What You Need to Catch Ice-Out Crappies

By Darl Black

Mother Nature pulled a fast one on us this year: NW Pennsylvania ice-out in February! More typically our ice goes out sometime in mid-March, sometimes not until first of April. However, the climate is a changing. Anymore it’s too difficult to predict when lakes will melt.

When the backwaters and “mud bays” shed their ice cover and the sun brings the heat to rapidly warm protected dark bottom shallows, anxious early season anglers can expect a short but exciting shallow water bite for crappies on many area lakes.

Exactly when that will happen during an unusually early ice-out but with continued cold temps and overcast skies, I am not even going to make a guess. Best to check for the bite every day!

Whether you fish from the shore, wade or fish from a boat, ice-out equipment is basic and the presentation simple. While some fishermen will use “whatever they have available” to get in on the action, years of ice-out crappie fishing has steered me to what I consider the best bait, rig, line and rod.

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Three Rods Ideal for Northern Crappies

By Darl Black

My wife and I really enjoy crappie fishing. It’s my second favorite species to fish for – right behind smallmouth bass. Actually in NW PA, there are probably more anglers interested in catching crappies than smallmouth bass. Why? Bass are caught-and-released. But ‘em crappies are kept and deep fried!

There are many excellent crappie lakes from New England, across the Great Lakes region and into the upper Mid-West. Although various forms of slow-trolling are very popular in the South, northern anglers typically limit their presentations to casting small crappie jigs, dropping baits around heavy cover, suspending a live minnow below a bobber, and drifting. These are presentations I routinely employ.

Having observed many everyday crappie anglers across the northern tier, many fishermen limit their rod arsenal to a single 5-1/2 or 6-foot ultralight or light-action rod to cover all their crappie fishing. However, no single all-purpose rod can be truly effective in every situation. Uniquely different presentations require rods of specific lengths and actions. This is something I demonstrate to my guide customers as we fish crappies with different presentations utilizing just three specific rods.

BnM specializes in crappie rods. To please crappie fishermen all over the country, they offer a wider variety of rod styles than this Yankee fishermen would ever need. But among the multitude of different rods, I’ve found three that are must-have to cover the most likely presentations for northern lakes.

Rod 1: Casting and retrieving small jigs. For swimming 1/16 and 1/8 jigs (as well as small spinners and micro crankbaits), BnM’s 7-foot Sam Heaton Super Sensitive (SHSS72) is an absolute gem. This rod has a moderate fast action (i.e. flexible through almost half the blank, but with backbone in the butt section) making it perfect for casting small baits with 4-pound Gamma Panfish Line. As the name says, it is remarkably sensitive. And for a light line rod, it easily handles the incidental bass, walleye and catfish we routinely catch.

Rod 2: Dipping thick cover with jigs. Shoreline deadfalls are potential crappie spots throughout the open water season. But we also dip emerging pad beds and reed beds in the late spring during the spawn and post spawn. This calls for a long rod with a flexible tip and strong back for lifting fish out of cover. BnM’s 10-foot Russ Bailey Signature Crappie Wizard Rod (CWRB102) is the ticket. I spool the reel with Gamma’s new Optic Yellow Panfish Line in six-pound test. Some anglers question my use a line with 6-pound diameter rating in pads, but the Gamma six-pound actually breaks at 12 pounds.

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Six Tips for More Crappies

By Darl Black

From mid-April through early June throughout northern states, crappie fishing is in full swing in relatively shallow water. Crappies are staging near spawning areas, moving in to spawn sites then moving back to slightly deeper water as other waves of crappies arrive in the shallows to spawn.

Most anglers are trying their luck with a minnow and bobber. However, some anglers will go home empty handed or with only a few fish, while other anglers enjoy very good success. Sometimes successful and unsuccessful anglers are fishing within a few feet of one another. Somebody is doing something wrong!

Here are the six of the most common errors I witness crappie anglers make in their rush to catch fish.

1. Beach Ball Bobbers. You know what I mean – using those oversized red/white round floats which bounce on the water but never go under. The best minnow-fishing floats for crappies are tall ones with a specific weight rating (1/32, 1/16, 1/8 and 1/4-oz) such as ones from Thill Floats. Matching a float to the precise weight (jighead or split shot) results in a float sitting upright and partially submerged. Therefore it takes little effort for a crappie to pull it under.
2. Bait hook too small. Crappies have a much larger mouth than bluegills and pumpkinseeds. For crappie fishing, my standard live bait hook size will be a thin-wire size #4 for small minnows, size #2 for medium minnows, and size #1 for large minnows/shiners. Due to thin tissue-like mouths, small gap hooks (under size #6) tear out rather easily. However, the gaps on #4, #2 and #1 hooks pierce mouth tissue further back from the lip area for a better hold.
3. Cheap hooks. Even though you have selected the proper hook size, don’t go cheap now. Buy quality brand-name hooks such as Tur-Turn Panfish Style 856. Mustad and Eagle Claw also offer a light-wire long shank Aberdeen style. Properly tempered light wire hooks will bend when snagged, and then can be reshaped to continue fishing. When inexpensive, improperly tempered hooks become snagged, the hook may break at the bend or your line will break because the hook does not bend.

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Crappie: Harbinger of Spring

By Darl Black

Another too-cold too-long northwestern Pennsylvania winter will be coming to a close – hopefully earlier than last spring when ice-out was not until around April 5. I am ice-weary at this point and looking forward to the Big Melt in order to launch my boat and cast once again!

Traditionally, the harbinger of spring for anglers is the first crappie bite. That first crappie bite happens much earlier in northern states than the month of May when hordes of fair-weather anglers descend onto area lakes. What I’ve learned from crappie-fishing experts over several decades is this: crappies can be caught within days of ice-out…perhaps even while ice cover remains on the main part of the lake.

If you can find fringe water that is ice free somewhere around a NW PA lake in mid-March, you can probably catch crappies. The first areas on a lake to lose ice are typically shallow black-bottom areas, including canals, backwater marsh-like areas, extremely shallow well-protected bays and even marina basins in some instances. Heck in March, I’ve witnessed anglers catching crappies in a still-water road culvert hole of a small tributary just upstream of a still frozen lake.

However, this early movement is not a spawning run. Crappies simply follow minnows into the warming shallows to feed. When spawn time arrives in May, many of these fringe waters spots will be completely void of crappies. The shallow water ice-out bite usually lasts only a couple weeks before minnows and crappies fall back to slightly deeper water.

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