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Crappies & Panfish Fishing Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s Top Crappie Waters

by Judy Nugent   |  September 30th, 2010 0

When the sun moves higher in the sky and the ice goes out, it means it’s time for the best crappie fishing of the year. These waters consistently produce papermouths every spring. (March 2007)


Photo By Tom Berg

Spring is finally arriving in Wisconsin. When the sun gets higher in the sky and the ice disappears, it’s time to get your boat in the water so you can enjoy the best crappie fishing of the year.

Unlike muskies or walleyes, you rarely hear about crappie creel surveys, tagging studies or stocking of fish. Luckily, crappies are doing so well in most waters that none of that is really necessary. And chances are there is a good papermouth lake closer to your home than you may realize!

In those weeks right after ice-out, crappies are moving into warmer, shallow areas looking for early weed growth and a good meal. They are slowly emerging from a winter pattern into a spawning pattern. You should still use some of the techniques that worked on late ice, such as jigs tipped with wax worms or small minnows. You’ll get your most success at night, first light or last light. Each water body has its own characteristics, but in general, a slow presentation in the warmest water will catch crappies.

A good place to start on most lakes is the north end of the lake because the sun will be beating down on it all day. This is where the warmest water tends to be early in the season. Also, remember that these fish tend to be spooky. A quiet approach and a quite presentation will serve you the best. Electric motors, quiet oars or even wading could be your best way to sneak up on a feeding school of slabs.

These waters have been known to consistently produce quality crappies year after year.

LAKE NAMEKAGON
Perhaps nobody knows the northwest corner of the state as well as guide Roger LaPenter of Anglers All in Ashland (715/682-5754). LaPenter has been guiding in the area for a long time, and is on the water nearly every day.

“I like to fish Namekagon in the spring,” LaPenter said. “If you can find the crappies, you’ll catch a lot of them because they are very aggressive that time of year.”

To find them, use one of the many lake maps available. There are cribs on the north end that can hold fish during early season.

“During the pre-spawn weeks, the crappies will be in the deeper water, with 8 feet being deep,” LaPenter said. “Later on, you can find them in 5 to 6 feet of water. They school by size, so you’ll need to go from spot to spot to find the bigger fish. I usually target the medium-sized fish because I know the big ones are going to spawn in a few weeks, and I try to never take a female.”

Crappies average around 12 inches in Namekagon, but larger ones up to 16 inches can be caught. The water is generally clear, especially early in the season, but it can appear dark at times because of the dark bottom. LaPenter suggested brighter colored jigs in orange and chartreuse tipped with wax worms or minnows.

MINERAL LAKE
This is a smaller lake than Namekagon, and it has steep banks and a deep hole in the middle. Mineral Lake is located north of Clam Lake in Ashland County.

“The trick to fishing this lake,” said LaPenter, “is finding the suspended fish. Here, they come out of 30 feet and suspend somewhere along the 10- to 12-foot breaks. I’ll use the chartreuse again and sometimes a pink. The best are the Mini-Mite by Cubby Fishing Tackle, the Rat Finkee and the Pinky Jigs. If the fish are really aggressive, I sometimes use a small crankbait in those orange colors. It all depends on what you find when you get out there.”

LAKE OWEN
“This is really the sleeper lake for crappies,” said LaPenter about southern Bayfield County’s Lake Owen. “It can be the toughest lake to find crappies in, but when you find them, they are as big as 17 inches.”

Lake Owen is super clear, so you’ll need light line and a very quiet boat.

“I find these fish in 20 to 30 feet of water,” LaPenter said. “Look for the deeper rockpiles and use fatheads or emerald shiners. You can use the same jigs, but use the bigger minnows.”

With the very clear water, early morning, evening and night are the best times to fish for papermouths. There are two public boat launches on this lake, but most people go to the launch at the north end to start fishing there. There is also a campground — if you can handle the weather.

FLAMBEAU FLOWAGE
The crappies on the Flambeau Flowage can be found above the dam in the deeper holes around 12 to 15 feet deep.

“On the Flambeau,” said LaPenter, “the fishing will depend on the level of the water. The fish get concentrated in holes. You’ll need to look around with your locator to find exactly where they are holding, but once you’ve searched them out, you’ll have good success.”

You need to get your bait right in the middle of the school of fish or just slightly above it. To keep your bait at a consistent depth, LaPenter suggested a slip-bobber approach with a jig tipped with a wax worm or minnow.

“You can fish the Flambeau almost anytime,” LaPenter said. “This body of water is a little stained, so you can get away with fishing in the midday, especially with cloud cover.”

SHAWANO LAKE
Local guide Troy Peterson knows his panfish. In fact, his business is called Mr. Bluegill Guide Service, but he knows a boatload about crappies, and he has photos to prove it. Shawano Lake northwest of Green Bay is his first choice.

“Shawano is a clear lake with an average-sized crappie of 10 to 12 inches,” Peterson said. “This lake has multiple reed beds around the shore. I go out in the early morning or after dark with lighted bobbers and fish in 3 to 5 feet of water. Use a Glow Demon, or a red TruTurn Hook with a flathead minnow or wax worm. That works really well on 4- to 6-pound-test line.”

On the north side is a small creek that joins Shawano Lake to a tiny lake. In the early season, the crappies move in and out of this area. A combination of warm water and abundant food keeps them coming back. The best way to access this channel is by boat off County Road HH.

For guide service, contact Peterson at www.mrbluegill.com or (920) 810-4570.

WHITE CLAY LAKE
This lake, a couple miles east of Shawano Lake, is crystal c
lear and has abundant cattails around the shorelines. On the north end, the cattails give way to reed beds.

“This is where I like to start,” Peterson said. “Go 400 to 500 yards past the cattails to the reed beds. The north end of the lake is heating up at this time of year and is loaded with crappies. This particular structure is right next to a dropoff that goes down to 40 feet. The crappies come out of the deep water at night to feed in the shallows, and then go back to the deep.”

While the best fishing is at sunrise or sundown, you can also find them during midday with your electronics.

“In the midday, look for schools on the edge of the dropoff,” Peterson said. “Here the fish will hold until evening when they move into the shallows again.”

Fish average 9 to 10 inches, with some bigger ones mixed in. So even though they may not be the biggest crappies, you can catch good numbers of fish once you have them dialed in.

ROBERTS LAKE
This lake has two boat landings, but most people access the water by the free launch at the Wild Rose Restaurant & Bar.

“Straight off of the Wild Rose are the reed beds,” Peterson said. “Right there is a steep dropoff. It goes from reeds to cabbage to 20 feet. Fish the reed edges at night and then go deeper when the sun comes out. They don’t move much during the day, so search through 9 to 12 feet of water until you find the school.”

Another good spot is along the eastern shore where there are many fish cribs or brushpiles. This structure attracts baitfish and, consequently, crappies.

“The cribs on the northeast side are in 17 to 18 feet of water,” the Shawano-area guide said. “These crappies are used to eating small perch, so I’ve found that black and green are good colors to use. I like the plastic Flu-flu Jigs and plastic tubes. Glow Demons in red or fluorescent green also work. I might switch to pink and white if I’m not doing well with the other colors.”

Crappies average 9 to 10 inches, with a few 15- to 16-inchers, too.

WOLF RIVER
The Wolf River is a large system known for its walleyes, but if you want to add another species to your stringer, go to a backwater to catch crappies, especially near New London.

“This river has a lot of fingers that are loaded with brush,” Peterson said. “Go to the shallow banks where the water is only 2 to 5 feet deep. In fact, you can tie your boat up to the brush.”

However, it is this brush that can make fishing difficult. Peterson recommends using a cane pole or other long rod, because this isn’t a cast-and-retrieve situation. Instead, you are trying to deliver a vertical presentation inside the pockets of brush.

“I only use minnows and a No. 2 TruTurn Hook in this situation,” Peterson said. “I often put three or four split shot under a slip-bobber because I want it to drop really fast when I get it to the right spot. I’ll hook just one minnow through the eye and then drop it down.”

These fish average 11 inches, and spring is the best time to catch them. Some people love the Wolf for its fall bite, but spring is the best time to come in with a lot of 13-inch fish.

GENEVA LAKE
In southeast Wisconsin, Geneva is a very clear lake. While it can get churned up later in the year, at ice-out you can see down 20 feet. Veteran guide and television host Jim Tostrud fishes this lake every year for monster crappies.

“I caught a 20-inch crappie on Geneva, and I’ve caught four fish that were 18 inches or bigger,” Tostrud said. “This is really a phenomenal fishery.”

However, experienced anglers know that Geneva can be a hard lake to learn.

“The best way to approach crappies on Geneva,” said Tostrud, “is to look for structure. I usually like to sight-fish for crappies along the docks or cribs in shallow water, and shallow for Geneva is 8 feet. When the water temperature is between the mid-50s and low 60s, I’ll move slowly along the bank while looking for fish. Once I find them, I cast with a jig and minnow.”

The crappies move shallower sooner on Delavan than on Geneva because Delavan warms up faster. And in the spring, Delavan is as clear as Geneva. Docks, weed edges, humps and points are good places to start.

Tostrud prefers a Yummy hair jig with a chartreuse head, black body and chartreuse tail, and tipped with a wax worm or minnow. Another good bait to try is the Triple Tip Grub in red with a chartreuse tail or in motor oil color. Choose a 1/64-ounce or 1/32-ounce jig. “The trick is you should fish at night or in low-light conditions,” he said. “A little cloud cover will keep the bite going.”

But Tostrud also has an unusual tactic for crappies. He likes to troll for them, which is legal on this lake and many others in southern Wisconsin.

“I usually find the fish on the edge of the weeds, and then I set long lines out the back at least 50 feet,” Tostrud said. “I’ll troll a minnow at 1.2 mph off my trolling motor. If I go through a school of fish without a hit, I’ll adjust my depth with a second jig or a split shot, then troll through again.”

You can contact Tostrud at www.wildlifevisions.com or (262) 656-1726.

DELAVAN LAKE
The crappies move shallower sooner on Delavan than on Geneva because Delavan warms up faster. And in the spring, Delavan is as clear as Geneva. Docks, weed edges, humps and points are good places to start.

“I do more float-fishing on Delavan,” Tostrud said. “I hit the visible weed pockets and can turn big numbers. The average size is 10 inches, but the fish are abundant.”

Delavan has little channels that warm up faster than the main lake, but most of these channels are dotted with private homes, so you’ll need to access this area from a boat. If you want to fish from shore or from the docks, be sure to be polite and obtain permission first.

LAKE ONALASKA
The mighty Mississippi River has received a lot of buzz in recent years as restoration efforts have started to produce more quality fish. However, most natives to the area have known for a while that the area just below the Lake Onalaska spillway holds a ton of crappies. In fact, it is called the “Crappie Capital of Wisconsin.” The area where the Black River dumps out below the dam is the place to go. You can access it by walking over the train tracks and fishing along the bank. If you want to try it with a boat, look for the weedbeds and use a float with a minnow.

Just west of Brice’s Prairie around the Black Deer area — where the Red Sails Resort burned down a few years ago — is a channel on the north side of the lake. “This
is incredible for late-ice and ice-out crappies and bluegills,” Tostrud said. “There is a channel between the dike and the main lake that you should fish first. The depth is between 2 and 6 feet.”

There can be some fluctuation depending on if the gates are open, and fishing can change based on the depth. Regardless, you should be able to find this channel without much difficulty.

Color preferences are white/pink or blue/black marabou jigs tipped with fathead minnows. You can also try smaller Yummys tipped with one or two wax worms or eurolarva.

* * *

If you’re looking for a cure for cabin fever, buy a few dozen minnows and head on out. The action may be so good that spring could go by in the blink of an eye.

(Editor’s note: You can listen to Judy Nugent on the radio every week on “Outdoors with Dan Small and Judy Nugent” on stations across Wisconsin. It is also available at Lake-Link.com; keyword: radio.)

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