Calico bass, crappie, paper mouths, slabs – whatever you call them, they are one of the most popular gamefish in North America. Though they prefer warmer water and are more popular down south, they are also highly sought after in parts of the Northeast where they can be targeted through the ice.
If you want to catch the fish, you must understand the fish. Learning a fish’s habits will help to put you on them. Information such as location, forage, how they feed, and when they feed are all very important things to know, and those things can change from time to time. Each fish you catch becomes a piece of the big puzzle.
Location, Location, Location
Crappie travel in medium- to large-sized schools and move around quite a bit. Areas where they will hold usually consist of some type of structure. They also like to roam deep basins and flats. A lot of anglers will target downed trees, the edges of weed lines, and rock piles. One place anglers often overlook is inside weed beds. While fishing the edges of weed lines can be productive, the fishing in the weeds can be great as well. Crappie are cover-oriented fish, and in the winter they spend a lot of time hunting in the previous-season’s weeds for insect larvae and small fish.
One reason why crappie fishing can be so excellent through the ice is because crappie tend to feed upward. So the vertical presentation of ice fishing really grabs their attention and keeps your bait in their strike zone longer. Crappie like small baits, and it’s been shown that crappie feed on fish and insects that are about 1.5″-2″ in length. If you are fishing with shiners, you want the smallest ones possible. Always match your hook size to your bait as well. Knowing what your target species eats can be the key to catching them. If you harvest fish, inspect their stomach contents. One thing that may be found in the bellies of winter slabs is juvenile bluegill – teeny, tiny bluegill about 1″ in length. Knowing what they are eating can help you with jig and color selection.
When to Target Crappie
When targeting crappie, or any fish for that matter, some days are good and some aren’t. The difference in the bite can literally be day and night. For a lot of fishing, early morning and evening are best, and crappie fishing is no different. The one thing that should be noted is that the calico bite can be excellent at night! Many anglers will hit the ice after dark to find quality slabs. Crappie have very large eyes and use them to hunt after dark when baitfish are at a disadvantage. Submersible lanterns are good to have because light attracts baitfish, which then attract crappie. If you don’t have a submersible light, you can always drill a hole almost all the way through and place a lantern inside. Then, drill holes next to your light source to jig in.
Crappie Ice fishing Gear
There are many options on the market for jigging rods. Clam Outdoors’ Legacy rod and reel combos are some of the best choices out there. The rods are extremely light weight and highly sensitive, which is crucial in detecting bites. The reels they offer pair well with the rods and have a very smooth drag system. Having a well balanced set up is a necessity. St. Croix also offers their Legend ice rods, which come with a built-in adjustable spring bobber. These rods are another excellent option. Yet another popular rod is the St. Croix Avid Glass. It is perfectly designed for jigging and offers an amazing feel for sensitivity in order to detect the most subtle bites. Now what line to use? The max you want to be using is 4-pound-test. A lot of anglers like 2-pound-test and sometimes even lighter. It is really a game of finesse. A popular line is P-Line’s Floroice. This line is strong, super smooth, and doesn’t freeze. Other good options are Sufix and Trilene clear. The Trilene clear can be hard to see at times, but it can be clutch when the fish are super picky.
Some of the best ice jigs for crappie, and just ice fishing jigs in general, are made by Clam Outdoors. They offer an assortment of jigs including the drop jig, epoxy jig, ant drop, dingle drop, blade jig…the list goes on. They’ve even made some in XL, which is the same jig, just with a larger hook. All of these jigs are proven slab slayers. Small but heavy and when paired with some Maki scented soft plastics, it’s game over. The action these jigs provide is excellent.
Clam’s jigs are heavy enough to drop through icy holes and get right to the bottom and/or back to schools of fish quickly. Their size is perfect for enticing all fish. They offer all of these jigs in a variety of color options. Northland tackle also puts out some excellent jigs for crappie. Some good choices are the Mooska tungsten jig, Mud Bug jig (Bro’s Bug Collection) and their Gill-Getter jig. It is always a good idea to carry a nice selection of jigs in different sizes and colors because sometimes changing it up is all it takes to get the fish to bite.
Electronics are another tool to help you put all the puzzle pieces together. They provide instant data for you to figure out what is really going on down there. Underwater cameras are helpful, but flashers are more useful in many different situations. Vexilar makes some of the best flashers on the market. But what is a flasher? A flasher is a type of fishfinder that has a round face with an L.E.D. light display inside that spins around and lights up where there is a signal from the transducer. The transducer sends a signal to the bottom of the lake, the signal then bounces back and shows as a mark on the screen. Whatever the signal bounces off of is shown on the graph in real time. This type of fishfinder allows anglers to see their lure, the fish and how the fish are reacting.
Vexilar offers quite a few different models of flashers. The FL-8 has a bright L.E.D. light display that shows the depth and marks your lure as well as the fish. The most serious model that Vexilar offers is the FLX-28 and it is loaded with great features. A few things it has to offer are five color palettes to choose from, low power option, and a weed mode to better assist you while targeting fish in the weeds.
Having a flasher can be an absolute game changer. If you don’t have electronics and you’re going in blind, then you really need to work to find out the fish are doing. They may be hugging the bottom or they might be suspended, 5, 10, maybe 15 feet, who knows? “Deep” is relative to each body of water.
Technique for Ice Crappie
Where the fish are can change day to day, so make your first drop count. It is always a good idea to start jigging just under the ice and work your way slowly to the bottom. Crappie can be directly under the ice or anywhere in between with the most aggressive fish in the school being higher in the water column. Thump, thump, thump … feel what your jig is doing. If you can’t feel what your jig is doing, then you will have a hard time detecting bites. Sometimes pausing for 5-10 seconds can trigger a strike. You really need to work the water columns until you can find a depth that fish are consistently being caught at. Keep mixing it up until you find what works. It will pay off in the end.