By Jason Mitchell
Never say never, and never say always with fishing. But when it comes to catching big crappies through the ice, there are a few lessons that seem to repeat themselves.
It doesn’t matter if you find crappies suspended over basins or classic wintering holes. It could be shallow weeds or pencil reeds – maybe sharp-breaking basin or channel edges. Perhaps you’re fishing flooded brush piles, cribs, or submerged timber. Wherever crappies swim, we often find a universal theme. In fact, this is the secret that separates the person who always seems to catch the biggest crappies from those who don’s. If there is an angler who always seems to have a knack for catching the biggest crappies, chances are that angler is fishing higher in the water column – often right under the ice.
There is a lesson to be learned here. If you’re content to simply catch fish, fish slightly above the fish you’re marking with your electronics. If you want to try to catch the biggest crappies in the neighborhood, fish much higher above the fish.
If you’re fishing suspended fish that are 15 feet down over 20 feet of water, fish 5 to 10 feet below the ice. If you’re fishing an 8-foot weed flat and most of the fish are running halfway down in the water column, go ahead and try fishing right below the ice. Get up above the fish. The reality is that you won’t catch as many fish, but you often will catch the biggest fish.
The presentations to catch them can run the gamut, but as a rule of thumb, this strategy doesn’t border on finesse. Soft-plastic options offer fish an easy-to-find profile or silhouette. Power-fishing strategies with small spoons are also really gaining momentum in a lot of regions. Big crappies might have a mouth that’s as big as a Styrofoam cup and they’re indeed predators.
While there are times when fish can be finicky and require finesse, the reality is that crappies can often surprise us with their level of aggressiveness. For targeting the biggest crappies, don’t be afraid to fish high and don’t be afraid to go bold and big.
Horizontal jigs paired with soft-plastic profiles have been a big crappie staple for the past decade. Many of the more popular plastics have had a larger, minnow-type profile. On horizontal jigs, you can get the jig to swim and kick forward by sliding a Palomar knot back toward the hook. Sliding the knot back and letting the jig mover more horizontally often seems to work for catching these bigger fish.
On occasions where crappies rise high or show up high in the water column but won’t hit larger and more aggressive profiles, there are times when a more subtle vertical jig an be the ticket – especially with unstable weather, heavy fishing pressure, or just the classic midwinter doldrums when fishing seems to get tougher.
I often use a similar minnow-profile plastic but hook the plastic horizontal below a vertical jig. Vertical jigs just seem to move less water and have a more subtle footprint and a much smaller profile as fish look up at the jig.
For simply covering water with an aggressive power-fishing point of view, the spoon craze is a fun way to target aggressive fish. Many anglers are using spoons without any bait or plastic. With the spoons, fish high and play keep-away. Keep the spoon moving and make the fish chase the lure.
This high, big-and-bold routine probably catches the larger crappies in a school for a variety of reasons, but I think there is a universal theme at play. The smaller crappies seem to like the security of the pack. Small fish don’t like to be exposed above the rest of the school. Small fish don’t seem to like to be alone. Small fish know they are a meal.
Big fish have a different swagger. Big fish beat the small fish to a meal and don’t worry about exposing themselves above the pack. By fishing as high as possible in the water column, often pushing the limit to the bottom of the ice, you offer a presentation that the big fish will find and eat.
You are also outside the limit and comfort zone that small fish are willing to risk for a meal. This ceiling or elevation game is perhaps the easiest way to sort out the top-end fish.
By pushing how far fish will rise to hit the lure, remember as well that a 14-inch crappie usually beats a 10-inch crappie in a race. What we have also found is that often, the bigger fish are the lone wolves.
If your goal is simply to catch the biggest crappies you can this winter, fish higher in the water column. Fish so high in the water column that you start to catch notably fewer fish. What you will find is that you will start to catch some of your very biggest fish.