Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Under-ice crappies: They are never easy, but first ice is best

By Vic Attardo
Contributing Writer

Crappies are not the easiest fish to catch under the ice. Compared to trout and bluegills, crappies require some snazzy skills, and luck.

Despite the toils and difficulties of catching crappies, I seem to do my best at two times during the ice season: first ice and last ice. Of the two, I’m more confident about first ice.

I say this because of location. Crappies at first ice are usually right where I left them when I last went out in a boat in mid- to late November. And as the frozen chosen know, just finding iced-up crappies is half the battle. 

But this year, in Pennsylvania, I think there will be a major game changer for crappie anglers. So read on.

For starters I don’t hunt for first-ice crappies in shallow water, say anything under 10 feet – give or take some inches. This is not a fish that rolled up into shallow water in late fall, and there is little reason for them to be there under first ice. 

Instead, after lake turnover, water temperatures are more or less equalized in most midsize bodies of water. So, crappies are not seeking out more comfortable water temperature in the fall – comfort is all around them.

In addition, the baitfish that crappies thrive on have also left the extreme shallows, again anything under 10 feet, and crappies always follow the baitfish .

In most small- to midsize lakes – 25 to 250 acres, give or take some acres, I initially head for deeper waters.

In these impoundments I’ll start at 12-15 feet, give or take, and work out to 35 feet. 

Of course, a lot depends on the structure of the lake. For instance, if there is a good drop-off in 12-15 feet, that’s where I want to start. But if the lake’s bottom is only a steady decline with no hard breaks, I might find – or not find them – at any level. 

These mostly featureless lakes or large bays with nothing but a gradual decline are the hardest places  to find ice crappies. 

One day they can be at 10-12 feet while the next they have sauntered out to 18 to 25 – it all depends on the weather, and weeds. Yes, if there are green weeds, even just scattered stalks, crappies will be around this vegetation.

The exception to this is frozen farm ponds. In those wonderful places, I go right to the deepest spots.

In giant lakes where the bays are unimportant, I may go deeper than 25 feet but I certainly don’t like to. Give me those small- to medium-size lakes and farm ponds for first-ice crappies.

During the long, middle-ice period, I’m looking across a wide depth range, which makes thick-ice crappies hard to find. So pick your first-ice location with care and/or familiarity.

Such exasperating geography makes having a sonar unit or an underwater camera a real necessity for iced-in crappies. 

When my screens light up with the presence of standing stalks, I’m going to work that area throughout the day. The crappies may not be there when I first start fishing but there’s a very good chance they’ll get into the weeds at some time. 

If I’m not actively jigging a particular weedy area I’ll establish a dead-stick rod around these weeds and watch the rod like a hawk. 

When I started the day, I drilled additional holes near the dead-stick rod so when it shows any sign of activity I rush over and work the pre-drilled holes. I catch a lot of iced-in crappies doing this.  

Indeed if you’re really just guessing about the location of winter crappies, setting up a few dead-stick rods with companion holes within a few yards is an excellent way to locate feeding fish. 

This year with Jaw Jackers and such now legal in Pennsylvania, I’ll probably try out a new tactic. I’ll set up a number of the automatic hookers and companion holes in likely zones and if one goes off, I’ll surround it and actively jig the area.

I don’t sweat the choice of baits when crappie fishing as much as I do the location stuff. Give me some tungsten jigs – both ball heads and the increasingly popular squeezed-fish shape such as the Jammin’ Jig – and those are my hooks. Then I add to the jig either a creamy larva, a piece of minnow (head or tail) or soft plastic. 

Nothing difficult about the choice of live or dead bait, but the soft plastics can be problematical. 

With soft plastic, you never know what color will interest crappies and, even more, what kind of tail action they’ll take. I’ve had one type of tail work great for a whole day then go utterly cold the next.

All wet season I’d been casting with paddle-tail plastics but paddles are not designed for the absolutely vertical presentation of ice fishing. Sure they catch some crappies, but for this work I like a tapered, straight tail behind the belly shape. 

The thin tapered tail bounces with the twitchy style of ice jigging. Also some micro creature baits are excellent.

So yes, with all these variables, crappies are not the easiest fish to catch under the ice. But I didn’t say they were impossible, especially at first ice. 

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