They’re Different Under the Ice

By Vic Attardo

Some guys like their distilled grains “neat” — meaning not diluted or mixed with anything. Then again other guys like their refreshments “on the rocks” — with a couple of frozen cubes.

Crappie take it both ways. They can swim around plain water, very neat, or they can have so much ice atop their heads you and I can walk right over them. Imagine that, being able to walk a top a crappie.

In the soft-water season, we troll for crappie, we dock-shoot for crappie, we pick and plunk them in heavy weeds, and we spider rig off the bow and stern. But when it comes to the ice time you can leave those methods in the boat. Ice time is when crappie seem a completely different fish.

This is a good time for great fishing and fun in the northern states.

This is a good time for great fishing and fun in the northern states.

Bunching it up, iced-in crappie are not going to chase down a Road Runner or whack a wiggling crankbait or rise up for a floating minnow plug. But they will take jigs.

Oh my do they take jigs under the ice! Indeed jigs, either plain or with live bait or soft plastics, and sometimes just live bait, is what you’ll be using if you want to catch crappie under the ice.

Then there’s the speed thing. In the wet season, crappie chase bait. No doubt about it. I’ve seen them gather up and run down a school of minnows like lions after zebras, and I’ve seen lions chase zebras.

Even the Geico sloth is too fast for dead-sticking.

But in the ice season, crappie move in slow motion if they move much at all. Crappie under the ice act more like slow-motion jello. They’re the bananas and apple slices suspended in the cold jello mold.

Under the ice crappie are completely different, tactically, technically and metabolically. If you don’t want to take my word for it, travel with an ice angler toting an underwater camera. With a high definition color screen or even a camera connected to an iPad, you can watch the slow-motion capers of crappie under the ice.

I remember the first time I was standing in a dark hut when a friend pulled out an iPad and lowered the water-proof lens. Besides all of us whistling about the advanced technology, we got excited as heck watching some slab come out of the darkness and slowly, and I do mean slowly, slink up to the jig then gingerly suck it in like it might or might not be poison.

An angler can’t make a slower presentation than dead-sticking. Even the Geico sloth is too fast for dead-sticking.

An angler can’t make a slower presentation than dead-sticking. Even the Geico sloth is too fast for dead-sticking.

We could practically look into the eyes of that fish and see the decision making process change from “may be not” to “why not” to “that dinner is mine.” This scenario is something you’re just not going to see when cruising with your spider rig.

So the first real lesson in what makes crappie different under the ice is speed. Actually their lack of speed, their slow-motion selection of whether or not to take a bait.

For equal time I’ll give you one example where that fact is Not true under the ice — because there is always an exception to a rule.

When you’ve drilled a hole and first drop your jig to crappie level and before you can spell c-r-a-p-p-i-e, your rod is forced down and the fight is on. This crappie really did slash a reaction strike, but those are few and very far between when ice fishing.

You can also study the slowness of iced-in crappie on your sonar. These days more ice anglers have flasher units than any other contemporary piece of ice equipment. And what they are seeing are slow-moving red (or green) lines that indicate a crappie has slid into the sonar’s cone of vision and then the fish practically licking at the bait.

You can’t do this while spider rigging but on the ice you can “chase” crappie with a hot stove and a venison burger.

You can’t do this while spider rigging but on the ice you can “chase” crappie with a hot stove and a venison burger.

What flashers have taught winter crappie anglers is the need to jig responsibly. Whereas we used to expend a lot of arm strength with mighty exaggerations of the short ice rod: lifting the rod along the face of the imaginary clock, from seven to eleven. That just isn’t done much any more.

By studying the jello-slow pace of crappie on the sonar, and the camera, most jigging is now done with short shakes and wiggles of the rod tip. Sure you can occasionally bounce the rod tip like a basketball but it’s not the contemporary thing.

Of course, the rule exception is the quick rise and sudden fall of a jig to initially attract a cold crappie from a distance. But when it actually comes time for the strike, the follow-up is a  confined, seemingly steady jiggle of the jig and plastic.

In the wet water season, say the height of summer, you can lift your jig high along a tall green weed then let it speed fall into their wheelhouse for a strike. But when it comes to iced crappie, it’s better to act like a melting snowman. Lower the jig at a snowman’s pace. Slow and steady wins the day.

A technique that demonstrates the lack of speed, namely the slower metabolism of iced in crappie, is one called “dead-sticking.”

An angler can’t make a slower presentation than the aforementioned dead-sticking. Even the Geico sloth is too fast for dead-sticking. In fact when I first saw the commercial with the sloth drawing a picture I thought the picture was going to be of dead sticking.

Dead-sticking is done like this: one puts a short rod either across the lid of a bucket and presses the bucket handle down over the reel so it all won’t slide off, or one uses a wire frame contraption which stands the rod up at an angle.

After dropping the bait into crappie land, the rod is left entirely alone. Not wiggled, not jiggled, not touched. It’s best to do this with a larva bait rather than a bit of soft plastic as there is more attraction with a live larva. But the effectiveness of dead-sticking clearly shows the slowness of crappie moving under the ice.

Just be sure that as you fish, you’re positioned close to the stationary rod — for when a crappie does strike, it doesn’t pull the rod away in slow motion.

Each winter there are a few times, and a few places, where I can actually sight-fish for iced-in crappie. That doesn’t happen when the water is soft and algae green.

Over a depth of about 7 to 15 feet, in winter clear water, I can watch crappie come across the ice hole and belly up to the bait. At such times when a couple of crappie are moving in, I can pull the hook away from a small fish and wait until a bigger calico noses close.

That’s a tactical thing that makes iced-in crappie a different fish.

All these differences noted, there is one thing that is deadly equal between wet-water crappie fishing and iced crappie. I’m talking about setting the hook.

When giving them the point, there’s no need to hesitate, or go slow. Iced-in crappie can expel a bait as fast as any spring or summer fish. When a winter crappie strikes — when you see the sonar’s bait line engulfed by another color — you don’t hesitate.

With iced-in crappie: Strike hard! Strike fast! And in the meantime, keep your hands warm!