There’s logic behind the premise that winter is the best time to catch lots of crappies.
In the winter, crappies congregate in specific areas under the ice week after week, month after month, from freeze-up until ice-out. In a sense, it’s like fishing during the spawn, except the window of opportunity is months instead of weeks, and the attire is snowmobile suits and boots rather than cargo shorts and flip-flops.
“Catching crappies through the ice is almost easier than during open water,” says Jeff Evans, professional open-water and ice-fishing guide (jeffevansfishing.com). “They’re in big schools that don’t move a lot, so all you have to do is find one of those schools. After that it’s just a matter of figuring out what they want and how to get them to bite.”
Finding schools of crappies under the ice isn’t all that difficult. On any given weekend across the northern U.S., if there are ice shacks, popup ice shelters or simply a group of anglers dressed like the Michelin Man huddled over holes in the ice of a lake, there’s a good chance it’s because there are fish beneath the ice in that particular spot. In many cases, beginners can simply follow the crowd to find crappies. It’s that simple.
But if you’re fishing midweek or prefer elbow room when fishing, you may find success by pioneering new places to fish. It’s not hard. The best places to find mid-winter crappies in large lakes are in the deeper portions of basins or bays. In small lakes and ponds, look for crappies in the deepest water you can find. Schools of crappies generally suspend at mid to deeper depths in those areas, usually in association with certain types of structure or bottom topography.
Fisheries biologist Tyler Stubbs often ice-fishes in smaller lakes and ponds and looks for brushpiles or large structure in the deepest areas.
“[Crappies] will suspend over that structure,” he says. “You may have to drill a bunch of holes to figure out if they’re on top or on the sides of the structure. Mobility is a big deal when you’re ice-fishing. I ditched my ice auger, went to a battery-powered hand drill, with a 4-inch ice auger, and it changed the way I ice-fish. It’s easier to drill holes, made it easier to move around, and my back doesn’t hurt so much at the end of the day.”
Other anglers, on big lakes, seek an absence of structure.
“For us, mud bottoms seem to be the ticket,” says Evans. “It’s usually a main-lake basin, in 20 to 25 feet of water. I think the bloodworms in the mud are the draw, both for the crappies and for minnows the big crappies feed on. I guide on open water till late fall, and I keep real close track of where the crappies are as they migrate into those basins as the water cools. Where I put them to bed every fall is where I find them when I start ice-fishing in the winter. Once they settle into their winter area, they don’t move a lot.”Submerged weeds are another wintertime haunt for crappies.
“I look for crappies at specific depths and around specific structure,” says professional warm- and cold-weather fishing guide Mike Crawford (upstateguideservice.com). “Around here, it’s the bays of big lakes with shallow weeds where I find crappies. In shallow bays, we’ll fish around 14 to 16 feet, over the weeds. If the bay is 22 feet deep, we’ll hang minnows at 10 to 12 feet, in the upper part of the water column above the weeds. Watch your sonar, figure out how deep the fish are, put your minnows at that depth or slightly higher, and you’ll catch crappies. Their eyes are positioned toward the top of their head, and their lower jaw sticks out farther than their upper jaw. They’re designed to feed ‘up.’”
Weather systems influence crappie behavior under the ice.
“Crappies are very sensitive to barometric pressure changes,” says Crawford. “Maybe even more sensitive under the ice than during open-water fishing. A steady barometer is best. A falling barometer isn’t bad, but a rising barometer after a weather front passes can make for tough fishing. For whatever reason, some of the best crappie fishing is during late winter, during one of those weather systems where the air temperature is above freezing and it’s foggy, drizzly, maybe even raining a bit, but the ice is still solid. Those are the days we catch some real slabs.”
Bait preferences vary. Some crappie anglers tip tiny jigs with waxies (wax worms) or spikes (maggots). Others favor bare spoons. Crawford favors specific species of minnows.
“Around here, we call them buckeye minnows, but in other parts of the country they call them emerald shiners, maybe Niagara shiners,” says Crawford. “Whatever you call them, if they’re native to your area and can get them, they are ‘the’ bait for crappies. Put one of them in front of a crappie and that crappie has to have it.”
Evans favors small, flashy spoons to put crappies on the ice for his clients but uses waxies or spikes on a tungsten jig if that’s what crappies want on a given day.
“Getting bait and putting it on the hooks slows things down on a good bite,” he says. “I like VMC Tumbler and Tingler ice-fishing spoons. Really small, 1/32-ounce, even down to 1/64-ounce. Smaller is better, even for big crappies. That small of jigs mean you have to use really light line. I use 2- to 4-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon on ‘13 Fishing’ brand fiberglass ‘Tickle Stick’ ice-fishing rods.
“If the spoons don’t get them, then I’ll try a fluorescent tungsten jig tipped with a waxie or spike. Tungsten jigs are more expensive than traditional leadheads, but tungsten is heavier than lead. Smaller is better when you’re ice-fishing, so with tungsten jigs I can have smaller jigs that weigh the same as bigger leadhead jigs.”
“Small” and “sensitive” are the bywords for ice-anglers targeting the biggest crappies. Crawford, a summertime fly-fishing guide and Cortland Pro-Staffer, favors 2-pound-test Cortland fluorocarbon line for its invisibility and sensitivity. He builds his own hyper-flexible fiberglass ice-fishing rods. Twenty-two-inch rods for fishing inside ice shacks, 36-inch rods for fishing outside over a hole.
“Graphite rods are too stiff,” he says. “Any resistance at all will spook those big slabs. Graphite is sensitive and you feel things better, but so does the fish. Fiberglass rods will out-catch graphite rods, especially on those bigger, spookier fish.”
Crawford also favors long-shank Aberdeen hooks.
“Crappie mouths are so soft; I want a longer shank so that when I set the hook I have a better chance of getting into some muscle or tendon farther into their mouth,” he says. “And I like a wider gap hook when I’m using minnows. The [body of the] minnow can fill the gap on a small hook and make it hard to get the point of the hook into the crappie.”
Many serious crappie anglers find nighttime fishing produces bigger fish.
“Big crappies are really spooky,” says Crawford. “Guys go out in the afternoon, running around with ATVs on the ice, drilling holes, making a lot of noise, and they end up catching a lot of crappies, but those crappies run a little smaller. We’ll go out and fish those same exact holes after dark and catch bigger crappies. If we go out after midnight, say till 4 a.m., that’s when we really crush huge slabs. The big ones are really spooky about noise, too. A lot of guys know that the low-light bite is better and make an effort to fish around or just after sunset. You’ll see a run of good fishing just after dark, but there are enough folks still banging around on the ice during that time that you don’t get the really big crappies till things quiet down later in the evening after most of the folks go home. When we’re fishing at night, we try to be as quiet as we can. If we’re fishing in a shack, we’ll even use green lights to keep from spooking them with the light that shines down through the holes.”
While jigs tipped with waxies and spikes catch a lot of crappies, Crawford encourages anglers targeting the biggest slabs to use minnows and pay attention to the size of fish they catch from a particular hole.
“Small crappies are insect- and worm-eaters and will gobble up waxies and spikes,” he says. “Big crappies — the ones over 10 or 12 inches, will eat insects and small stuff, but for the most part they’re meat eaters. That doesn’t mean they want great big minnows. They generally prefer small minnows, ones that are maybe 1 to 2 inches. Though one time we were fishing a bite for jumbo perch when a school of crappies that averaged almost 2 pounds moved through, and they had no problem with those great big minnows we were using for the perch.”
Crawford also firmly believes that size matters when fishing for the biggest crappies. “If you’re catching 8-inch crappies from a hole, move,” he says. “Eight-inchers hang with 8-inchers. If you want 12-inch crappies you’ve got to move till you start catching 12-inchers. The nice thing is, if you put in the time to drill some holes, use your sonar to find fish, and experiment with baits and jigs to find out what they want that day, you’re going to catch crappies. Once you’ll located the big ones, settle in and put them on the ice.”