My best day ever for crappies is etched in memory, in part because it was an April Fool's Day, now more than 30 years ago. Late in the season, after getting a blanket of wet snow, we augered holes over a deep basin, dropped transducers down holes, and the screens on our green Fish-Lo-K-Tors lit up like the Christmas tree in front of Macy's Department Store. In 32 feet of water, crappies hovered in a giant pack, stretching across the middle of the water column.
I grabbed the first rod I could reach, one used the day before for speckled trout. It was spooled with 6-pound Maxima monofilament and the lure was a 2 1„4-inch silver-plated Williams Wabler spoon weighing 1/4 ounce. Hardly standard crappie fare. I didn't take time to tip the spoon.
Watching the fish react on sonar was a surprise. The spoon barely got below the ice before multiple crappies turned on the afterburner, screaming up out of the suspended assembly to intercept the fluttering mass of metal. The hits were crushingly hard. It was like dealing with aggressive lake trout.
I still have the grainy photo from that day hanging on my office wall. Back then everything that hit the ice stayed there. At the end of the day, I slid the slabs on a rope stringer and struggled to hoist it over my shoulder, the last crappie draping from the stringer touching the ice. The lesson from that day stayed with me for the rest of my ice fishing career.
At One Extreme
It always pays to consider one presentation extreme or the other. Generally, use much bigger and faster presentations when the fishing's good — and use much smaller and slower presentations when the bite's tough. That's not much of a revelation in this age of ever-advancing ice information, but most crappie anglers still spend most of their time stuck somewhere in the middle of the presentation pack. They won't consider beginning with a #3 Jigging Rap, but reach instantly for a minnow anchored by a split shot set below a float, or they reach for their standard small spoon.
On one end of the scale, I carry a whack of 1/7- and 1/4-ounce Williams Wabler spoons. I often use 1/16- and 1/8-ounce Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons, and HT Hawger Spoons of the same size. The #2 and #3 Jigging Raps are standard fare for me, along with smallest Northland Puppet Minnow, the PM1. I have had many impressive catches with Raps and Puppets. Start the day with one of these aggressive lures — and many times you end it with one of the same aggressive presentations. I might add that I typically tip these lures with a small minnow head to begin, seeing if it's necessary as the day advances. Often, especially with the Raps and Puppets, it isn't necessary to tip.
If the fish aren't getting after aggressive options you soon know it and can try something else — tinkering back a bit. But don't be lulled into not considering the aggressive options again as the day continues. It's typical to have hot fish for half an hour then have to go smaller and slower, especially during midday. Many days, though, as the sun settles the fish are once again all over an aggressive option, when they won't touch tiny and slow.
Aggressive options are particularly productive during the first-ice period in December, when crappies are unpressured and hungry — and again at last ice in late March and early April, when their metabolism kicks back into high gear. During these peak periods you can "over finesse" fish. A tiny, trembling, micro-jig tipped with a maggot barely hovered near a crappie's nose is ignored, while the same fish kick down the door and pummel a hunk of dancing metal.
The other rule here is no matter what lure eventually goes down the hole, to always consider pushing the window with what you might do with that lure. Don't assume that the 1/16-ounce spoon has to be fished slowly — lift, drop, long pause. Dance it occasionally as it sinks to depth. Then once it settles, jiggle, jiggle, jiggle, barely pause. Repeat. The standard long pause often isn't necessary. See how the fish respond.
Same with a micro jig like the Marmoska. Try some big dancing. Pound the jig hard, shaking your hand hard to get the jig to vibrate intensely. Often you barely have to reduce the pounding — or add the slightest pause — to get fish to eat. Again, the fish soon tell you what they want. But they can't tell you they like the extreme end of the spectrum if you don't try it.
The Other Extreme
The mighty mites at the other end of the scale excel when the bite's tough, as it typically is during midwinter. This also often is the case when crappies are being pressured by legions of anglers. Even here, however, it still often pays to at least try aggressive maneuvers.
Still, during tough times, many anglers don't scale down enough to interest crappies, nor slow down enough to finally trigger fish. I've written before about two of the best crappie anglers I know, Winnipeg, Manitobans Mike Schamber and Tom VanLeeuwen. Fishing in a crowd on Rainy Lake one day several winters ago I watched them catch and release more than 50 fish, while other anglers were blanking. Sensing how touchy the fish were, they experimented with progressively smaller jigs, finding that hair jigs weighing 1/60 ounce were part of the key. They didn't need to be tipped but they had to be fished dead slow — almost deadsticked.
Absolutely dead slow often is a critical part of this end of this presentation picture. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange and I have had many fruitful days filming In-Fisherman Ice Fishing Guide television the last three years. We've demonstrated that at times you just can't hold a rod still enough to trigger crappies.
Working with a spring bobber at the rod tip, the first step is to get a fish to come in — or move from hole to hole until you find one with a fish below it. Once a fish is within range, often the only way to get a bite is to prop the rod on the ice and watch the tip. At times, just barely touch the spring tip with a finger to tickle the jig below. Other times, don't touch it at all for minutes on end. You know fish are hovering below because you can see them on electronics.
Eventually, the tip ghostly moves as the fish takes. On such days, this approach gets the job done to film a TV segment and eke out a meal of fresh fish.
To some it's surprising that a fish, hovering in the dark, 30 feet beneath your boots can distinguish between 1/64-ounce difference in jig weight, or can detect just the right movement (or lack thereof) of a jig suspended below a rod setting dead still on the ice. But discriminate they can and often do. You see it time and again every winter if you watch for it.
Step away from the middle of the pack and spend time tinkering with presentations on the edge. You see things you haven't seen before and have banner days the likes of which you've never experienced before.
6 Arc of Slabs, Northeast Mississippi
Like the Bordeaux region grows world-class wine grapes, the Arc of Slabs is famous for producing giant crappies. Grenada, Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla — it's a tossup which of these reservoirs might be best for giant white crappies during March and April. Jigging in brush and spider-rigging are the best bets. Wading, too, at times. Contact: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
2 Lake Erie, Ohio
The best opportunities are between Port Clinton and Vermilion, says Ohio fishery biologist Travis Hartman. Many marinas and backwaters have excellent crappie fishing in the spring, peaking in late April to early May, and occasionally in the fall. Good open-water spots are East and West harbors and Sandusky Bay. Check connected rivers, too. Lots of fish to 12 inches, with 14-inchers not uncommon, Hartman says. Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters says Lake Erie is a surprisingly overlooked crappie fishery, considering the numbers of fish caught, up to 18 inches, as big as any in the state. Contact: Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934; Ohio DNR, dnr.state.oh.us
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Guide Billy Blakley says the crappie forecast for the 'Earthquake Lake ' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11„4 pounds and catches up to 23„4 pounds. The lake contains both black and white crappies. From March through May, spider-rig and jig around underwater wood, and jig around exposed cypress stumps. The bite picks up again in the fall. Top-notch lodging and food at Blue Bank Resort. Contact: Guide Billy Blakley at Blue Bank Resort 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
7 Weiss Lake, Alabama
The crappie outlook is very good for 2013, reports Alabama district fisheries supervisor Dan Catchings. Samples indicate one, and possibly two, strong year-classes of crappies in 2010 and 2011. Expect good numbers of harvestable-size fish from the 2010 spawn this spring, with the 2011 year-class contributing to the fishing in mid- to late 2013. Fishing picks up in February as crappies move shallow. March through early May is best, with April being the peak. Contact: Guide Richard Green, 859/983-0673, or book through Little River Marina and Lodge (256/779-6461); Guide Mark Collins, markcollinsguideservice.com
8 Kentucky Lake, Kentucky / Tennessee
Anglers look forward to the 'Crappie Capital ' living up to its name in 2013, says guide Steve McCadams. Expect numbers of quality fish with a shot at slabs over 2 pounds. While action during the spawn in late March into April is outstanding, don't overlook May and June, when stable lake levels and weather patterns find crappies concentrating around fish attractors at midrange depths, he says. Contact: Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
9 Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir, Virginia/North Carolina
Numbers of crappies from 1 to 13„4 pounds with a chance for 2- to 3-pounders. Once the spider-rigging bite wanes in shallower creek channels by April, action turns to jigging deeper brushpiles. Contact: Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381.
3 Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma
This shallow reservoir boasts numbers of crappies in the 2- to 3-pound range, with 37-fish limits common. In spring, the action is shallow, doodlesocking flooded buckbrush in high water, or working rocky banks and brush cover in low water, says guide Todd Huckabee. Crappies move to deeper brush later in spring. Contact: Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net
; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com
; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528.
5 Lake Fork, Texas
Numbers of slabs from 11„4 to 21„2 pounds tend to get overlooked in this lake famous for lunker bass. Mid-May through June is guide Terri Moon's favorite time for crappies, when the fish head to brushpiles and bridge abutments in 20 to 24 feet of water. Pitching Fork Tackle's Live Baby Shads on 1/16-ounce jigs is a top option. Ivan Martin and Rick Loomis also guide clients to Fork's crappies in November and December, when fish are on points and in deeper brush. Contact: Guide Terri Moon, 903/383-7773; Guide Ivan Martin, 918/260-7743; Guide Rick Loomis, rickloomis.com
; Lake Fork Marina for lodging, food, and tackle, lakeforkmarina.com
1 Lake of the Woods, Ontario
The Woods is top-notch for black crappies to 16 inches, says In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Gustafson. Many crappies on this massive water have never seen lures, so once you find them, the numbers and quality are second to none, he says. Action starts in mid-May, with fish moving to shallow areas with cover. After spawning in early June, target them on weedflats in 6 to 10 feet of water. Float-and-jig combinations excel. Also try small suspending jerkbaits and swimming marabou jigs. Contact: Guide Dave Bennett, davebennettoutdoors.com
, 807/466-2140; Guide Jamie Bruce, brucescanadianangling.com
10 St. Johns River, Florida
The stretch of the St. Johns River south of Lake George offers outstanding fishing. Crappies from 2 to 3 pounds are caught regularly, with average catches well over a pound. This was the scene of an In-Fisherman television episode that airs this spring. Weedflats hold fish that can't resist tubes fished under a float. Or troll channel edges using jigs or minnows. Contact: Lodging at Castaways on the River, 352/759-4522, castawaysontheriver.com
; Guide Steve Niemoeller, 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com