By Jason Mitchell
Many first ice crappie locations can be somewhat predictable. Troughs, dips, channels and holes seem to concentrate crappie in the fall, which tend to hold into the winter. Over basins in particular, crappies can often be found suspended in the water column. Some of these locations can be several acres, while some of these locations can be the size of half a tennis court or smaller. When first ice crappies are located in “big locations,” it can seem like a daunting abyss. There are many strategies you can use to increase the odds of finding and catching fish.
Besides the intimidating size of some of these wintering locations, how they school can make them difficult to find. Larger basins will often see fish scattered in packs. These packs of crappie move in tight vertical schools at the pace of a slow walk. Although this may seem to be slow, it can be difficult keeping up with them with a six inch auger. This means you can have ten or more fish marked on the Vexilar, but your friend fifteen feet away may not mark a fish.
This situation creates a feast or famine environment, where you might drill several holes and not mark anything. You may suddenly have fifteen feet of fish below you that can disappear in a moments notice. So often, the reality is that we are dropping a transducer down a hole where there are no fish. We trust the Vexilar and continue moving on until a fish is marked before wetting a line. Fish in this situation often get caught in short intense windows, where you might catch four fish out of a hole before you lose them. Once the bites stop, you have to keep moving to catch up with the fish or find a new school of fish.
Up the Odds
Most holes or basins have features that seem to funnel or concentrate fish. While fish can be roaming a large area, there are often key locations to focus on, particularly before fishing pressure changes the dynamics of a location at early ice.
The best locations tend to range from ten to thirty feet and at least five feet deeper than the surrounding water. When looking at these deeper basin locations, look closely for structure such as inside turns and necked down areas that corner roaming fish. Points or outside turns can also be sweet spots. A stretch with a sharper breaking contour is also worth checking. Even though the hole or trough itself might be featureless across the basin, the edges of the hole often point where to fish.
If there were ever a situation where fishing with a team of like-minded anglers can increase your success on the ice, suspended crappies over basins would be one such situation. When you find fish, work together to become more efficient. When you find fish work together to become more efficient. While finding these fish can be challenging, maximizing your efficiency once you find fish is also important.
By fishing together when you do find fish, you can keep the fish around a lot longer. Typically somebody has a line in the water, and a lure down below is often what keeps fish from drifting off. When you are alone, you are going to lose more fish, because the school will drift off as you are unhooking a fish and trying to get back down.
Managing the School
Some of the best panfish anglers I know are masters at managing a school once there are fish down below. The first task is to lift the school with your presentation as much as possible. When the fish are aggressive, it is not uncommon to lift the fish ten feet or more. By lifting the school and causing fish to rise up, you can often separate the larger fish from the smaller fish in the pack – the larger fish are often more dominant and faster.
Don’t drop down into the pack unless you have to. Fish down to the fish and see if they will shoot up. Whenever possible, pull fish off the top of the school, as it seems to disrupt the remaining fish much less than dropping down through the fish and pulling one up from the bottom.
The Spectrum of Profiles
Because lifting the fish is so important when targeting basin-running crappie, I often start out using larger profiles, whether I am using tungsten jigs, spoons or swim lures. Larger profiles can shine over this open water because fish can see them from further away. This helps you find fish and also lift or separate the more aggressive fish from the rest of the pack. Start out with the dinner bell that can be seen.
When the attitude of the fish changes, either from a result of the time of day or because the schools of fish have been picked apart where the fish no longer accelerate up for the presentation, that is the time to throw a second rod down. After you catch the easy and aggressive fish, clean up the stragglers with a smaller finesse presentation. I do this by downsizing to a small tungsten jig that is rigged with a smaller more delicate soft plastic.
Understanding the Location
Once you find the fish and get in the zone where you are catching fish, your moves become much smaller. You have successfully broken down a large area to find the sweet spot where there is some activity. As you hop from hole to hole, you sometimes stay on the same school of fish, but you are also landing on new fish that are cruising around the same area as well. What often happens is that we end up finding a handful of holes and rotate through the holes until we quit seeing fish. Typically, these fish roll around the area, and if you were to have the patience to sit over one hole, the fish would probably travel back through after they initially left.
You will usually catch more fish if you bounce around and not fish until you mark fish. Crappies make a good return on your electronics, so if the fish are below, you are going to see them – walk from hole to hole and trust your electronics. To see more fish when targeting suspended schools of fish, turn your gain up slightly and rock the transducer from one side of the hole to the other. This increases the amount of water you are looking at. If the screen lights up when you swing the transducer to one side of the hole, the fish are close and just to the edge of the cone angle.