Late Ice and Big Crappies

By Steve Weisman

I’m not sure which I get more excited for: early ice or late ice. Both times can provide excellent fishing opportunities. I guess what I like about late ice is the fact that the long stretches of intense cold are pretty much over with, old ice holes are easy to reuse and the fish are usually on the bite.

Of course, this is also the time to be careful of ice conditions. Snowmelt is running into the lakes and tiles are usually flowing pretty strong. The warmer it gets the more chance there is of ice melting along the shore and limiting access to solid ice. It’s also the time that the remaining snow on the ice is melting down and going into holes in the ice. So, ice safety is always a priority here.

Here on the Iowa Great Lakes, late ice means anglers chasing roaming schools of perch on Big Spirit and also bluegills in the bays of Big Spirit and West Okoboji. However, there is another species of fish to target: crappies. Right now the crappie population is getting better on Big Spirit and excellent on Lake Minnewashta, East Okoboji and West Okoboji, with Center Lake being the unknown dark horse lake. The nice thing about this is the bluegills and crappies are often in the same area, so you can actually fish for both and target whichever one comes through.

Since we are targeting both bluegills and crappies, I will end up using the same baits and presentations for both. My lures of choice are tungsten jigs. I like the fact that the jigs are tiny, yet they get to the bottom quickly and it’s easy to get a good cadence presentation going. Also, these jigs show up extremely well on my FL-28 Vexilar flasher. Although there are several manufacturers of these jigs, my go-to choices are Clam’s a 1/64-ounce Drop Jig and the 1/32-ounce Dingle Drop jig. There is a wide range of colors, but my favorite is the glow red.

Normally when I am fishing the bays of West Okoboji, I can sight fish, because of the lake’s water clarity. However, as water starts running in the holes, clarity usually leaves. Hence, the FL-28.

For bait, I will bring along wax worms, silver wigglers and Maki plastics. All three work, but on any given day, one might be better than the other. As for the presentation, I’m always moving the bait up and down the water column. By sight fishing, I can tell exactly how the fish are responding to my presentation, but with the FL-28, I will watch how the fish react to presentation. Do they come rushing up, stop and then leave? Do they rush up, stop and then bite? Do they appear and disappear and appear again? That will determine just how aggressively I will jiggle the bait and if I will stop it dead and let it just sit.

I will also check my bait before I lower it down the hole to make sure that it is not spinning. If it is, that’s usually going to stop a fish from biting. So, I make sure to get the spin out before I drop it down the hole. With this in mind, let’s look at areas to fish.

First off, Big Spirit. For many years, late ice on Big Spirit was crappie time at the Grade, Templar Lagoon, Anglers Bay and Hales Slough. However, size plummeted a few years ago, and we are just now getting a good year class of crappies back in the lake. However, they might be still on the marginal side.

Crappie fishing this past fall was outstanding on Lake Minnewashta. Lots and lots of 10-14 inch fish were taken. On late ice I have caught them mixed with bluegills out in the middle off the south boat ramp, off the high bank on the east side or out in front of the canal and down toward the opening into Upper Gar. It takes searching, so I will drill a lot of holes in anywhere from six foot of water out to 11-12 foot of water. Then it becomes hole hopping to find the fish. There is current going through there, however, so be careful of thinner ice. Electronics are a must on Minnewashta.

For years, there was little ice fishing on East Okoboji, except for walleyes on the north side in front of Parks Marina. However, that was early and then there was little fishing activity. The past three years, though, this has changed. It’s been a middle of the lake bite from Parks Marina all the way to out in front of Bridges Bay Resort to Jingles Point. What’s fun about this type of fishing is that you’ll probably catch yellow bass, bluegills, perch and crappies. It depends on the schools of fish and the day, even the time of day. Again, you can get lucky and sit on a school of fish. However, more often than not, it requires a lot of hole hopping.

West Okoboji’s Emerson Bay, Millers Bay, Haywards Bay and North Bay are top locations for bluegills and crappies. Most of the time, I will be fishing in 4-12 foot of water. On normal times, the clear water will allow me to sight fish even out to 15 foot of water. However, depending on runoff, etc., that clear water will become stained, and then the sight fishing ends. Most anglers will target the bluegills and try to intercept the crappies as they move through. However, you can tip the odds in your favor by fishing for crappies early and late in the day. It’s always fun for me to be catching bluegills, and all of a sudden this big mouth opens and inhales my jig. The crappies will run 11-13 inches, and are lots of fun.

Finally, I want to mention Center Lake. This lake is under renovation with carp control structures, shoreline management on the north side and runoff issues being addressed. This past spring and summer saw a lot of crappies and bluegills caught, so I think late ice could be good. However, it is kind of a shot in the dark. It does have an aeration system on the northwest side, so precaution is required around this open water area.

A final thought, be careful as you bring the crappies out of the hole. They are called papermouths for a reason. I’ve had a lot of crappies come off and drop back down the hole. I try to use my ice dipper to help me slide them out of the hole.

Late ice…late ice…the perfect time to waylay some of those slab crappies!