Crappies migrate between winter, spring, and summer habitats. Seasonal locational shifts are common information to most knowledgeable anglers. But migrations within seasons are less understood. In the harsh environment of winter, crappies may move several times to meet their needs for survival — or they may not have to move far at all.
In most lakes, by the time ice forms, crappies are deep. In large lakes and reservoirs in late fall, it’s not uncommon for crappies to locate near bottom in 40 to 50 feet of water. In small lakes and flowages, crappies may or may not have the option of going that deep, but probably wouldn’t avail themselves of the deeper water anyway. When ice forms on small lakes, most crappies will be somewhere in the main basin or on a confined basin flat in 20 to 35 feet of water, even when deeper water is available.
In flowages and backwaters, which have some of the most extensive fall-to-spring migrations, crappies may leave the river and migrate into a connected lake, or into the next reservoir downstream. Where crappies can’t leave a river system, they position as far from current as possible, in the most expansive water possible, sometimes in water only 5 to 8 feet deep.
After moving deep in fall, crappie migrations tend to fall into three categories. Crappies either roam within confined basin areas all winter or they migrate from one basin to the next due to environmental needs. And sometimes they make shallow foraging movements under the ice. These movements generally relate to the size and fertility of the lake in question.
If crappies need to move from their first winter sanctuaries, it’s generally forage-related. Like a herd of bison that crops down the forage in one range and roams to the next, crappies sometimes need to herd up and saunter off in search of a more consistent source of food. In some waters, the type or quantity of forage crappies rely upon can vary quite a bit from one winter to the next, meaning crappies might leave the traditional hot spot in January one year, but stay there all winter the next.
By contrast, some lakes consistently produce forage in abundance all winter, creating consistent bites on traditional spots year after year. It depends on what the main forage items are and how conducive the lake is to their survival at the moment.
Ask about crappie forage and most anglers think “minnows,” but wormlike creatures that live in the bottom muck, insects in nymphal stage, and zooplankton can be just as important to crappies under the ice, which is why tiny plastic baits, maggots, grass shrimp, or wax worms often work better than minnows. Any of these forage types can experience up years and down years. In some lakes, these creatures can range from abundant to scarce and back to abundant all within a calendar year.
During a typical winter in a typical lake, pods of grazing crappies tend to circle within a defined area that could be a few dozen feet to several hundred yards in diameter. The more abundant the forage, the smaller the circles. In some lakes, grazing crappies stay within five feet of bottom most of the time. In other lakes, they commonly suspend 8 to 15 feet off bottom in winter. In most lakes, crappies use most of the water column, top to bottom, at some point in the season, or at some time of the day.
It may be that the best grazing for bottom-oriented minnows occurs at one time of day, while the right light for seeing zooplankton takes place at a different time. For instance, plankton migrate vertically, upward during low-light periods and down during midday. Water clarity plays a big role in determining when, how far, and why such forage species move.
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