From the December 2009 issue

Catching Clusters Of Black Crappie At Crunch Time - Hooks-Jigs-Bobbers-Plastics-Live Bait

By Robert "Dock" Stupp

Black crappie, in my opinion, are the Rodney Dangerfields of the fishing world...“They don’t get no respect.” Some northern anglers, myself included, sometimes mispronounced “crappie” as a joke; others simply did not fish for them. I thought it was a southern thing.

Then, a couple of winters ago, good friend and notable angler, Keith “Snowman” Generotzke, introduced me to ice fishing for crappie and I’ve been hooked ever since. Now, from December through March, and even into early April in the north country of Michigan and Wisconsin and into Canada, winter becomes a friend rather than a foe. Anticipation rules as we plan, scout, and fish for these battling crappie. Members of the sunfish family, they are very pleasing to the palate.

Take your time when purchasing or making a rod. Be especially cognizant of the line guides. There is nothing more frustrating to an ice angler than watching other people catching crappie cruising through at crunch time while you witness your line guides “icing up.” Solution: Use rods with large-diameter line guides. That way you can prevent a lot of zzxx*~!+ ing and simply clear the ice. Tip: If you can stick your pinkie partly into the line guide, you can free your line of ice.

As far as reels are concerned, a small spinning reel with a dependable drag is the preferred choice. Shimano or Pflueger make a smaller reel with a good drag system. 
Spooling the reel with four-pound mono or six-pound Fireline (two-pound diameter) is a good all-around choice.Our fishing crew found that #18 or #16 gold treble hooks tipped with minnows, provided good hooking percentages for crappie.

 However, there are also times when small jigs, plastic tails, and double paddle tails work their magic too. Let’s discuss these two methods.


1) They are tiny and easily inserted into small, one- to three-inch minnows—the forage crappie prefer. One of three tiny hook tines is inserted into the side of a small minnow, just in front of the dorsal fin, making for a natural horizontal presentation.

2) Crappie don’t attack or bite, per se. They “suck in” their prey and these hooks allow for a more natural, horizontal presentation. It’s as if crappie inspect, then swallow. But, they don’t feel the small hook.

3) Pull a crappie’s lips open sometime and note the funnel-type mouth. It is a paper-thin membrane. With smaller treble hooks, there is less ripping and tearing of this membrane at hook-set, resulting in more fish on the ice.

4) Multiple hook setups work, folks, but remember, it can be very dark and cold out there on the ice. Untangling lines when the crappie arrive at crunch time makes for unruly tempers.

My friend the Snowman, who invariably brings that fluffy white stuff with him on ice fishing excursions (or any fishing outing for that matter), has been experimenting with artificial baits for sunfish before Gulp! and other yummy products came on the market. He says, “My time on the water tells me that crappie love chartreuse, red, or pink jigs. Depending on depth, 1/8- to 1/32-ounce jigs hook crappie well. I like to mix it up and change colors and sizes when using plastics and I like using alternative methods—I fish one pole with a bobber and straight line the other pole. The fish will tell you which method is most productive that day.”

Snowman goes on to say that small white twister tails imitate minnows well. “I jig them up and down with or without a slip-bobber. I prefer straight lining for crappie, especially when they are deep and when they get finicky. A good limber rod will outfish a bobber anytime.”

Tip: You learn by experimenting. Hot plastic crappie tails, called “Crappie Scrubs” were first used by Snowman this summer. This bait has a green body but with two double, orange, paddle tails. After he filled up the live well with dozens of crappie and bluegill with this bait, I took notice.

“Dock, these things really give off the right vibes. Just like the song, “She’s givin’ off good vibrations. These paddle tails really attract crappie at crunch time—on the ice too. Here, try one.”
I did and they worked and I’m not giving this Scrub back (see photo).
I am a bobber freak. I have bags full of them. Some are better than others.
So, always looking for a better mousetrap, I recently discovered an adjustable slip float, you know, the foamy yellow kind that you can trim. But as I was shopping in a large fishing shop, I discovered a weighted foam rubber bobber with fluorescent orange-colored tips at both ends. And, being a bobber aficionado, I like the fact that you can insert a glow stick into the top of it. Called a Wave Buster and made by Today’s Tackle (, I tried ‘em and I’m very impressed. Eureka! The line is attached through its clip which sinks below the water line. It eliminates time-consuming, iced-up lines. Thill also makes excellent bobbers. 

OK! Let’s go fishin!

As December in the north country rolled around, our ice fishing crew was ready to do some scouting. We use a 10-inch Jiffy, gas-powered drill because larger holes stay open longer. A spud will open them the next day. So what are we scouting for? Big black crappie!

Big crappie often suspend over drop-offs with immediate access to both shallow and deep water. Deep water gives crappie shade, cover, and consistent temperatures. Shallow water offers forage.

Crappie rise and descend in the water column, looking for the best temperature, light, food, and oxygen. It is my opinion that crappie use drop-offs as underwater highways. Big crappie also hover over subtle contour differences. Therefore, we drill in 15 feet over open water, move in and drill in 12 feet or where the contour is rising sharply and sparse cover appears.

Then we move onto the larger flats in seven or eight feet and drill where thicker weed cover or a combination of cabbage and coontail weeds and other structure appear.

Do crappie mix with schools of bluegill? Yes, they do and they are very catchable.

A favorite ice fishing tool is my underwater camera. I can sit for hours and watch fish, easily seeing the various species. By locating my jig or hook, I can watch a fish as it takes or rejects my presentation. It’s a panoramic paradise down there.

Tip: Bang the transducer on the bottom, creating sound and clouds of clutter, and watch the fish come to inspect the action.  

Using electronics—like a Vexilar (flasher fish locator)—are handy. It cuts down on the number of holes you have to drill. It also marks fish. However, you can find drop-offs by simply looking down a hole with a jacket over your head (scientific, eh?).
By the way. Look for weeds, rocks, inside turns, and pockets of weeds.

Tip: Make your own pocket by swirling an ice spud around and around the hole.

All of this preparation becomes important at “Crunch Time.” Crunch time occurs when crappie suddenly move into your area, usually the hours before and after dawn or dusk. The fishing can be sporadic – quiet —for a period of time. People are sitting on sleds and buckets, moving around from hole to hole, drinking coffee, and telling fish stories. Then suddenly, this cluster of strange looking people, bundled up and looking like bears fattening up for winter, straighten up out of their hunched-over postures, leap off their buckets, reel in their prize, and then kneel down to scoop a “slab” crappie out of freezing water with their bare hands. Curious lot, these happy clusters of motley clowns catching clusters of crappie at crunch time! Well, you get the idea. Be ready for action. Personally, I prefer the late or sunset bite.   

At dusk, a pink to purple sky turns dark and most fishermen leave for home and a hot meal.
Snowman and I stay awhile to listen to the quiet.

I sat peacefully on my bucket and mused, as I often do at times like these. Black crappie; following their phenomenal natural characteristics that make a crappie a crappie; following those unique genes that give them their large, light-sensitive eyes, that perfect profile for quick, stealthy maneuvers. Yes, a profile that’s flat — for executing those powerful circular runs for freedom, and offering us that hallowed connection to Mother Nature, to wildness on a hook—that sustains us.

Respect is what they deserve....and gratitude!


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