My first experience targeting crappies in what I would consider extreme deep water occurred about a dozen years ago on a Canadian Shield lake in Ontario. We portaged back into a lake with a caravan of snowmobiles chasing a rumor. As with most rumor chasing, part of the mystique was the adventure and as we swerved through dense stands of pine and sped up through the marshes and bogs that seemed surrounded by jagged cliffs of raw granite, thoughts of crappies that resembled a garbage can lid set a resolve of determination to at least see this secret lake.
The crude map we had was pretty basic; this was long before one foot contours on a ten inch screen. When our band of desperados finally broke free of the jack pine and the runners of each sled hit lake ice, we all pulled up our helmets chattering over the sound of idle two stroke snowmobile motors.
The strategy we all agreed upon was to spread out over what looked like a major deep water trough on the map. When I drilled that first hole, there was sixty feet of water below me and low and behold, a little red blip about fifteen feet off the bottom.
The fish shot up to the small spoon that I was using like I hoped and as I set the hook, I remember telling myself that the fish on the other end could be many things so I prepared myself for a fish that wasn’t a crappie so I wouldn’t be disappointed. The fish was fighting too hard to be a crappie anyway. When the big elongated clear lips of a crappie started to float up the hole, I was actually surprised, ecstatic, shocked… which is an odd combination of emotions when you consider that I had come so far to hold a fifteen inch plus fish in my hands.
We didn’t catch numbers of fish that day and we drilled a lot of holes and worked hard for the fish we caught but what made the experience noteworthy was that all of the fish were big. I don’t think I ever saw more than three fish on the screen at once, often just single fish appeared on the screen. We also didn’t see a fish that was less than fourteen inches.
Over the years fishing other lakes that have the same general profile as this particular lake, I am convinced that the best shots at really big crappies are typically lakes with low populations of fish. Typically, fewer crappies mean big crappies. Sure there are exceptions where you can find numbers of fish with big fish potential like the Red Lake boom a decade ago but that magical combination sure has gotten tougher.
So often, the hunt for true trophy caliber crappies takes us to water where we are hunting small numbers of fish on big water. Can crappies grow big on small shallow ponds? Absolutely, but we live in an age of internet forums and social media where word travels fast and these diamonds in the rough typically get pressure once word reaches the street and the big fish typically get removed from the equation first.
The other factor that can crop off the top end size of a crappie population is where these fish congregate to spawn. When every crappie in the lake stacks up in a marina or shallow bay that is the known hot spot of everybody on that particular lake, the size can suffer. So if you do know of a little fifty acre lake back in the woods that holds big fish, the moral of the story is that loose lips sink ships.
The kind of water I am referring to however will never produce numbers of fish but has true big fish potential. Catching these fish is often a game of deep water exploration. Deep basins and troughs that reach down into forty to sixty feet of water often seem to hold the most fish come mid winter. Many of these deep water lakes with low numbers of crappies often have much deeper water available somewhere on the lake, or perhaps a series of basins that max out at different depths.
Look at a map and find the largest basin or trough that stays between thirty and sixty feet to begin your search. Some of the best slab water I have ever fished was deep water lakes that were connected by remote bogs or shallow water flowages where these fish would typically push into at real late ice or during the spawn. The rest of the year including most of the winter, these fish can die of old age coasting through the abyss of these deep water troughs and basins.
Small numbers of fish drifting through a basin or trough that is even a quarter mile long is intimidating. To narrow down the search, focus on the ins and outs of the basin or trough. Any structural feature that juts in or out intersecting the edge of the basin can be a high percentage location. Typically, the fish won’t be on top of the structure but will often suspend just off the structure over the basin.
Topographic contour maps are essential for picking out areas that are different…. Edges of the basin were the contours widen or indent or perhaps a saddle that connects a deep sunken island to the shore. My favorite high percentage locations are the inside turns of long deep points. If no contour map is available, read the landscape above the ice to look for a contour that is different or unique. When everything seemingly looks the same, pay attention to the details to find something that is different.
Stained water typically sees a strong day bite for deepwater fish. If the slush has yellow or brown tint when you drill a hole, you are dealing with stained water. Even in deep water, clear water lakes typically see a spike in activity where the fish rise in the water column during the morning and evening unless there is a low ceiling or cloud cover.
Clam pro staff angler, Jeff Andersen of Leisure Outdoor Adventures (premier guide service operating out of the Chase on the Lake in Walker, Minnesota) knows this deep water pattern well. Jeff stresses that these open water crappie can be difficult to pin down but the reward is some of the biggest fish of the winter. The biggest thing I stress when breaking down water like this is to have a plan and fish as a team to be as efficient as possible on the ice.
Cover water more quickly by working with other anglers, have one angler drill lines of holes and have another angler follow up and drop the Vexilar in each hole until you mark fish. Deep water requires an adjustment in tactics. A trick for marking suspended fish out over deep water is to turn your gain up and gently rock the transducer in the hole, this combination of swinging transducer and high gain enable you to see fish easier that might be hanging on the edge of the cone angle in deep water. When you start to see fish on the dial, slow down and fish the spot through. While big fish might typically be alone or in a small pod, there are usually more fish nearby scattered through a specific area.
For fishing water deeper than thirty feet, Bionic Braid in four or three pound test not only enhances sensitivity but also allows you to just lift the rod to set the hook. Both Andersen and I rely on the Jason Mitchell Elite Series Meat Stick series of ice rods which have a super soft tip and fast hook setting backbone for leveraging these fish in deep water.
Typically, I like to tie a three foot leader of four to six pound Fluoro Silk onto the business end, connecting the leader to the braid with a tiny crane swivel to minimize some of the line twist on the lure. Why the four to six pound? I like the heavier leader material in the Fluoro Silk because the line sinks in the water and the line helps rocket small spoons and jigs into deep water faster. I also like to be able to lift panfish to my hand out of the hole and not have to reach down and grab each fish in the hole. I don’t use the really light line unless I have to but there have been few exceptions where I had to scale back to two pound test to distinguish light bites.
In the name of deep water exploration, big profiles get seen and bit. Spoons are tough to beat as they can pull fish from several feet away and drop through the water fast. Andersen stresses that again to maximize efficiency; use lures that cut through the water column fast. This is not a situation for flutter spoons or finesse presentations.
Cut to the chase and get down to the mark on the screen quickly. The ¼ ounce Northland Tackle Forage Minnows or Buckshot Rattle Spoons tipped with either; spikes, wax worms or a minnow head are stand bys. The other arrow in the quiver is a heavy horizontal jig tipped with a soft plastic tail. My favorite choice is the HF8 Hexi-Fly tipped with either a Little Atom glow Nuggie or an Impulse Mini Smelt. On so much different water, glow colors have been hot for deep water crappies; glow red, glow blue and other glow combinations are confidence colors for me but we have seen gold and blue color schemes work as well.
Not only do larger lures reach depths of forty or more feet quickly but the larger profile can be seen from great distances. Don’t underestimate how far a fish will rise or move to hit a lure but remember that these wandering fish won’t shoot up after a lure they can’t see or find.
With both the spoons and the Hexi-Fly, force the fish to accelerate up to the lure if possible. Unlike shallow water fish, these fish seem comfortable moving up a considerable distance to eat so start out about ten feet above the fish. Work the lure and be seen. Once a fish starts to rise up to greet you, you can than tone the jigging down but get into the mindset that you are ringing the dinner bell for fish that might be forty feet away.
Give the fish that visual from afar to pull fish into the cone angle. Fish that rise to greet you are much easier fish to catch. Remember that you are typically dealing with small numbers of fish so you don’t have the competition factor creating an aggressive response from fish. One fish or two fish typically act differently than a stacked school of fish. Cheat the system by fishing high above the fish and get that fish to race up and smack the lure, don’t drop to eye level and play the bite your nail finesse game. Don’t make your jig easy and don’t give the fish a lot of time for an underwater game of stare down.
Fish high and hold on. What is always amazing to me is just how fast and high these fish will swim to intercept a lure. These big fish are predators and they have been looking over their shoulders their whole lives and don’t waste time gunning down what they perceive as an easy meal.
The beauty of these patterns is the difficulty. There will never be enough easy fishing for big crappies on so many of these lakes to ever attract that much angling attention so these fish are relatively safe. Because of the buffer against harvest and angling pressure, these deep water fish live long enough to reach ice age proportions.
These are the real situations to consistently scratch the fifteen inch mark and catch truly giant fish on the ice right now. Deep water fisheries however are still fragile in that deep fish often cannot be released. If you plan on releasing these fish, give these fish a break for thirty seconds every twenty feet as you reel them in.
When you release the fish (this only works with crappies) blow air into the mouth of the fish. I know, sounds stupid… but it works so try it the next time you have a bloated crappie rolling around in your hole that won’t swim away. On true big fish waters, there will typically not be stacked schools of fish or the opportunities to fill a bucket every day but if you are devoted to catching the biggest crappie you see all winter, find big deep water that have low numbers of fish.
This type of water is fairly common across the northern ice belt… water that is not really considered crappie water. Many of these lakes are often more known for walleye, lakes where crappie are incidentally caught by anglers targeting other species. The occasional crappie that does get caught is big but few anglers target these fish on purpose. That is the kind of water to look for and this is the best strategy I know to catch truly giant fish.