Where Crappies Roam
June 13, 2013
Crappies migrate between winter, spring, and summer habitats. Seasonal locational shifts are common information to most knowledgeable anglers. But migrations within seasons are less understood. In the harsh environment of winter, crappies may move several times to meet their needs for survival -- or they may not have to move far at all.
In most lakes, by the time ice forms, crappies are deep. In large lakes and reservoirs in late fall, it's not uncommon for crappies to locate near bottom in 40 to 50 feet of water. In small lakes and flowages, crappies may or may not have the option of going that deep, but probably wouldn't avail themselves of the deeper water anyway. When ice forms on small lakes, most crappies will be somewhere in the main basin or on a confined basin flat in 20 to 35 feet of water, even when deeper water is available.
In flowages and backwaters, which have some of the most extensive fall-to-spring migrations, crappies may leave the river and migrate into a connected lake, or into the next reservoir downstream. Where crappies can't leave a river system, they position as far from current as possible, in the most expansive water possible, sometimes in water only 5 to 8 feet deep.
After moving deep in fall, crappie migrations tend to fall into three categories. Crappies either roam within confined basin areas all winter or they migrate from one basin to the next due to environmental needs. And sometimes they make shallow foraging movements under the ice. These movements generally relate to the size and fertility of the lake in question.
If crappies need to move from their first winter sanctuaries, it's generally forage-related. Like a herd of bison that crops down the forage in one range and roams to the next, crappies sometimes need to herd up and saunter off in search of a more consistent source of food. In some waters, the type or quantity of forage crappies rely upon can vary quite a bit from one winter to the next, meaning crappies might leave the traditional hot spot in January one year, but stay there all winter the next.
By contrast, some lakes consistently produce forage in abundance all winter, creating consistent bites on traditional spots year after year. It depends on what the main forage items are and how conducive the lake is to their survival at the moment.
Ask about crappie forage and most anglers think "minnows," but wormlike creatures that live in the bottom muck, insects in nymphal stage, and zooplankton can be just as important to crappies under the ice, which is why tiny plastic baits, maggots, grass shrimp, or wax worms often work better than minnows. Any of these forage types can experience up years and down years. In some lakes, these creatures can range from abundant to scarce and back to abundant all within a calendar year.
During a typical winter in a typical lake, pods of grazing crappies tend to circle within a defined area that could be a few dozen feet to several hundred yards in diameter. The more abundant the forage, the smaller the circles. In some lakes, grazing crappies stay within five feet of bottom most of the time. In other lakes, they commonly suspend 8 to 15 feet off bottom in winter. In most lakes, crappies use most of the water column, top to bottom, at some point in the season, or at some time of the day.
It may be that the best grazing for bottom-oriented minnows occurs at one time of day, while the right light for seeing zooplankton takes place at a different time. For instance, plankton migrate vertically, upward during low-light periods and down during midday. Water clarity plays a big role in determining when, how far, and why such forage species move.
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In clear water, plankton can vertically migrate 50 feet in one direction during morning and evening. In cloudy water, the food chain seems to remain closer to the surface where sunlight is stronger, and crappies tend to suspend higher or position shallower. Most daily crappie movements are related to the habits of key forage species and water clarity, but oxygen levels also play a major role.
OXYGEN BE HOME
Precipitation, ice thickness, and average daily temperatures vary from winter to winter. These factors affect the ultimate comfort, even survival, of crappies under the ice. Colder winters produce thicker ice. Wet winters produce heavier snowfalls. A combination of those two variables can be deadly for crappies in shallow lakes.
Since wind can't mix oxygen into a frozen lake, current or sunlight is required. Inflowing streams from a highly oxygenated source, such as an open stream with a high percentage of ground flow, keep some lakes from experiencing winterkill. Photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn sunlight into chemical energy, giving off oxygen as a byproduct, also keeps winterkills at bay. Plankton and other aquatic flora require sunlight to survive and produce oxygen. Thick ice and heavy snow cover reduce sunlight and put a serious damper on plankton counts. In some shallow lakes, plankton counts crash to such low levels during harsh winters that an oxygen deficit occurs.
When oxygen levels drop in a lake, crappies make two kinds of migrations. If they can't leave the system, they move vertically. The highest saturation of oxygen will be near the surviving plankton, which will be directly under the ice. In the worst-case scenarios, lethargic, oxygen-starved crappies crowd into the coldest water in the lake with their backs against the ice pack. The water temperature there is about 6 degrees colder than crappies generally inhabit in winter (33F as opposed to 39F).
If the opportunity exists, crappies will exit shallow basins through channels or creeks when snow and ice become dangerously thick, if they can get to a deeper basin. In most cases, this movement takes place in fall. Crappies, like so many other animals, seem to have some mysterious capability to predict just how bad things are going to get during the upcoming winter -- low water seems to be a common signal to skedattle. That's why, in chains of lakes, some of the smaller, shallower lakes have lots of crappies some winters and none the next.
After migrating out of a shallow death trap, crappies tend to stage in the first moderately deep basin available. Look for them to stack up and stage in that deeper basin, on the first sharp drops into deeper water beyond the mouth of the creek or channel they used to exit the smaller lake, or anywhere in an adjacent basin that fits the usual winter profile -- such as an enclosed basin 20 to 30 feet deep.
If crappies can't escape areas with declining oxygen, they continue to suspend higher and higher until their dorsals are scraping the ice. It's a tough bite, unless a massive die-off is expected and the state fisheries department opens the lake to promiscuous fishing, where any means are allowed. In most cases, anglers who take advantage of promiscuous fishing merely need to cut a big hole in the ice with a chain saw and net the fish as they crowd into the holes, gasping for air.
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Crappies living in huge, sprawling environments may winter several miles from areas where they forage in spring. (Remember, those first shallow moves crappies make in spring are forage related, not spawning related, even where they feed then spawn in the same general location.) This is especially true in reservoirs. Crappies winter near deep confluence pools where the main river channel intersects a creek channel. They begin to leave these areas, suspending high above the creek channel but following it loosely back into shallow foraging areas in the back end of creek arms, long before spawning.
When crappies have miles to go, they start early. Typically these migrations don't follow structure, but skirt shallow water. Crappies just pick up and leave, suspending and holding over depths similar to those they've been using all winter, if possible. But at some point late in the ice season, crappies begin staging shallower in some lakes. Fish that used 25-foot depths all winter may start peeking into 15 feet of water, or shallower. At this point, it usually depends on the movements of minnow forage, which seem to be straining toward insects and larvae in shallow, fertile, soft-bottom bays.
Spring foraging grounds are easy to find. The food chain explodes first in shallow mucky bays that heat up fast and produce lots of insect life and minnows. Enclosed bays on the north end of the lake warm first, because of the angle of the sun. Shallow "dead end" boat canals (where wind-driven currents can't flush the warm water out), marinas, sloughs, bays with inlet streams (a thermal magnet) and coves are other examples of shallow spring foraging areas for crappies.
When crappies seem to disappear from midwinter holding areas in big lakes, look at a lake map. If you don't already know, decide which shallow areas crappies will use at ice-out. Draw a straight line between there and the area they just left. Search for flats in the same depth range they've been using all winter. When the search leads right up to the shallow bay, look anywhere from the shallow weed and reed beds around the opening of these bays all the way out to the basin flats.
When crappies arrive, which won't be in a big hurry most years, they stage outside the shallow foraging zone. Most crappies tend to hover near sharp breaks, suspending over depths of 12 to 30 feet or more, from the deep edge of the break to several hundred feet or more out over the adjoining basin area. Then again, crappies might just make a bum's rush into the shallows, under the ice.
DON'T KNOW WHY
Crappies sometimes move just for the pure hellacious fun of it. Or not. We just don't know. We don't know everything there is to know about crappies and nobody else does either.
But sometimes, in some lakes, crappies move into shallow water late in the season before the ice leaves. Don't ask why, or how to identify which lakes it happens on. Minnows move shallow early in some lakes or they stay shallow all winter. If forage becomes scarce in warmer, deeper water by late winter (water reaches its highest density at about 39F, at which point it sinks, so the depths are warmer than the shallows), crappies are forced into the colder shallows in search of food. And because forage is so abundant in the shallows, where few fish have existed for months, crappies might make quick movements back and forth to take advantage of the easy pickings. It's also possible that, as the ice begins to recede from shore near these shallow feeding zones, more oxygen is mixed in. Highly oxygenated water can be a big draw late in the season.
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In a few lakes in Minnesota, we've found crappies in 5 feet of water under the ice in March, cruising through old reed beds. The best spots seem to be around the mouth of shallow bays and along the shorelines in necked-down areas of the lake. Largemouths, bluegills and rock bass are right there with the crappies. It's not necessarily typical, but it happens often enough to take note of. It may not be a consistent thing, either. Last March we failed to find crappies in shallow reed beds where we found them the year before, another reason, I suspect, that these early shallow movements correlate with forage abundance or weather.
When the bite thins out in late season, check shallow weeds or old reed beds around known spring hot spots. It might be a waste of time, but it won't take long, and finding a few slabs makes it all worthwhile.
CIRCLE THE WAGONS
When crappies set up over a large basin area of consistent depth, they may endlessly circle the entire area all winter, like a herd on the range. Coming back to the scene of a hot bite only to find empty sonar screens for 50 feet in all directions doesn't necessarily mean crappies have migrated. They just might be on the other side of the basin, or a few hundred feet away in any direction.
I like to drill holes in wagon-wheel patterns over basin flats. With a pair of holes in the center for my portable Trap, I pace off about 25 feet in any direction and start drilling holes in a 50-foot diameter circle. Wherever I make contact with crappies around the rim of that wheel, I create another wagon wheel in that direction. On tough days, when crappies scatter, the ice starts looking like the olympic logo.
The eventual object is to find the densest concentration of fish. You'll know when this happens because the crappies tend to be feeding more aggressively, competitively, around the largest groups. Fish stay on the screen after you catch a few, and the bite lasts longer. To stay on top of the bite, I drill more holes, closer together, around the school. When the bite thins, I walk from hole to hole with the depthfinder. Most of the time, the fish haven't moved far. But they do move.
Whether roaming around the perimeter of a basin or making full-scale migrations toward spring foraging holes, crappie populations are more dynamic in winter than most anglers suspect. Staying on top of them requires mobility. Keep moving. Drill the next hole, and the next after that. Recheck holes drilled hours ago. For mobile anglers, crappies tend to be among the easiest fish to find in winter because they suspend so much. In most cases, if the depthfinder isn't marking fish, move to the next hole. And the next. When you run out of holes to check, drill more. The direction you move determines your chances for success. Make logical decisions, based on the movements of the fish.
In winter, crappies migrate only out of necessity and for logical reasons. We don't know all the reasons. In some cases, worry less about crappie movements and contemplate your own migrations. Remember the In-Fisherman winter-long game plan: First-ice -- focus on small, shallow, eutrophic lakes; Early midseason -- move to slightly larger lakes of moderate depths (40- to 50-foot main basin); Midseason -- check necks and depressions on shallow flats in midstage mesotrophic lakes (70- to 90-foot main basin); Late season -- back to the small lakes, or saddle areas connecting humps and bars to shorelines on big mesotrophic lakes.
These high-percentage shots take into account the changing environments crappies face under the ice, so you can zig when they zig, zag when they zag, and put more crappies in the bag. But harvest selectively. Let the big ones go. A good rule of thumb is to keep fewer fish than the legal limit (which tends to be outdated, even if it was changed this year), maybe six or eight, all under 11 inches in length. Take a quick picture and let the big ones go to maintain that genetic propensity for size, and to keep the fishing consistent in years to come.