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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Light-Biting Crappies Keep Anglers Guessing and Learning

   When crappies bite too lightly to see or feel with your best icefishing rod, you assume they’re spurning your bait as they rise, retreat and vanish on your fish-finder.


   And so you switch to a tinier jig and microscopic bait, thinking the fish finicky or just not hungry.


   Nothing changes, of course. They still won’t bite.


   Or so it seems.


   “Here, try this,” Dom Flock said when noticing I’d gone a half-hour without landing a crappie in late January on a lake near Eau Claire. Flock handed me a rod that differed little from my own, but the 1-pound test line on its reel held a half-inch spoon and treble hook loaded with five “spikes.”


   This was interesting. The wriggling clump of red and white grubs seemed more than a mouthful, even for big crappies. But who was I to argue? Yards away, my friend Jim Heffelfinger already had two big crappies on the ice. Farther away yet, crappies flopped near holes that Flock and Renee Flatland fished just minutes before.


   “You marking any fish?” Flock asked while peering over my shoulder.


   As if on cue, a red line thickened on my fish-finder’s screen and rose from the bottom 24 feet below.


   “Lift your bait and jig it a little,” Flock said. “Now hold still. Watch your rod tip.”


   Nothing. Again, the fish faded from the screen.


   Another red line soon formed on the screen and rose. I lifted the rod tip about 6 inches, picturing my bait hovering above the fish’s snout. When I lifted the rod farther yet, its tip pulled down subtly, as if the lure was pushing aside a weed.


   I set the hook and was pleasantly surprised to see the rod arc downward and pulsate as a crappie fought back. I reeled quickly to bring the rod tip to the hole, paused to pluck the transducer from the water, and resumed reeling.


   “Reel slowly,” Flock advised, reminding me of the hair-width line uniting me with the fish. Soon enough I guided a 13-inch crappie up through the hole and onto the ice.


   “I’m on the board,” I called to Flatland, roughly 20 minutes after she had made the same call after dealing with a reel malfunction and switching to a backup rig with 8-pound line.


   Our group’s get-together was nearly two months in the making. Heffelfinger, the wildlife science coordinator with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, e-mailed me in early December to say he’d be in Wisconsin in late January to give a talk at his alma mater, UW-Stevens Point. He asked if I’d be around if he arrived early and drove up from Horicon, his hometown.


   We agreed it would be fun to go icefishing, and even better if we caught something. Therefore, I contacted Flock, an Eau Claire angler who basically lives on the region’s ice each winter. We circled Jan. 30 on our calendars, and then spent much of December and January waiting for winter to put the ice into icefishing.


   Flatland signed on as the day approached, and then Flock “dropped a pin” when the day arrived so Heffelfinger and I went to the right boat landing for our 11 a.m. rendezvous. “Just unload your stuff on the landing and park across the street,” Flock texted. “I’ll watch for you and come pick you up.”


   A minute after arriving we heard an engine fire up across the lake as we stacked our gear on the boat ramp’s pier. And then across the lake there arose such a clatter that Heffelfinger and I paused to see what was the matter. Could an ATV or snowmobile sound like that atop the hard, snow-free ice? Nope. An aluminum boat was bouncing our way, Flock astern on the engine’s tiller, with sturdy skis mounted to the johnboat’s bottom.


   We admired Flock’s “Uber service” when he swung his rig to a stop a few yards offshore. Instead of a propeller, the boat engine’s lower unit held a large steel wheel with sharp teeth jutting from around its perimeter. A series of belts, gears, chains and pulleys drive the wheel, which pushes the boat forward while cutting a shallow rut into the ice.


   This mechanized marvel would forever wow my grade-school grandsons, not to mention me and Heffelfinger. Accordingly, we recorded iPhone videos of Flock and his boat taxiing us out to join Flatland for our half-day of fishing. When we fretted about missing most of the morning, Flock said they arrived only minutes earlier and had just begun fishing when we reached the landing. He spent most of that time drilling rows of holes, which looked like wheel spokes extending from their hub at the boat.


   After landing my first crappie I thanked Flock for his helpful advice. Still, I felt torn about how best to divide my attention between the rod tip and fish-finder’s screen when fish appeared. It would take some time to confidently decipher the subtleties of such light bites.


   Heffelfinger agreed, but thought Flock was far beyond such nuance.


   “He (Flock) was walking by 10 feet away and said, “That’s a bite,” Heffelfinger said when recalling his first crappie. “I never saw or felt anything, but I set the hook anyway. I was shocked. I had a fish.”


   Perhaps trying to make us dullards feel better, Flock said he, too, was surprised by the light, stealthy strikes. “Usually they just slam it, but not today,” he said.


   By midafternoon I had landed several more crappies, but told Flatland I hadn’t once felt a bite. She suggested keeping a fingertip on the rod’s base, just above the handle. “Sometimes that’s the only way I feel it,” she said.


   Light bites or not, we eventually landed enough crappies during those four-plus hours to approach our 10-fish limits. As the bucket filled, we knew lots of filleting and vacuum-sealing awaited us before dinner that night.


   After pausing for photos, we thanked Flock and Flatland for their valuable help, and headed home to sharpen knives for our satisfying chores of success.

Jim Heffelfinger, left, Renee Flatland and Patrick Durkin caught these crappies in late January near Eau Claire. — Patrick Durkin photos

Renee Flatland unhooks a crappie that hit while she dealt with a faulty reel and fouled line.

Black crappies are common across Wisconsin, and are found in all three of the state’s drainage basins: Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Mississippi River.


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