Presentation is Everything...
Have you ever been sharing an ice hut with someone who seemingly is having all the luck? You're using the same bait, same colour, line and jig head weight and getting completely shellacked by your fishing partner. We often see the same sort of thing in open water, two guys in the same boat and one of 'em is putting on a clinic out-fishing their partner 5,6,7 or even 10 to 1! In situations like this, more often than not it's minute differences in presentation (the subtle nuances on how you are working your bait)that tip the scales when all else is equal.
Black crappie are hands down one of my favourite target species; when they are feeding aggressively (typically just as the sun goes down) it really doesn't matter what you throw, if you're around them you're going to catch some. It's when they are inactive that presentation means everything and ultimately determines if we're going to catch some fish or just stare at them on our electronics! You can often catch fish all day by adjusting your presentation to suit the fish's activity level; here we'll look at some tips and tricks that often work for us during the mid-winter blahs when feeding windows seem to occur less often than first and last-ice periods..
We predominantly use Ac's Crappie Wiggler as it's bulkier main-body profile paired with the super skinny tail appeals to crappies getting the job done whether fish are actively feeding or in a neutral or negative mode. Without a doubt, 90-percent of the time it's important to keep your bait above the fish's level. If you routinely let your bait fall to the fish's eye-level its' likely that you're not catching as many fish as you could be. Determining just how high above the fish you need to keep and work your baits is the first task at hand. The key principal is the higher you can bring a fish out of a school more committed that fish will be. If I'm getting a lot fish barely nipping at a bait, rather than change bait colour or go to a smaller bait like the AC Wiggle Fry, I'll change my presentation and fish a little higher above them. As long as I'm getting fish to come up, I'll virtually never drop into a school of fish and can often keep drawing fish out of a school one at a time much longer without moving or spooking that school. I have seen on very rare occasions instances where lowering your bait into a thick school of fish and very slowly lifting your bait (no jiggling or shaking) through the school was the only way to get bit. However, this is most often an absolute last resort as it typically only produces the lightest of bites and can often spook other fish in the immediate area and sometimes even disperse the school.
When fish are inactive, paying super close attention to your electronics is critical. There's more to it than knowing if fish are at the bottom or suspended, and it's not merely watching fish rise towards your bait, or sink toward the bottom - especially during times of inactivity. For example, reading the signals of a good flasher can tip you off when you first get a fish's attention, and a crappie or bluegill changes his orientation (ie: when a stationary fish tilts his posture up looking at your bait without actually moving toward it). I've been parked over massive schools of totally inactive fish and had to dead stick a bait 3-4 feet above them to get their attention initially. Fishing any closer, or right in the school and those fish can totally ignore your bait or the school would completely drift off from under the hole as if to be put-off by your bait's being there.
I use a Vexilar 28, and when a fish's solid return begins to flash but not rise - I know that fish changed his orientation and presumably is now at least looking at my bait. This is a critical moment, as what happens in the next few seconds after a fish has spotted your bait is the first key to putting together a successful presentation. The trick is to "read" the fish's behaviour as you work your bait and watch for favourable responses. For example; as I'm dropping my bait to a level several feet above where I see fish on my flasher and see a fish start to "flash", the first thing I'll do is usually STOP and let my bait sit motionless (remember, we're primarily talking about inactive fish here). The name of the game is getting that fish start to rise toward my bait; and remember, the further you can make him move the better bite you will often get from that fish.
Sometimes, a sudden stop is all it takes and I'll wait for a few seconds or more to see if the fish will start to rise. If the return on my sonar stops flashing, starts to descend or gets weaker(thinning of the return/signal), I can do one of three things; nothing at all and continue dead sticking, shake or wiggle my bait (input some tail action), or raise or lower my bait vertically in the water column. The fun part of the equation is that all three options are valid and could be "the deal" on a given day; it's up to you to determine the best techniques by imparting different movements bait and assessing the fish's reactions and exactly how they respond to your presentation.
For crappie specifically; the biggest "triggering" motion I use is a steady lift. These fish love to feed "up". Once I have a fish's attention and see him start to rise I'll typically start a super-slow lift, we're talking about barely lifting your rod tip. It's critical to watch your sonar as you're lifting to judge a fish's response to whatever movements you're imparting to lure. If the fish's speed increases, I might speed up my lift almost to mimic something trying to get away. Sometimes I'll incorporate a rapid jiggling motion while also doing the slow lift. We're talking about moving your rod tip very rapidly, no more than 1/4"; this technique is often referred to as "pounding". If a fish stalls, slows down or stops completely - I know I've made the wrong move and can adjust my presentation until I've found the winning combination. Sometimes, just stopping your bait in its tracks is enough to get that fish to keep coming. I might start lifting my bait again, pound it in place, or a combination of the two and experiment with the length of time I pause the bait. When all else fails, you know you're on fish but not getting bit - almost always, the key to success boils down to presentation.
Once dialed in, it's amazing how effective doing the same thing over and over again keeps producing fish. Realize of course that fish activity and preferences are constantly changing, day to day, even hour to hour. Recognizing and adjusting your presentation as the bite falls off until you figure out the next productive piece of the puzzle is the challenge I really appreciate about chasing crappies through the ice. In the words of Forest Gump, ice-fishing for Crappies "is like a box of chocolates, you never know what your gunna get!"