Over the next few months I'll be spotlighting interesting and different pieces written by some of our areas top guides along with other people of interest.
Today, fishing guide Matt Johnson to help you with...
Locating Early Ice Slabs
By: Matt Johnson
Crappies are a sophisticated fish, especially those slabs, and at times it can be rather confusing and frustrating for ice anglers to pinpoint slab patterns. Some lakes are abundant with slab crappies, while others are more inclined to hold smaller fish, and then you have those lakes where you can catch a mixed bag. Regardless of the lake or body of water, location is important when it comes down to being a successful crappie fisherman during the winter months. Flashers allow ice anglers to quickly determine whether or not fish are in the area and locating the elusive slab crappie is more than half the battle. If you can establish a pattern of where these fish will be holding then the rewards will come.
I always pay close attention to fall patterns, especially at late fall as the water plunges into near freezing temps. Crappies will begin staging for early ice towards the end of summer, and as fall approaches they will begin to stake out areas that they will utilize at early ice. The turn-over period is where I start. This is when the thermocline diminishes and the cool and warm water start to mix. The typically deeper water crappie patterns of the hot summer months will turn into shallower water patterns. (Keep in mind that rivers will be different and not every lake will experience the same effects either, every body of water may be different from the next). When the water mixes you will typically find the crappies in some sort of migration stage (in lakes) and they will start to slide to the initial breaks and suspend off shallow water edges instead of constantly roaming the deeper depths.
The turn-over period might not last too long. Once the water turns over and the temps drop more and more, you will begin to find fish staging in their early ice locations. Summer and late-summer crappies will stage, often times, suspended in deeper water at the same level of the top of the initial break line (flat). So if you have the top of your break reading at 10 feet on your flasher, and you drop into about 25 feet at the basin, you will find crappies suspended 15 feet off the bottom out on the basin. These fish will roam and you will often times mistake them for baitfish, or when you try to pinpoint them they just keep moving (that’s part of the reason it can be tough to find the big slabs in the hot summer months). These fish will begin staging for the winter once fall approaches and will feed on whatever is in front of them if the opportunity presents itself.
Intercepting these fish can be tough on lakes with large basins and limited structure.
I don't typically heavily follow the crappie movements during the hot summer months since they are so sporadic, but once they begin moving into winter patterns that’s when they get my attention (I'm an ice fishing geek). Learning the fall (turn-over period and into early ice) patterns has a lot to do with finding the slabs at early ice. Smaller crappies will stack up in obvious shallow(er) spots at early ice, but you will still find some of your larger fish off the "so called" prime hotspots at early ice.
Early ice crappies will relate to the weeds, at least as long as they provide oxygen (which may last quite a ways into winter or even throughout winter in some cases). I personally don't think that the larger crappies need to relate to those weeds, I'm not saying that you won't catch slabs in the weeds at early ice, but I'm just saying that those weed areas tend to draw in more smaller fish as well as potato chip bluegills and hungry roaming pike. The larger crappies (concentration of fish) that I do typically find in the weeds are located in lakes where the weed line pushes out into deeper water, say 12-15 feet or even more, and I find the slabs right out on the deeper portions at early ice. Meanwhile, the smaller fish are holding shallower. Once the thermocline does a flip-flop (and disappears) and you complete the turn-over, you will notice that the crappies adjusted to a whole new area. During this time you won't find the crappies suspended over the deeper water 24 hours a day, or even at all anymore. They will somehow relate to shallower water, whether it’s off the break, or along the deep weed edge. Once they move up into the weeds they will relate to the shallower weeds until they die off (assuming that they do in a typical lake situation), then they will cling to the oxygen-rich (slightly deeper) weeds until those are gone. Now, this is a general crappie pattern, and not true for every lake and not always true for all the larger fish. This is, how should we call it... "Crappie intuition"
Here's how I pattern crappies throughout late summer and into early ice
- Deep Water Patterns
Your summer to late-summer pattern. Crappies will roam deeper water.
- Turn-Over (thermocline dies)
Crappies move from deeper water and stage off shallower water. Keep an eye on areas where you know the crappies where at during early ice in the past and move out from there. (In between this period and the next is where I find my larger crappies at early ice)
- Thermocline is Dead...Full Turn-over
- Full Turn-Over
Crappies are holding off shallow structure, more tight though. Weeds are dying and fish gradually slide deeper. This can also be an early ice stage on occasion.
- Early Ice
Shallow, oxygen rich weeds and primary breaks. Look for depths anywhere from 3-15 feet. Weeds will die as ice thickens and crappies will gradually move deeper. Narrows can be good too.
This is my view of a typical crappie movement from late summer to early ice for your typical lake. I have some lakes where the pattern is very different, and some lakes where you catch your early ice crappies in deeper holes. Keep in mind that these crappies that are found in the deeper holes at early ice might have already migrated shallow and already moved back out into deeper water (crappies will move back out as ice thickens, oxygen diminishes and light penetration gets worse…).
So, with that being said, where are the crappies at early ice?
Well, for one, we have the weeds, an obvious option for a good number of crappies at early ice. Shallow bays on large bodies of water are good early ice locations. Any depressions in the bays should be marked on a map and checked out as well. These are “pockets” in the weeds. I also like to find the weed edge and punch a line of holes across that as well. Breaks just off the weed edge will also hold crappies at early ice, both suspending and bottom hugging. Some of these areas will have no weeds on the actual slope, but once it flattens out again you will see more weeds, this is a prime example of an early ice slab spot. Work those deeper weeds and stay moving until you locate a school of fish. Depths of 10-15 feet are not uncommon. Also check out humps and saddles too. Weeds are good, but don’t only judge early ice spots by where the weeds are, stay open minded. Wooded areas can also hold a good number of crappies at early ice, same with rocks and muddy areas.
I also like to find spots where there is a narrow area between different portions of the lake, like “bottlenecks” and deeper channels (deep could only mean 6-7 feet). These channel areas often times freeze first and the crappies fishing can be excellent during first ice. These spots are short lived though, and the bite might only last a week or so. If you find the crappies holding in these areas at first ice, than there’s a good chance that those fish will relate to adjacent deeper water once they move towards the main lake basin.
Mouths of shallow bays are good areas to target too. Crappies will relate to the transition areas in these mouths, and once they move out from the bay these areas might be the new hot spot.
Early ice crappie locations are going to be different from body of water to body of water, but the general principles still apply…
- Look for shallow green weeds
- Focus on “structure” in the weeds (pockets, humps,edges, etc…)
- Search the primary breaks just off the shallow weeds (deeper weed lines)
- Look for any flats just off the weed line, as well as off the first break
- Also check deeper holes in the lakes where the average depth is shallow
Location is number one for most of the winter when it comes to crappies. Locate the aggressive school of fish and then figuring what they want is the easy part. If you find fish but there are negative than move, there typically are some active fish somewhere, and often times they won’t be far.
Early ice can produce some nice catches, and hopefully some of this will help you ice more slabs this winter.
Matt Johnson owns and operates Matt Johnson Outdoors (www.mattjohnsonoutdoors.com) where he enjoys taking people on guided ice fishing trips and providing information about his favorite sport—fishing!
***You can contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org