Many anglers panic when they find fish suspended off the bottom. That is understandable when you’re hunting for walleyes in Lake Erie, chinook salmon in Lake
Michigan, or muskies in Georgian Bay, where there‘s a lot of water to play around in. But when the fish are crappies, and it’s winter, suspenders are a bonus.
In fact, high-flying crappies—those big, buttery, golden slabs that float under your ice hole, five, ten, fifteen, or more feet off the bottom—are the easiest crappies to catch. It’s when they scratch their bellies on the bottom, micro-suspending one or two inches off the mud, hidden in sonar deadsville, that they present a challenge.
So why is it we find crappies suspending one day and out of sight the next? Surprisingly, it’s often because what we see isn’t what we see at all. It’s not our eyes that fool us, it’s our brains.
Lake Types Are The Key
To better understand when, where, and why crappies suspend in winter, consider the types of lakes where we fish for them.
At one end of the spectrum are the fertile, shallow, eutrophic, and late mesotrophic lakes. These weird sounding names aren’t important. What is important, is the shape of the lake basin. Drain the water from one of these natural lakes, pits, or ponds, and you’d see a shape that resembles a giant saucer, with few underwater points, and even fewer humps, reefs, or saddles. In addition to little structure, sometimes you would be pressed to find double-digit depths.
At the other extreme of the crappie spectrum are the big, sprawling, early and mid-mesotrophic shield-type waters. Rainy Lake is a good case in point. These crappie lakes are characterized by a diversity of structure, with numerous deep basins as well as shallow flats and plenty of mid-depth water, and more points, bars, shoals, reefs, humps, islands, and saddles than you can shake a spring bobber at.
In between these two extremes is a third group of crappie lakes, waters more difficult to label because they have characteristics of both extremes. For the most part, these lakes lack an abundance of structure and cover, yet while the basins are unimaginative, they aren’t totally featureless. At the same time, they display decent stretches of moderately deep water, but nothing beyond 25, 30, or 35 feet.
We need to know the layout of a crappie lake because, for the most part, it defines whether or not crappies suspend. Crappies push against and hug the bottom until they reach an almost magical threshold level at which they’re satisfied. Then they may suspend. That’s why basin shape, structure, and water depth—in natural lakes, at least, in winter—is such an important locational clue. Combine it with plankton migrations, and the picture unfolds.
In structural terms, Figure A is a simple crappie lake, with a typical shallow, fertile, dishpan-shaped basin. Rarely do the fish suspend in these types of lakes. (We’ll talk exceptions in a minute.) More often, they’re glued to within a foot of the bottom, and usually less. If you don’t fine-tune your sonar and strain your eyes, you won’t see many fish on the screen. When these lakes are small and lightly fished, they’re a winter crappie angler’s dream. When they’re large and pressured, though, locating crappies can be tough. You have to be mobile, cut plenty of holes, and search efficiently.
It’s not that the crappies can’t suspend in this type of lake, it’s that they don’t have the water depth to feel comfortable doing so, with one important exception, and that’s when they have no other choice. In midwinter to late winter, these lakes often lose vast quantities of oxygen from the layers of water that lie closest to the bottom. This condition is most prevalent in lakes with heavy weedcover in summer, or where the water turns grass green as a result of algae blooms.
In late fall, much of the weedgrowth withers and dies. Similarly, the algae gives up the ghost and blankets the bottom. As this organic material decomposes over winter, it takes oxygen from the water. Since not a great deal of water volume is there to begin with, when oxygen levels make breathing difficult for crappies—typically in midwinter to late winter—they begin suspending.
Dishpans . . . Plus
Now add an appendage to this lake, as well as several feet of additional depth, so it resembles Figure B. In winter, the deeper eastern basin becomes the key crappie location. Indeed, it’s possible to fish the shallow, featureless western flat all winter and struggle to catch a decent crappie dinner. It’s as though all the fish swam downhill.
But what I find intriguing is how crappies suspend in the eastern basin, because usually they don’t, at least not in the sense that we picture crappies five, eight, or ten feet off the bottom. Instead, they’re one, two, maybe three feet up. But many times, especially following a cold front, you won’t see them at all; they’ll be tucked close to the bottom. On these types of lakes, prospect likely looking spots with a tiny jig and minnow, waxworm, or maggot, because what you see on your sonar screen isn’t necessarily what you get. Or, to put it another way, you can catch what you can’t see.
Indeed, when you lower down a bait into a likely spot that registers no fish, often a mushroom cloud of crappies suddenly will rise up from the bottom and intercept it. And once you catch several fish from a hot hole, you often can coax the school into hovering even higher—five, six, seven, or more feet off the bottom—like Pavlov’s dogs, waiting for you to drop down another bait.
Like the shallow, fertile crappie lake in Figure A, though, some of these waters are prone to oxygen loss in late winter. When this happens, fish can be spotted on sonar, much higher in the water column. Indeed, the single best day of winter crappie fishing I ever enjoyed was fittingly enough, on April Fools Day several years ago, on a lake like this.
Spring was late in arriving, and several feet of unseasonable ice and snow continued to shut out the sunlight and inhibit early photosynthesis. This combined with the oxygen-robbing breakdown of plant life on the bottom brought the crappies up—17 feet under our boots, in 32 feet of water. The fishing was so easy we experimented with various lures to determine which ones the crappies wouldn’t hit. In the process, we struck the mother lode.
We rapidly jigged walleye and small lake-trout-size silver Mepps Cyclops and Williams ice spoons, three or four feet up and down, and then hovered the baits in the crappies’ faces until we’d feel one slam the lure. They smashed the unbaited lures so ferociously that it was easy to fool yourself into thinking the fish were walleyes, trout, or pike. But they were giant slab-sided black crappies.
The Best For Last: Fishing For Crappie
Have we saved the best lake type for last? Perhaps? Then again, maybe not, just the easiest fishing for most anglers. These are the lakes illustrated by Figure C. More often though, Figure C is a bay, or a portion of a much larger lake, with many similar and equally good areas. That’s why these lakes are so ideal, if you don’t lose the trees in the forest. Don’t be spooked by the total big-water scene. Just remember that each bay, cove, or lake portion often functions as a single entity. So plenty of options are available.
The real key, though, is that you can find a variety of structure and plenty of deep water, especially depths of over 40 feet. Deep basins draw the crappies and the structural features concentrate them. As a general rule, crappies share these lakes with walleyes, pike, bass, muskies, perch, and ciscoes. Shiners, chubs, and young-of-the-year perch usually also are abundant.
In lakes like this, crappies react in many different ways. The most typical, though, is suspending 4, 8, 12, or more feet off the bottom, in confined open water, adjacent to structure, especially main-lake and island points, sunken reefs, and saddles connecting two structures. The crappies suspend in response to a number of things, which includes sharing their habitat with the other fish species. Walleyes and perch typically own the bottom couple feet, while crappies and ciscoes possess middepths, with ciscoes higher in the column and across open water, while crappies locate near structure.
When the distance between structures is short, the crappies frequently swim slowly back and forth from one spot to another. When the distance is large, they stay in the same general area for most of the winter, especially, if heavy angling pressure doesn’t knock down their numbers or cause them to budge. When they do move, though, it’s often to an adjacent inside turn or closer to the bottom. Even then, they usually rise up again, like a blistering Mexican chili, when sunset approaches and most anglers go home.
The Zooplankton Connection
In these large, deep, multistructured crappie waters, plankton likely also plays a major role. No need for a science course here, but you need to remember several things. The most important is that crappies are well connected to the lowest levels of the food chain. Unlike walleyes, bass, pike, and trout that eat minnows and baitfish, crappies routinely gobble up tiny zooplankton (aquatic animals). Indeed, they devour certain species of zooplankton with gusto. But here’s the catch.
Plankton is light sensitive. In summer, during daylight hours, herds of zooplankton (and the vegetative phytoplankton they are grazing on) hang deeper, suspended in the water column. At night, though, plankton rise toward the surface.
In winter, however, under 2, 3, 4, or more feet of ice and snow, light penetration is greatly reduced during the day. As a result, zooplankton are fooled into thinking it’s night. The herds suspend in the water column and hold high off the bottom.
This ice and snow light-inhibiting stimulus with plankton rising and hot-on-its-heels crappie response is most pronounced in deeper, classic Type C crappie lakes.
What You See Is What You Get
Ironically, this is the reason these large, multistructured, classic crappie waters cause anglers to scratch their heads in winter. They fish one day and spot suspended crappies on sonar. Then a week later, they fish a different crappie lake (like the ones in Figure A and B) and don’t see fish. They fail to consider the change in basin shapes, light penetration, and plankton movements. Worse still, they fall victim to the “if you can’t see them, don’t waste time fishing there” philosophy and jump to the faulty conclusion that no or few crappies exist.
While it may not look like it . . . the crappies in each of our three lake types are generally exhibiting the same behavior. It’s in Lake C, though, that they are most visible to us. On the other hand, adventuresome crappie anglers may discover more, and better, untapped crappie ice fishing opportunities in A- and B-type lakes, because here, what you see isn’t necessarily what you’re going to catch.
In winter, crappies caught from deep water (28 feet and deeper) are susceptible to bloating. Some anglers blow into the crappie’s throat. Others slap them hard against the water when they release them into their ice holes. These release measures are dubious at best.
The problem is that crappies are weak swimmers, certainly not in the league with lake trout, walleyes, bass, or pike. Even a small amount of air in their bladders often spells a death sentence. When released, they swim halfway to the bottom, become exhausted, and then float up to drown under the ice.
A solution? When fishing for deep, suspended crappies, determine in advance how many fish you need for dinner and then keep every fish you catch until you have enough. To release crappies pulled from deep water is to waste them. Instead, target shallower, releasable fish. As we’ve seen, they’re definitely there if you know where to fish and don’t expect to see them suspended on sonar.
*Until retiring recently to devote full time to guiding and writing, Gordon Pyzer, Kenora, Ontario, Canada, was for 25 years an Ontario resource manager—the past 10 years in charge of the Kenora District. A superb angler and outdoorsman, Pyzer (807/468-4898) has been In-Fisherman magazine’s key Canadian contributor for the past five years.