Across the Ice Belt, opportunities for oversized crappies exist within large metropolitan areas. For some anglers, the trick is finding fisheries that fly under the radar of the masses, allowing them to produce fish of slab proportions. Other trophy hunters focus on hard-hit but still productive waters, using a combination of timing, location and tactical tricks to target the biggest fish in these systems. Both approaches are undeniably deadly.
Few know how to sniff out unfished slabs better than Fishing Hall of Famer Dick "The Griz" Grzywinski. Based smack-dab in the heart of Minnesota's Minneapolis-St. Paul metroplex, a hotbed of ice fishing home to more than 3 million people, the legendary guide has devoted decades to finding big fish others miss.
Countless days on ice, along with endless networking with a close-knit band of allies at local baitshops, helps keep him on top of local trends. But in general, the past 35-plus years of guiding have taught him three scenarios that typically offer top shots at overlooked fish: flowing water; small, hard-to-access lakes; and waters on the mend from past atrocities by the bucket brigade.
"Rivers can be the best spots around," he says. "In the Twin Cities, the lower St. Croix is a prime example. Not many people fish it, but the section from Stillwater to Prescott, Wisconsin, routinely produces 12- to 14-inch crappies through the ice."
Admittedly, rivers can be intimidating, and dangerous. Which explains why only a small, hardcore group of anglers exerts much pressure on the Croix's crappies. Approached with ample caution, however, flowing water systems can offer oases of big fish amidst an otherwise hard-fished landscape.
Backwaters can be dynamite, though sometimes hard-fished once discovered by the masses. Instead, Grzywinski seeks main-river areas with slack current. While structural features such as sandbars extending into depths of up to 40 feet can hold clues to location, he warns: "The fish can be tough to find. Scouting in late fall is a big help, because crappies often hold in or near these same locations after ice-up."
Once a school is found, he goes to work with a #3 Rapala Jigging Rap. "Fish it plain — no bait — a foot off bottom, and you'll catch crappies plus bonus saugers, walleyes, and bass," he says. "Give it three snaps, let it sit a couple of seconds, and repeat. If you don't catch anything after 10 minutes, move on."
Other go-to steps in Griz's river dance include an 1/8-ounce jigging spoon from JR's Tackle. A variety of heavy metal from Lindy, Northland Fishing Tackle, and other manufacturers offer additional options. Most often, the spoon is sweetened with a minnow head, but sometimes a whole minnow.
Jig strokes vary from simple shaking routines to 12-inch lift-drops, and rod tip-thumping, hard-pounding presentations similar to those employed for beefy bluegills. "The preferred pattern varies from year to year, but once you find what the fish want, it typically holds up for the season," he notes.
Another benefit of a jigging spoon is even if fish don't hit the spoon, it can hold them in the area long enough to consider a second line rigged with a live minnow impaled on a plain hook or small ice jig.
Besides rivers, Grzywinski seeks small, out-of-the-way waters lacking easy public access. Examples range from 40-acre widenings in large streams — which may be no deeper than 6 feet and still hold fish — to a variety of small lakes tucked in residential and industrial settings. Sources of intel on such hidden gems include everything from Google Earth to state fishery agencies and local bait shops.
Finally, Griz keeps tabs on lakes that yielded banner catches in seasons past, but were plundered to near-extinction by fish-hungry legions. "After the big fish disappear, pressure tapers off," he says. "But a few years later, a good year-class slips into the system, and the fish get big again."
Unpressured ice crappies are great, if you can find them. But often, duking it out with the crowd is your only option. Veteran ice warrior Paul Fournier, who hails from the northern fringes of the same metropolis as the Griz, fine-tunes timing, location, and tactics to take the biggest fish in any system.
"Start with homework," he says, explaining that thorough research saves priceless time on the ice. "Study lake maps for depths and structure, and find out the forage base, especially whether it's insects or young-of-the-year baitfish such as perch, crappies, or bluegills. This clues you on locations and presentations."
After assessing depths and structure, Fournier breaks lake types into two general categories: deep basins and shallow basins, and goes from there.
"In deeper lakes, crappies often relate to the same areas as they did in late fall — primarily outside weededges, commonly in 11 to 12 feet, that are adjacent to deep water," he says. "Look at primary areas, such as the tip of a point, or the first inside turn on the point, and focus on one of these sweet spots at a time. Drill a 20-hole grid pattern that starts in the weeds, covers the edge, and extends into nearby deep water. Some people call this ice trolling, but I call it structure fishing."
After drilling, Fournier tiptoes quietly from hole-to-hole, checking for fish with sonar. "I look for pods of active fish, which create competition that encourages large crappies to feed," he says. With this mindset, multiple marks in a classic "Christmas tree" formation are always worth fishing.
"Big fish are the first to come in but the toughest to trigger," he says, explaining that his first option is typically a small horizontal jig like the Lindy Toad. "It fishes heavy for its size, so I can punch through weeds up shallow, or fish it in deep water off the edge," he says.
Livebait is common for tipping, either a waxie or eurolarvae, though plastic can be a great big-fish weapon, "If you take the time to learn how to fish it." He recommends ample practice tosee how specific plastics perform with various jig strokes and follow-up rod movements. "People might think I'm crazy, but there's no substitute for filling up the tub or a sink, and practicing your moves — seeing how your baits react," he says.
When tipping a jig with livebait, he prefers skin-hooking in the midsection — wacky style — so the bait hangs horizontal, and remains lively, wiggling seductively even when the jig is in neutral. Plastics are rigged in a similar fashion, although less active fish call for threading the bait lengthwise onto the hook.
His second drop is a small Lindy Rattl'n Flyer or Frostee Spoon, with a brace of waxies strung between treble tines. "Fish can't pick them off like they can when you're chandeliering," he says. Jig or spoon, the jigstroke is similar. "Use subtle, back-and-forth rod tip motions to make the lure wave side to side. With a spoon, the treble should rock ever-so-slightly."
Given crappies' fondness for forage above their heads, Fournier cautions to always fish above the school. "Get the fish to rise to your bait, and keep moving up until they strike," he says. If a rising crappie falters, he freefalls the bait below the following fish, to the level it was last jigged. "This does a couple things. It brings the rest of the school into play as competition, and often causes the big crappie that was closest to the jig to dart downward and grab it."
He recommends running through jig and spoon sequences two to three times. "If nothing happens, drop the Toad one last time," he says. "Let it sit very still — not rotating. Wave it slightly, pause for 20 seconds, then wave it again. If this doesn't get them, it's time to move to the next hole."
To keep the jig still on the pause, and to raise it slowly and steadily, he rests the rod handle on his thigh and uses his wrist to lift. "It helps to keep your back to the wind, and your rodtip close to the ice," he says. "This also aids strike detection, because if the wind is blowing your line and rod around, you never see the line jump or rod tip twitch, which are often all the signs of a bite that you get."
Tackle considerations hinge on 36-inch rods — long enough to keep his silhouette out of the hole — strung with 4-pound mono mainline. A small ant swivel limits twist, while a 2- to 4-foot length of 2-pound fluorocarbon completes the rigging. Leader length varies according to water clarity, always with enough distance to keep sunfish from swarming the swivel.
In deeper lakes, as well as shallow basins offering a decent drop-off, swimming hardbaits like the Lindy Darter or Salmo Chubby Darter are great for searching. Dropper rigs, too, have their moments. Fournier tethers a tiny horizontal-hanging ice jig on 2-pound fluoro, 6 to 8 inches beneath a small spoon, then tips the jig with a waxie or pair of eurolarvae.
In shallow basins, Fournier searches for fish, wielding much the same presentations. "Another method that shines shallow is a slow-falling, bulky softbait like Lindy's Watsit Grub," he says. "The tail and legs wiggle on the drop, adding attraction. "Skin-hook the plastic on a small horizontal jighead, keeping the hook gap as open as possible."
Deep or shallow, lure color matches water clarity. Hot pinks, firetigers, and the like excel in dingy conditions, while naturals rock in clear water.
Time of day is always a consideration, in terms of fish location and activity levels. "Early in the morning, crappies tend to hang near the weedline but move deeper as the day progresses," Fournier says. "As a rule, clear lakes are better during low-light hours, while dirtier lakes are better during the day. In both cases, though, sunrise and sunset are typically peak activity periods for big crappies."
Don't forget the night shift. "The crowd usually is long gone by 7 p.m.," he says. "On many lakes, especially clear ones, you'd be amazed at the increase in fish activity after that point. The best ways to determine a night bite is check with local baitshops, or roll up your sleeves and try it."
Even under cover of darkness, he stays a minimum of 50 yards from other anglers. No matter what time, day or night, it pays to keep your distance. Just another tip to help you ice more big crappies on tortured waters this winter.
Dan Johnson, Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Contact: Dick "The Griz" Grzywinski, 651/771-6231, mngriz.com.