What do winter crappies have in common with summer smallmouth bass? Many times, the best way to catch them is to use an aggressive, erratic, flashy presentation. In both cases, logic suggests that you scale down and use a smaller, slower, and more subtle presentation. But since when did common sense play a role in fishing? In almost every case I can recall, my best winter crappie experiences have involved a spoon.
SPOONS TO ATTRACT
Many times, a spoon is critical to your ice-fishing success, yet you don't catch many crappies using it. If that sounds like a contradiction let me explain. I call it two-timing and it involves drilling three holes no more than a foot or two apart from each other. Place your transducer in the middle hole so you can monitor the other two. Then set a deadstick rod in one of the outside holes, typically a small jig tipped with a lively minnow, a Marmooska jig decorated with a maggot, or a horizontal jig festooned with a string of six (count 'em carefully) segmented Berkley Gulp! Euro Larvae. In the last hole, vertically jig a Clam Speed Spoon, Freedom Minnow, or Williams Wabler.
Which spoon is best? It depends. At the beginning, the primary purpose of any spoon is to attract crappies that most winter days are spread out in onesies and twosies, close to the bottom, on flats 28 to 34 feet deep. When they're aggressive, especially early in the morning and again late in the afternoon, you often watch them on your sonar screen float in like lead filings attracted to a magnet and club the spoon without hesitation. One minute your screen is blank, the next minute a fish or two appear, and then you're reeling up a slab.
These are the good days. Other times, however, a spoon serves the same purpose as a flasher or dodger when trolling for trout and salmon. It attracts crappies to your hole where they spot the deadstick jig and suck it in. When it's clear that crappies are aggressive and want to be spoon fed, the Freedom Minnow and Williams Wabler are stellar because they're larger, wider, emit more vibration (especially the Freedom Minnow), and provide fish-attracting flash.
The Williams Wabler is coated with 24-carat gold and jewelry-quality silver. I like the half gold/half silver Nu-wrinkle finish, especially when I'm fishing in stained or turbid water. Its starburst of flash under 3 feet of ice and another 2 feet of light-dampening snow is a game changer. The much thinner Clam Speed Spoon, on the other hand, often takes the stage when you can't determine if crappies are enamored more by the spoon or the neighboring deadstick bait. With its tiny, colorful, almost jig-like treble hook attached to the lure on a golden chain, it functions like two lures in one.
CURIOSITY KILLED THE CRAPPIE
There are other situations when you should put your money on a spoon to ice crappies. Three that come to mind are when you're exploring new water, jigging for tight-lipped fish, or you have a school of slabs fired up.
While we routinely two-time, once we've found a number of fish and pinpointed their range, we start each day in search mode, running and gunning, drilling holes spaced well apart, covering different depths. And the first lure down each hole is almost always a spoon.
Part of the reason, I think, is that crappies have an inquisitive streak. No matter where they are or what they're doing, when they see a spoon scooting up and fluttering back down, it's like ringing the bell on an ice cream truck. Like kids at the park, they have to come over to investigate.
When you see them come charging in, fast and furious, they often thump the spoon so hard that you mistake the first few fish for walleyes. When this happens you typically end the day clutching the same spoon rod you started with, along with a bucket of slabs.
Other times, however, it's clear that a spoon catches the crappies' attention and calls them to the table, but it's not quite what they had in mind for dinner. These are ideal conditions for two-timing.
A great opportunity that many anglers miss, on the other hand, is when they have fired up a school of crappies and don't know they've done it. It happens far more often than you think and the clue is when you continually spot fish on sonar but can't get them to bite. Faced with this condition, most anglers believe the crappies are in a finicky mood so they resort to experimenting with smaller and slower presentations. The results are typically disastrous.
The best analogy I can give is when you've excited a school of bass and are getting strikes cast after cast with an aggressive walk-the-dog-style topwater, or you're smacking big walleyes left and right by ripping a 3/4-ounce jig and 5-inch swimbait. The next time this happens, pitch out a drop-shot rig to the smallmouths and hang a jig-and-minnow in front of the walleyes and see what happens. You won't get a bite. And so it is with bunched up winter crappies.
I'll never forget the first time I experienced it after a couple of other anglers had beaten me to a favorite spot, camped on it for several hours soaking minnows under bobbers, attracted the fish beneath their boots, and then complained that they wouldn't bite. Before they had parked their ATVs in the back of their truck (I watched them drive off the ice), I dropped down a spoon in the same holes they'd drilled and enjoyed one of the most intense winter slab fests that I've ever witnessed.
Anglers often are self-fulfilling prophets. If we think the bite is tough, we typically reinforce the perception by making presentation decisions that make it even more challenging. So, zig when everyone else zags.
The higher up in the water column you find crappies suspending in winter the more susceptible I've found them to spoon feeding This is when I typically move up in size from the 3/32-ounce, 1.5-inch Freedom Minnow to a 1/4-ounce, 2.25-inch Minnow and from the W20 Williams Wabler to the W30 or even W40.
I also take two identical Wablers and remove the O-rings and hooks. Then I join the bodies before reattaching O-rings and one of the hooks. Doing this allows you to customize colors (silver on one side and gold on the other) as well as texture (honeycomb and smooth). Most importantly, you can double the weight of the spoon and its fall rate, without altering its size, shape, or flash. When you spot crappies suspended in mid-water, where they're almost always dining on pelagic minnows, it's a deadly trick.
Keep in mind that while bigger is often better, it's relative. Science has shown us that crappies typically don't target forage fish that are longer than 2.5 inches. Ironically, it's likely the reason why the pair of ice anglers I mentioned earlier, who attracted the crappies and fired them up for me, had little success. They likely were using left-over walleye minnows that were too big.
Using proper equipment is important when spoon-fishing crappies. I use 28- to 34-inch medium/light-power rods spooled with a 4-pound-test Dyneema fused line (Sufix Nanobraid, Berkley FireLine, Berkley NanoFil) tipped with an 18-inch leader of 4-pound test Maxima fluorocarbon or Ultragreen monofilament.
Do an experiment and drop identical spoons into your ice hole (or over the side of the boat in the summer). Use 8- or 10-pound test on one rod and 4-pound on the other. You can't miss the difference in the action.
Of all the lures that crappie anglers carry, spoons are unquestionably the most misunderstood. When most anglers consider them at all, it's usually as a lure to use when crappies are biting like crazy. But spoons are so much more versatile. Give them a workout this winter, under a much wider range of conditions and you, too, will begin to recollect that all your best winter crappie experiences involved a spoon in one form or another. –
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, Kenora,Ontario, has been contributing to In-Fisherman publications on ice-fishing topics for more than two decades.