10 Tips for Winter Slabs
By: Tim Allard
Stumped by tempermental crappie? These moves will improve your catch rates
Most ice anglers have a bittersweet relationship with crappie. When you find an active school, the fishing is outstanding. On other days, locating them can seem impossible. Try these tricks the next time you feel you're being tested by these picky panfish.
1. Fish as a Team
A lot of crappie fishing is spent in search mode, so put yourself in the right frame of mind. Don't expect to find willing biters beneath the first hole you drill. If you systematically stalk these fish, you will eventually find them – and the reward of landing that first slab after a lot of legwork will be worth the effort.
Working as a group helps you more quickly locate the best spots than doing it solo. This is especially beneficial when tackling large expanses of water. Take time to scout areas and review lake charts to develop a strategy with buddies. Once on the ice, spread out and drill lots of holes to cover ground. Stay in contact with two-way radios or meet occasionally throughout the day to compare notes.
2. Top Spots
The following areas are good starting points for your search. In small, fertile lakes, expect to find fish relating to deep holes or the main basin. They might also hold near healthy weeds until they die off. In large lakes, crappie often occupy mid-depth flats or deep basin areas, but will relate closely to points, islands, humps, or the base of dropoffs. In rivers, crappie avoid current and reside in backwater areas, such as sloughs, protected shorelines, side channels, or canals.
3. Work the Water Column
Crappie are renowned suspenders. Anglers who fish the entire water column catch more fish. Slowly swimming baits down not only helps intercept suspended fish, but the presentation is more natural than divebombing lures.
Don't discount right beneath the ice in shallow areas. Last year, I iced several crappie at dusk by jigging less than a foot below my ice hole. The fish would streak in from the sides and smack the jig, making for productive and adrenaline-filled action.
4. Fish at Night
One of my fondest hard-water memories is an evening of incredible first-ice crappie fishing with a teenage friend. The only sounds filling the crisp, winter air were the hiss of a glowing gas lantern, our laughter, and the occasional zip of a reel drag.
Paper-mouths become more aggressive at twilight, pushing onto structures, such as humps or points, or invading shallow areas and weedlines in search of food. As with walleye fishing, arrive early and set up in advance, so you're ready when the feeding frenzy starts. Also, for about $20 or less you can get a compact headlamp for excellent hands-free illumination.
5. Be Sonar Savvy
Without a doubt, using a portable sonar when targeting crappie will help you catch more fish, given their suspending tendencies. Monitoring the display also offers clues on the activity level of fish, based on how they relate to your bait. Tweak your presentation accordingly until you crack the code to trigger bites.
6. The Right Set-Up
A properly balanced jigging combo is essential for detecting light-biting crappie. Ultra-light line and a quality rod with either a spring bobber or a noodle tip add sensitivity and finesse when you need it. If you can't feel the weight of your bait, the set-up is too heavy. Also, be prepared to drop down line strengths, as fussy crappie can be line shy, especially in clear water.
7. Jig Details
As crappie have good vision and tend to be choosy at times, presentation details make a difference. Carry an assortment of ice-jig profiles, including vertical, horizontal, and 45-degree models. Also pay attention to knot positioning on horizontal jigs. The force of fighting a fish often causes the knot to slip forward on the hook eye, resulting in a droopy profile. Sliding the knot back to the centre keeps the bait straight.
The right colour pattern can be important to tempt lock-jaw crappie, so keep your tackle box well-stocked with natural, hot, and glow-painted baits. Of course, profile and hue aren't all that's required to catch fish. You will also need to master a variety of jigging moves to make baits come alive.
Catching crappie isn't always a finesse game. Sometimes fish will be more selective if given the time to look over small finesse jigs. This is when upsizing to bigger baits, such as 1.5- to 2.5- inch spoons, swimbaits, and plastics, combined with more assertive jigging, will ice you more slabs. Switching to a bigger bait also helps sift through smaller crappie and engage the bruisers. Expect crappie to hit larger lures with more gusto than small jigs. Good lure choices include the Northland Puppet Minnow, Rapala Jigging Shad Rap, Salmo Chubby Darter, Williams Wabler, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Blue Fox Rattle Flash Jig'N Spoon, and JB Lures Varmit.
9. Use Live Bait
The scent trail created by fresh bait is one of the most consistent ways to provoke strikes. If friends are outfishing you and they're adding fresh bait every 5 minutes, this is a sign to speed up your re-baiting tempo. When fish are hot, you can extend the time frame, but when they're finicky, frequently adding new bait is best, whether it be maggots, minnows, or scent-loaded soft-bait.
When crappie ignore your jigging manoeuvres, sometimes the best move is none at all. A maggot-tipped jig or tiny minnow rigged on a small hook dangled below a split shot are common set-line rigs. Get these baits into the strike zone and soak them. I've watched dozens of crappie on my sonar move in, then stop and stare at the bait. If you're presentation is close to perfect, they will hit the offering. Adding a faint jiggle after a long standoff can also trigger bites.