Overtime: Late Ice Crappie!
Well, here we go. Time is running out on this hard water season but don’t you worry, some of the best action you will experience will take place during the late ice period.
It has been said that crappie are elusive yet easy to catch once located. During mid-winter, they can school up and be suspended just about anywhere (or nowhere it seems), but, during the late ice period something favorable happens. What you ask? The predictability level of these tasty, handsome fish hits a boiling point.
Location, Location, Location
Crappies spawn in the spring, which becomes a key factor when locating them at this time of year. River/creek mouths and adjacent shallow weedy bays/flats are the preferred areas for procreating crappie. Now, are all creek mouths created equally? No. The presence of abundant aquatic vegetation is of utmost importance. An area of a lake that has both of these features at late ice can usually be found on the north shore of a lake. Healthy green weeds usually flourish in late fall, and ultimately throughout the winter because of the longer photo-period/longer growing season indicative of a south facing shoreline.
As the ice begins to melt, along with runoff from shorelines and the ensuing current from the adjacent creeks and rivers, crappie will begin a migration to these areas to stage. As with most species, pre-spawn is their opportunity to feed up before a taxing spawning period. These are the areas to concentrate your efforts upon from now until the post spawn period in spring. Trust me.
Choices: Hard bait/live bait and plastics
There are many different styles of baits an angler can have in their repertoire including live minnows and plastics on jig heads, various hard baits along with combinations of both with many rigging options.
As far as hard baits go, small ‘Buckshot’ rattling spoons (and a mainstay in ice angler’s tackle boxes) the ‘Jiggin’ Rap’ (Rapala) is still very popular and effective. One little trick you can apply is replacing the split ring with a small snap. This gives you the ability to remove the treble, and tip it with a real minnow head. Just clip off the head, thread it onto the hook shank and re-attach the treble back onto the lure and viola, you have the scent, look and feel of live bait without having to constantly re-rig. Also, I like adding extra scent to the mix. I have had success adding Fizards, which is moldable/pliable scent that smells of natural minnows, with a bubbling, fizzing reaction in the water. I molded this attractant to the rear single hook on the ‘Jiggin’ Rap’, which definitely put a few more crappie on the right side of the ice. Another great lure for more aggressive crappie is the smallest ‘Rippin’ Rap’. The same treble/minnow head modification can be applied to this lure as well.
Also, there are times that a larger profile will tempt crappie. Cutting a live minnow in half and rigging it onto any of these baits can be effective as it will leave a much larger scent trail as well. As far as colors are concerned, bright and gaudy usually rules the day. Firetiger, chartreuse and orange bellied perch imitating patterns are a great starting point, with shiner and shad patterns rounding things out so have an array of choices with you.
Plastics can be very effective as well. Micro or ‘panfish’ tubes and micro grubs have their place along with small minnow imitations. One very fine minnow imitator some of us have come across is the 2 ¼” ‘Baby Shad’ which is a part of the Lake Fork Trophy Lures crappie line. This bait has a very natural action, with many colors to choose from that mimic a wide variety of forage. Simply thread these plastics onto a very light, 1/32oz-1/16oz jig head, or if you prefer, a darter head. With this bait, an attractant can be added, in this case in the form of a liquid. Liquid Mayhem Attractants has a garlic minnow scent that can be applied sparingly with long lasting, very effective results. This attractant can be applied to both hard and soft baits and is made with real live bait, so in combination with any of these plastics or lures, you can be very efficient thus maximizing your time fishing rather than re-rigging ad nauseam.
One constant that seems to remain when presenting all types of baits/lures to crappie is the subtle jigging motion I like to refer to as “feathering”. The fact is that crappie like to suspend over weed tops and tend to feed upward, so once you position yourself in these pre-spawn staging areas, you should use your electronics to spot crappie over this cover. Drop your offering down to the fringe of these weeds, jig up and down a few times, then simply reel the bait up to a few feet below the hole, then ever so slightly bounce/feather the bait until a hungry crappie swims up for the kill. If the bite is slow, just repeat this process until you trigger a school, and always consider running and gunning the entire area until you find the sweet spot.
As far as depth is concerned, crappie will be relating to shallower water at this time of year. While it is possible that they may pull out to the closest main break mid-day, the active schools can be found in depths no more than 7-10ft, especially during the dusk transition. You can expect to catch large numbers when presenting the baits discussed here, utilizing the vibrating, ‘feathering’ action suspended 3-4ft (mid water column) in these shallow depths.
Targeting these light biting fish requires light equipment. A 28” ultra-light, fast tip rod, coupled with a 1000 series spinning reel spooled with 4-6lb test braid or Fireline, paired with a light 4-6lb fluorocarbon leader is the ticket. Using a heavier action rod/line combo will inhibit your ability to feel the light bite indicative to crappie and other panfish. Are electronics a must? I believe so. Crappie are chasers so having the ability to spot them as they are stalking your bait will up your odds. Without the knowledge of how they are reacting to your offering, you are basically leaving it to chance. If you can get your hands on a color sonar do so, as these units will give you a clearer picture of bottom transitions/composition and higher quality units give a real time representation of movements, and of course, arcs (fish). A simple flasher is also useful as well. I’ve used flashers on fish like lake trout and walleye with good results, so if this is what you have access to you are good to go.
There you have it – baits, locations, presentation and equipment. That being said, please keep in mind that we are talking about late ice. Always be aware of ice thickness/conditions and take precautions when venturing out in search of these fine fish. DO NOT risk your safety for a bent rod and some fillets for the table. Spring is upon us so it won’t be long until you can wet a line in open water. Get out and enjoy the rest of this hard water season because time is tickin’.
See you out there.
Jamie Wilson-Exist To Fish Canada Head Writer/Editor