The last period of safe ice typically offers some of the best ice fishing of the year for panfish like bluegill and crappie. For crappies in particular, we often find fish shallow and the fish can often be fairly aggressive. Finding crappie is often a matter of connecting the dots; on most lakes and flowages, crappies will suspend out over holes and basins through much of the winter. Crappie will then set up in shallow protected bays, marinas and creek arms that have a few feet of water to spawn. There’s patterns to locating them; we know where the fish were, and we know where they are going to be in less than a month, so the key is finding structure between points A and B. More specifically, look for soft bottom locations and, if you can find weeds present, even better. From my own experiences, I have found crappie over rock bottoms through the summer and early ice but not so much at late ice. The deep lip at the mouth of a shallow bay or a saddle separating the basin from shallower backwater is a prime starting point. Any soft bottom point, hump or lip that lies between the basin and the bay is a good candidate for searching. As mentioned above, if you can add weeds to the location… better yet.
As a general rule of thumb, crappie will often keep pushing shallow and further back towards these spawning locations as the late ice season progresses. There are two things I really keep an eye out for when looking for fish. Look for any weeds sticking out of the ice or in the ice. When weeds reach the surface, you will see weeds frozen in the ice and these locations will often reveal where the best stands of weeds are. As winter gives way to spring and the days begin to get longer with a higher sun, weeds right under the ice will often green up and become vibrant again and these weed stalks hanging out of the ice will often hold fish. As ice conditions deteriorate, crappies will often concentrate around pencil reeds as well but also remember that anything sticking out of the ice like pencil reeds, cattails or timber absorbs heat from the sun and the ice will often be more hazardous in these locations.
Besides weeds frozen in the ice, the second thing I look for is open holes. When the days warm up and water starts flowing into old open holes, crappies will often stack right underneath. The more holes and the bigger the holes the better. Look for the foam. The old hole pattern often picks up intensity as the day progresses because as the sun climbs high overhead and the temperatures warm up, the water begins to flow. Look for crappies to roam right under the ice. There are often situations where you can actually watch the fish and sight fish for them.
Long days, green weeds and highly oxygenated water flowing down open holes often make fish aggressive. Not always, of course, but some of the most aggressive crappie bites we see each winter often happen during this period of time. There are times when finesse presentations are needed but don’t overlook larger and more aggressive lures for finding and triggering these fish. A great search lure for calling in big crappie is a size 3 or size 4 Salmo Chubby Darter along with size 1 and 2 Northland Fishing Tackle Puppet Minnows. Spoons like a 1/16th ounce Northland Fishing Tackle Forage Minnow tipped with wax worms or spikes also get seen from a distance and work well.
When crappies are shallow and right under the ice, they really seem to go for the horizontal gliding action you find on lures like Salmo Chubby Darters, Puppet Minnows and Jigging Raps; with that being said I also like to fish horizontal jigs and soft plastics this time of year so that they glide and swim like a small minnow versus quivering like an insect or invertebrate. My favorite jig for a glide and slide look is a Northland Tackle Hexi-Fly rigged with an Impulse Smelt Minnow. To get the jig to slide out on the stroke, use a palomer knot and slide the knot towards the hook. This combination offers a nice profile that fish can see against the ice and can be fished aggressively or much more subtle depending on the mood of the fish.
Check out the video describing these types of locations and how to fish this presentation.
The hardest part of fishing for late ice crappie is knowing when to quit. The fishing will often keep getting better each day and the ice conditions get worst each day. Ice safety is paramount. Being safe starts with knowing when to say no and not pushing your luck. When the shorelines start to go and the ice starts sagging with each step, you are on borrowed time. Also be prepared for the worst by having ice pics, rope and floatation. Just an inflatable personal floatation device like the Onyx A/M 24 Automatic Manual PFD is dependable, comfortable and doesn’t inhibit your movement. Even if holes are still open from previous days, still make a point to drill a few holes through the day because this is a good way to monitor the condition of the ice. When ice begins to chip and come up in chunks when you drill a hole, the ice is not as strong.
The dawn of winter, the eve of spring, whatever you want to call the magical time frame of late ice, is some of the most productive and fun fishing of the winter. Long days, aggressive fish and weather where you can fish without gloves and wear a sweatshirt is all part of the allure when we know another season is coming to an end. Be safe and focus on some of the locations discussed in this article and I am confident you will experience some great late ice opportunities for crappie.
Important Safety Tools for late Ice
Ice Picks like this set available from Clam can be worn around your neck and can save your life if the worst happens. Experts recommend that you use the picks to pull yourself flat across the ice and than roll away from the area where you fell through preferably towards the ice that held your weight before you fell through. If you don’t have ice picks, at least carry a screw driver in one of your pockets so that you can attempt to pull yourself up.
Personal Floatation Devices don’t have to be bulky or uncomfortable. An inflatable PFD like the Onyx A/M 24 can be inflated by submerging in water or by a manual pull strap so the PFD can be worn or thrown to another angler.
Throw ropes should be carried in your sled or bucket so that you can aid another angler or another angler can aid you. This last season, Clam designed an ingenious throw rope design that contains the rope inside of a bag and can be thrown more accurately much like tossing a soft ball.
By Jason Mitchell