by Jason Mitchell
Late ice might be one of the best time periods of the entire winter for finding big crappie on predictable patterns. The locations can vary from reservoirs to ponds and natural lakes but the starting point typically points to structure adjacent to shallow bays or tributary arms where crappie spawn each spring.
Much of what is written about ice crappie patterns is noted with natural lakes in mind. Much of the information is pertinent to natural lakes and are most relevant to anglers in Minnesota and Wisconsin where Northwoods Lakes typically offer deep open water combined with structure, weed lines and shallow spawning habitat. Several other patterns can emerge on different lake types, rivers and reservoirs but what all of these different bodies of water do share is a common thread or theme in regards to productive locations for crappie at late ice. The best locations are simply some type of structure or cover adjacent to the known spring spawning locations. Focus on obvious structure that connects the primary lake, river or reservoir with the shallow spring marsh habitat that holds black spawning crappies in the spring.
Not surprisingly, brush piles in deeper water that are near these shallow spawning locations are crappie magnets. Large reservoirs like the upper end of Lake Oahe have turned heads in recent years for producing solid crappie fishing at late ice and the program is pretty simple. Find flooded brush or trees that coincide with the old creek channels from the incoming tributaries like Beaver Bay, Porcupine Bay or Pollock Bay. As late ice progresses, fish typically push further up into the creek arms as the ice goes out. These brush pile patterns also shine on flowages in northern Wisconsin, the Mississippi River backwaters and other reservoirs.
Obviously brush piles and flooded trees hold crappie but how do you find these underwater crappie magnets in order to fish them? By any means possible and fortunately in today’s world there are several different ways for scouting and locating fish. On some bodies of water, trees can be found and pinpointed by using older arial photo imagery from when the lake or reservoir was low. In some cases, this imagery can be found on map chips for some bodies of water. Obviously sonar or in some cases under water cameras can be used to pinpoint the location of wood. The fastest and most efficient way to find some of these locations is to run through the locations during the summer with side imaging and save waypoints for ice time.
As can be imagined, the most complex brush piles and stumps that provide the most cover often have the potential to hold the most fish. While there are exceptions, most reservoirs that boast good populations of crappie also hold some flooded trees and brush and these crappie populations are often cyclic ebbing up and down as a result of water levels. Typically, low water years allows brush and trees to grow along the shoreline while the high water years flood this habitat.
So often on these late ice patterns on reservoirs, flowages and river systems where flooded brush and wood can be such a crucial factor for locating crappie, ice anglers often have to fish in current. On many reservoirs, this current will ebb and flow where it will pick up for an hour and than disappear and be sporadic, The bite will often coincide with these pulses of current. Right as it lets down or just begins to pick up. We see this current phenomena particularly on big reservoirs like Lake Oahe but many other flowages and river systems have some type of current as well. Because of the combination of current and wood, we typically use larger lures than what many ice anglers associate with crappie. Late ice often sees these fish aggressive and these larger profiles fish better in current and are capable of calling fish out of the wood. Remember that the key to fishing wood is fishing with a presentation so that you can either lift fish out of the brush by fishing above the fish and getting the fish to chase or dropping through the branches and pulling fish in from the vicinity. Small rattle baits and jigging spoons like the Clam Pro Tackle Rattling Blade Spoon really shine in this particular environment. Of course classic tungsten jigs combined with soft plastics are still effective but don’t be afraid to increase the size dramatically and experiment with presentations that rattle. As a rule of thumb, we catch more fish in these types of environments with a lure that has the extra noise from rattles. Remember that a fish’s range of vision is limited in flooded brush and timber so you need to be able to reach these fish with noise. Typically, we start out with rattle lures and than drop back to traditional tungsten jigs tipped with bait or soft plastics if the bite is off.
Because of the snags and challenges of fishing in wood, don’t be afraid to use a light braided line in either four or six pound test. Braid isn’t popular in a lot of ice fishing circles but this is a situation where braid can be much more effective than mono. Typically as well, these brush pile fish typically really dunk the rod tip when they hit. Particularly when you can lift fish out of the brush up to your presentation, these fish will slam the lure.
There are so many reservoirs in particular that can be difficult to fish throughout much of the winter as crappie are scattered and somewhat unpredictable but than late ice patterns kick in where anglers can target these fish on purpose. On many fisheries, these patterns have serious big fish potential. Most of these fisheries lack weed growth and don’t have the classic green weed patterns that typify what is so often said about late ice crappie. What also makes these reservoir and flowage patterns somewhat different is that these patterns can sometimes occur in fairly deep water right up until the very end. While it is possible to find some of these reservoir fish holding right under the ice and up in really shallow water, these fish as a general rule of thumb seem much more structure orientated. Channel cuts, points and inside turns that are typically created by submerged creek channels are what holds these fish and these spots are typically much better if there is any flooded wood or brush present. Particularly in the Dakotas and Nebraska, these late ice reservoir patterns produce some of the best big fish opportunities each winter.