By Chris Hustad

I really don't care where you live in the upper Midwest, you're in driving distance of a quality crappie fishery. I've caught crappies in small ponds, large lakes, rivers and variations of the three. But finding and catching crappies on these systems can vary, especially during the time of day. Here's a few tips that hopefully can help you get on your way to catching more crappies.

If you're fishing a slough, pond or small lake, the first thing to look for is structure around the 6-18 foot range ( at least is the case in the areas I fish most often). I've found that these are the best places to find fish holding during the day early and late in the year. When it becomes the middle of winter, you may finding yourself going much deeper as oxygen levels become depleted, depending on the fishery. Use small baits such as crappie minnows and wax worms, and variations of small jigs to trigger strikes. If you're unaware of any structure, you can start looking into shallow flats off drop offs and prepare for the late afternoon bite. They'll move up shallow to feed usually during mid-afternoon, until low light periods around dusk. Normally when it gets dark the shallows clear and the fish move out to deeper waters. I consider daybreak to mid-morning the same situation as I do in the afternoon/evening bite. But this isn't always the case, as I've had tremendous fishing during all hours of the day in shallow depths. Weather can play a big factor in their aggression and feeding patterns, so keep that in mind.

The Marcum LX-5 sonar is a must for finding suspended crappies

I've had a hard time finding shallow areas in large lakes that are distinctive enough over another. I can cheat on lakes I know and set up in consistent spring and fall beds, but on new lakes it's hard to determine vegetation. Nowadays, there is plenty of technology available to make this process easier. Take some time during the summer and fall months and mark the deeper weed beds on your GPS. As it gets later in the winter, and snow covers the ice, you'll find that vegatation depleting and you may find yourself on the move. Investing in an underwater camera is priceless to investigate new areas and the weed growth in the vacinity. For winter crappie fishing, I'm quite fond of my Aqua Vu, where the camera is shaped like a crappie and views downward. Crappies used to spook from other underwater cameras I used that faced sideways and keeping the camera overhead gives me a clear view of the action below. How high above the bait depends on the water clarity in the body of water, but make sure you leave yourself ample room to work the crappie upwards. I normally keep the bait about 1 or 2 feet above the marked fish on the sonar and I gradually jig and work the bait upward when the fish are spooky. With depth maps it's easier to target deep water areas in transition from the flats. They tend to feed heavily in large lakes at dusk in my experience, and we graph a lot of suspended fish consistently between 12-20 feet in our favorite lakes. I strongly suggest using a sonar like the Marcum LX-5 and glow jigs to help keep your bait in the zone when the fish are running. Without a high quality sonar like the Marcum, you're fishing blind.

The past 6 years I've spent a lot of time fishing for crappies in river systems in North Dakota. There are some similarities to fishing crappies in other waters, but I find myself moving a lot more. Honey holes become dead zones in the matter of a week. Staring out onto a river can be confusing when deciding where to start looking; I suggest finding flats around river bends. My best fishing in the rivers I frequent is normally between 5-11 feet. Like small lakes, dawn and dusk are the peak times, but they are active in the shallows off and on all day. Often times we'll find the deepest hole off of the river channel and hold there for midday. If that hole is coupled with some structure...make sure you have plenty of bait on hand. It helps to be mobile so you can move with the fish. Our bait of choice is very small crappie minnows, and occasionally wax worms.

These are some basic tips for approaching new water. To consistently catch crappies, it really helps to stay mobile and be equipped for catching finicky, suspended fish.
Little things such as too big of a bobber have kept a lot of fish out of my hole during a light bite. Use a lot of variations of colors of your jigs and buying a pocket "phaser" for lighting up jigs is an invaluable tool. At times vertical jigs are the ticket and often it'll be horizontal jigs or small spoons. Don't be afraid to experiment, especially if you're not triggering any bites when you're locating fish on your sonar. Good luck fishing this winter.