By John Rasmussen
There’s something about the crappie that seems to stir up a nostalgic sense of endearment among anglers. For most of us, it was one of the first fish we caught during our earliest days of ice fishing. The French fur traders named the crappie after the breakfast cuisine known to them as a “crepe” which in America, resembles our pancake. With this pancake shaped body and small head, the crappie is essentially a sizable slab of tender, boneless meat. Yet with its large regal fins and impressive colorations, it is one of America’s most handsome fish as well. The crappie simply embodies everything we look for in a quality fish but it also has a unique ability. It can see many feet above into the water column during near total darkness. This means it can very effectively ambush its prey under the incredibly low light conditions of a snow laden ice sheet. But are there times to catch them better than others? And why?
Windows of Opportunity
In the dead of winter, bite windows will often come into play for crappies. Identifying these bite windows is crucial to your success. On clear water lakes, these peak feeding times usually fall within the two hour period on either side of sunrise and sunset while bite windows tend to take place mid-morning and mid-afternoon on stained water lakes. Coaxing a few rouge crappies into biting throughout the mid-day or overnight periods can provide just enough action to keep one occupied while waiting for that next window of opportunity. A lowlight period is a window of opportunity for the crappies as well. It’s at this time they can hunt their prey without being seen. Their eyes are specially tuned to see in extremely lowlight conditions.
Some lakes with deep, darkly stained waters and heavy snow cover will even produce a mid-day bite window with poor fishing during the entire morning and afternoon. In this scenario the sun is high and only then is there minimal light reaching into the depths. It really just comes down to when this lowlight period takes place below the ice. Many factors determine when this prime-time feeding period will happen. Water clarity is probably the biggest one but clouds, sunlight, moonlight, snow depth, ice color, and spring seepages are other important factors to consider. Use water clarity as the first clue to when these bite windows will take place on any particular body of water.
If you happen to find crappies in clear and/or very shallow water, consider staying after dark for a few hours. You may very well pick off a few more beyond that dusk bite window. Nocturnal crappies where they exist, are often completely un-pressured and some lakes with morning and evening feeding crappies will also have a smaller population of nocturnal crappies who exclusively feed at night. These are niche fish with the advantage of having very little predatory pressure upon them. For the most part they have been left alone by birds of prey, predatory fish, and humans. It’s precisely for these reasons that those niche fish tend to be of bigger average size.
What To Use
All presentations start with a good rod. For a jigging rod I prefer a very soft, sensitive tip and an ultra-fast action that loads quickly into a moderately powered backbone. There are a multitude of rods out there with this specific action but if you want the highest quality available, the Bullwhip from Tuned Up Custom Rods is the most coveted of this rod type. Titanium recoil guides, custom lengths, and solid fiberglass blanks are just some of the high quality components the Bullwhip is bestowed with. At just over a hundred dollars it won’t break the bank the way those long rods can either. Some of the alternative and cheaper ultra-fast action panfish rods available include the Meat Stick from Clam, the quick tip from Frabill, and The Snitch from Number 8 Tackle. All of these are priced at around sixty dollars for the rod and reel combo and forty dollars for just the rod. A rod with this action will not only allow you detect the subtle bites a crappie imposes on a bait in these cold winter months, but will enable you to set the hook with lightning speed as the front third of the rod loads into the moderate power backbone with just a flick of the wrist. By utilizing two flex points these rods create a seamless barrier no fish, no matter how hard they fight, can break. Pair one with any good micro ice reel but whatever you choose make sure it has a smooth drag system capable of performing well in cold conditions. Your drag should always be the weakest link between your hand and the fish. Set the drag so it can be heard making just one or two very brief clicks while fighting an average sized panfish. This will ensure you won’t put unnecessary stress on your rod blank, fine wire hooks, or light line. It will also allow larger panfish to make short runs while keeping that hook buried in their jaw. Again, your drag system should always be the weakest link – Not the soft flesh of a crappie’s jaw.
Having a second rod set as a dead stick is a good idea and mine is usually rigged with a #6 plain octopus hook, a single “size B” split shot, and a tiny rainbow chub or medium crappie minnow just barely hooked in front of the dorsal fin. If your close enough to your second rod you can of course use a slip float instead, but if you plan to do any hole hopping I’d recommend dead sticking a rod from a rod holder. The small, rod mounted trip flags from Firstrike can be added to the rod so you can better see when a fish has taken the bait. This will allow you to effectively fish in two places at one time. I also like to use the Ceymar cbf 500 micro spinning real from Okuma for my dead sticking real since it has a unique secondary drag system that works very well with these trip flags and allows the fish to run with the bait without any resistance even when the bail is closed. I prefer the 32″ Power Noodle from Tuned Up Custom Rods for this application.
Wherever you ice fish crappies and whatever you end up using to catch them, remember to learn the bite windows specific to those waters. They can vary drastically from lake to lake and even week to week depending on snow depth and ice thicknesses. Once these bite windows have been established watch your clocks to capitalize on those clockwork crappies!