By Mike Gnatkowski
It cracks me up when I hear Southern boys talking about catching “cold-water” crappies. Like when the water temperatures get all the way down into the 40s?
Heck, in the North Country, water isn’t cold until you can walk on it.
The contrast between hard-water and open-water fishing is more extreme in the Upper Midwest, but the changes will allow you to predict where you’ll locate active ice-out crappies.
Crappies are simply more predictable in terms of locations during the dead of winter and after ice-out. In between, slabs are more challenging to locate and target because of the changing conditions. Crappies are on a mission when they begin to head for the shallows. You can catch them over transitional substrate areas and steep contours on late ice, but they won’t be there long.
Crappies are one of the first fish to spawn in the spring, so they’re most likely to be in the shallows before any other species. The shallows are where these fish are going to spawn, and the shallows – especially along south-facing shorelines – warm up first. Therefore, it’s a natural transition for crappies to migrate from the main-lake basin – where they’ve spent the winter – to shallow coves and bays. Many times, this will occur under the last vestiges of ice.
Not all coves and bays are created equal. Shallow, south-facing bays that contain lots of woody structure will turn on first because they’ll warm up and re-oxygenate first.
Look at a leaf or a stick on the ice and you’ll see that the ice will start melting around the object because it’s absorbing heat from the sun. Objects in the water do the same thing.
South-facing bays get more direct sunshine, too. Areas within the bay may get warmer more quickly than other parts because of their orientation and wind direction. Rocky shorelines and breakwalls reflect and absorb heat, too. A consistent wind may pile up warmer surface water in a certain corner of a bay. Use your temperature gauge to detect subtle changes in temperature that will concentrate crappies.
A secondary benefit or coincidence of the crappie migration to the shallows is that’s where the baitfish are headed, too. Minnows are going to be attracted to the tepid water found in the backs of bays in early spring. The baitfish themselves may be thinking about spawning or feeding upon insects and zooplankton. The convergence of the two makes for some great angling if your timing is right.
The timing of the whole scenario can vary greatly from north to south. Ice-out may occur in March in the southern tier of ice-fishing states or it could happen in late April or even May in more northerly locales. Have faith. It will happen. It’s just a matter of time.
Mid-40-degree water temperatures seem to be a key to jump-starting the spring crappie bite. Slabs will be in the shallows before the temperature reaches the ideal range, but the bite will be off and on. There will be brief flurries when the sun peeks out, but cold nights will plunge the fish back into a state of torpor. The ice-bite is full of starts and stops until full-blown spring arrives.
Water temperatures dictate presentations. The inclination may be to put on plastics and cover water. Crappies in cold, cold water, however, are not inclined to chase, so a better option is to use a live minnow and fish it methodically under a bobber, giving crappies plenty of time to find, inspect, and eat it. Fish the minnow on a jighead adorned with marabou, tinsel, or hair to give the bait a little bulk and color.
As the weather warms, plastics will become the go-to presentation. Remove the spring from the bobber and use a piece of surgical tubing to hold the line in place. Put the plastic down about 3 feet. Pitch the rig up near dock pilings, rocky shorelines, and stumps, then swim the jig along. Even though the crappie school may be in 8 or 10 feet of water, they’ll come up to eat.
Affix the plastic to a small jig so it quivers and trembles with little manipulation. The finesse plastics will interest bluegills and perch that you’ll find in the shallows, too.
Ice-out presentations require finesse and accurate casts. A 7-foot or 7-foot, 3-inch rod with a medium-light power and fast action are ideal for pitching floats and finesse plastics and provide optimum flex to prevent ripping tiny jigs out of the jaws of delicate papermouths.
Fill your reel with a quality 6-pound mono or fluorocarbon line and you’re ready to fish.
Ice-out crappie season begins with fingerless gloves and long underwear and ends in T-shirts. In between, there’s a whole lot of fun.