Go Early, Go Shallow, Go Small, or Go Home
By Darl Black
Depending on where you live in up North, early bird anglers may refer to it as the mud bay bite, the canal bite, the backwater bite, or my favorite, the old pad bed bite. Regardless what you choose to call it, this is all about the ice-out crappie bite.
In the frozen northern tier, black crappies apparently are positioned in shallow bays and canals of lakes prior to ice out because it is possible to catch them there almost immediately after ice disappears.
Jim McClave holds a nice ice-out crappie taken with bobber rig.
Ice out on lakes in my neck of the woods is typically late March. Of course, when winter weather lingers, ice-out may not happen in NW Pennsylvania until around April 1st. In Eastern PA, New Jersey and Maryland, ice out is earlier in March. In New England and the upper Mid-West, it is later.
On slow-moving creeks or small rivers which support crappies, the bite begins earlier than it does in lakes. Melting snow increases the flow, pushing water into feeder stream mouths, inlets and oxbow ponds. Locate no-current backwaters with shallow cover, and you will likely find crappies.
Just to be clear, when mentioning flooded backwaters, I am referring to normal spring high water pushing into low spots. If serious flooding occurs, all bets are off in finding crappies in a river system.
The same applies to flood-control impoundments; extremely high water is a wash out for ice-out crappies on these reservoirs, too.
Relatively stable level bodies of water (natural lakes and impoundments which only fluctuate a few feet in the spring) are far better bets for ice-out crappies.
This is not a spawning movement. These crappies are shallow to eat, and sometimes they are found in areas that will not have water when spawning begins much later in the spring.
Exactly where crappies are found in a particular lake depends on the lay of the land. Look for sheltered areas with all these requirements: (1) water depths of two to four feet, certainly no more than five feet; (2) a bottom of dark sediment so it heats quickly from direct sunlight; (3) protection from wind and waves; and (4) some type of cover – stumps, deadfalls, brush, remnant vegetation, dock posts, etc.
On my favorite crappie reservoir, I prefer fishing shallow bays with muck bottom and remnants of last year’s spatterdock beds. Shallow bays or inlets with numerous deadfalls, shallow stumps along the bank or partially submerged brushy shorelines are second on my list. If your lake (or river) has floating log jams in back bays, be sure to check these out, too.
Northern natural lakes often have dug canals allowing lake access from cottage allotments beyond the actual lakeshore. The shores of these canals may be posted, but you may still be able to access these areas by boat. Walled marinas with lots of dock posts are good bets, too – if fishing is permitted from the docks or shore prior to renters putting their boats in the slips.
The sun may be shining and the air temperature may seem pleasant enough after a long winter. But the ice has just melted and the water is cold. Crappies are in the shallows to feed on minnows and zooplankton. But getting them to bite is more akin to ice fishing. Keep baits small and fairly motionless. Soak the presentation. Give crappies plenty of time to react.
Many fishermen use tiny ice jigs tipped with maggots and suspended below a float for their early fish. Personally, I miss too many crappies with those itty bitty hooks. Instead I prefer a small minnow on a lightweight, small profile jighead with a #4 hook. Of course my jig-n-minnow is supported by a bobber.
Bobbers or floats are critical in keeping your bait suspended above the bottom and right in the crappie zone. During the day, crappies may be three feet deep over four or five feet of water. But as sun goes lower, these crappies may move up to one or two feet below the surface. They are reacting to the movement of minnow schools. If you are not getting bites, keep adjusting the bobber setting.
My ice-out rig consists of a 1/24-ounce Bobby Garland Mo’Glo Jighead, small piece of white or silver flake plastic grub on the hook shank with a live fathead minnow hooked through the lower and upper lips. I use a Thill Sliding Crappie Cork which allows me to easily adjust the depth setting. I cast, pitch or sling-shot the rig into tight places with a B’n’M 8′ Buck’s Ultimate rod.
Retrieving steadily in the normal way rarely works. Instead, cast or pitch the bobber rig to cover and then let it rest for at least two minutes. If no nibble, slowly retrieve the bobber several feet, stop and let it rest for another two to three minutes. That’s an ice-out retrieve!
Timing is everything for ice-out crappies. Shallow dark bottom areas warm quickly. On a thermometer, the water in the protected shallows should register between the mid-30s and the mid-40s for this bite to kick in. This bite does not last long, usually measured in days rather than weeks depending on weather and the heating of the main lake. A slow warming trend provides the longest bite duration – perhaps a bit more than two weeks if lucky. Other years with late ice-out or rapid warming, the bite is over almost as soon as it starts. With water temperature in the main lake area eventually rising towards 50 degrees, baitfish and crappies leave the extreme backwater spots.
You need to be there within days of ice out. If you dilly dally a week or two, by the time you arrive crappies likely have abandoned the extreme shallows. Better to be a few days early than a week late. If you are too early, you can always return. So the best advice is to go fish as soon as ice in your area begins to disappear!