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.
Sunshine State crappie fans have no shortage of choices when it comes to slab-producing fishing holes. The short list of hotspots includes the St. Johns River, Harris Chain, lakes Harney, Kississimmee, Monroe, Rodman, Talquin, Toho, and Orange, but you could spend a lifetime exploring all the options. Contacts: Guide Steve Niemoeller (St. Johns), 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com
; Guide Mike Baker (Orange Lake) 352/625-1180, thecrappiefisherman.com
; Florida FWC, myfwc.com/fishing/freshwater/sites-forecast/crappie
The Land of Lincoln is also home to stellar crappie fishing, with lakes such as Kinkaid, Rend, and Shelbyville routinely ranking high among the country's finest fisheries. But what finally pushed it onto our list were two straight 17-inch-plus entries in the Master Angler Awards Program. In fact, the state topped Region 1 and national entries in 2011 and 2012 with 17½- and 17-inch giants. The largest of those fish was from Crystal Lake, the other from a farm pond. Contacts: Guide Clint Taylor (Rend Lake), 618/731-0323, crappieextreme.com
; Guide Steve Welch (Shelbyville), 217/762-7257, lakeshelbyvilleguide.com
Our selection of the Hawkeye State might surprise a few anglers, but In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards don't lie. Already in 2013, the state broke the 17-inch barrier with a gravel pit slab landed by Austin Hronich of West Des Moines, and since 2010 it has produced at least one award winner topping 16 inches each season, and twice has seen multiple 16-inchers recognized. Almost invariably, these fish are credited to a 'œfarm pond' or 'œpit,' highlighting the potential of the state's small waters. However, a number of natural and manmade lakes offer excellent opportunities, as do oxbows and backwaters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Contacts:
Iowa Department of Natural Resources, iowadnr.gov; Guide Kevan Paul (Clear Lake, Storm Lake, Spirit Lake, East and West Okoboji), 641/529-2359, paulsfishingguide.com
Don't let the world-class bass fishing fool you, the Lone Star State is a stellar destination for oversize crappies as well. Phenomenal Lake Fork is a prime example. Numbers of slabs topping 2 pounds are possible in a variety of seasons and settings, from the early summer brushpile bite to the late-season deep-water blitz near the dam. Other top options include Cedar Creek, Choke Canyon, the Concho River, Falcon, Lake O' the Pines, O.H. Ivie, Richland Chambers, and the border waters of Toledo Bend — just to name a few. Contacts: Guide Ivan Martin (Lake Fork), 918/260-7743; Guide Terri Moon (Lake Fork), 903/383-7773; Texas Parks and Wildlife, 800/792-1112, tpwd.state.tx.us
Home to the unrivaled 'œArc of Slabs,' which includes the hallowed waters of Arkabutla, Enid, Grenada, and Sardis, the Magnolia State could easily argue for top honors on the list. Perhaps nowhere else on the planet do anglers have a better shot at catching big white crappies, including giants topping 3 pounds. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange notes the fishing is good year-round, but peak fishing starts in mid- to late March for prespawn giants. Contacts: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
Upper Red Lake's fishery may be a shadow of its former self, but other big waters including Mille Lacs and Rainy lakes, along with the St. Louis and Mississippi rivers, to name a few, more than take up the slack. Plus, countless smaller natural lakes across the state offer solid chances for 1½- to 2-pound-plus fish for anglers willing to tap systems with healthy numbers of older year classes, and avoid the crowds when possible. Need proof? Troy Smutka's Lake Waconia 16½-incher (pictured) was the second-largest crappie entry among all 2012 Master Angler entries. Contacts: Guide Dick 'œThe Griz' Grzywinski, 651/771-6231, fishwiththegriz.com
; Guide Jeff Sundin, 218/246-2375, jeffsundin.com
In-Fisherman friend and crappie guru Todd Huckabee's home lake — Eufaula — is among the best on the planet for slabs topping 2 and even 3 pounds. But the lake's shallow, muddy, fertile waters are only part of the reason the Sooner State claimed a spot on our list. Fort Gibson is another, given its ability to kick out 2-pound-plus white crappies, especially when riding a year-class boom. Grand, Kaw, and Oologah are standouts, too. Contacts: (Eufaula) Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528; Larry's Bait and Tackle (Fort Gibson), 918/478-3225; Guide Rocky Thomas, Jr. (Grand, Oologah) 918/837-0490, thomasguideservice.com
As a bonus to readers and in hopes of preventing a border battle over the fabled 'œCrappie Capital' of Kentucky Lake, I lumped these two states together for this entry. Both are worthy of top 10 status in their own rights, but together the options are nothing short of phenomenal. Besides Kentucky Lake, which is primed to produce big catches of quality-sized fish, including slabs topping 2 pounds, Tennessee offers the stump-laden fishery of legendary Reelfoot Lake, plus Pickwick, Chickamauga, Douglas, and numerous other gems. Kentucky's assets include Cumberland and Green River Lake. Did I mention that the states also share Barkley? Crappie fans could do far worse than plan a trip tag-teaming these two states' fine fisheries. Contacts: (Kentucky Lake) Guide Randy Kuhens, 270/703-6133, kicknbass.net; Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
Like Kentucky and Tennessee, these two states share one of the world's top crappie lakes. In this case, it's Kerr Lake, also affectionately known as Buggs Island. This border treasure offers amazing numbers of fish to 1¾ pounds, along with an honest shot at 2- and 3-pound trophies. Other Virginia standouts include Anna and Briery Creek, while North Carolina highlights include Falls of Neuse, High Rock, and Jordan, among other fine waters. Contacts: (Kerr Lake) Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381; Guide Jerry Neely (High Rock), 704/678-1043.