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Veteran Guide Shares Ice Crappie Intel

BEMIDJI, Minn. – We’re making ice across the upper Ice Belt, and with colder temperatures in the forecast, ice fishing conditions should improve considerably in coming days.

While lots of anglers are pursuing early-ice walleyes at destinations like Minnesota’s Red Lake and to the north, lots of smaller lakes have locked up, too, providing easy access for some great crappie action.

We talked with Northland pro and veteran guide, Tom Neustrom—a master crappie angler on all fronts—and he shared his insights for more and bigger early-ice crappies. Take it from us, Tom’s got the 411 and is worth listening to.

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Tom Talks Crappies

“Early crappies, honestly, are probably not as far in the basin as a lot of anglers think,” shares Neustrom. “They have a tendency, but it depends on the body of water, to roam around a little bit more during early-ice. They haven’t set up yet. But when you get into late-December and January, they’re on wintering spots in the basins and are not going to move much.”

Instead, Neustrom says during early-ice, crappies tend to establish by the first break in correlation with deeper water. The key is soft bottom. And sometimes, they’re in the deep weeds, and hang out as long as the weeds are still a little green, because there are all kinds of bugs and forage available.

“Get into mid- to late-December, and crappies start moving to the basins. The key is to find those basin-areas with a soft bottom. That’s where the critters are emerging out of the mud. Bloodworms (midge larvae) are critical; crappies chow down on them during early- to mid-ice. They’ll stay in close contact with that food source,” shares Neustrom.

Neustrom says that a lot of early-ice crappie anglers make the mistake of starting too deep during early-ice, concentrating their efforts in 25- to 40-feet—but quite often the crappies aren’t set up there yet.

“In Minnesota, I’m starting to work the basins in late-December and early-January. Before that, I’m working the first break and available green weeds just inside the basins,” shares Neustrom.

Basin crappies will tend to hold to the bottom, especially in the morning; then, as the day progresses, they’ll move up in the water column.

“If you look at your electronics in the morning—I use a Humminbird Helix 7 Ice Bundle—crappies will show up like a blanket or lumps laying on the bottom. They don’t really appear as suspended fish until it gets a little lighter outside. Critters start emerging out of the soft bottom and the crappies follow them up in the water column,” notes Neustrom.

Neustrom adds that LakeMaster mapping is critical to finding—and catching—hardwater crappies. “The new VX Premium LakeMaster card adds aerial mapping imagery, improved depth contour shading to find those spots-on-the-spot, bottom hardness, and SmartStrike, which is like having your own digital fishing guide.”

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Winning Presentations

Neustrom says a 1/28-ounce Northland Tungsten Gill Getter has long been a winning bait of choice for early- to mid-winter crappies.

“I use glow patterns. If there’s water stain, I lean on orange and chartreuse patterns; if the water’s clear, I like white glow with a little chartreuse,” says Neustrom.

He adds that a bait that’s forgotten about is the Northland Forage Minnow Fry jig.

“I fish both the 3/32- and 1/16-ounce, depending on depth. It rocks sideways and drops quick and cuts the slush if you’re fishing outside. It has a thinner body and an excellent hook. I’ll put three or four waxies or Eurolarvae on it, and if I can’t catch ‘em that way, I’ll fish a really small crappie minnow on it. I hook the minnow through the tail—that’s key.”

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Neustrom’s also a fan of spoon-style baits for early- to mid-ice crappies like the 1/16th-ounce Northland Forage Minnow in Super Glo finishes.

Neustrom adds: “The 1/8-ounce version is also a great walleye bait on deadsticks, rattle reels, and even jigging when the fish don’t want a rattle spoon. I’ve caught an awful lot of big crappies on this bait. Funny thing is, when they’re really going, I don’t put anything on it—no bait, no nothing. When they’re really fired up you can catch ‘em meatless.”

“The Northland Impulse Rigged Bloodworm has also been a great crappie bait—and always in purple. It’s a confidence bait. It’s also available in a tungsten version for faster drops, but I typically use the standard, lead version. I also like the Rigged Tungsten Mini-Smelt, and always in pink and gold.”

Lastly, when the crappies are really going, Neustrom will hole-hop a series of 10- to 15 different spots with a 1/8-ounce Northland Puppet Minnow for getting to active fish fast.

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Rods, Reels, and Line

I terms of line, Neustrom uses 4-pound Sufix Elite mono on a spinning reel or in-line style reel.

“I like Daiwa 750-size spinning reels, which I helped design for ice, a nice medium between 500 and 1000 size reels. All of the models, QZ 750QG 750 and QC 750, are great and have a little larger spool than most ice reels,” remarks Neustrom.

When it comes to in-line reels, Neustrom likes trigger-style models for one-handed operation and quick, vertical fishing. In shallow waters, he will turn to fly-reel-style in-line reels that often require the angler to manually strip out the line.

When it comes to rods, Neustrom fishes the St. Croix Custom Ice (CCI) 32” Perch Seeker, a great medium-light power, extra-fast action rod with a soft tip. He’s also using the economical St. Croix Tundra SCT30LF, a great option for fishing smaller jigs.

“I don’t use spring bobbers for crappies, although I’ll use them occasionally for finesse-bite bluegills. Crappies are a little more aggressive than ‘gills. The bluegill bite is kind of a ‘twitch’; a crappie bite is more of a ‘thunk’,” observes Neustrom.

Typically, crappies feed upwards at a 45-degree angle, flare out their gill plates, and suck in water to inhale the bait. So, you’ve gotta watch the tip of your rod because all of a sudden, the bend will disappear and your line will go slack. Then it’s time to quickly reel up a little bit and lightly sweep the hook into place.

“For my second rod, I run a plain-Jane deadstick, typically a glow hook or a 1/16-ounce Forage Minnow Jig, split-shot, and a crappie minnow. I’m old school; I just set the rod on a 5-gallon bucket top. I also like the St. Croix Custom Ice (CCI) 32” Perch Seeker for my deadsticking,” shares Neustrom.

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Bait Choices

“A good crappie angler fishes everything—waxies, Eurolarvae, crappie minnows, and soft plastics. You’ve gotta have some maggots in a little container for insurance. Crappies sometimes want that scent over soft-plastics. To go out with one thing is a huge mistake,” concludes Neustrom.

ABOUT Northland® Fishing Tackle

In 1975, a young Northwoods fishing guide named John Peterson started pouring jigs and tying tackle for his clients in a small remote cabin in northern Minnesota. The lures were innovative, made with high quality components, and most importantly, were catching fish when no other baits were working! Word spread like wildfire, the phone started ringing… and the Northland Fishing Tackle® brand was in hot demand! For 40 years now, John and the Northland® team have been designing, testing and perfecting an exclusive line of products that catch fish like no other brand on the market today. Manufactured in the heart of Minnesota’s finest fishing waters, Northland® is one of the country’s leading producers of premium quality jigs, live bait rigs, spinnerbaits and spoons for crappies, bluegills, perch, walleyes, bass, trout, northern pike and muskies.

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