Story & photos by Vic Attardo
I have to say I’m proud of myself. I’ve been writing CrappieNow articles on ice fishing up here on Northern lakes. I’ve beckoned Southern anglers to come up, see a frozen lake and try ice angling for crappie. Finally, I played host to a couple of warm-blooded crappie fishermen last winter. After managing their fear of groaning ice, they had such a good time they cant’ wait to come back for more. My mission accomplished.
At the same time, I talked myself blue in the face during their visit – not from the cold, but from giving instructions on how to catch crappie from beneath a frozen sheet. To their surprise, there’s no chance for spider rigs or dock shooting when the water is a hard as an old bone.
Later I sat down and distilled, literally and figuratively, my icy thoughts and came up with five tactics for future newbies when they visit.
#1 Know Where They Are
Even in winter, crappie aren’t stagnant feeders. They move to find food. Iced-in crappie are no different.
When not feeding under the ice they’ll often occupy deeper water adjacent to sparse weed beds or remain lethargic in thicker weed beds. Even in super cold places, like northern Lake Champlain, crappie find weeds in winter.
But when it’s chow time, iced-in crappie often form schools and move to a thicker bed’s outer edge or to sparse places inside the bed. Yes, during the slow times you can find solitary crappie in deeper water and in the thick beds, and at those times you can nick-pick solitary fish. But to get on the hot bite you should be ready to work the better feeding zones.
I like to have numerous holes pre-drilled along the weed edge so when the action starts all I have to do is drop baits. The holes are augered fairly close together, within 7 to 10 feet. Crappie will move along the weed edge and you have to keep up with them.
#2 Jigging Sticks: Rods at the Ready
Sometimes we sit around watching tip-ups. Tip-ups, or traps, are the crossbar or server tray-like things that fly a flag when a crappie hits the bait dangling below. You can catch some nice crappie during slow times on medium shiners with tip-ups. But when the action gets started — like that noted above — jigging rods are the way to go. With short, 18- to 24-inch rods you can work these holes quickly and efficiently. (It’s a big change from the 11- and 12-footers spider riggers and long-line trollers use!)
I like to have at least two, possibly three, jigging sticks, primed and ready. I carry these around in a bucket or pulled in a light sled from hole to hole. If I’m using just two rods, one has a tiny ice jig; the other has a jigging spoon. If three rods, two have different color ice jigs and the third has a spoon, probably a “chain spoon,” which has a thin metal chain hanging from the bottom eye to the hook. With a wormy insect larva on the hook, chain spoons bounce beautifully.
The real gambit is to get the aggressive crappie at each hole before moving onto the next. We call this “Hole Hopping.”
Often a crappie will hit once but if you miss it may tentatively hit the same bait again. But by having a couple of rods at the ready you can fool this crappie into striking hard another time on a different bait. This works so often I can’t tell you how many times it’s taken two baits to finally collect a slab.
#3 Use a Sonar
When you really get into this ice fishing thing you’ll want some electronics that are dedicated to ice fishing. By far the most common and useful is the flasher. Yep, the great grandfather sonar we used to put on the front of bass boats now is used for ice fishing.
Here’s how a flasher works.
Of course a flasher gives you the depth you’re working, which is very important. You can also “see” the weedy stalks around the transducer. But the real importance of flasher is knowing when to strike – actually anticipating the strike.
Set at the proper gain, you can see your lure on a flasher. Bounce the jig up and down and you’ll discern the lines jumping on the flasher dial.
When a crappie comes into the transducer cone, the indicator lines will change color as the crappie gets closer to your bait. Flasher readings are almost instantaneous so when you see those hot colors come towards your bait, you may want to change your jigging action. Once those hot indicator lines surround your bait — even before you feel the strike or see a jump in your line – you can raise the rod tip and set the hook. Set the hook “on air,” so to speak, and then fight a crappie.
#4 Jigging Actions
Working an ice jig inappropriately is a lot singing a good song off-key. If the key isn’t right, crappie won’t listen. Try a short rapid hop, or a slow short hop or a high vigorous bounce or a slow exaggerated rise and descent. In fact if you can think it up, it’s probably a good way, at one time or other, to work an ice jig for crappie.
Another good movement is no movement at all. Allow the wormy larva to wiggle on the hook. A lot of crappie are caught by this dead-stick approach — leaving the rod securely connected on a stationary item like a lidded bucket — while you more aggressively work other ice holes.
It would be nice to say that under such-and-such conditions one should work a jig this way or that, but unfortunately that can’t be defined. Most of the time there’s no rhyme or reason to it all. Crappie react to different jigging actions when they feel like it. The point is, you often need to vary the action of your bait from day-to-day and sometimes within the same day.
I usually begin with a deadstick tactic aided by a soft plastic with very thin appendages that wave in the current. If I’m holding the rod and a crappie approaches on the sonar screen, I give the pole nearly indescribable shakes, which translate to more wiggling on the plastic. Ninety percent of the time it seems that a little hypnotic wiggle is what makes a crappie strike.
If this doesn’t garner a strike, I slowly raise the rod tip so that it pulls the bait up about a foot, then I follow with a two-foot pull, and after each lift I allow the bait to descend slowly with a tad of slack. If that doesn’t work, I raise the rod swiftly and drop the rod quickly.
Fact is I often need all these movements to entice crappie. The same goes with spoons, but I give a spoon a bit more slack because a free fall produces flash and wobble; then I hold the spoon in place at the bottom of the drop.
#5 Consider Night Ice
I can hear the voices: “Ice fishing is cold enough, now you want us to go at night. No way!”
Crappie often go through an intense cycle of night feeding, even under a thick crust of ice. If you intercept this bite you’re in for some hot winter action. Forget windy nights, forget snowy nights, and forget crystal clear nights with super freezes. But pick a calm night, a lightly cloudy night, when weather patterns and the air temperature have more or less stabilized over the past two or three days. These often make for memorial nights on the ice both in terms of the catch and the experience.
Night ice fishing for crappie doesn’t mean you have to stay out all night. Instead, it most often means being prepared to carry on for a couple of hours after sunset or before sunrise.
For added benefit, submergible fish-attracting lights, such as Hydro-Glows, can produce some excellent night action. The green light is a good attractor. Also carry some glo-jigs that you can charge with a flashlight or camera flash.
Most importantly, never go out on ice at night that you haven’t been on in daylight.
If you’re new to ice fishing for crappie, or just want to improve your catch, try these tips. Ice fishing is just one more way to catch the fish we all love.