, it is the same old story of structure, bait and presentation.

Oh yeah, there is one other little difference that I forgot to mention: Ice-fishermen almost always catch fish and at a far greater fish-per-hour rate than their warm-weather counterparts.

Regardless of what we fair-weather anglers might think, ice fishermen are not stupid. They know that in cold water, panfish in general and crappie in particular bunch up in larger groups than they do at warmer times. They also know the fish are less prone to wander, tending to stay put and remain predictably catchable most of the time.

Crappie become somewhat lethargic in cold water, and they are not disposed to chasing meals that have too much fizz. Energy needs lessen considerably, too, so smaller prey is usually their preferred diet. Even after the weather warms, slab crappie remain lazy and prefer food that doesn't fight back - or at least not too vigorously.

Enter the Ice Man with his tiny baits!

The average fair-weather crappie fisherman is genuinely astounded by the size of an ice-fisherman's tiny lures - microscopic may be a slight exaggeration but not by much. Some are actually intended to mimic zooplankton. Others resemble fish eyes, an old favorite among crappie and perch anglers. Some lures glow in the dark (night-fishermen take note!), and others are equipped with propeller-type spinners that you could lose in your eyebrows. There are even ice ants, and I suspect, ice dandruff flakes.

Stranger than their weird shapes and sizes are the names some ice lures go by: Marmooska, Vingla and Lunar Lure are a few that come to mind. One of my favorites is the Swedish Pimple, which is not something squeezed out of a fat lady named Helga, but a microscopic jigging spoon that drives crappie wild.

The odd names trace to ice-fishing's European ancestry. Freezing for your supper is a time-honored tradition on The Continent, particularly in countries with borders beyond the Arctic Circle. Since necessity is a mother and all that, you either learned to fish through the ice or got used to eating French-fried tundra. It naturally follows that Europeans long ago figured out what would and wouldn't work, so along with their immigrant descendants, the knowledge came to America that itty-bitty stuff catches big fish - and lots of them.

A trip with Paul Foster, a fishing buddy and part-time crappie guide, demonstrated effectively that big crappie prefer tiny offerings. Anchored over a brushpile, Paul started drowning minnows while I split-shotted, pimpled (what Europeans call jigging), and circle-swam a variety of diminutive offerings among the limbs. I outfished Paul 2-to-1, and on average I caught more large crappie. Under extortive threats from Paul, I had to divvy up my ice treasures.

The unusual aspect ice lures present to heavily pressured, bait-shy fish can pay off big. Paul, who took a shine to ice lures, told me he had anchored over a brushpile alongside three other anglers who were using a combination of minnows and conventional jigs. The three hapless fishermen - who hadn't had a hit all day - watched with something less than admiration as Paul limited out on crappie in just over two hours.

You don't necessarily have to be among the boated elite to catch crappie on ice jigs. You can practice a technique similar to peripatetic ice-fishing by making use of marina boat slips and docks.

I once watched a crappie angler easing along the walkway at a marina, occasionally threading a jig through the spaces between the planks as he went. Sure enough, he soon squeezed a keeper crappie up through one of the cracks.

"Just like ice-fishing, only not so cold," he grinned.

I asked what he would do if he caught a slab too big to fit through the crack.

"Get a saw," he deadpanned.

Bona fide ice-fishermen know about ice shanties, but there's a warm-water equivalent. Well, maybe not ice shanties exactly, but a larger version in the form of the "crappie house" - essentially a house on floats with a big hole in the middle to fish through.

Considerably larger than shanties, crappie houses can accommodate dozens of anglers and remain effective all year, ice or no ice. They are standard features at many marinas and generally are accessible to the public for a modest fee.

Because they provide cover and comfort for the fish as well as the fisherman, crappie houses frequently host some of the best angling around. Baited with brush or situated over some type of artificial reef

, they make ideal crappie condos. Ice jigs are equally productive in more traditional crappie spots. Bridge pilings and crappie go together like swimsuits and Pamela Anderson.

Even when crappie throw a curve and shun small offerings, ice jigs remain the best artificial option I have found. One of the best year-round lures is the balanced jigging lure. A good replica of a baitfish, the lure sports a single hook at each end, with the line-tie centered in the top of the body. A tailfin makes it circle, dart and chandelle like no other jig I have seen. It comes in a variety of colors and sizes from a 1 1/4-inch, 1/8-ounce model up to a bass-sized 4 3/8-inch, 1 1/8-ounce version.

To maximize its center-balanced action, the lure needs a loop tie. Smaller, lighter lures work as-is in shallow applications on ultralight tackle, but deep work or heavy line require a pinch of split shot or two. When crappie get finicky, try sweetening your offering with a pinched-off bit of worm or minnow. If you're tough, you can do it the traditional way with maggots.

You may need to monkey around with the hooks in some situations. For example, the hooks on the smallest lures are sometimes too tiny to establish reliable connections. Simply replacing existing hooks with single, slightly larger hooks solves the problem. In fact, some ice lures come packaged with multiple hooks plus a spare split-ring for this very purpose.

Wherever and whenever you can commit unsociable acts against members of the Pomoxis clan (which is the formal name for crappie and not something you should be vaccinated against), give ice-fishing lures a try. I'd bet a post hole against a panful of cornbread that you are not disappointed.

Ice lures are conspicuous by their absence from tackle shop shelves in ice-free areas. But not being able to get them locally is not a problem so don't worry. You can purchase them through most of the big outdoor mail-order catalogs.

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