By Dan Johnson

First ice is a magical time for crappie fans across the North. As winter wears on, however, success rates plummet for anglers targeting lakes hit hard by the bucket brigade. Fortunately, it’s still possible to enjoy solid action on such waters throughout the winter, provided you ply overlooked locations with the right mix of strike-triggering tactics.

Lindy pro staffer and lifelong panfish fanatic Paul Fournier starts by learning everything he can about a fishery before he hits the ice. Lake maps and state fisheries departments are gold mines of information. Networking with fellow anglers, along with guides, bait shops and other sources of intel, also provides details that will guide his search efforts once he arrives at the lake.

Fournier also factors forage and habitat particulars into the locational equation. Where lush, green weeds offer an underwater feast, for example, he’ll focus on the shallow greenery no matter the calendar period. On the flip side, if skinny water lacks sustenance, he’ll look toward deeper feeding areas.

 “As long as shallow vegetation persists, it’s my first choice,” he says. Such salad bars produce a variety of forage for crappies, including aquatic insects and small baitfish. Near-shore greenery also typically sees little or no pressure from the fish-hungry masses.
ice crappies
“The part I love about the shallow bite is, nobody touches it,” says Fournier. “People get the mindset that you have to head for deep holes and target suspended fish. Sure, there are fish out there. But the biggest crappies don’t want to compete with the school scene, and feed in the weeds as long as possible.”

Heavy fishing pressure can also scatter large schools of offshore crappies, and since the most willing biters typically leave the lake in 5-gallon pails shortly after freeze-up, duking it out with the mob can be a frustrating affair.

When fishing shallow vegetation—which may lie in as little as 3 feet of water—Fournier looks to the inside and outside edges, as well as open pockets within an otherwise dense jungle.

“I often scout weedbeds during the summer, mapping out the heaviest stands, weedlines, holes and irregular contours that may concentrate crappies,” he notes.

Lacking such advance recon, you can often see plenty through thin, clear ice with no snow cover. And of course, a sonar unit and underwater camera are handy tools for assessing potential fishing areas.

Fournier’s favorite weed weapons include a small Lindy Frostee Jigging Spoon tipped with a dainty soft-plastic trailer or natural baits such as waxworms, strung between the treble tines to help keep panfish from picking them off without getting stung.

“If you’re fishing a lake with crappies over 10 inches in length, a pinched off minnow head is a great option, too,” he says, noting that he checks state fisheries lake survey results for the lowdown on fish size and year-class strength.

Jig strokes are conservative. In lieu of aggressive antics, Fournier shakes the lure in place just enough to make the treble swing tantalizingly to and fro. When a crappie moves in to check out the spoon dance, slowly raising the jig can trigger a strike. If the fish hesitates, dropping the spoon often inspires the crappie to dart down and attack.

If this muted sleight of hand is too over the top for midwinter crappies, Fournier switches to a small, horizontal-hanging jig like a Lindy Tungsten Toad tipped with a waxworm, eurolarvae or supple plastic trailer. Similar subtle jigging movements are key, as is lifting the bait when a fish moves in.

Fournier milks the shallow weed pattern for all it’s worth.

“It lasts as long as the weeds stay green,” he says. “I keep going to these spots and drilling until I quit getting fish.” Once the well dries up, he looks deeper—but not to the offshore basins besieged by hordes of anglers. “I move to the outside break, keying on transitions from hard to soft bottom,” he says.
crappies
Depths range from 10 to 15 feet or more, but vary from lake to lake. Fournier also keeps an eye out for rocky sweet spots that other anglers miss.

“Few people make the connection between panfish and rocks,” he says. “But they love it, because there’s all kinds of invertebrates and minnows to feed on.”

Away from the jungle, he switches to a three-rod rotation. As in the weeds, one is rigged with a Frostee Jigging Spoon. The second sports a Tungsten Toad or Fat Boy, while the third holds a Lindy Ice Jig tipped with a small Watsit Grub.

“Crappies love it when you snap a Watsit up a couple of feet, let it fall slowly and then lightly quiver it in place,” he says. “Just make sure to check your knot after each fish so the jig hangs perfectly horizontal.”
 
When fishing two holes, Fournier adds a small Frostee Jig tipped with a crappie minnow to the mix.

“Fish that charge in to check out the active jigging presentation often end up hitting the minnow line instead, and it’s a great way to pick up bonus walleyes,” he said.

As winter progresses, Fournier finds that actively jigging a Rattl’n Flyer or 360 Jig tipped with a minnow head is a great way to get crappies worked up before deploying his regular repertoire.

“Small Lindy Darters are great search lures, too, and are definitely pike magnets,” he adds. Although crappies typically disappear when a big pike idles into the neighborhood, they quickly return upon its departure.

Timing is another facet of Fournier’s game plan. Nighttime can usher in schooling and feeding behavior, while sunrise and sunset can also spark increased activity.

That being said, every lake is different, and on some fisheries the midday or afternoon bites are best.

“Weather changes also affect fish behavior,” he notes. “Cold days when the temperature and barometer are falling can trigger panfish into a feeding spree.”