Ice-Out Crappies

Fishing guide Brian Brosdahl doesn’t mind fighting rough water to reach the walleyes his clients often want to fish for. But on his day off, Brosdahl likes to take things easy. That’s why he likes chasing crappies.

“I like crappie fishing because it’s relaxing,” said Brosdahl, who lives near Cass Lake in northern Minnesota. “If the water is calm enough to have a coffee cup sitting on the front without spilling, that’s the kind of day I like.”

Ted Takasaki

Don’t get the wrong idea. We’re not just talking about dropping a line with live bait to catch a few small fish here and there. Brosdahl pursues trophy crappies that top 2 pounds. He keeps a few of the “smaller” 1-pound fish for the pan.

Big Fish Vulnerable
Now’s the time of the year he looks forward to most. Big fish become vulnerable as they go on a feeding binge when lakes begin to thaw, he said. If the ice hasn’t started to recede in your area by now, it soon will.

Northwoods’ panfishermen get antsy during that period when the ice is melting and before they can launch their boats. They know crappies are moving into shallow bays to feed.

“Insect life goes crazy when the ice goes out. And crappies fishing is fantastic,” Brosdahl said.

The first three days after boats hit the water are some of the best days of the calendar for big crappies, he said. Then, weather and wind will inevitably push fish out again.

Never fear, they soon return and will snap at your bait with a vengeance.

Go Ultralight With Gear
Brosdahl arms himself with a rod at least 6-feet long. Ultralights with soft tips are best because crappie mouths are paper-thin. A hard hookset will pull the hook right out. The slower rod action helps make longer sweeping motions that set the hook without losing the fish.

And light line is a must. Water early in spring will be as clear as it will be all year long, so a thinner diameter line, such as 4-pound-test, is perfect to use. Brosdahl, in fact, uses 3-pound-test. But, keep in mind that big crappies can break 2-pound-test line, which thus, should be avoided.

Believe it or not, for the crappies Brosdahl is after, a net is a good idea, too!

“You can try to lip them if you want, but I’ve seen really big crappies, 2-pounders, lost beside the boat,” he said.

Brosdahl advises to use a slip-bobber rig, and he prefers Thill floats. The clear water requires long-distance casts to avoid spooking fish, and Thill floats are colorful and easy to see. He can also weigh them with split shot so they cast farther while still being balanced to signal light bites.

For lures, Brosdahl uses Little Nipper jigs and Genz Bugs. He adds a wax worm or a maggot or small minnow as live bait. When the hot bite is on, Techni-Glo tails are often enough.

Color Is Important
Brosdahl is among the crappie experts who believe that color can be important. With Genz Bugs, he likes red glow, blue glow, green, and chartreuse. However, sometimes plainer is better. With Little Nippers, try black with a white head. Or try one rod rigged with a glow jig, and one without to see if crappies have a preference.

You’re generally fishing in water from 4 feet to 6 feet deep. Set the bobber with the jig suspended 1-foot down, then try setting it deeper and deeper until you start getting bites. As a general rule, deeper settings work better on sunny days. But, don’t set the bait too low, or it will be below the view of the crappies since they feed up.

Where should you start fishing for them? Brosdahl said that northwest bays are the first to see action. They warm first due to the angle of the sun, and the food chain gets underway in that section of nearly every lake early in the year as a result. The calendar will read late April or early May in Brosdahl’s neighborhood.

Stealth Is Key
Good sunglasses and stealth are both key. Enter the bays quietly and scan the water for weeds. Watch for movement on the surface, which may indicate that fish are present. Then cast beyond the weeds and reel the slip bobber back over the vegetation. Any wood in the water is another great target.

That first short window of opportunity produces some of Brosdahl’s biggest crappies of the year. But, weather changes often in the spring. The first severe cold front, especially one with wind, will send crappies scurrying out of the bay. They don’t go far, usually only to the first breakline towards deeper water. Water here may be 15 feet deep or so. There may be no weeds in the area at all, and the fish may relate solely to the drop-off.

Go slowly and quietly with your electric trolling motor along the break looking for fish by fan casting as you move. Once you find fish, move upwind, anchor and cast back to them. It may be best to anchor on clear lakes while still in the search mode rather than using your electric motor to avoid spooking crappies.

Like Bulrushes
As water warms to the upper 40s and low 50s, minnows are numerous in the bays. That’s when crappies return to the shallow weeds and wood. When the water reaches the mid-60s, look for crappies near hard-bottomed areas near a transition with soft bottom where they spawn, Brosdahl said. They like bulrushes and cabbage nearby.

The surface temperature isn’t always the same as a few feet below the surface. An Aqua-Vu camera with a temperature gauge can help.

If they aren’t on spawning beds when you think they should be, remember that large lakes take longer to warm than small ones. It may take fish two or three days to show up on the nests. If action is slow at one lake, don’t be afraid to trailer your boat to another where the crappies could be in a frenzy.

No matter the species, it takes years for fish to reach trophy size. Be content to take only a few smaller crappies for a meal. Keep only one for the wall, or consider taking pictures and measurements to have a graphite reproduction made.

The main thing to remember is to relax, and take it easy. It’s crappie time!

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