With Jason Mitchell
So many first ice crappie locations can be somewhat predictable. Troughs, dips, channels and holes seem to concentrate crappie in the fall and these general locations seem to hold into the winter. Over basins in particular, crappies can often be found suspended in the water column. Some of these locations can be several acres while some of these locations can be the size of half a tennis court or smaller. On many natural lakes and some midsize or large reservoirs, these locations can often be big. When first ice crappies are relating to “big locations” that can seem like a daunting abyss, there are many strategies you can use to up the odds of finding and catching fish.
Besides the intimidating size of some of these wintering locations that crappie slide into during the winter, what can also make these fish difficult to find is how they school. Larger basins will often see fish scattered in packs. These wolf packs of crappie move in tight vertical schools about the speed of a slow walk… which is moving pretty fast when you are trying to keep up with them with a six inch auger. You can literally have ten or more fish underneath you on the Vexilar and a friend fifteen feet away might not see a fish. These vertical schools of fish move fast and are fleeting.
This situation creates a feast and famine environment where you might drill several holes and not mark any signs of life and than suddenly have fifteen feet of fish below you that can seem to disappear like smoke. So often, the reality is that most of the time, we are dropping transducers down holes where there are no fish and we trust the Vexilar in that we don’t fish until we mark fish. Fish in this type of situation often get caught in short intense windows where you might catch four fish out of a hole before you loose them. You than have to keep moving to either catch up with the fish you just caught or find a new school of fish.
Up the Odds
Most holes or basins have features that just seem to funnel or concentrate fish. While fish can be roaming a large area, there are often key locations to focus on particularly before fishing pressure changes the dynamics of a location at early ice.
Most of the best locations seem to range between ten to thirty feet of water on many lakes and are at least five feet deeper than the surrounding water. When looking at these deeper basin locations, look for inside turns and necked down areas that corner roaming fish. Points or outside turns can also be sweet spots. A stretch with a sharper breaking contour is also always worth checking. Even though the hole or trough itself might be featureless across the basin, the edges of the hole often point to where to fish.
If there were ever a situation where fishing with a team of like-minded anglers can increase your success on the ice, suspended crappies over basins would be one such situation. When in search and hunt mode, spread out and cover water but when you find fish, fish together to become more efficient. While finding these fish can create a challenge, maximizing your efficiency once you do find fish is also important.
By fishing together when you do find fish, you can keep the fish around a lot longer because somebody has a line in the water and a lure down below is often what keeps fish from drifting off. When you are alone, you are going to loose fish a lot more so because the school will drift off as you are unhooking a fish and trying to get back down.
Managing the School
Some of the best panfish anglers I know are masters at managing a school once there are fish down below. The first task is to lift the school with your presentation as much as possible. When the fish are aggressive, it is not uncommon to lift the fish ten feet or more. By lifting the school and causing fish to rise up, you can often separate the larger fish from the smaller fish in the pack because the larger fish are often more dominant and faster.
Don’t drop down into the pack unless you have to. Fish down to the fish and see if they will shoot up. Whenever possible, pull fish off the top of the school as it seems to disrupt the remaining fish much less than dropping down through the fish and pulling fish up from the bottom.
The Spectrum of Profiles
Because lifting the fish is so important when targeting basin-running crappie, I often start out using larger profiles whether I am using tungsten jigs, spoons or swim lures. Larger profiles can shine over this open water because fish can see them from further away which helps you find fish and they can also lift or separate the more aggressive fish from the rest of the pack. Start out with the dinner bell that can be seen.
When the attitude of the fish changes either from a result of the time of day or because the schools of fish have been picked apart where the fish no longer accelerate up for the presentation, that is the time to throw a second rod down. After you catch the easy and aggressive fish, clean up the stragglers with a smaller more finesse presentation by simply downsizing to a smaller tungsten jig that is rigged with a smaller more delicate soft plastic.
Understanding the Location
Once you find the fish and get in the zone where you are catching fish, your moves become much smaller. You have successfully broken down a large area to find the sweet spot where there is some activity. As you hop from hole to hole, you sometimes stay on the same school of fish but you are also landing on new fish that are cruising around the same area as well. What so often happens is that we end up finding a handful of holes and often just rotate through the holes until we quit seeing fish. So often, these fish just seem to roll around the area and if you were to have the patience to sit over one hole, the fish would probably roll back through at some point after they initially left.
You will usually catch more fish however if you can bounce around and not fish until you mark fish. Crappies make a good solid return on your electronics so if the fish are below, you are going to see them so walk from hole to hole and trust your electronics. To see more fish when targeting suspended schools of fish, turn your gain up slightly and rock the transducer from one side of the hole to the other. This increases the amount of water you are looking at. If the screen lights up when you swing the transducer to one side of the hole, the fish are close and just to the edge of the cone angle.