Finding Winter Crappies

with Steve Quinn

The process of finding winter crappies can be intimidating when you look out on a frozen lake and pick an area to fish. Today, enhanced digital mapping is a major help, as you can tote a portable sonar or hand-held GPS to lead you to spots you’ve previously located on a map, and it allows you to unerringly return to last year’s hotspots. When it comes to winter Crappies, you may need all the help you can get, as these winter wanderers find a wide variety of habitats suitable for their winter lifestyles.

After the fall turnover in lakes, which typically occurs with water temperatures in the low to mid-50°F range, the entire basin of a lake is available to crappies and other species. In most lakes, the thermocline serves as a barrier since water below it is low in oxygen. This freedom of movement allows crappies to occupy whatever habitats seem most suitable in terms of protection from predators, water quality, and availability of prey.

​At early ice, many winter crappies, including some giants remain among the most healthy stands of aquatic vegetation, including cabbage, coontail, and milfoil. There they find cover and abundant baitfish that seek shelter among the stalks, including minnows and yearling bluegills, which are a favorite crappie food in winter. Some enterprising anglers even scout the weedy flats prior to ice up, relying on Humminbird side-imaging and other electronic marvels to point out the best stands of grass.

With a push of a button, the spot’s saved for use once ice-up occurs. Some ice anglers have rigged side-imaging sonars on poles to scout under the ice as well. Another favorite, though it’s a bit more time-consuming, is an underwater camera like Aqua-Vu’s Micro. Dropped through a hole, it not only shows plant diversity and other covers, but reveals the number and size of nearby fish as well. Sonars, even the most sophisticated, can hardly discern species identification, especially when vegetation is present. In a few of these lakes, some crappies stay shallow all winter if vegetation remains healthy enough to produce oxygen and provide cover. In other waters, often the murkier ones, the plants droop and are nearly gone within a month of ice-up, sending the fish deeper.

In many natural lakes and reservoirs, there’s also a shift into deeper water. Here fish find more stable conditions, buffered from frigid nights and cold fronts, and relatively oblivious to light levels since thick ice and snow provide shade. They often occupy similar types of structure, including channel turns and creek channels in impoundments. In natural lakes, they favor steep breaklines, humps, rockpiles, and deep points, typically hovering several feet off the bottom in loose aggregations as they do in summer.

In some small pot-hole type lakes, structure and cover is lacking once the shallow vegetation decays. In this situation, we find large groups of crappies suspended out over the lake basin that’s often over 40 feet deep, but hooding about 20 feet above the bottom. If a lake contains more than one deep basin, each one often holds fish. These crappies are obvious on sonar so anglers who like to walk out for the early bite often reap rewards. But soon other anglers join the action and the bite slows dramatically. It’s hard to hide on a small lake in winter!

The best crappie lakes over the long term tend to be larger, as fish find more prey and living space, and fishing pressure becomes diluted by its acreage. These types of waters offer many areas of what can be called “confined open water.” These areas are individual deeper basins that occur in large coves, bays, and arms of lakes, as well as tributary creeks in reservoirs. The most productive ones contain large areas of shallow vegetation or brush that provide habitat in spring and summer, as well as deeper structure such as saddles, and neck-downs. Islands also provide their own little habitat, with cover and depth variation.

In these larger lakes, you’re more likely to find a bit of current that may not be noticeable when fishing, but serves to refresh and mix the waters under the ice, keeping oxygen levels higher as winter wears on. Tributary streams and springs continue to flow in the coldest conditions and the water slowly moves through the system.

In large lakes, there may be enough flow that crappies tend to favor spots behind a structure that reduces the flow, such as a mid-water hump. In waters like Wisconsin’s many flowages and river backwaters everywhere, this is an important factor, as the current can be substantial.

These patterns last for several months in northern waters, until a strengthening sun and warmer temperatures in March start the thawing process. Then the shallows once again become crappie central. Melting snow and ice increase flow, bringing in more nutrients for the first time in months. This starts the food chain in the shallows, as phytoplankton arrive, zooplankton begin grazing on them, and small baitfish, in turn, feed on the invertebrates and draw larger predators, including lots of crappies.

This movement starts gradually in late winter, but the last few weeks before the ice breaks up, this zone becomes the target area. Often, as occurs at early ice, foot travel is the only option, and ice safety is obviously critical. The best areas are expansive flats with depth ranging from 3 to 8 feet. Where cabbage and other types of vegetation remains, it’s all the better. It’s a fun time since tackle is minimal, the weather is mild, and crappies usually are cooperative, though the low-light hours can still be best.

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