Feb 10, 2018

Gear Up for Ice “Crocodiles” 


For the past ten ice fishing seasons, my priority has been traveling around the state probing the ice in search of giant crappies big enough to get the nickname "crocodiles."  I don’t tippy toe out on 3 inches of ice, with all of the equipment that it takes to make my ice fishing fleet successful and comfortable, we start out when there is a solid 6 to 8 inches of new ice and chase the slabs all winter long.  Throughout this article I will be talking about different bodies of water that keep me productive through the winter months.  Also, characteristics of the fish and what kind of habitat to look for on different bodies of water. 

From the open water basins to the river channels, stumps, and brush piles you must break down each body of water and target them differently.   When we are in search of crappies on a lake like Winnebago, we are following large schools of fish through the mud flats that I refer to as open water areas with little to no structure.  These fish are usually found suspended about 7 to 10 feet down over 14 to 18 feet of water schooled up all across the lake. The lures that I like to use don't change necessarily by the body of water, but mostly after reading the attitude of the fish that day.  Once we are into a school of fish and marking them steadily on the locators, that is when I can tell if it's a day for plastics, spoons, or live minnows. The inconsistent rise and fall of the barometer is probably the most disturbing thing to these fish.  When the slabs get really finicky, I will tantalize them with plastics. What I mean by that is, when the fish come up to your bait fast and back off slowly, you need to ever so slightly wiggle the tail of a special plastic lure that they can't resist.  Northlands Scud Bug, Slug Bug, and Blood Worms are by far my biggest producers for these tougher conditions.   

Setting up on a brush pile in 20 feet of water along the Wisconsin River can be very rewarding and just by sitting in the same hole for hours will often times fill the bucket with giant crappies.   Instead of leaping 100 yards from hole to hole looking for a better school of fish in open water, non-structured areas, I like to sit on these brush piles with a noisier bait and draw the fish right out of the wood. There are a lot of crocodiles on the Wisconsin River that are suspending around these stumps and brush piles that never get to see a lure. These fish are hiding in backwater areas from 3 to 8 feet deep all the way along the edge of the main channel that ranges from 12 to 30 feet deep.  There are a few lures that I have discovered over the last few years of full-time fishing that do not come off the jig poles no matter what lake or river that I am probing in search for big crappies. Northland spoons, like buckshot and forage minnows, will lure in fish like no other because of the baitfish image, the attracting rattle, and many colors of glow. I think they are a step up from all other jigging spoons. These lures do get most of our fish into the bucket all winter long.   Wisconsin River Flowages do require a bit of searching and mapping to find that perfect channel edge or certain brushy stump that always seems to be consistently more productive. It is like finding that good deer stand in the funnel where you always see more deer.   But once you save that GPS waypoint, it will generally produce from year to year, again and again. Brush in a river system doesn't just provide food and cover for crappies; it breaks the current, giving the fish a resting spot along their journey up and downstream.  As the Wisconsin River prepares for its spring thaw and flooding water, it is lowered measurably during mid to late winter. This can cause the current to pick up a bit and make it natural for fish to move downstream with rapidly dropping water levels.  These are the times that brush will hold the most and biggest crocodiles throughout the river channel.  

Some ice outings have the preference of easier quantity over harder work and quality. When these situations present themselves, we will be drilling holes on Fox Lake and Little Green. These crappies tend to run slightly smaller, but yet they are often times much more abundant than the big water slabs. There is a slight difference in the winter time diet of the fish from lake to lake, when they get stuck on the plankton feed the best lures to use are very small.  The Mooska tungsten and the tungsten fireball by Northland Tackle are the right size and get slurped up by the finicky plankton eaters. I like to tip the jigs with Chena bait and or spikes.  Always fish this lure above the depth that you are seeing the fish come through. As the plankton is suspended all over the water column, the fish will usually prefer a certain depth that can change from day to day.  I will slightly jig the tiny tipped jig a foot or two above the marks that are highest on the locator. Crappies like to move up in the water column to feed just as much or more than most other fish do.  The smaller natural lakes, like Little Green and Fox Lake, will occasionally produce a jaw dropping crocodile like we get used to seeing consistently on the big bodies of water. The big eye openers will usually come from the shallow coontail weeds, not the 17-foot basins where the big schools of crappies are gorging on plankton.  These large aggressive schools of 9 to 12 inch pan fryers that produce steady action are nothing to frown upon.