One of Chad Schut’s favorite winter hard baits is the Salmo Chubby Darter. He often tips the lead hook with a minnow head.
Hard Baits for Winter Crappie
by Mike Gnatkowski
Go Hard When Plastics Fizzle
Day-in, day-out, summer, winter, spring or fall – soft plastics are the go-to bait for the majority of crappie fishermen. winter crappies because crappies feed mainly on minnows. My friends on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit tell me specks are usually attracted most to soft plastics are on the end of their lines. But they also say that there are times when a change in baits may be just what the doctor ordered, especially if your quarry is a platter-sized crappie.
Chad Schut is a firm believer that big lures – including hard baits – often produce bigger fish and the change in presentation can trigger them to bite. Sometimes a tactic intended for one specie will trip the trigger of another specie. That’s exactly what Schut discovered while pre-fishing during Mark Martin’s Ice Fishing School a year ago on Michigan’s Houghton Lake.
Houghton Lake is Michigan’s largest inland lake and is relatively shallow. It’s home to a variety of game fish so you really never know what you’re going to catch. You can hedge your bet by using certain techniques and lures.
Schut had walleye on his mind when he snapped a Salmo Chubby Darter on his line and added a minnow head to the treble. When he fired up his graph, he instantly saw suspended fish on the screen. Walleyes typically relate to bottom so he had his suspicions. As he lowered the hard bait, he got an instant reaction from the blip on the screen. The mark eased up towards his bait and as Schut raised the lure the mark continued to rise. Schut then dropped his lure and the fish rose and inhaled the bait. Schut wasn’t surprised when a slab crappie came through the hole. He immediately dropped the bait back down to another mark that appeared and after a similar scenario a second slab was flopping next to the first.
“I’ll resort to hard baits when I’m targeting larger, more aggressive crappies,” said Schut. “You might catch more crappies on (soft) plastics, but hard baits typically catch the biggest crappies from any given school. Usually, the biggest crappies will be in the top of the school, but if the fish are in the weeds, sometimes they’ll be near bottom.”
Schut said there are four hard baits he reaches for when targeting jumbo paper mouths through the ice.
“I really like the Salmo Cubby Darter,” said Schut. “It a smaller bait and the really big crappies like it. Another bait would be the Salmo Rail Shad. The Rail Shad only comes in one size, which a little big for crappies, but when you know there are giant specks around it will interest the biggest of the big. I have probably caught more crappies on a Northland Forage Minnow than any other hard lure. I’ll typically add a couple spikes to the treble hook to give it little scent and added appeal. Smaller versions of the Rapala Jigging Rap or Custom Jigs and Spins Rotating Power Minnow are death on the biggest crappies.”
Schut said he relies on natural-colored lures when using hard baits for crappies.
“Natural colors, like perch or shad patterns, seem to interest crappies under the ice. It helps if the lure has a little orange on the throat or underbelly,” said Schut. ‘I don’t normally add any live bait because it affects the action of the bait.”
“When all else fails hard baits will fool reluctant crappies.”
Triggering strikes with hard baits from winter crappies is a little different than perch or walleye.
“Usually when I’m jigging for perch or walleye, I’m going to see how the fish reacts when I jig the lure and then raise the lure up. With crappies it’s exactly the opposite. I’ll start the lure up high and if the crappie shows any interest, I’ll drop the lure to them. If they’re interested in it, they’ll suck it right in on the fall.”
Detecting bite takes a keen eye and the right tackle.
“With perch and walleye your rod tip will drop down when they inhale the bait,” said Schut. ‘With crappie it’s just the opposite. Because they’re taking it on the way down your line will go slack and your rod tip will actually come up.”
Schut relies on custom-made 42-inch rods that allow him to jiggle, bounce and swim hard baits enticingly. Schut uses the rod to rip and flutter the bait initially to attract crappies and then resorts to jiggling and quivering the bait before he sees the rod tip go slack. The rods are perfect for manipulating swim bait like Rippin’ Raps and RPM jigs.
“The smaller versions of the jigging lures don’t swim like the bigger versions so you have to use the rod tip to dance and bounce them more to attract crappies,”’ shared Schut.
Hard baits may not be the normal lures you’d try for winter crappies, but when your target is “OMG-sized” specks they’re pretty hard to beat.
(Mike “Gnat” Gnatkowski has worn a lot of different hats during his years in the out-of-doors. He has been an outdoor writer/photographer/book author for more than 40 years. He continues to contribute to an array of outdoor publications as a freelance writer/photographer. He also scribes a very successful blog at GNAToutdoors.com).