by Dave Csanda
Once crappies move deep to their usual winter haunts—down the edges of dropoffs, and out across soft basin areas of 30-odd feet in depth—tiny jigs tipped with softbaits become increasingly difficult to fish effectively in deeper water.
Deep is a relative thing, however. Crappies don’t like cavernous deep basins; in lakes where 70 to 100 feet of water is available, they typically ignore these sections in favor of lake areas where the basin is considerably shallower. Thus, the portions of the lake bottoming out at 30 or 40 feet tend to hold the most crappies. Leave the deeper stuff to walleye fishermen.
In shallow soupbowl lakes with little structure, crappies routinely roam and prowl their way across the open basin of the lake, settling temporarily in areas with the best combination of food. On an extremely shallow lake, a small, deep hole of the proper depth might draw most of the crappies in the lake into a very limited area. Each lake is different, so you need to evaluate what they offer to the fish, and plan your fishing accordingly.
In early winter, crappies are often very bottom-oriented. By midwinter, however, oxygen depletion begins taking place in the deepest portions of the basins. Rather than leaving these areas completely, the fish usually respond by rising higher in the water column, perhaps suspending 20 feet down over 30 feet of water, where oxygen is still suitable. Crappies now patrol these levels in search of minnows, which likewise roam, occasionally moving into the area beneath your hole.
As they do, these fish become clearly visible on your electronics, indicating not only where to fish, but how deep to fish. You never want to dangle your lures below the level of the fish, where they won’t see them. Rather, position your lures or baits at or slightly above the fishes’ eye level, where they can visually detect them, become interested as they rise to examine your offering.
Crappie anglers fish for these suspended fish in several ways. The first, and perhaps easiest method, is with a slip bobber rig, suspending a live minnow at the fishes’ level. Nick the minnow lightly below the dorsal fin on a small #6 hook, and send it down. As the minnow dangles and struggles, it tempts crappies to move in for the kill.
When a crappie inhales it, the resulting quiver imparted to the bobber may be so subtle that you barely see it. At the slightest suspicious motion of the bobber, set the hook!
Next up are various forms of jigging, which allow you to be far more mobile and aggressive, covering water in search of active biters.
For sheer effectiveness, use slightly heavier baits than you’d use for shallower bluegills; in effect, it’s just too darned hard to fish tiny softbaits on featherweight 1/64- or 1/80-ounce jigs in deep water. Better choices are small spoons tipped with a minnow, minnow head or live waxworm; compact jigging lures like a VMC Tungsten Chandelier; 1/32-ounce jigs tipped with live minnows; or #5 Jigging Rapalas, based on the crappies’ modestly deep location and aggressiveness.
The idea is to drop your lure down to the fish, then let it settle. Jiggle it a bit, then let it settle again. The jiggle attracts them in for a look, while the pause entices them to move in even closer, hopefully to bite. With Jigging Raps, use a firmer upward stroke to pop the lure upward, and then let it swim and settle below the hole. But the principle is the same.
Using a good portable depth finder like a Humminbird ICE 45 or 55, your lure appears on the screen as a small, brightly colored mark, and the crappie a larger one. When the big mark moves up toward the smaller one, and the two merge, you know the fish is barely inches away, eyeballing your lure. Shortly thereafter, if the rod tip suddenly dips, indicating a strike, set the hook.
If the fish doesn’t strike within a few seconds, however, don’t just let the bait continue to dangle—especially if you see the fish begin to lose interest and start dropping toward bottom. Instead, reel the bait up a foot or two, jiggle it, and then pause again. Many times, the fish will become re-interested and rise to follow. Sometimes, you need to do this a few times to convince fish to bite. You’ll notice that every time you can get them to rise, they tend to become more active and interested. The same trick works for bluegills, perch—even walleyes!
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