By: Blake Tollefson
Winter is here – and it’s here to stay for some time. With these frigid temperatures, it’s vital to make the most of what mother nature has to offer. Drive past a frozen lake mid-January and you’ll spot shanty towns teeming with anglers willing to trade long rods for those of a shorter variety. Panfish – and crappies in particular – are some of the most targeted species throughout the hard water season. They are more than willing to offer fast action and provide a fresh meal that’s quite hard to top.
Nomads & Roamers
In general, crappies are a relatively nomadic species and are constantly on the move. It’s not uncommon to locate them across countless types of structures within a body of water. Weeds, wood, rocks, and open basins are all equal opportunity employers when it comes to holding fish. Crappies will continuously roam large expanses of a body of water in search of nourishment. Perhaps the most consistent bite throughout the winter months occurs in the main basin of the lake. In fishing terms, the basin refers to the deepest, relatively featureless portion of the lake.
A typical Fall will drive schools of crappies from their summer haunts to the deeper portions of the lake, where the fish can often be found suspended throughout the water column. Predictable depths for winter crappies will range approximately 20-40 feet of water, although they can be found in much shallower or deeper locations depending on the lake.
Most relatively small, natural lakes share a similar pattern so replicating results can become second nature. These patterns and techniques related to winter crappies can also be applied to flowages and impoundments, although they may not prove to be as consistent.
Knowing where to start the search for winter panfish is key to success on the ice. There are several resources available to the average angler that can aid in the hunt – handheld GPS units, mobile phone applications, and online maps to name a few.
Using the proper tools, start the search in the deepest portion of the main lake basin. It is often most efficient to drill the first hole in the center of the deepest portion and work towards the closest edge of the basin. It’s not uncommon to find fish holding to the steepest break or quickest change.
Drill a pattern of evenly spaced holes throughout the target area. It is a good practice to drill several holes ahead of time to allow for quick checking of holes. If at this point fish have been located, continue to drill additional holes near the area. On heavily pressured lakes, basins are will often become community holes. Focus on the outer edges to avoid traffic.
Prior to actually wetting a line, use electronics to determine if fish are present in the vicinity of the hole. Swing the transducer back and forth across the hole to determine if fish are nearby. This method can also help determine which direction to proceed on the search. If flashes are marked on your electronics in a certain area, proceed in that direction. Travel methodically from hole to hole until fish are found. If fish are nonexistent, keep drilling. It’s not uncommon for anglers to drill tens to hundreds of holes in a day on the ice.
Aside from actually locating the fish, presentation is arguably the most important key to a good day on the ice. Knowing what to use and how to apply it will help any angler catch more fish.
In these deep water situations, involving fast roaming fish, dense materials like tungsten, can truly shine. Tungsten jigs in the 3-5 mm category excel for deep water crappies. Having a lure that sinks fast for its size is a real advantage on the ice. As discussed, crappies spend the majority of their time on the move. It’s vital to have a lure that can reach the fish before they move in another direction.
Tipping jigs is also crucial for positive results. Live bait has its place in ice fishing, but plastics and other artificial baits have some serious advantages over the real stuff. First and foremost, the fake stuff doesn’t die. It doesn’t require an aerator or overpriced container; and there’s no need to worry about keeping it alive. Next, it eliminates unnecessary stops en route to the lake. No bait shops required. Lastly, re-baiting isn’t required nearly as much. Plastics and other artificials will outlast their lively brethren time and time again.
There are thousands of options for plastics on the market – an endless list of shape, size, and color combinations. Opt for natural presentations in clearer water. Browns, greens, and golds are effective choices for these situations. Use high contrast color options in stained water, such as chartreuses, pinks, and oranges, while whites, reds, and blacks are effective choices for almost any situation. Eurotackle’s Micro Finesse lineup offers several different options to meet both natural and more exotic presentations, including the Bloodworm, Crazy Critter, Y-Fry and Gamma Scud.
In order to be an effective artificial fisherman, there a few tricks to obtaining optimal outcomes. First, pair the plastics with the appropriately sized jigs. Using jigs too small or too large for the plastics will cause less favorable results. Secondly, fish the lures as they are designed. If the plastic is meant to be fished horizontally, then fish it horizontally. Utilize specific knots, such as snell knots and loop knots to keep baits horizontal. Lastly, and most importantly, have confidence. Confidence is king when fishing with artificial lures.
Aside from jig and plastic combinations, there are a number of other lure categories that have proven effective for basin crappies. Micro to mid sized rattle baits and spoons are perfect options for picking off bigger and more aggressive fish. The 1/8 oz Z-Viber and similar style baits are great for calling fish in from a distance with loud, high pitched rattles. Tungsten spoons are also becoming more popular as they have the ability to sink quickly, but offer a different meal option for crappies as they roam.
An old favorite for panfish anglers are micro hair jigs. Hair is making a resurgence in the ice fishing world. An example of a company participating in this trend would be Ice Flies, currently developing high quality hair jigs for ice fishing. These jigs provide another great alternative to live bait.
Rods of a Shorter Variety
Rods & reels are often overlooked when it comes to ice and especially for panfish – but having a quality set up is just as vital on the hard water as it is on the soft water. Opt for something sensitive enough to feel and see the lightest bites, yet stout enough to drive the hook home in deep water.
St. Croix Rods CCI (Croix Custom Ice) lineup provides a series of technique specific rods for any angler. The CCI Pan Dancer and Tungsten Tamer are top choices for fishing lead and tungsten jig combination. The CCI Micro Spoon is an excellent tool for smaller panfish spoons and jigs. Rods in the 28 inch to 32 inch category are perfect for fishing both inside and outside of a fish house.
Reels should be appropriately sized to balance well with a specific rod choice. High quality drag functions are also necessary in cold climates. Spinning reels will certainly get the job done, however, inline reels can also offer some advantages when targeting finicky panfish. These types of reels are specifically designed to prevent line twist, which won’t result in a jig spinning in circles 25 feet below the surface.
Protect the Resource
From a conservation perspective, it is vital to be cognizant of the depths in which fish are being caught from. Pulling fish from depths of greater than 20-25 feet can raise concerns with issues such as barotrauma. Barotrauma incidents are highly likely to be fatal to the fish. Even though a fish may swim away, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will survive. If you’re covering the depths in search of crappies, be prepared to keep some fish for a meal.Now is the time to take advantage of one of the greatest things this area of the country has to offer. Rely on the tools available, don’t be afraid to drill some holes, offer the right presentation, and there’s a good chance to put some serious crappies topside this winter.