Ahhhh…nothing like your first trip out to the ice. Days prior to your first trip you go through the list, Vexilar battery…check; auger…check; load new line on your ice rods…check; ice jigs and bait…check; ice shack…check; lantern and heater tested…check; everything seems to be in order and ready to go. Reports are coming in that crappie are biting and the early ice season is getting hot.

Before we delve into the tips and tactics on targeting early ice crappies, let’s take a few minutes here to discuss the all important topic of ice safety, especially early in the season. There are a number of online ice fishing communities and invariably every year as the temperatures dip below freezing the question always comes up, “any reports of safe ice”? Truth is there is no such thing as safe ice. There could be at any time during the ice fishing season, even with as much as 1 – 2 feet of ice, areas that are weak and breaking through the ice is a distinct possibility.

Don’t venture out alone if you’re unsure of how thick the ice is. Early ice tends to be inconsistent so it’s important to be wise when hitting the ice. In general here is a short list of guidelines that are common throughout the ice fishing regions:
• Two inches of hard ice can support one person on foot.
• Three inches of ice are sufficient for two or three people as long as they aren’t concentrated in a small area.
• Four inches of ice will generally safely support small groups of people.
• Five inches of ice will support an ATV or snowmobile.
• Eight inches of ice will support a small car, but generally there should be at least ten inches of solid ice to support a full size pickup truck or SUV.

Remember it’s always best to error on the side of caution. If you like punching holes in ice that is two to three inches thick take along a set of spikes and wear them around your neck. That way if you happen to go through you can jab the spikes into the ice to help pull yourself out. Also never go alone, take a length of sturdy rope that can be used to help pull you or your fishing partner to safety. Let someone know where you are fishing and when you are expected to return. Early ice fishing can be some of the most productive fishing of the season, make sure you’re home to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Ponds and small lakes will typically be your first ice fishing spots. “I’ve always said that Iowa has more ponds that Minnesota has lakes”, said Dave Genz, also known as “Mr. Ice Fishing” and credited for leading anglers into the modern era of ice fishing. “My favorite place to start when ponds have fishable ice is where the overflow runs out, take about 30 paces into the pond away from the overflow and you’ll find the deepest part of the pond. That’s where you’ll find most of your fish.”

Using your electronics during first ice is a great way to find groups of fish or structure. If the ice is clear enough you can pour a small amount of water on the ice, placing the transducer in the water, turn on your sonar unit and shoot through the ice. You’ll find fish a lot quicker and won’t have to drill as many holes. “If you have to drill some holes, don’t waste time fishing an area where you don’t see fish. Keep moving till you find them and then send your jigs down”, continued Genz.

Typically early ice crappie will be in the same areas that you found them prior to ice up. Weedbeds that are still green will hold bait fish as well as the crappie you’re searching for. Most anglers have a GPS mapping system in their boats these days, SIMM cards that contain mapping data can be moved to handheld units and you can find productive spots rather quickly.

“One thing that I like to do is to find these areas that have good weedbeds and underwater features like a drop off, bend or hook while fishing with my boat”, noted Genz. “It’s a lot easier to find them while you’re out in a boat than when you’re walking along the ice”. Some fishfinders, like the Humminbird 385ci also have ice fishing modes and have optional transducers. Equipped with GPS and a Lakemaster or Navionics chart, you can locate and mark good active weed beds and features creating waypoint for use on the ice.

If you haven’t already highlighted or pinned this point here it is again, one of the best places to fish during the hardwater season is around and on submerged weedbeds. These weedbeds are literally a dinner table for forage and predators in the winter. Submerged weedbeds are full of aquatic insect life and hold prime forage for minnow, crappie, bluegill and perch. Shallow weedbeds are one of the best spots for early ice crappies. It goes without saying that you’ll also find bluegill in the mix and adding a few of those are well worth the effort.

For crappie light line, medium light to ultra light rod and reel combinations and small jigs are going to be the preferred method of chasing after these fish. Short 26 to 28 inch ice rods will do the job very well. Rods such as the Wright & McGill ® Tony Roach Power Ice Panfish Rod come with a balanced blank and a very soft sensitive tip. Early ice can be phenomenal at times and fish can be aggressive. Cold fronts will shut these fish down however and a rod with a sensitive tip that allows you to see the take is essential. Line in the two to six pound range will work however, most ice anglers will max out at four pounds.

Replacing existing fishing line will help with line twist as well as line memory. “You don’t have to replace 100 yards of line, simply pull off the first 50-60 feet of line and replace that”, advises Genz. Another trick to ridding spools of line memory is to run them under hot water. This will “soften” the line and reduce coiling as you deploy your baits to waiting fish below the ice.

A recent trend in ice fishing and one that will improve your chances for shy fish is the use of level wind reels. Clam Outdoors improved on the level wind reel a bit with the Genz 200 Ice Spooler Reel. “These are great reels, especially for sight fisherman”, noted Genz. “This reel was really designed with West Okoboji Lake finicky bluegills in mind.” This reel has a longer reel foot allowing an angler to get a more efficient grip and detecting bites more effectively. “Anglers fishing with a Vexilar will see fish coming in and typically raise their rods so fish will chase after and take the bait”, continued Genz.

Early ice panfish are still trying to bulk up for winter, so they are HUNGRY! Use small jigging spoons tipped with maggots or small hard baits like Chubby Darters or Psycho Shads for the crappies…especially if they’re in that deeper water.

“I love to fish with “spikes” or “maggots”, especially the colored ones and I use them in conjunction with a new jig that I developed called the “Drop-Kick”, which was designed to be the perfect cadence jig”, said Genz. It’s a tungsten jig, which helps catch more fish because of the weight. It aids in straightening out the line improving strike detection. Genz pairs this jig with a 26 inch light action Dave Genz Legacy Series Rod. “This is a great rod, developed over several years and allows anglers to “feel” the lure”, he said.

Edges are just as important for ice anglers as they are for deer hunters. Find a good edge and you’ll find a concentration or a heavily used corridor. For weedbeds look for openings within the bed as well as the edge of the bed itself, especially if there is an edge adjacent to deeper water. Other edges to consider are those with a “sticky bottom”; areas where the base of a break meets a mud flat. Transitions from bottom content to sand, mud to clay, sand to mud, and sometimes the edge can even be a shadow giving way to sunlight.

Lure cadence is something that Genz talks about as well. Changing the cadence or the rhythm of the jig as you work your rod may entice a fish into taking the bait rather than approaching and then swimming off. Raise the jig as the crappie are coming up and see if they chase it. Most times if they give chase they will take it before it gets too much higher. If there is no take, then speed up or slow down your jigging cadence once you’ve gotten the jig back down to the fish.

I’ve often said “necessity in the mother of invention”. Sometimes you just need to be a bit creative on how you present your jigs and bait to the fish to entice a bite. Don’t be afraid to change things up a bit and once you find success, put it to memory… you’ve just discovered another way of icing early ice crappie!
Remember… check the ice before venturing out, keep a throw rope or a floatation device handy and stay safe.
Tight Lines All!