AS WE headed out ice fishing in the early afternoon and discovered somebody else was in the holes we planned to fish, I’m sure my buddy was hoping there was a viable Plan B.

It was the annual trek northward for Mike Krueger of Winneconne, a friend from high school who doesn’t fish a lot but treasures our annual ice fishing adventure for crappies in late March.

We did well a year ago in that deep hole, on a Friday afternoon, but it seemed luck wasn’t with us this time. Three anglers had tip-downs spread across the area.

One of the strange quirks about ice fishing is that it’s difficult to cover your tracks, or in this case, the holes where you caught some fish on a recent outing.

There always seems to be some stress involved with not knowing if you’ll get bumped by anglers who arrived before you, even at the crack of dawn when the odds are heavily in your favor.

What a relief it is when you clear the trees, the point, or whatever the obstruction, to discover that nobody is in your favorite spot.

The good news is that those anglers forced me to think about other options, and experimenting in new territory definitely added to the adventure part of the trip.

We turned 90 degrees and headed toward a couple of deeper holes in another basin of the lake, using a Navionics phone app to chart our course toward the deepest water we could find.

The first deep-water hole we got close to, measuring about 28 feet in depth, showed signs of four old holes where other anglers had tried their luck.

Mike punched the ice out of one monster hole with his foot and lowered the depth-finding electronics, only to see it was lit up like a Christmas tree. There was red and green all over the screen, the red indicating fish of some kind were directly below the transducer.

We started catching crappies immediately, for they were so aggressive that they would swim up to meet the minnow-tipped hooks before they reached their destination some four feet above the bottom.

We had a half-dozen crappies on the ice so fast that there was no time to put out any additional rods. Once again the guy from Winneconne brought some magic along, because the fish hadn’t been biting that good prior to his visit.

He’s among the rather large group of anglers who are hooked on crappie fishing as opposed to chasing perch or bluegills. There’s just something special about setting the hook on a 12-inch platter that goes a pound or more, those big head-chugs forcing a slow retrieve to get them turned into an ice tunnel that was 24 inches deep on that day.

Crappie fillets are a little more oily and tastier than walleyes, and the big ones sport a thick back that can’t be found on the average bluegill or perch. If you’re thinking about a fish fry with family and friends, they really add up quickly.

The action was crazier than I ever guessed it would be. We fished the first afternoon and the entire next day, catching well over 160 crappies. Mike was one happy camper after all that hook-setting.

The majority of them were under 10 inches and they went back to grow up. But it was a good sign that the crappie population and natural reproduction is alive and well on the Three Lakes and Eagle River chains.

We were using mostly small minnows and tiny gold treble hooks, suspending them under tip-down rigs or just slip bobbers. It was just warm enough that we didn’t have many issues with frozen rod tips.

Most of the fish we caught were suspended three to four feet above the bottom, including one nice 21-inch walleye that took a crappie minnow. That was quite the fight on four-pound test and a light rod.

One of the big mysteries of crappie fishing is why most of the fish get caught in one or two holes despite the fact that you’re fishing in deep water without structure — meaning there is no reason for the fish to have a specific travel pattern.

We eventually put out our maximum number of lines on that first afternoon, three each, and they were pretty darn close to the first holes we fished. But most of the crappies came out of just the first two holes.

We spent a day and a half together, catching up on topics that ranged from family and work to last fall’s deer and grouse hunting seasons. We ate, we drank and we laughed.

The sport of fishing is a great excuse to get together every winter, and the bonus for him is a couple of large bags of great-eating fillets to take home.

Conditions have changed since our outing two weeks ago. The nasty slush and water layer that was just under a light crust has pretty much frozen hard in many places, thanks to some cold nights where the lows were in the teens.

If you’re venturing out, you might want to pack some creepers because there is bare ice in many locations after recent thaws melted most of the snow cover.

The shorelines were still solid late last week but conditions are going to change fast when daytime highs get into the 50s and the overnight lows, eventually, stay above freezing.

If you get out in the final days, be safe. Bring ice picks and a flotation device just in case you run into some current, a sand bar, old holes or another issue that weakens the ice.

And if any more friends and relatives want to fish, I’m always looking for an excuse to spend a day on hard water, chasing crappies.