Story & photos by Darl Black
Across the Northeast and Lower Great Lakes states, March usually comes in like an old winter lion with moderately cold temperatures, dirty snow sticking to the ground and a slight softening of the ice pack on lakes. If we are lucky, March goes out leaving a brown landscape and rapidly warming open water. If not so lucky, ice may linger into the first week of April. You just never know from one year to the next!
When weather conditions come together properly, there is an incredible active shallow water black crappie bite on certain lakes sometime between mid-March and early April. However, blink and you miss it. When the black-bottom shallows get the first shot of steadily warming water, the bite is measured in days – not weeks – so go fish!
Although some locals refer to this bite as a spawning run, the appearance of crappies in the shallows has absolutely nothing to do with reproduction but everything to do with feeding.
It’s difficult for an individual living in warmer climate areas to get their mind around the angler anticipation surrounding the first crappie bite of a new season in the land of ice and snow.
Northern crappie anglers begin whispering about the ice-out bite immediately after Christmas (but not too loud if ice fishermen are around). Then after Ground Hog Day anglers begin talking loudly about it. You would think with all this discussion about the First Bite, everyone would be completely prepared. Well…talking does not always lead to planning.
But that’s why I’m here with some great tips on the first open-water crappie bite of the new fishing season!
Ice-Out Crappie Locations: Think shallow, protected pockets of water with dark bottom material which absorb the sun’s heat, thereby warming the immediate water more rapidly than other shallow areas. Water depth in the best areas is typically no deeper than three to four feet. Check out small bays with entrances protected from prevailing winds, as well as swampy backwaters, cottage-lined canals and corners of walled-in marinas. Possible cover includes decayed pad beds, deadfalls, submerged shoreline brush, beaver lodges, dock posts, and the list goes on. Warming water kick starts the growth of zooplankton which attracts minnows. Minnows in turn attract crappies.
Presentation: Hands down, the best bait is a small to medium size minnow below a slip bobber. Years ago, Emerald Shiners were the preferred early season bait of crappie anglers in our region. However, almost all Emerald Shiners sold in area bait shops came from the Great Lakes. But since the appearance of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS) in Great Lakes’ Emerald Shiners, the sale of this bait is now prohibited outside of the Great Lakes drainage.
Small fatheads have become the choice for early spring on inland lakes – particularly Rosey Reds if you able to find them at your bait shop. Rosey Reds are a species of fathead with a distinctive orange color, and ice-out crappies seem to prefer them over regular dull-colored fatheads.
During late spring, summer or fall, a #4 or a #2 bait hook performs well for crappies. But for the smaller minnows most often used at ice out, I recommend a #6 Tru-Turn Blood Red Aberdeen if you plan to use a straight bait hook.
Recently, however, I’ve started using a small jighead below the float to present the minnow. I go with either a 1/48-ounce Bobby Garland Overbite Sickle Jighead which carries a #6 hook or a 1/32-ounce Original Road Runner Head if I want something with more flash.
For a bobber to suspend the minnow at the proper depth, I typically choose the smallest Thill Slip Crappie Cork (for 1/16-ounce weight), and add just enough split shot to the line to make the float stand upright.
If you cannot readily obtain the proper minnows, the second best presentation is a very small jig/plastic body combination tipped with a couple maggots. Yes, I know the mention of live maggots (fly larva) as bait sounds creepy to some – I’ve had this discussion before with southern anglers. But for northern anglers, maggots are the number one live bait for bluegills and they readily available at all bait shops in the spring. During the ice-out period, maggots are particularly effective in drawing hits from crappies. Likely it’s their potent smell which attracts crappies. One or two maggots on the jig can be the difference between fish or no fish.
The jig and live bait combination is fished in conjunction with a fixed bobber. Cast it out and let it rest for 60 seconds. Then begin a very slow retrieve for two or three feet. Pause again for a minute or two. Then retrieve it slowly two more feet. Repeat pause.
To assemble this rig, first affix an adjustable weighted bobber to your line allowing about two feet below the float. Then tie on the jighead and body.
Ice-out crappie casters have long favored a 1.5 inch white or yellow split-tail grub as the jig body. But when Bobby Garland brought out the 1.25-inch Itty Bit Swim’R, I made the switch to this tiny minnow profile plastic.
I fish the Itty Bit Swim’R on a 1/48 ounce Overbite Sickle Head. Select a minnow color such as Pearl White, Crystal or Monkey Milk if the water is moderately clear. But if the water is dirty or heavily stained, go with Mo’ Glo Screamer or Black Cricket. And don’t forget to tip it with two maggots!
Rod/Reel and Line: I’ve experimented with many different rod and line combinations over the years for specific crappie presentations. For casting a float with minnow, I’ve found the perfect combination for me: B-n-M 8-foot Buck’s Ultimate.
This rod has just the right action for propelling a slip-float/minnow into cover from a distance with accuracy. In a pinch, you can use it as a dabbling pole if dipping tight to cover. The 8-foot length provides a good sweeping hooket.
When fishing around the intense tangles of deadfalls and brush as well as amid the remnants of last year’s spatterdock or other pads, I am comfortable using straight 10-pound Gamma Torque Braid. By skipping the mono leader I use the rest of the season, I simply pull free of snags with straight braid in order to reduce loss of rigs.
For tossing and retrieving a float and jig, I fall back to my favorite all-around crappie casting outfit: B’n’M 7-foot Sam Heaton Super-Sensitive. For early spring fishing, I’ll have the B’n’M ProStaff spinning Reels spool with 6-pound Gamma Hi-Vis Panfish Line.
Get the gear ready. The time to start crappie fishing up north is almost here!