Wintertime night crappies can be puzzling, since they may follow several different movement and locational patterns throughout the frozen-water period.
If you’ve fished the lake recently, you certainly can’t go too far wrong if you decide to start fishing where they were recently biting or else where you found them at that time in past years. But barring any local knowledge, a big white lake provides few clues until you probe deeper with the fine digital maps available today, such as the Humminbird Lakemaster SD cards that are regularly updated by mapping crews on the water.
As we have often emphasized at Lindner Media, the best clues to seasonal location come from the biology of the species itself. Knowing its sensory capabilities, its feeding habits, and preferences for habitat give you an excellent starting point, especially when you factor in the lake type and its structure, size, and water clarity. One of the most striking features of the crappie are the size of its eyes, among the largest for its body size of all freshwater species.
In fish, and other animals as well, features that aren’t needed usually are absent or small. Intense predation pressure tends to shape a critter to fit its environment. As a member of the sunfish family, their visual capabilities seem similar to what we know about bass and sunfish, which have received more scientific scrutiny.
Crappies have good color vision, though this doesn’t function in the dark, where vision is via light-sensitive rod cells in the retina. Yet crappies are active feeders after dark in all seasons of the year, presumably using their large eyes to gather as much light as possible. Surely there can’t be much in 20 feet of water, on a dark night, and with a foot or two of ice and snow on top! Ya gotta give ‘em credit for this remarkable feat.
The best crappie night bites occurs on clear lakes that house good vegetation in summer and some of it often lingers through winter. And crappies often feed among plant stalks at night, though it’s a good idea to scout areas in daylight and make use of an underwater camera to check the health of underwater plants and to look for fish. Conversely, the bite is typically poor in murky lakes after dark, though they may feed well during late afternoon and early in the morning, as light levels change.
During early winter, one of the best areas is near vegetation in about 6 to 12 feet of water. Big crappies feed primarily on fish and among their favorite species are juvenile bluegills and yellow perch, species that are not well adapted to seeing at night. They tend to seek shallow weedy areas where nocturnal crappies seek them out.
They also feed on small minnows that gradually move out of the shallowest water after ice-up. They move onto deeper flats around 8 to 15 feet deep, often relating to creek channels in reservoirs and bottom structure in lakes. If a lake has a neck-down area between a shallow bay and a deeper flat, it can be a crappie magnet, as big schools of fish gather to feed on small baitfish leaving the shallows.
Another key location for night-time crappies is what we call “confined open water.” Large bays or coves that offer depths to 30 feet and are set off from the largest and deepest sections of a lake fit this picture. So do larger creeks in reservoirs. Here fish often relate to point or bottom structure, but not adjacent to it.
For example, if an underwater point gradually tapers out from 8 to 28 feet, you may find a group of fish 30 yards off the structure itself, but at a specific depth, say 18 to 20 feet.
Small, bowl-shaped lakes often house strong crappie populations for their size. In these waters, you often find fish on sonar near the center of the basin, grouped at a particular depth. These fish are much easier to find than shallower fish in vegetation, so they attract more ice-fishing pressure. As winter wears on, crappies become more and more reluctant to bite, but your odds are generally best after dark.
It’s important not to overfish an area, as heavy fishing pressure can deplete a small lake rapidly when anglers harvest limits. As a result, we see a push for reduced bag limits on many small waters known to produce large fish.
To score on heavily fished waters, it pays to experiment with lures, trying minute offerings and small plastics that sport many tiny appendages, which imitate larger zooplankton species that they feed on during winter. Odd-ball colors and phosphorescent lures also prove effective for night crappies.
Crappies like to inspect objects closely. After spotting a lure or potential prey item from several feet away, the fish moves closer to inspect it. Lures that are scarcely moving in the horizontal plane tend to work well for crappies in all seasons and times of day.
The forward and upward position of crappie eyes suggests the preferred direction to feed—ahead and somewhat above the snout. Indeed, this is the characteristic movement of crappies seen on sonar when they approach a lure or bait. This tendency points to the effectiveness of slip floats for suspending lures or bait where you mark crappies.
Be ready to raise the bait when you see a crappie approach, since this apparent attempt at escape often stirs the fish to pursue it. For this reason, some anglers prefer to jig, as it makes it easy to adjust depth rapidly. But both presentations work once you find fish. And you often see that crappies tend to hold at a particular depth throughout that area, sometimes even across a whole lake or reservoir. But their preferred depth can change from day to day, or even as the night wears on.
In our experience, crappies are able and willing to use the whole water column, even in water over 30 feet deep. They may huddle on bottom, becoming almost indistinguishable on sonar, but they may rise up somewhat when a lure falls toward them.
In other situations, they roam not far below the ice. This upward movement is most common late in winter when oxygen levels in relatively fertile lakes drops in the depths, pushing fish upward. They also ride high late in the season when ice is starting to melt and the whole food web shifts shallower.
We alluded to problems with panfish over harvest earlier, and at Lindner Media we have long recommended selective harvest. Briefly, that’s the practice of keeping enough mid-size fish for a good meal or two and releasing the biggest ones to spawn and potentially reach trophy size. This helps maintain the high-quality populations we have left and may even help rebuild overfished ones.