Story & photos by Darl Black
Recognized for his bass fishing exploits on the FLW Tour, professional angler Dave Lefebre is equally proficient at catching crappies. “If there wasn’t a national bass tour, I would be fishing crappie tournaments,” Lefebre has remarked on more than one occasion. He takes his crappie fishing desire to the extreme during winter’s off-season by ice fishing on frozen waters in Northwestern Pennsylvania.
“I was ice-fishing with my Dad long before I ever knew anything about competitive bass fishing. Today with all the specialized ice angling equipment, I really love the whole ice-fishing gig – pinpointing crappies with portable sonar, lowering tiny baits to the level of the fish and finessing them into biting. For me, it’s every bit as exciting as bass fishing in open water.”
On the popular crappie lakes, groups of ice shelters indicate there is a good bite going on.
Here are Dave’s Top Ten Tips for icing crappies.
1. Pre-ice scouting: “Success on the ice begins during open water season. When fishing local waters during the summer and fall, I carry a hand-held GPS unit to mark potential winter crappie sites. I don’t want to be bothered with recording waypoints on my boat’s sonar and transferring to a portable unit, so I simply use the hand-held GPS for winter spots and then carry it with me onto the ice.”
2. Location, Location: “Under the ice, there are always some shallow-water crappies around weedbeds and brushpiles. But on larger lakes and reservoirs there are larger schools in the deeper water. So when fishing shallow, the focus is cover – especially weedbed areas. But in deep water basin areas, crappie schools suspend over the flats, perhaps relating to some small odd object on the bottom. Depending on the particular water, I may be fishing shallow or in 20- to 30-foot depths.”
3. Making the safe ice call. “I like to be among the first on the ice. But being first is risky business. I carry my Dad’s old spud bar. If I ram it hard on ice several feet off shore, and it breaks through the ice layer – it isn’t safe to be on. But if that spud bar doesn’t penetrate to water, then I know there is at least 3.5 inches of ice – safe enough for anglers to walk on. But you can’t go walking another 10 or 20 yards before checking again; you’ve got to check ice thickness every 4 or 5 steps. You need to do the spud bar test after any warming trend, too.”
4. Set up a Home Base: “I’m a run-and-gun guy when it comes to ice fishing. Crappies move around a lot within a given locale during the winter. I set up a home base with a couple holes at a target site that I had established with my hand-held GPS – where I believe the most action will take place. It may be over a grass bed, a channel drop or little stick up on a deepwater flat. That’s where I place my 3-person Otter Ice Shelter, and store all the gear – heater, food, dry gloves, etc. Then I spread out from this base, drilling numerous holes so I can move from one to another when the crappies stop biting at one spot.”
5. Good reading: “Today’s high quality sonar is so critical to consistent success – with practice and experience in reading the colors and thickness of lines, you can identify bottom hardness, objects and small depth changes, weeds, baitfish and fish of interest. The MarCum LX-5 which I use sends out a strong enough signal that it will provide excellent readings through clear ice (snow swept away). This means I do not have to drill a hole to see what is down there. When I see a target of interest, I drill.”
6. Drill baby, drill: “Some anglers don’t understand the importance of a lot of holes. Fish and baitfish shift positions, and you’ve got to change locations to find them. I have a gas auger, electric auger, and a couple different size hand augers. My scouting auger is a 4″ model from StrikeMaster. With this sweet little unit, I can cut through 8 inches of ice in 3 seconds.”
7. Best season tip: “While I like to get out early before the crowds, the period I really like to fish is the middle of the season. At this point the greatest number of crappies will be found on the deep flats, and it really becomes like a video game to catch them. Watching my Marcum LX-5 sonar closely to lower baits to them and then finesse strikes.”
8. Best Lure tip: “Minnows are the prime prey of big crappies under the ice, but I don’t like carrying and using minnows. My number one lure is a Yamamoto 1.75″ crappie tube in a baitfish color on a 1/64-oz. jighead. If fish are hitting light, I’ll tip it with a live maggot. For those really tough-bite days, I go to the VMC Wax-Tail Grub – a tiny 1/100-oz. artificial wax worm. When fishing deep flats, I rely on the Jigging Shad Rap to attract aggressive fish, as well as triggering inactive crappies.”
9. Best line tip: “Thin is in for ice lines. I use Suffix Ice Magic monofilament in 1-pound and 2-pound test for jigs. For jigging treble hook lures deep, I have a reel with Suffix 832 Advanced Ice Braid with a 4-pound mono leader attached.”
10. Best time of day tip: “No way around this one. Under the ice, crappies bite best during low light periods – cloudy days or early morning and later afternoon through dusk. If it’s a pretty, bluebird sky with lots of sun, I’ll probably stay home until the last couple hours of daylight.”
Safe ice on lakes in Northwest Pennsylvania typically occurs in early January. Now is the perfect time to employ Lefebre’s ten tips to icing crappies. And if you fish Presque Isle Bay, Edinboro Lake, Pymatuning Lake or Shenango River Lake, you may just run into him this month!