Winter is in full swing. Panfish, and crappies in particular, are some of the most targeted species throughout the winter months.
In general, crappies are a relatively nomadic species and can be found across countless types of structure throughout a body of water. This includes weeds, wood, rocks, and basins to name a few. Perhaps the most consistent bite throughout the winter months occurs in the main basin of lake. In fishing terms, a basin is the deepest, relatively featureless portion of lake.
(Map courtesy of Garmin ActiveCaptain)
A typical fall will drive schools of crappies from their summer haunts to the basin of the lake, where fish can be found suspended throughout the water column. Predictable depths for winter basin crappies range from approximately 20-40 feet of water. However, crappies can be found at depths much shallower or deeper.
Most relatively small, natural lakes share a similar pattern so replicating results can become increasingly easier. These patterns and techniques related to winter crappies can also apply to flowages and impoundments, although they may not prove to be as consistent.
(Map courtesy of Garmin ActiveCaptain)
Using a handheld GPS, I start my search in the deepest portion of any main lake basin. My first hole is typically in the center of the basin and work my way towards the edge of the hole. On an average day I will drill around 20-30 holes before I start looking for fish.
If you’re fishing a heavily pressured lake with a lot of fishing traffic, I would recommend starting the search on the least populated portion of the basin. I personally won’t venture within 100 yards, give or take, of the closest shack.
Prior to actually wetting a line, rely on your electronics to determine if fish are present in the vicinity. Swing the transducer back and forth across the hole to see if fish are nearby. This can also help determine which hole you should proceed to next. Travel hole to hole until you start marking fish. If you’re not marking fish, keep drilling. It’s not uncommon for anglers to drill more than 100 holes in search of active fish.
Presentation is key to success on the ice. Tungsten jigs in the 3-5 mm category excel in situations involving deep water crappies. Micro plastics are absolutely king when it comes to basin crappies, in my opinion. Most major brands have countless options designed to imitate food sources crappies commonly eat. They also allow for fish after fish without replacing “bait.”
Recommendations for fishing with plastics: (1) Pair the plastics with appropriately sized jigs. (2) Fish the plastic as designed. If it’s meant to be fished horizontally, then ensure the lure remains horizontal. If necessary rotate the knot on the hook so the entire setup remains perpendicular to your line. (3) Have confidence. Confidence is key when fishing artificial lures.
Rods & reels are often overlooked when it comes to ice; but having a quality set up is just as vital on the hard water as it is on the soft water. Opt for something stout enough to handle quality fish, yet sensitive enough to feel and see the lightest bites. There are countless options on the market that’ll meet the average anglers needs. I opt for rods around the 30” range because they allow me to fish comfortably and effectively both inside and outside of a fish house. Power Noodle style rods, as well as rods tipped with spring bobbers make a huge difference in detecting the lightest bites.
Inline reels also offer some advantages when targeting finicky panfish through the ice. The reel is specifically designed to prevent line twist which in turn won’t result in a presentation spinning 25 feet below the surface.
From a conservation perspective, it is vital to be cognizant of the depths you are fishing in. Pulling fish from depths of greater than 20-25 feet can result in barotrauma. Barotrauma incidents are likely to be fatal to the fish. Even though a fish swims away, that doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily survive. If you’re fishing in deeper water, plan to keep some fish for a meal.
These patterns will typically remain pretty consistent throughout most of the winter months, until panfish make the move to skinnier water in the spring. Rely on the tools available, drill some holes, offer the right presentation for the situation, and you’ll be sure to put some fish topside this winter.
Good luck out there!