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Weeding Out Wonderful Winter Crappies

Black crappies, like this Ontario Sunset Country beauty are one of the most cooperative and accommodating fish you can catch in winter. • Credit: Gord Pyzer
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Weeding Out Wonderful Winter Crappies

Check out these ice fishing tips for catching black winter crappies in Ontario

One of the reasons that so many ice anglers pursue black crappies with so much interest in Northern Ontario is because they're so cooperative and accommodating.

Just last week, I had the pleasure of hosting two friends from Southern Ontario who had never before caught this wonderful fish through a hole in the ice. In fact, the very first crappie that my friend Scott hooked – on his initial drop down the hole no less – was a brilliant, 16-inch, plate-size specimen.

We were fishing over a moderately deep area of the basin in about 28 feet of water, and our Humminbird sonar units lit up like Christmas trees whenever a posse of crappies pierced the cone of the transducer.

But each night, when I returned home and compared e-mail notes with good buddy and ace Ontario crappie catcher Michael McNaught, who primarily fishes in the south-central part of the province between North Bay and Peterborough, it seemed like we were poles apart.

Mike, you see, rarely ice fishes for crappies in water that is more than 10 feet deep. It's a late winter crappie pattern that is totally unexplored in the vast northern half of Ontario. 

Michael McNaught, shown here with a pair of dandy black crappies, keeps his lure in the open water zone between the tops of the weeds and the bottom of the ice. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

"No matter what lake I'm fishing," Mike says, "I carefully examine the bays along the north shore of the lake, especially any cove with a creek, stream, or river flowing into it. Then, I check along the shore to see if I can spot any pencil reeds or fallen trees that might offer the crappies spawning habitat in the spring."

By the way, in case you're wondering, McNaught says his penchant for finding south-facing bays and coves relates to something he discovered years ago while muskie fishing in late December. The "south facers" host the warmest water and most verdant shrubbery.

"The north shore is usually the last part of a lake to freeze," McNaught explains, "because it receives the most sun in the fall. As a result, the coontail weeds are the most healthy-looking. And they remain that way throughout the winter."

Once McNaught has identified a candidate crappie cove, he spends the rest of his time drilling holes, hoping as much to pull up a green weed stalk or two as a fish. He also relies often on a Marcum underwater camera to search for grass, especially milfoil growing on a sandy bottom.

"I'll explore water as shallow as five or six feet deep to find crappies," says McNaught, who favours slightly deeper, seven- to 10-foot deep water, all else being equal. This gives him a stage, between the top of the weeds and the bottom of the ice, in which to work his lures.

"I rarely drop down my bait more than four feet,"the crappie wizard explains. "That way, I can watch the fish on Humminbird rise up and out of the weeds to hit my lure. Heck, sometimes I just look down the hole."

As far as tackle is concerned, McNaught relies on ultra-light action Rapala R-type rods and the new Clam Elite Ice Spooler single action reels spooled with six-pound test braid, like Sufix Ice Fuse. He knots a tiny swivel to the end of his spider-thin mainline before attaching a short three-pound test fluorocarbon leader. He completes the package by adding a Stringease Fastach Clip with a ball bearing to prevent line twists.

In addition to being beautiful, black crappies are wonderful table fare, making for gourmet dining. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

His top two crappie lures are the Rapala Jigging Rap and soft plastic, "Glow" coloured, Bass Magnet Stinger affixed to a tiny jig. 

"I start by dropping my bait down to the four-foot level," says McNaught. "Then I do a fast but subtle movement with just my hand, being careful not to move my wrist. Then I lift it up a foot or two and bang – fish on!"

"When you find the right south-facing bay with milfoil weeds growing in it," McNaught continues, "and fish in the seven- to 10-foot water depth, you can often enjoy non-stop action. In fact, I recently brought along a buddy who had never ice fished before, and we each caught more than 50 crappies in a few hours after work. As soon as you drop your lure down you hooked another fish. Whenever you can put good friends on good numbers of good-sized fish like this, it's the best of times."

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