Crappies AnywhereBy Jason Mitchell - February 26, 2018
In our travels, we are able to make some observations and perhaps the most consistent observation is that late ice consistently offers some of the best ice fishing of the winter for crappie on most fisheries. Locations, prime spots and staging areas however can really vary. Shallow sand hill lakes in Nebraska might find crappie staging in three feet of water along pencil reeds during the late ice time frame. A large lake in northern Minnesota might find schools of fish suspending off the deep weed line over twenty feet of water. If there are a few general rules of thumb to follow, it often seems like crappies in natural lakes are much more weed orientated where as we find reservoir crappie relating much more to the old river or creek channel edges, flooded brush or submerged trees or rocks.
A natural dish bowl lake in southern Minnesota, eastern South Dakota or the sand hills of Nebraska however fishes much differently where late ice patterns often occur next to shore somewhere around the rim of the lake and the key is finding the right dip or lip next to shore in conjunction with the right vegetation.
We have fished several great reservoirs for crappie. The upper end of Lake Oahe on the Missouri River System might be one of the best places around right now for catching crappie through the ice over fourteen inches. From large reservoirs like Oahe to midsize reservoirs like Merritt Reservoir in Nebraska or Jamestown Reservoir in North Dakota, what we so often find is that weeds are often lacking. The fluctuations in water levels and sometimes turbidity keep aquatic vegetation from developing and as a result, crappies react and relate to completely different times of structure. Most of the winter, fish seem to relate to the old river and creek channels whether they suspend in the channel or relate to that sharp breaking structure on the sides of the channel. Flooded timber and brush piles are top locations as well. What also makes these reservoir fish different is that they often seem to spawn on chunk rock or rip rap. Shallow rock piles in the back ends of creek arms often load up with fish in spring. We often find fish staging in tributary arms at late ice and as the season gets later, we often find fish pushing up out of the structure of the old channels and up onto shallow flats. If there is brush, trees or rocks, these locations get even better. On smaller reservoirs where there are no incoming tributary arms, what we often find is fish pushing up into the top half of the reservoir and the sweet spots are often inside cuts where the landscape forms a crevice or valley that funnels some of the runoff into one area along the shore. This runoff seems to eat the ice and stain the water and crappies go nuts.
No matter where crappie live, all fish seem to react to incoming snowmelt at late ice. Fresh water creeping in along the shorelines might add more oxygen, maybe it stains the water. The best bites often seem to correlate when the water starts to color up. Old holes will often thaw out and water will often run into the hole where there is foam floating on the surface of the hole. Foam is a good sign. The more holes in an area and the bigger the holes, the better. When you see foam, fish are often cruising a foot under the ice, look for fish really high.
If there is a presentation category however that I am falling in love with more and more for crappie, it would have to be small spoons. Particularly on reservoirs when dealing with more turbid water, spoons seem to have more flash. Spoons also shine for finding fish over large water. Spoons can run the gamut from ultra-finesse like the CPT Guppy Spoon to loud and proud like the CPT Rattlin' Blade Spoon. On some water, some of the spoons we have success with more resemble walleye tackle compared to the finesse often reserved for panfish. Especially when anticipating big fish or dealing with turbid water and or current. Even on classic natural lake environments, when fish push up right under the ice or start using shallow weeds, there is a different intensity of aggressiveness that is often triggered by spoons.
Finally, and most importantly, late ice or last ice… whatever you want to call it is exactly that… last ice. Often some of the better fishing happens as the ice deteriorates. When water starts to run into the lake and holes open up, you are fishing on borrowed time. Safety is priority number one. If the ice flexes or sags as you walk across it, get off the ice. When the ice comes up in chunks when you drill a hole, get off the ice. Always carry a rope, life jacket and ice picks. Keep your cell phone in a sealed waterproof bag. Don't take chances.