Winter Crappie Forage Tactics
February 26, 2014
Sometimes it makes sense to match-the-hatch for winter crappie. A fine example is using an artificial bait that mirrors the size, shape, and color of the forage that fish are eating. But always treat this as a guideline, never as a rigid rule.
For instance, late last winter In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange and Editor-Photographer Jeff Simpson met up with me to film an In-Fisherman television segment on a large, deep, clear, natural crappie lake. I'd kept close tabs on the fish for several weeks prior to their arrival and had harvested a few for dinner.
When I filleted the crappies, I closely examined their stomach contents. Young-of-the-year perch—about half the size of your smallest finger—were the most abundant item. Soft, gray insect larvae (likely mayfly) came in a distant second. As I landed several fish, I also noted them coughing up long, thin, threadlike bloodworms—chironomid larvae. So, I pretty much knew what was on their menu.
Had we been intent on matching-the-hatch, it would have made sense for us to tie on Jigging Raps or Salmo Chubby Darters painted in firetiger or perch pattern. Or to tip a small smoke-colored ice jig with one or two live wrigglers or maggots to mimic the mayfly larvae. A Genz worm dressed with a piece of red Gulp! Mini Earthworm, on the other hand, is the finest bloodworm imitation I've ever used. I have no doubt these presentations would have produced a few crappies. But our success would have been intermittent and the presentations a sad second-fiddle to what worked best.
It was a small white bucktail jig that looks like a young-of-the-year shiner, smelt, shad, or cisco. Despite the fact I had never once that winter come across any of these baitfish in the crappies' stomachs, I knew a white jig was the ticket. I had tested it alongside other presentations and it never failed to produce two, three, four times as many fish.
So, matching-the-hatch doesn't work? Actually, it works marvelously. The lake we fished has a bountiful population of shiners, ciscoes, and whitefish. In the winter, the crappies in this particular lake frequent locations and habitat—large, 30-foot-deep mudflats—that put their preferred food item out of reach. So, being the opportunists they are, they feed on the forage that's most plentiful and most available at the time. But that doesn't mean they don't have a preference.
The white-jig strategy likely had worked because at other times of the year, crappies are accustomed to eating young-of-the-year ciscoes as well as emerald and spottailed shiners. In other lakes, however, the crappies might prefer an entirely different forage—bluegills, pumpkinseeds, perch, or perhaps a certain insect larva or crustacean. Whatever the case, it pays to know the complete list of what's available throughout the year on any given body of water. Then experiment with different dietary items in terms of winter presentations to discover what the crappies prefer.
Sometimes the preferred winter forage is also the most abundant. Case in point: About 800 yards from the water we fished is another superb crappie lake. Silvery forage in the form of smelt, ciscoes, whitefish, and shiners is scarce to nonexistent in this much shallower, weedier, dingier body of water. Not surprisingly, the crappies react to the white jig in a nonchalant, ho-hum, take-it-or-leave-it manner. Yet, they go crazy when they spot a much gaudier jig dressed with yellow, red, orange, and blue craft hair that resembles a yellow perch or red-sided dace.
On other lakes, it's common to see two, three, or more crappies on your sonar screen all the time throughout the day—even though they may not be feeding on pelagic baitfish at that particular time of year. The suspension seems to be a habit that the crappies simply can't shake.
And for whatever reason, it reaches its apex in late winter, when it's common to spot crappies suspended in the middle of the water column, 17 or 18 feet beneath your boots over 34 or 35 feet of water. It's a dead giveaway—no matter what you find in their stomachs—that the crappies are targeting baitfish and will whack a vigorously jigged Blue Fox Rattle Flash spoon, Williams Ice Spoon, Rapala Jigging Rap—or, of course, a white bucktail jig.
Use What Works Best
Two food items that regularly show up in the stomachs of crappies—both large and small alike—are zooplankton and the larval stages of insects. Zooplankton are the small animals that form the foundation for life in most aquatic environments and, while most are microscopic in size, some like Daphnia are relatively large and can be mimicked by lures and small livebaits such as maggots.
Like zooplankton, the larval stages of mayflies, caddis, dragonflies, damselflies, midges, and other insects can be essential to the health and wellbeing of crappies under the ice. Consider zooplankton and invertebrates as "meat-and-potato"-type forage.
Big plate-sized crappies generally eat fish—especially in lakes with healthy populations of perch, dace, sticklebacks, shiners, ciscoes, bluegills, and shad. Smelt, ciscoes, shad, and many shiners are pelagic and roam the water column. When they're present, look for the crappies to be suspended.
Forage such as sticklebacks, perch, and dace, by comparison, are much more bottom-oriented and tend to pull the crappies down to their level. Bright, colorful jigs and lures fished a foot or so off bottom tend to excel.
Just because a specific minnow species doesn't show up in the stomachs of wintertime crappies doesn't mean it's not the preferred forage. It simply could be unavailable during the winter, and the fish trip over themselves to eat them when the opportunity presents itself. Have a rod rigged with a lake-specific minnow imitation.
Fortunately, most places allow you to fish with two lines during the winter. Having one rod rigged with a lake-specific minnow imitation and the other with a zooplankton-invertebrate reproduction is the best of all possible worlds.
Preferred Favorites, Please
The importance of distinguishing between food items that are preferred versus those that are plentiful is a lesson I learned long ago from my friend Dr. Mark Ridgway, a renowned smallmouth bass scientist and researcher. Ridgway used underwater cameras at the time, monitoring the behavior of male smallmouth bass while they were protecting their nests during spawning season. During this frenzied period in spring, males are harried by perch, crayfish, and other would-be egg-eaters. Yet, despite being surrounded by an abundance of forage, the male bass eat little during the guarding phase—with one kind of exception.
Ridgway discovered that if a smelt, shiner, cisco, or shad wandered close to the nest, male bass would streak out and eat it. In fact, the only thing he routinely saw on the monitor was an explosion of scales and then the smallmouth back on the nest guarding its eggs. Even though the bass had a smorgasbord of crayfish and perch crawling or hovering inches from its nose, it didn't dine on them. It chased after one thing only: The tasty silvery baitfish that posed no danger. That's preferred forage defined.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, Kenora, Ontario, has written many award-winning articles for In-Fisherman publications. He's an exceptional angler and fishery scientist who also appears on In-Fisherman television.