February 02, 2023
By Scott Mackenthun
The spot looks promising. It's 2- to 5-feet deep, current swinging in, a small stump field littering the edges of a depression. You cut holes through the ice in a grid across the basin, then circle back with a flasher and rod. The first hole reveals a flitter of movement amongst the slush in the hole; a few tiny, gray-bodied shrimp writhe between ice chunks in the water. You drop your live-imaging sonar transducer into the hole and the screen shows a cloud of fish a few yards off. It's perfect.
You drop down a heavy tungsten jig and steadily bounce it up and down. A few minutes pass, but nothing shows up. Just as you're lifting to leave the hole and move on, you feel it—dead weight on the line and the spring bobber sagging. You pull up excitedly and the battle is on. The fish makes a few runs before you get its giant head and snout up the hole. It's the biggest pie-plate crappie you've ever iced. After dragging gear a mile down a deer path to a backwater slough, your exertion has been rewarded.
The above scenario can be a common occurrence on many Mississippi River backwaters. These branches and sloughs off the main current often hold giant crappies now, and savvy ice anglers move in for some of the year’s best crappie action.
FINDING THE SPOT
Adam Griffith is a Minnesota fishing guide and crewmember on "The Crappie Chronicles," a YouTube series that highlights his team's efforts to find giant crappies each ice season in and around the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. He has grown to love the Mississippi River backwaters, and he's become something of a backwater crappie master, known especially for catching big fish. Each season, he ices a few slabs that other anglers dream of catching just once in their lifetime.
In the winter, Griffith says, crappies don't want to be in the main current anymore. Bigger fish follow baitfish into the backwaters as they make their migration in late fall. Crappies hang out here in winter because they don't have to exert themselves too much. They have everything they need in one place. Food is the big reason crappies move here, and often the water is a little warmer in backwater cuts, too.
For Griffith and his clients, the hunt for big crappies in backwaters starts with maps. He uses Google Earth and aerial photos to pinpoint attractive areas. He passes up very shallow spots—those appearing to be two feet deep or less—to focus on those with a little bit more depth.
"The fish aren't always in the deepest spots, but they want deep water nearby," Griffith says. "'Deep' in a backwater means, like, six feet. Often, we are catching them in two feet of water. If there are stumps in the water, the crappies will use them as current breaks, or they'll sit behind them or around them."
Griffith's scouting process involves not only looking at maps and aerial photos but also finding public access or easements. While there's lots of public land along the Mississippi River, private parcels require landowner permission for fishing access. A fan boat may be necessary to reach some parts of the Mississippi River along the Ice Belt's southern edge. This is both for getting down the main river channel and for motoring up backwaters and cuts and running sloughs with thin ice. Griffith and company fish backwaters between Hastings and Red Wing, Minn. However, La Crosse and Prairie du Chien, Wis. offer great backwater fishing, as do Lansing and Guttenberg, Iowa.
When Griffith approaches a backwater, he also takes note of a few variables. No two river systems are alike, nor are the backwaters the same from year to year. Griffith looks at how current flows into the mouth of a backwater and determines both where it's strongest and where it settles out. He says knowing exactly how the backwater lays out—where the current comes in, where it hits the shoreline and where it turns back out—is crucial.
Although crappies don't want to be in the main channel's heavy current, he suggests current still heavily influences where you find fish in backwaters. "We get in and check seams and eddies and start drilling it out until we find the spot," Griffith says. "We'll see where the fish are, and by the end of it we'll find them in a juicy spot—often not much larger than 30 feet wide."
The giant crappies Griffith seeks—black, white and hybrids alike—key in on specific food items, especially bugs and smaller gizzard shad. The size of shad is often paramount, with crappies preferring those two to three inches long. Anything larger is usually too big for them. Like the crappies, shad pour into backwaters. However, crappies don't position themselves right in the middle of a big shad school. Instead, they'll be off to the side, hanging around the edge of the baitfish cluster.
Griffith says anglers must be able to tell crappies and shad apart. If you see big marks swim up to your bait but not bite, they are likely shad. Backwater crappies generally chase bugs and smaller shad. Bug hatches that don't occur in the Mississippi River channel's swift water are happening in off-channel backwater habitat. Griffith says he often sees various insects and invertebrate life swimming around in his ice holes.
Electronics help confirm that crappies are around, but they have limitations in shallow water. Griffith uses LiveScope to side-scan backwaters for shad balls and structure elements and to spot big crappies. In such shallow water, sonar cone angles are so minute that marking fish is limited in down-scan. Usually, you're marking the fish just as it's taking your bait, which doesn't provide much preparation or interaction time.
The tight quarters of shallow Mississippi River backwaters require specific ice gear and tactics. For Griffith, rod choice is quite important. He doesn't like using a rod with too stiff of an action unless he’s fishing with a Clam Pinhead Jigging Mino and can use it to impart the proper fluttering action. Otherwise, he'll use a noodle rod, like the Thorne Brothers Custom Crappie Chronicles "Bart" rod, which has a spring bobber for bite detection. "Many times, you don't even know the fish has your bait," Griffith says. "Those fish just come in and eat."
To counteract these quick bites that come from out of nowhere, a spring bobber—like that found on the Bart rod—is key for detecting bites. Griffith says the spring bobber will bend down, but the fish won't feel you moving the rod at all. You can then fish aggressively, see the bite and not lose fish that would otherwise feel something wrong and let go of the bait.
Because it's such close-combat fishing, if you set the hook on a crappie in three feet of water with too stiff of a rod, you risk banging it against the ice and knocking it off the hook. Griffith says the Bart rod has a nice parabolic bend, and he also sets the drag back a little so it slips when he sets the hook. He adds that the rod’s extra give is almost like a second drag.
Griffith developed his preference for using noodle-tip rods in backwaters after some repeated failures on the ice.
"We were just missing too many fish," he says. "We'd hook them and they'd pop off, or we'd hook them and get two or three cranks in, and they'd be right under the ice and get knocked off. We started using that [noodle] rod and our catch percentage went way up. We just noticed that the rod with a lot less backbone, with a good bend, worked a lot better than the others."
Because of the skinny water and poor visibility, anglers will want to use aggressive jigging strokes and lures that draw attention. Griffith often has one rod rigged with a spoon, like a Pinhead Mino or Leech Flutter Spoon. He also likes having two bug imitations, one dark and one light. For these, he pairs a Clam Drop-Kick jig with a Maki plastic. He adds that the bigger plastics with a little more bulk seem to do better.
"I power-fish these crappies," he says. "The water is dirty, so you really have to pound the jig, and you need to get their attention and draw them in aggressively." While typical slow jigging produces some fish, he says that moving the jig up and down in the water column aggressively really attracts backwater crappies.
While the Midwest has many great hardwater crappie lakes, there's something special about chasing slabs on the Mississippi's off-channel branches and sloughs. It's a unique environment with distinct challenges and gear requirements. But for those who master its eccentricities, like Griffith, it's a great spot for icing some incredibly large crappies.