Catching Hardwater Crappies
September 24, 2010
Knowing where to drill your holes and how deep to fish are two essential elements to successful slab fishing during the winter season. Here's how!
Ice-fishing for crappies is a unique game. Finding crappies during the spring when the water is starting to warm is relatively easy. The fish are preparing to spawn and they are looking for an easy meal, so they begin migrating toward the shallows from deeper water.
Things are a little different during the winter, however. The fish are not preparing to spawn, and the cold water has significantly reduced their metabolism from what it will be in the springtime. The crappies are typically not hanging around shallow shoreline areas, either. They can still be caught, however, and sometimes a good winter crappie bite can rival the best spring or summer action!
But where are the best places to look for winter fish on your favorite crappie water? The frozen surface of the lake hinders you from seeing the weedbeds and subsurface structure that were visible during the open-water fishing season. A thick covering of snow can also make things look a lot different and leave you wondering where to start.
Don't be discouraged, though. The same weedbeds, underwater points and dropoffs that you fished earlier in the year are still there, and you should continue to fish them. If they are hard to locate from memory or from shoreline landmarks, use your electronics to help you find the right areas. Portable sonar units are great tools for ice-fishermen looking for fish-holding structure under the ice.
When you locate an underwater weedbed or a submerged brushpile (or whatever structure you want to fish), quickly drill several holes before you actually start fishing. Start at one edge of the submerged structure and cover different depths and sections of it. The crappies might be holding just off the deep edge of the dropoff, or they may be bunched up over the middle of the weedbed. Once you have multiple holes drilled, you can move from one spot to the next until you find the active fish.
Finding the right areas to fish for winter crappies is one thing, but determining how deep to fish for them can be another. Again, this is where your electronics can make a big difference. Unlike bluegills that like to hang around the bottom, crappies like to suspend. Luckily, this makes them more visible to fishermen with sonar. If you see individual fish or groups of fish suspended off the bottom, drop a bait to them. They are likely to be crappies.
WHERE TO DRILL
Although crappies can be caught out of shallow water during the winter, they are usually more apt to be found suspended over slightly deeper water. Crappies prefer to relate to breaklines along dropoffs and the edges of weedbeds, so look for suspended fish that are hanging around these locations. They also love to suspend around submerged brushpiles and other underwater woody structure.
A good portable sonar unit comes in very handy for ice-anglers who are searching for schools of crappies. Electronics can enable you to find fish quickly and easily. Even if you don't see suspended fish right away, you can see the changes in depth and whether or not there is any weed growth, stumps or brush along the bottom.
Every lake is different, so begin your search in moderate depths. For smaller lakes or shallower bodies of water, this might be 5 to 12 feet of water. For deeper waters, start looking anywhere from 8 to 20 feet deep. When you find a distinctive dropoff or a large underwater brushpile, try fishing on the deeper side of the structure. Crappies often suspend over those areas.
Schools of papermouths also frequently hang around deep cover and patches of submerged vegetation, but you should be sure that the weeds are still green. Dead or dying weeds will not attract fish. Live green weeds provide more oxygen for the fish and they supply plenty of hiding places for small fish and other prey. Good numbers of crappies hover around these feeding zones to take full advantage of a convenient food source. If you are not sure if the weeds that you are seeing on your sonar are still alive and green, snag some with your fishing line and bring it to the surface for a closer look.
Regardless of the depth of water that you are fishing, keep in mind the fact that crappies often inhabit the upper levels of the water column. They can be caught close to the bottom at times, but they are usually caught suspended quite a bit off the bottom. Surprisingly, sometimes you will find fish that are suspended so high off the bottom or off the tops of the weeds that you will wonder what they are doing there at all.
One great tactic is to use your electronic sonar unit to help you intercept suspended crappies that are actively cruising through your fishing area. If you are fishing mid-range depths (or just off the bottom) and suddenly notice a fish pass through above your lure on the sonar unit, you should quickly reel your bait up to the right level and attempt to catch that fish. You may be surprised at how many times you will hook that crappie as soon as your bait enters its strike zone. After icing that fish, you can either continue fishing the higher depth or you can drop back down and continue to watch your electronics for more cruising fish.
HOT WINTER BAITS
Crappies are voracious feeders, and can be caught on a wide variety of natural baits and artificial lures (just make sure the various live baits mentioned here are legal in your state before using them). The most popular bait for crappies is certainly the live minnow, regardless of the time of year. Since minnows are a natural food source for crappies, it makes sense for ice-fishermen to use them in pursuit of their favorite fish, too.
Live minnows can be rigged very simply beneath a float on a light wire hook and a tiny split shot, or they can be added to a small lure to increase its effectiveness. Many fishermen will add a live minnow to a miniature teardrop jig, a jigging spoon or a jigging Rapala, and the addition of the natural bait makes a big difference.
Sometimes crappies are interested in smaller baits, however, and they tend to shy away from lures that are tipped with a whole minnow. In those cases, it can be even more effective to tip a jig or a jigging spoon with one or two minnow heads. Believe it or not, it is occasionally more productive to pinch the head off a minnow and add it to a small hook than to use a whole minnow!
Another excellent bait for winter crappies is live mayfly nymphs, or wigglers. These ugly insect larvae can be difficult to find at times, and are relatively expensive, but they are fabulous baits. All panfish love them, especially big crappies. Most anglers add wigglers to a tiny ice jig or rig them on a plain hook. Wigglers are also available as preserved dead bait, and they are still quite productive.
Small grubs like bee moths, mousies and spikes are good crappie baits, but they are usually used to tip a small artificial lure rather than fished by themselves on a hook. As a matter of fact, tiny ice jigs (and other artificial lures) tipped with a live grub catch a tremendous number of crappies every winter.
Today's ice jigs come in a wide variety of styles, including tiny teardrop-shaped spoons, thin/narrow spoons, short/fat jigs, small jigs with segmented bodies and miniature jigs with hair or rubber legs -- just to name a few. They also come in a staggering array of colors. All will catch fish, but on certain days, one type or one color will catch more than others. The key is to experiment with styles, colors and live bait additions until you find what the fish want on any given day.
Jigging spoons and artificial jigging minnows are great for schools of active crappies; when the fish are feeding heavily these baits will catch fish very quickly. Although spoons can be fished without the use of live bait, they are usually tipped with a live minnow or one or more grubs. They are extremely useful for quickly probing the depths for active fish when moving from hole to hole.
Fishing for crappies through the ice can be fun and rewarding, and it is possible to catch some real slabs. If the action slows, just remember to keep moving. If you don't get a bite for more than 20 or 30 minutes, move to a new spot. It always pays to stay mobile when fishing for hardwater crappies.