by Jay Samsal
This winter has definitely been a little out of the ordinary, for more reasons than one. For as long as I can remember, I have spent as much time on the ice as possible, in search of the next big bite or surprise “honey hole” on our lakes in Sunset Country. But these past few months haven’t exactly been ordinary. Let’s take out the fact that since early December we have experienced temperatures that would make the abominable snowman wish he was back at the North Pole! I can’t recall a winter with temperatures touching -30 plus a windchill, on a day to day basis. But, as ice fisherman that is no excuse, this day and age we have the proper suits and shelters to keep us very comfortable.
There is another reason I’ve been stuck inside, and trust me, I’m not complaining. This past January, my wife and I welcomed our first child into our family. I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am to have a new little fishing buddy.
Now that my wife and I are settled into our new life with our baby boy keeping us up most nights and we feel like we have a routine, I felt it necessary to a “ask permission” if I could have a weekend to load up my gear and hit the ice. Lucky for me, I got the ok!
Finally! My much overdue weekend on the ice with one of my good buddies in search of Crappie on Lake of the Woods has finally come.
My buddy Scott and I made a game plan the night before, mapping out areas to punch holes, in hopes of finding the sweet spot with the giant school of untouched fish.
So, with just a few hours of sleep, thanks to baby Brynn and his feeding habit, I was up and ready to rock at 6:30am. Of course, I wouldn’t expect the weather on that morning to be any nicer then any other day this winter, as the temperature gauge on my truck read -33C, but screw it… We’re doing this!
Like most guys in search of Crappies, we mapped out all the deep holes in the main basin of the particular part of Lake of the Woods that we were concentrating on this day. The average depth was around 20-24 feet, with some prime holes in the 30-38 foot range; ideal winter Crappie locations. Most people can probably relate to our next 3 hours, where everything always looks good on the map until you actually start drilling and come up dry.
I have a buddy system to locating schools of fish under the ice, and it’s quite simple. One guy drills, while the other follows with his Marcum in hand, checking on the depth, bottom composition, and signs of fish.
Why do I use this system? Let me explain…
Depth – When it comes to depth, you always want to keep an open mind. I’ve read alot of articles lately, talking about anglers using their underwater cameras near weed lines, looking for active Crappies in 10-12 feet under the ice. I haven’t had a chance to check many of these areas out yet, but could see how it could work. I like to concentrate my effort on the deeper holes in shallow water basins. This particular day, we were looking for water in and around 30 feet. The winter time is one of the most predictable times to find large groups of Crappie. Schools generally congregate on mud flats in the winter months. Having good electronics and using today’s mapping devices, you can greatly cut down your search time when looking for the deeper holes in the area you’re choosing to fish.
Bottom Composition – During the hard water months, I believe it’s almost always a must to be over soft bottom. I’ve always found Crappies in the winter relating to soft bottom. It seems obvious to me that there is always food near by, without having to chase it down. Mud is littered with all types of invertebrates for Crappies to chew on- it’s an easy meal! But again, keeping an open mind, if you have found another type of underwater structure, such as a tree, Crappies will gravitate to that. Trees can be that preferable spot when searching large expansive areas. An ideal time to find these types of locations is during the open water months, when you can cover a lot more water in way less time. With today’s advanced technology, we have the ability to use our side imaging units and pin point targets, such as trees and sunken objects, that Crappies hang out around. Finding these spots will almost always set you apart from the rest of the anglers who never knew they existed.
Fish – The third and most important reason we have a driller and a looker is to spot any marks on the screen. The spotters’ job is to have his Marcum in one hand and rod in the other. The plan is always to drop the transducer in the hole and see marks suspended off the bottom. Although that happens the majority of the time, I have seen a number of times where Crappies will appear out of nowhere once a bait is deployed. If you’re in an area that you are confident Crappies live in, it can pay off to drop a bait down quick, and see if anything rises up on the screen. Believe me when I tell you this, it actually seems like they appear out of the mud. Trust your electronics, as they are undoubtedly the end all be all in utilizing these 3 points to Crappie fishing.
Following these pointers above, Scott and I had already checked out two spots, turning the ice into Swiss cheese. On the 3rd spot we had circled on our map, we located the mother load… and I can’t tell you how happy I was to get the shack set up and get the heat going! Before I even had a rod out of my bag, Scott was already reeling up the first fish of the morning. He pulls the fish out of his hole, looks at me with a 14″ crappie in his hand and says, “it’s going to be a good day buddy”.
We fished until 1 pm and honestly, we lost count of the number of fish we caught that morning. But that wasn’t what amazed me- what amazed me was that I lost count of the number of fish we caught over 13″ (a 13″ crappie is big anywhere).
I had a number of different baits tied on that day, but the first one I grabbed was the only one I used; a 1″ Jigging Shad Rap. One tip I’ll give you when fishing this bait for Crappies (and even walleye), is to cut the back hook off. You will find it’s just that much easier when unhooking your fish for release. Tied to the Shad Rap was 4 lb Suffix ice braid, spooled on a Rapala Concept spinning reel, and paired up with a 24″ Med/Lt Rapala R-Type rod…a deadly combo for catching big Crappies in ice shelters.
Next time you have the itch to explore new water for Crappie, find yourself a buddy with some patience, try these steps, make a game plan for the area you want to search the night before, and be prepared to drill. Let’s face it, sometimes you will hit the nail on the head and find them on your first hole, and other times you will run a tank or two of gas through your auger before you see a mark!
Until next time, Fish on…
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