Minnows for Ice Crappie

Story & photos by Vic Attardo

In recent years the emphasis in ice fishing for crappie has been on small soft-plastic baits. These highly flexible and tantalizing bits are great crappie attractors. I don’t dispute that. But sometimes when ice fishing for crappie, particularly when conditions get tough, you need to go after them the old fashion way — and the oldest of the fashions uses a minnow.

There’s hardly a warm-season crappie angler who hasn’t caught a white or black without a minnow, but so many ice anglers are using larva bait, which are very good, or those new soft plastics, also very effective, but neglect the first bait in the book, live or dead minnows.

Minnows are surprisingly versatile in that they can be fished on a range of equipment and unlike small soft plastics accompanied by equally small jigs, they can be worked through a greater range of depth.

Last winter after drilling around a good crappie lake with my Ion battery-operated auger, I found where the greater concentration of crappie were holding rather deep, 15 to 18 feet. While a tungsten jig and an itty-bitty soft plastic would certainly reach that depth, the control and feel I’d have at that level frankly wouldn’t be good. The use of an ice-braid line — which I’ve become a firm believer in — would certainly help the situation, but even then I’d be relying on feeling the subtle take of cold crappie quite a ways down.

            Facing that situation I decided to use the live fathead minnows I’d brought along. My aim was to achieve a surer, and longer, strike.

Getting down I still used a tungsten jig, but one with a slightly longer hook shank, and I threaded the fathead by the lips. My weapon was a 22-inch medium light jigging stick which I’d learned had enough backbone to set a hook at these stretched depths. The Vexilar told me where the fish were and when I dropped the jig-festooned minnow in their midst it didn’t take long for the more aggressive crappie to come my way. In retrospect I had to perform a bit of Hole Hopping that day as the crappie pods were small and spread out but they took the minnow because it was a real meal.

Tip-ups will not catch the numbers of crappie you’ll get going from hole to hole with a jigging stick, but by using a bigger bait they catch some pretty large crappie.

Tip-ups will not catch the numbers of crappie you’ll get going from hole to hole with a jigging stick, but by using a bigger bait they catch some pretty large crappie.

The “technique” worked because when a crappie struck a minnow it had to hold longer than it might if it were inhaling a smaller larva bait or plastic. Yes, these crappie were still inhaling the minnows but also there was some mouth-adjustment, or additional gulps, to get the minnow toward the crappie’s gullet. This gave me precious ticks of the clock to feel and react to the strike. I know that on very cold outings my reaction time gels and I can use that extra second or two as the sluggish neurons in my brain signal my chilly hands to set the hook.

Minnow on jigging sticks are also good for shallow water ice fishing, usually in depths of from six to 12 feet. This is probably the situation in which minnows are least used as anglers prefer to attach a larva bait or soft plastic at this range. But there are times and conditions when crappie aren’t thrilled by either of those offerings and minnows to the rescue.

While going from divot to divot in Hole Hopping, a live minnow might not survive the terribly cold air. A marabou jig adds life to either a live or dead minnow for more action.

While going from divot to divot in Hole Hopping, a live minnow might not survive the terribly cold air. A marabou jig adds life to either a live or dead minnow for more action.

One again the bait of choice is a fat head minnow, about an inch and half in length. But now let me add another crappie attractor to the recommended list. So far I’ve been talking about small tungsten jigs, let’s now introduce slightly larger marabou-tailed jig head.

Because they can dance like St. Vitus, one-eighth ounce, or smaller, marabou jigs are a great presentation for little minnows. Don’t worry that the marabou envelops the head of the minnow, it’s all part of the picture.

I’m mentioning the marabou jig at this point of the story but it’s also successful at those greater crappie-holding depths of 12-18 feet, still suitable for the jigging stick.

Stubby Steves            And here’s something to think about. As your day goes on and a number of minnows meet their maker in your bucket, the use of a wavy marabou jig creates a sort of a resurrection. Over the years I have done very well pounding dead minnows on a white marabou jig at many depths. And while going from divot to divot in Hole Hopping a live minnow might not survive the terribly cold air, using a marabou jig to add live to the minnow’s silted action, works wonders.

DriftmasterAnother alternative is to place the head or tail of dead minnow on a chain spoon. These vertical spoons twirl and flash and the scent and taste of the minnow on the chain-connected hook is the strike trigger.

I mentioned that minnows can be worked on a wide range of equipment and here I’ll explain all that.

In this often too fast era of run-and-gun ice fishing (though true it seems weird to explain it that way) the forgotten or neglected piece of equipment is the classic tip-up. Mention tip-ups to the ice angler converted solely to jigging equipment and you’ll get a strange look. True tip-ups will not catch the numbers of crappie you’ll get going from hole to hole with a jigging stick, but by using a bigger bait they catch some pretty large crappie.

The minnow to use while working tip-ups around the ice is not the tiny fathead but the longer and certainly bulkier shiner minnow. Shiners are bright silver and their size produces more vibration compared to a fathead.

Understand that when fishing below a tip-up, shiners are not hooked by the mouth but just behind the dorsal fin. Using my sturdy Beaver Dam tip-ups I can drop a three-inch shiner to any depth, leave it alone until the flag unfurls, and know that hearty shiner will be wriggling for a long time — or until a big crappie comes along and takes a bite.

You’ve probably realized the emphasis hard-lure manufactures place on getting their crankbait to appear injured. By tinkering with body construction they get crankbaits to wiggle like the lure is taking its last breath.

Well, you can do this to a shiner without putting it in its grave.

Using clippers or scissors cut chunks away from the shiners fins, preferably the top of the tail or caudal fin but also one of its pectoral fins. This will affect the balance of the shiner and the resulting erratic movements will attract game fish, like a big crappie.

However if you perform this fin clipping, and the shiner has to react to the imbalance, there’s a strong probability it will not survive as long on the hook. You’ll need to check it more often than you would an unaltered shiner.

If you’re fishing to large 13 and 14 inch crappie, consider using a treble hook behind the shiner’s dorsal fin rather than a single point hook.

Place one point of the treble hook behind the dorsal fin — not so far down as to puncture the spine — and leave the remaining tines free to catch the wide mouth of a hefty crappie.

No matter what equipment you’re using or what size bait, you need to keep your minnows from freezing.

The easiest and best way is place them in an insulated bucket and then place the bucket in your sled, at least not directly on the ice. I like buckets with foam liners. If all you have is a regular plastic bucket, find another container to place it in and then line the separation between the two containers with lots of crumpled newspaper.

Many times when you dunk a minnow in a cold lake the bait goes into shock and become still. A way to get around this is to gradually add small amount of the lake’s cold water into your minnow bucket. Sometimes if you scrape the snow off the top of the ice and add this to the water in the bucket, it will acclimate the minnows to the colder water below.

Have fun; ice fishing with minnows is all about fun.

Top Ten Minnow Tips Under the Ice
– When conditions are tough, and even when they’re not, use minnow to catch iced-in crappie.
– Minnows worked on jigging sticks enable an angler to move around from hole to hole searching for aggressive crappie.
– On particularly cold winter outings, the use of minnows gives the angler more time to react to a strike.
– The use of a marabou jig adds life to a lifeless minnow.
– When using a shiner minnow place it beneath a tip-up.
– Hook larger shiners behind the dorsal fin.
– Cut away a portion of a shiner’s fins and the minnow will act erratically.
– When fishing for large crappie consider using a treble hook to hold the tip-up bait.
– Keep your minnows from freezing by using an insulated bucket.