Understanding Winter Crappies
September 17, 2014
Winter crappie anglers would be wise to remember that the In-Fisherman formula for fishing success (Fish + Location + Presentation = Success) consists of three equally important ingredients. Ignore any one of the elements and the results are likely to show on the ice at the end of the day — or not!
The first pillar of the triumvirate is the F-factor — the basic understanding of the fish. If there is an element many ice anglers overlook it's delving deeper into the mysteries of just what makes a black crappie tick.
Fortunately, science provides us with fascinating insights that not only help explain why crappies do what they do under the ice, but strengthen and put into perspective why we find them in such disparate locations across the northern range in winter, and why we often catch them — or don't — on the plethora of baits we drop down our holes.
Paradoxically, when we open the science door, the first thing we discover is that in some respects, we shouldn't be catching crappies as well as we do in the frigid waters of winter, given that they are a warmwater species with temperature preferences and tolerances similar to smallmouth and largemouth bass. Yet, for most northern-country-bound crappie anglers, winter is not only a good time to go slab hunting, it's the best time.
So, what gives?
Well, first, crappies enjoy each other's company. They're not loners and yet, they don't spread out randomly either. Instead, biologists find the fish typically in discrete, moderately large schools.
These same good "crappie docs" tell us that our favorite fish is best adapted to the "clear, quiet, warm waters of large ponds, small lakes, bays, and shallower areas of larger lakes and areas of low flow of larger rivers."
That sounds basic enough. Yet few words sum up, and put into perspective the principle we've been preaching for years; that being, concentrate your search for winter crappies, especially in larger lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, to areas of confined open water. In other words, focus on the small ponds and lakes, within the much larger lake.
Here is something even more fascinating. Crappie science tells us that nearly every good winter fishery has an abundance of aquatic vegetation. But, be careful here, because practical experience also tells us the fish are in the weeds in winter in a few lakes, while far removed from vegetation in others.
Or, is it the case that most of the time we neglect to look in the grass?
Pete Garnier is one of the two best winter crappie anglers I know. World Ice Fishing Champion Tony Boschold is the other. Both Garnier and Boschold routinely start, and stop, their hunts for winter crappies in the weeds. Even when they're ice fishing in lakes with well earned reputations for popping giant slabs in the deeper holes and pockets of confined open water.
Garnier, for example, rarely probes in depths greater than 8 or 9 feet. And he's always looking at blades of grass when he scouts with his underwater camera. He often finds himself in vegetation so thick that he can't prospect properly with sonar, preferring to cast a much wider glance through his Marcum eyes under the ice.
Ditto, Boschold. When he walks onto a new crappie lake for the first time and spots a cluster of permanent ice huts set up over moderately deep confined open water, he immediately glances toward shore, wondering where the prime weedline is located.
"Most ice anglers hate fishing in the weeds," Boschold says. "Yet, I've found massive schools of black crappies in vegetation. It's often an overlooked winter bite."
Guess what? Not only does the science agree, it also offers clues as to why it's the case.
One of the reasons fishery agencies frown upon the prohibited practice of anglers catching crappies in one lake and releasing them in another is that smaller and younger crappies outcompete native species like walleyes. It's a function of their ability to use their numerous, fine, long, gill rakers to strain water and feed more effectively on small invertebrates. So they outcompete their opponents for food.
Until they're about 6 inches long, crappies feed almost exclusively on "planktonic crustacea and free-swimming, nocturnal, dipterous larvae."
Which brings us to another meeting of the minds.
While big crappies are almost exclusively fish eaters, practical ice-fishing experience tells us they almost never pass up the opportunity to feed on tiny crayfish or insect larvae for three reasons. In part because they're physically well suited to doing so. They have spent so many of their formative years munching on the diminutive dishes, and there are so many of these easy meals in the weeds.
And speaking about fish that trophy crappies are fond of eating, let's not forget something significant that science tells us. Based on stomach analyses, two-and-half inches appears to be the biggest fish a crappie attempts to choke down. It could be a yellow perch, bluegill, pumpkinseed, blackchin shiner, golden shiner, bluntnose minnow, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, or walleye. Regardless, crappie prey ranges from 1.3 to 2.4 inches in length.
It's the reason many ice anglers fail to catch crappies when they use 3- or 4-inch walleye minnows, while the savvy guys fishing beside them are hauling one big crappie after the other onto the ice using slightly smaller baits. Who said good things don't come in small packages?
Perhaps the thing I found most interesting, after pouring through the crappie science file, is that creel surveys conducted during the ice fishing season show that while crappies are active under the ice, analyses of their stomachs suggest they feed very little before mid-April. And when they do eat under the ice, early morning and between midnight and 2:00 a.m. appear to be peak feeding periods.
In other words, the early bird gets the worm. As does the winter crappie angler, who never stops learning all he can about the fish itself.