Nate Berg – Owner of Nate Berg Fishing Guides

The leaves are beginning to disappear off the trees, snow has already impacted the much of the northern zones and water temps are beginning to crack the upper 40’s.  For most, that is the signal to winterize the boat, put it in storage, and start sipping hot chocolate by the fire and stay warm.  For myself, that means bundling up in my ice fishing suit, dumping the hot drink into a thermos, and heading to the lake because one of the best trolling bites of the year for crappies is starting to get hot. 

I would say after the turnover may be the deadliest time to get crappies, especially in the north country where crappies move to deep mud bottomed basin holes to school up.  The most helpful tool to find the best locations of the lake is to do your research beforehand. Many states have access to lake maps available to the public for viewing. I suggest you sit down by your computer or get on your smart phone and search these maps out. I do this for several reasons but maybe the most important is avoiding lakes that have basin holes deeper than 25 feet.  Most crappies will suspend off the bottom.  With that said, if crappies are deeper than roughly 20 feet, every fish you catch has barotrauma and are mortally injured.  I personally like to release any crappie over 11 inches so fishing deeper than 20 feet just isn’t an option for me.

Once I have the basin holes located, I start by using my electronics to find the fish and put waypoints on every school I find.  Once I have found enough schools, I simply start trolling and connect the dots. How do I do that exactly? 

Believe it or not, my favorite way to target the crappies is trolling small Salmo Hornets using a downrigger with a smaller ball.  Speed is very important to this.  You can most definitely go too fast for crappies.  I try to stick anywhere from 0.8 to 1.3 mph.  The fish will generally tell you what they want.   I love to use a 10’ 6” medium action trolling rod tipped with 6 pound mono with about 20 to 30 feet of line behind the ball, the length all depending on how the crappies are reacting.   I try to stick with bright or metallic colors.  I tend to lean towards metallic colors on bright bluebird days and go with the brighter colors on dimmer cloud covered days.  

The only challenge is to find the strike zone of the crappies.  One thing to remember with crappies is they are a predator.  They are constantly looking up to feed.  Some days their strike zone may be a foot above the school but most times, if they are actively feeding, the strike zone can be 5 feet or more above their heads.  Finding that strike zone is probably the most difficult part of the deal.  In Minnesota, we are allowed one rod per person so if I am alone, I tend to start at 5 feet above the school and change every 15 minutes if necessary.  If I have multiple people in the boat, I will stagger the depths and colors to find the magic number.   This is where the downrigger and a great line counter comes in so you can match everything up perfectly when you find the magical sequence. 

Sure, you can set up on a crappie school and vertically jig them but if you have done it, you will notice that they spook after a few fish being pulled and the schools move. What I have noticed is when you troll through a school, fish tend to spook less or most times not even spook at all but why a downrigger? 

You could use an inline weight but trolling at the slow speeds as well as changing speeds, it is difficult to tell exactly what depths you are at so staying consistent is tough.   With a downrigger and a set length of line behind the ball, you know your lure will generally run exactly at the depth you desire no matter if you change speeds or not.  I have tried it all and by far, using a downrigger is the most effective for trolling deep water crappies. 

Editors note: Nate Berg is a professional fishing guide outfitter and a Salmo Field Ambassador. To learn more about his guide service, please visit