Fishing & Boating News

Chasing Late-Winter Crappies

by: Babe Winkelman, Babe Winkelman Productions

(Mar. 22, 2011 - ) As I write this in Minnesota, we're still sitting on about 3 feet of solid ice. Temperatures are on the rise, and the melt will happen quickly to turn our white lakes into blue. In the meantime, it's also one of the best times to capitalize on panfish through the ice!

Why? Because those crappies are in a very predictable pre-spawn pattern. Inside the bodies of the females, plump yellow egg sacks are already in place. The crappies are instinctively aware of the season that awaits... spawning season. To prepare for the rigors of the spawn, crappies have a need to be in tip-top condition. And feeding is a necessary element in that preparation. In addition, they need to be relatively stress-free. That means expending as little energy as possible during the pre-spawn, when traveling, feeding, etc.; and being as protected as possible from predation.

So, crappies intuitively gather at pre-spawn staging areas in late winter. They corral where there's ample baitfish to feed their pre-spawn appetite; where there is sufficient access to protective cover and/or deep-water sanctuaries to escape predators; and their very act of schooling provides an anti-predator mechanism too. After all, 500 eyes are better than two when surveying the underwater horizon for toothy pike, muskies, walleyes or bucket-mouthed bass that would be tickled to have a protein-rich crappie in their gullets.

So, where are these pre-spawn crappie haunts? Often they're exactly where you'd expect them: just outside of shallow bays or within deeper holes on shallow flats that are ideal spawning areas when the water warms up.

Other times, the staging areas are quite distant from the spawning grounds. Or at least we "perceive" them as distant. But think about how fast a fish can cover water. A pre-spawn staging area can be miles away from spawning territory. But a fish can cover a mile in a relatively short swim.

The best way to identify pre-spawn staging areas is by doing your homework and doing the work. Ask the man at the bait shop in your area what he has heard. He wants you to succeed, because then you'll buy more bait. Talk online to guys on local forums. Read the regional fishing publications. There's a wealth of information available to every angler from other fishermen. And you know how they like to talk! So take advantage of all those resources to help locate a bite in your area.

Arm yourself with an accurate lake map or a GPS chip that can help you pinpoint key structures on the lake you're fishing. Fill the tank on your Eskimo auger and be prepared to drill. And drill. And drill.

Hole-hopping is a must when chasing crappies, whether it's pre-spawn or at any time of year. They're roamers. Moving just 20 feet away from a dead hole, or even 10, can mean the difference between an empty bucket and a heavy one.

So, how many holes should you drill in one location? 20 is a good round number. Try and drill those holes in thoughtful locations. For example, if you're in a relatively small hole on a flat, drill some holes up on the flat... down the break at varying depths... a series of holes on the deepest part of the hole...and some more holes up the opposing side of the break. This way, when you hole-hop, every hole you check has a different condition. You might find zero fish at 15 and 20 feet, but a stack of suspended crappies at 18 feet. Every day is different.

I like to space my holes about 15 yards apart. That provides good area coverage without wearing you up too much when drilling or checking holes. Checking holes is easy, but it does require having sonar equipment. After you've drilled all your initial holes, grab your sonar unit and rod and go to the first hole you drilled [since it's had a chance to calm down from the commotion of drilling]. Drop your transducer down the hole. If there are fish on the screen, catch them. If there aren't, move on to the next hole. Repeat this process until you see fish on the sonar and try and catch those fish. When a hot hole suddenly goes cold and the fish are gone, relax. They've just roamed away. Pick up, scope out neighboring holes and find them again.

The nice thing about this time of year, and this style of ice fishing, is that typically the weather is downright beautiful. You can fish in the warm sunshine or under the stars in complete comfort. No need for shelter or heat. If it is cold, rainy, snowy or windy, then bring along your Eskimo portable shelter and be comfortable. Either way, you're going to have a fine time while putting some amazingly delicious crappie fillets on the table for your family.

Good Fishing!
Babe Winkelman