January 06, 2016
By Cory Schmidt
It's hard not to get excited when after hours or days of searching you finally land on a nice school of wintertime crappies. Watching your sonar light up like a Christmas tree ignites something primal inside us. You observe crappie "blips" hovering at all depths, fish that race up to meet and eat your lure before it even reaches bottom. Sometimes, it doesn't exactly matter what lure you drop down there, especially when you find a beehive of big angry slabs that haven't been fished for a while.
Recall fondly a small lake a friend and I discovered many moons ago, which hosted an intense night bite of truly giant crappies. Will never forget watching my "charged" Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee slowly descend in the dark hole before abruptly disappearing. Sometimes, just past dark, you'd make out the sharp snap of silvery jaws erasing the jig from existence. These big old fish were so aggressive that they'd fly up ten feet or more and literally fight for the chance to eat your lure. If you weren't watching your jig, you simply waited until your line went prematurely slack, signaling that the lure had been vacuumed into a massive pouting maw. For the first hour after dark, the bite was so hot that we eventually realized livebait was merely a waste of time. It was the first time I comprehended that crappies could be tempted with "big" artificial lures, such as the Northland Puppet Minnow and Nilsmaster Jigging Shad.
Today, when setting out to find fish, I nearly always start with a "call bait"(like a Chubby Dater or a small Rapala Rippin' Rap) — something relatively large that delivers a realistic baitfish profile. Some of these lures have sound-making rattles and most give off palpable vibration, felt through the blank of a fine graphite ice rod on your end and the fish's lateral line down below. From there, it's often best, having located or attracted fish, to shift to a jig and softbait. Still love the Rat Finkee, but rather than tipping with live larvae, I nearly always go to a micro plastic tail. Crappies don't often nip and pick at baits the same as bluegills. They prefer instead to gulp things, inhaling everything around a prey object, swallowing the food and filtering and expelling everything else in a great puff of water and scales. Lovely.
None of this is to suggest crappies can't be selective. On the contrary, they possess some of the most discerning eyes in the freshwater world. Crappies can easily differentiate between an individual copepod and a water flea (Daphnia). And they absolutely prefer to eat the largest single zooplankton over the masses — the difference between to two often measured in fractions of a millimeter. Of course, beyond anatomical details, movement also matters. Put the two together — the right generalist suggestion of "food" coupled with tiny tail undulations — and you'll rarely fail to entice crappies. Exciting indeed.
Lunkerhunt Spade Grub — Downsized plastics have become staple ice baits for crappies, which is welcome news for longtime livebait users. Thread a bait like Lunkerhunt's Spade Grub onto a tungsten or lead jighead and proceed to produce a pile of fish, often all with a single softbait.
The Spade Grub is a 1.5-inch scented softie whose molded flat, spear-shaped tail kicks and flutters with the tiniest of rodtip or spring bobber movements. Something special about these simple, straight-tail shapes that crappies find utterly appetizing. Drop the bait to eyeball level and stop it. Subtly shake or jiggle the rod, dancing the little Spade Grub in place. Crappies drool over that kind of thing. But if you spot fish approaching the bait on sonar that won't bite, make the lure rise slowly, inciting fish to follow and strike, lunkerhunt.com.
Sold in small scent-infused Lunkerhunt Bait Jars, anglers can revitalize their Spade Grub by dipping it back into the container. Three simple, effective colors — chartreuse, pumpkin and white — cover a lionshare of crappie situations.
VMC Tungsten Wax Tail Jig — — A small softbait rigged on a tiny, heavy metal tungsten jighead is a match made in ice angling heaven. The VMC Tungsten Wax Tail Jig takes full advantage of this marriage, coupling a petite #10 (1/32-ounce) or #8 (1/16-ounce) tungsten jig with a matching TriggerX Wax Tail softbait. The tungsten head plummets quickly to the desired depth, maximizing your time in a school of biting fish. The heavy head also effectually activates the Wax Tail, increasing the "thump" factor as well as underwater motion, rapala.com.
Sold in 2-packs, the Tungsten Wax Tail Jig comes pre-rigged, and is offered in eight radical colors, six of which glow in the dark. Glow colors put out up to 15 minutes of illumination each time they're "charged" with a bright light. Jigheads are precision balanced with a 90-degree hook eye for optimal horizontal position and the perfect strike angle.
Custom Jigs & Spins Rotating Power Minnow — — More and more anglers are discovering the appeal small swimming lures have for hardwater crappies. Custom Jigs & Spins' new Rotating Power Minnow (RPM) is one of the more intriguing designs. Constructed with a unique swivel eyelet, the RPM won't twist your line — a common issue with other swimming lures. The Rotating Power Minnow also sports a colorful epoxy belly hook with special "eye" attractor. Also unlike similar designs, the RPM lacks a nose hook, so you won't get hung up inside an ice hole. Crafted in a wide array of beautiful fishy finishes, the RPM employs a forage-like profile and swim lip to both attract and trigger big crappies, customjigsandspins.com.
Best fished with short, repetitive rod snaps to attract fish, crappies often inhale the bait when it's resting or barely dancing in place. Experiment with long, high rod rips to attract fish from greater distances — especially effective for calling suspended crappies.
Weighing ¼-ounce, the Rotating Power Minnow can be fished effectively with light braid and a short leader of 4- or 6-pound test fluorocarbon. While many anglers tip the treble hook with a minnow head, the bait is so alluring by itself that it's usually not necessary.
Jeff's Jigs Workin Man's Jig — Why so many anglers ignore jigs tied with feathers and hair on hardwater, but happily toss them the rest of the year is perhaps earth's greatest abiding mystery. Well, ok, so that could be a stretch. But the fact remains that micro jigs, like the Workin Man's Jig by Jeff Wenger, dance and breathe just as beautifully beneath an ice hole as they do when cast off a dock.
These 1/64-ounce dandies can be fished with bait or without, with a decided nod to the latter — a lure package that shows fish inimitable rhythmic pulsing motions, even at rest. Fished on light mono by itself or dabbled beneath a float, these sparsely tied marabou jigs simply put crappies on the ice — even if you're the only one on the lake fishing with them. And they're especially awesome for shallow water sightfishing. Four intriguing color patterns mix and match different fluorescent hues, including "funky chicken," an always-appealing chartreuse/pink arrangement, jeffsjigs.com.
Clam Outdoors Maki Mino — A super-soft handpoured minnow imitation, Clam's Maki Mino is the brainchild of Scott Brauer, whose original Maki Plastic shapes remain some of the most captivating on ice. The 1-inch Mino is simple in stature, with a fine little split tail that never quits pulsing underwater, even when the angler isn't doing any active jigging maneuvers above.
Rigged in a variety of effective ways — the Mino is perhaps most effective threaded onto a jighead "flat," so the broad tail flaps up and down, with the body compressed for a slower fluttering action. Beyond traditional jighead rigging, the Mino has also been a potent producer, at times, when "t-bone" rigged or tipped onto jigging spoons, etc. This straightforward 1-inch minnow is manufactured in six top colors, such as glow pink and blood red, clamoutdoors.com.
Northland Tackle Puppet Minnow — Fast approaching "classic crappie lure" status, the Puppet Minnow has undergone a recent facelift, including a new baitfish profile with scale patterns, resplendent colors and striking red eyes. Two tiny sizes — the 1.5-inch #1 and 2-inch #2 — are perfect for plummeting down fast and getting gulped by the outsized maws of slabs. Coupled with 3- and 4-pound test micro braid, respectively, such a Berkley Nanofil or Sufix NanoBraid, the small sized Puppets lend themselves to precision jig-strokes and an array of dynamite attracting and triggering presentations,
On the upstroke, the Puppet Minnow darts in different directions. When sinking, this interesting little lure sashays off to the side in nearly random directions. Further, one of the most effective triggers is simply letting the lure sit in place, while just barely twitching the rodtip to give the bait the slightest suggestion of something to eat. Eight all new colors include some great fish-catchers, such as Rusty Crawfish, Green Perch and straight-up Glo White, northlandtackle.com.
Rapala Ultra Light Rippin' Rap — In case you haven't noticed, a trend toward larger baitfish-profile baits is here to stay. Crappies have big mouths for one big reason — they like to engulf large bites of food, which rings especially true for trophy-sized crappies. Rapala's Ultra Light Rippin' Rap fishes big, but hefts lightly, so it flutters and wobbles seductively on slack line. When you jig this robust little 1-1/2-incher, it buzzes your rodtip in classic lipless lure fashion, rapala.com.
The bait's deep belly profile betrays its deceptively skinny stature, yielding a hard vibrating action that's accentuated by a set of noisy BB rattles. Textured scales and gills with deep set 3D holographic eyes add to the allure, while fast-piercing VMC black nickel treble hooks get the job done. Tie direct to the split ring or remove and fasten with a small lure snap. Several lurid UV patterns highlight an always-cool collection of Rapala colors.
Salmo Chubby Darter — In the right hands, and with the use of a sonar, the Chubby Darter comes alive. Each different jigging stroke seems to make the bait do something different and good — an angler can work a Chubby Darter in more ways than any other lure. Working a Chubby Darter is much like casting and reeling a crankbait, or even trolling one. Aggressive fish are obvious candidates, but these baits also seem to have a knack for triggering big fish. Without the hassle of tipping, these baits are great for dropping down the hole just to see if anybody's home. The root of these particular lures' effectiveness seems to be their distinct flash and vibration. They're capable of drawing fish from a significant distance, Salmo.
Little Atom Nuggies — One of ice fishing's original softbaits, Little Atom Nuggies employ a bulbous head for easy hooking or rigging, terminating with a thin tapered tail. The tail is so thin at its end that it can't help but move with irresistible pulses underwater; even if you try not to move it, the bait still nearly trembles on its own. Beyond its simplistic design, anglers extol Nuggies for their extra soft composition as well as the large array of colors offered by Little Atom.
One of the all-time favorite microbaits among top anglers on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC), Little Atom Nuggies have produced copious catches of pound-plus crappies, as well as numerous tournament wins for anglers like Tony Boshold and Mike McNett. Boshold extols the merits of "vertizontal" rigging — partially threading a Nuggie onto a vertical-posture jig so the softbait extends horizontally away from the hook. Three Nuggie sizes are offered, from the 1-inch Micro Nuggie to the 2.5-inch Jumbo. Tails and heads can be trimmed on each bait to fit specific situations on ice, yourbobbersdown.com.
Berkley PowerBait Ice Whipworm — Imbued with PowerBait scent and flavor, the moves of Berkley's Ice Whipworm mimic many species of aquatic larvae, including ubiquitous mayflies and midges. Composed of a flat, leech-like tail and double grub body for painless jighead rigging, the Whipworm is a highly appealing crappie offering. Threaded onto a #10 or #12 jighook, the Whipworm works best in a horizontal posture, alternately sitting motionless and writhing madly in place. Beyond standard jig rigging, the Whipworm also shines when rigged onto a downsized dropshot — one of the more effective and underutilized crappie schemes on ice.
Sized at 1.25-inches, the PowerBait Ice Whipworm comes in 15-pack bags, available in a half dozen appealing colors which include red, pink, white and natural. Like other micro softbaits, it can be trimmed to match various situations, berkley-fishing.com.