Hunting Ice-Out Crappies

Early spring crappie fishing can be a “spot-and-stalk” hunt.

By Bernie Barringer

Hunting Ice-Out Crappies By Bernie Barringer Image 1

Early Spring crappie fishing can produce consistent action, nice catches, and great eaters.

If you’re like most people who live across the northern third of the USA, you get excited about the break-up of the ice that usually covers the lakes and streams in the winter. It’s a special time of the year when redwing blackbirds sing the praises of spring and the earth wakes up from a long nap.

While ice-out crappies can be easy to find, they can be hard to catch. Many an angler has found a group of crappies sunning in a shallow bay, but throw a lure into their midst and they scatter like drug addicts at the sight of a police badge. A much more stealthy approach is necessary. In fact, to be consistently successful, it needs to be more like hunting than fishing. Call it “spot-and-stalk” crappie fishing!

The spring sunshine warms shallow bays quickly, especially those with dark mud bottoms. In the right conditions, dark bottoms absorb sunlight and can warm the water as much as 8-10 degrees per day. That’s where crappies will appear first. You may find them there as soon as a week following ice-out. They’ll be sluggish at first, but much more active when the water temperature reaches 60 degrees. Find the warmest water available and the crappies will be there.

After choosing which area of which lake to fish, go on the prowl and find them. The best way is with a bow-mount electric trolling motor and a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Polarized lenses filter the glare and help you see into the water much better.

Hunting Ice-Out Crappies By Bernie Barringer Image 2

Large specimens are vulnerable at ice-out more than at any other time of the year.

You must ease around these shallow bays in stealth mode until you see crappies. They’ll often be in loose groups right at the surface, putting the finishing touches on their pre-spawn reproductive systems by basking in the warm water.

The easier ones to catch will be near some sort of cover. Look for them around fallen trees, lily pad root wads, old reeds and bulrushes, stumps and brush. It can be difficult to move in close enough to see them without spooking them, but don’t worry. If they bolt out of the area at your approach, they’ll be back shortly. Leave the area and then move in quietly a half-hour later; when you know where they are, just get close enough to see them.

Once you’ve located a school of crappies, you have to be ready with the right bait and present it properly. Early on, it’s hard to beat a small, lively minnow. For these ice-out situations, I use a slip bobber, a small split shot sinker, and a #8 hook with a small minnow.

The key is to get the bait in position with as little disturbance as possible. Often, you must cast beyond the fish and then slowly draw your offering towards the waiting crappie. In many cases you need that minnow to be wiggling within six inches of the crappie’s nose or he won’t bite. In fact, many times I’ve placed the bait mere inches from a crappie’s face, only to see the fish reject it and move off. Or they may slowly move towards it and methodically suck it in. If your minnow is not wiggling, you’ll have little success.

Hunting Ice-Out Crappies By Bernie Barringer  Image 3

Shortly after the ice leaves the surface, crappies move into shallow bays to seek warm water. Dark-bottomed bays with standingbulrushes are the best.

The slip bobber is an important component of this system. Crappies rarely feed down. They like to bite things that are right at their level or slightly above. A slip bobber allows you to move the bobber stop up or down to get the bait right at the exact level. I find myself moving it often; even moving it for each and every fish I’m targeting.

Use the smallest sinker you can while still getting the bait to sink to the level of the fish. Go too big with your sinker and the “plop” when it hits the water may spook the fish. Smaller also allows the bait to move as naturally as possible.

I use a long rod spooled with 4-pound monofilament in most cases. My favorite crappie rig for crappie hunting is a 9-foot medium action rod with a fast tip that’s actually made for steelhead fishing. In some cases, you cannot cast; you must use a pendulum-type swing of the rod tip to carefully drop your bait right in front of a fish. Often, you’re dropping the bait into an opening in the cover.

Sometimes these crappies will tuck in tight to last year’s dying reeds, which offer the vertical cover that crappies like to spawn in. But it’s hard to extract them once they’re hooked. That’s when I use a stout set-up with a non-stretch line like FireLine, and wrestle them immediately to the surface and swing them right into the boat. Don’t give them a fighting chance or they’ll tangle in the rushes and you’ll lose a large percentage.

Something about early spring crappies appeals to just about everyone. It’s some of the finest fishing fun of the year!


  • Find shallow, warm water with nearby cover, and approach with stealth.
  • Use a small split shot, and a #8 hook with a lively little minnow.
  • Add a slip bobber to get your bait at the same depth as the fish.
  • Drop your bait close to the fish using a long rod.
  • Don’t let the fish get into weeds.


About Bernie Barringer:

Bernie BarringerBernie Barringer is a lifelong angler who has competed in professional walleye tournaments. He enjoys fishing for all species and writing about his experiences for many outdoor magazines.



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