Minnesota's Super Spots For Slabs

As in every state, our crappies are cyclic in nature, meaning the lake can be hot one year and cold the next. You'll want to be on these papermouth honeyholes right now! (January 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Much like people, crappies have their ups and downs. However, crappies don't have those highs and lows on a daily or even weekly basis. Crappie populations in a given body of water rise and fall on a year-to-year cycle, providing a hot bite for a year or two before the fishing takes a downturn.

Take Upper Red Lake for example. Recently, there was a boom in the numbers of slab crappies in the lake, and anglers quickly swooped in for the hot bite. Now indications are that the Upper Red crappie phenomenon peaked a couple of years ago. The walleyes stocked in Red are now competing for the space the crappies had. When the walleye season opens in 2006, anglers will no longer be heading for this huge lake to chase crappies. The walleyes will be getting all the attention.

It was inevitable that this would happen, and as the population of big crappies in Upper Red Lake diminishes, there will be a need to discover other locations on other lakes where big crappies are available. They do exist. Let's look at a few of the better ones.

RAINY LAKE

I would venture to say that Rainy Lake has secured its place back in the No. 1 spot as far as winter crappie fishing is concerned.

Many of the anglers who chase crappies during the winter on Rainy Lake will center their search on the deeper mudflats in Black Bay from 20 to 40 feet and look for schools of crappies suspended 8 to 10 feet off the bottom.

The crappies will feed on the minnows that are hovering around the big clouds of zooplankton visible on a good sonar.

With the moderate fishing pressure on the Rainy Lake crappies and the prime forage available, expect big fish. On this lake, it's not uncommon to set the hook on a crappie in the 16-inch range.

For more information, contact Woody's Fairly Reliable Guide Service at 1-866-410-5001 or check out the Web site

www.fairlyreliable.com. The International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce can be contacted at 1-800-325-5766. Their Web site is

www.intlfalls.org.

LAKE KABETOGAMA

The crappies on St. Louis County's Lake Kabetogama can be tough to find during the summer months, but come winter, the big slabs are not only easier to find, but they can be caught.

A great place for crappies is the Kabetogama/Ash River Narrows. You'll find some company there, and everyone is looking for crappies. What are they using? Glow-in-the-dark jigs. In that coffee-colored stained water, it helps to use a lure that provides some added attraction. Those red-glow jigs and the green-glow ones are both outstanding options.

The beauty of Kabetogama crappies is they start biting in the morning and will continue to bite -- although sometimes sporadically -- all through the morning and afternoon. This gives anglers the opportunity to catch some beautiful crappies and then get to their favorite walleye spot in time for the evening bite.

For more information, visit

www.kabetogama.com.

WHITE IRON LAKE

Have you noticed a pattern here? The lakes that fall into the "slab crappie" designation tend to be up north. But there is a reason for this, as in less fishing pressure.

On White Iron Lake, just on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Lake County, you can get into schools of crappies that all weigh a pound-and-a-half. These are nice fish.

Another pattern to fishing these northern lakes is that you don't have the ability to follow crowds. There aren't any. The anglers who find their crappies on White Iron Lake work for them.

Expect to find fish near the deep-water dropoffs, of which there are only a few on White Iron. Crappies on this lake tend to move a lot, so they aren't always prone to hang over the holes. On some days you find crappies being caught in 8 to 12 feet of water a couple hundred feet from shore and they're biting on minnows about a foot off the bottom. The next day, you find these fish halfway between the top and the bottom over 35 feet of water near the island in the southern basin. What's great is that when you do find them, they are slabs.

For more information, visit the Ely area's Web site at

www.ely.org.

LAKE VERMILION

Anglers searching for big crappies on Lake Vermilion stick to the western half. Going one step farther, you find a lot of crappie anglers drilling holes and dropping lures between Center Island and Turtle Island, and all the way up into Norwegian Bay.

On this St. Louis County lake, a sonar is mandatory because the crappies are prone to making vertical shifts in depth as the day progresses. If you're on a school of crappies in the morning, you can easily notice the fish shifting toward the bottom as the day progresses. By evening, the crappies will once again be suspended closer to the surface.

I thought this was because of light penetration, and it is to a certain extent, but there is also forage to consider. As clouds of zooplankton shift depth due to light penetration, so move the minnows. The crappies follow those minnows. Find the forage and you will find the crappies on Vermilion.

For more, visit Lake Vermilion's Web site at

www.lakevermilion.com.

SPIDER LAKE

Itasca County has a lot of lakes within its boundaries, and many of them are great winter crappie lakes. This is fortunate because when anglers have so much to choose from, no one lake gets too much pressure -- unless of course a particular lake gets hot. And every once in a while, you hear about Spider Lake just off of Highway 38 north of Grand Rapids.

The south and central basins get the attention for crappies. The central basin has one deep drop into 30 feet of water, but other than that, there are no significant structural elements. Crappies tend to roam in the deeper water, sometimes hugging the bottom tightly and sometimes suspending.

The water in Spider Lake offers good visibility, so the crappies can be easily attracted to a lure. A trick I learned on a trip to Spider last year was that to s

hake a large hammered nickel-plated Swedish Pimple while watching the sonar. When a line shows up on the sonar indicating a fish, drop a smaller jighead down the hole tipped with a crappie minnow. When the small jig gets to the same depth as the big spoon, pull up the spoon. And you should have a couple of minnows impaled on the treble on the bigger spoon just in case the crappies are aggressive that day. We caught a bunch on the big spoon, too.

For more information, visit the Grand Rapids area's Web site at

www.grandmn.com, or call Ben's Bait and Tackle at (218) 326-8281.

LAKE WABANA

You can get intimidated by a lake like Wabana. It's over 2,000 acres with a lot of structure and depth, with very clear water. Most people find this lake tough to fish.

There are big crappies in Wabana, probably because they are not present in great numbers. But the ones there are very nice-sized.

You need to do your homework on this Itasca County lake. Someone is going to be catching crappies there. They will start spreading the word, and soon others will know where the bite is happening. You need to be there.

While many anglers consider the deeper holes in a lake to be prime winter spots for crappies, that's not the case on Wabana. Straight out from the boat landing on the west side is a narrows that tapers into deep water as you head south. This is a great place to start a search. Another prime location is in Simmons Bay off the tip of the point that extends out into 30 feet of water.

By late February and into March, the crappies tend to hold in groups in front of the bays in deeper water, and there are plenty of those spots available on the south end. Pickerel Bay gets a lot of attention for crappies in the late season there.

For more, visit Grand Rapids area's Web site at

www.grandmn.com, or call Ben's Bait and Tackle at (218) 326-8281.

BALL CLUB LAKE

Ball Club Lake, just east of Bena, was a hotspot for crappies about seven years ago and then it cooled off, with only smaller fish for a while. A drop in fishing pressure and the normal crappie cycle has brought Ball Club back into the spotlight.

The lake is basically two basins. Most anglers need not venture past the southern basin and the steep-dropping bottom coming out of the southwest corner. If you do venture into the northern basin, you will notice it resembles a big bowl with a sharp-dropping bottom extending from the shoreline and no major midlake structure. This means the crappies can be anywhere over that deep water.

Of course, this means you drill a lot of holes and use the Vexilar to find fish. Either that, or take advantage of the good visibility of the water and try to attract some fish. Last year I met a few guys up on Winnibigoshish for some perch fishing and we decided to see if we could get an evening crappie bite over on Ball Club going. We drilled a bunch of holes, and each angler dropped down a couple of big shiny spoons. We jigged them hard for about 15 minutes and the crappies came to us. They only stayed there for about an hour, but we all caught some real nice fish. For your information, we drilled those holes in 55 feet of water, and those crappies were coming in at 45 feet deep.

For more information, visit the Grand Rapids' Web site at

www.grandmn.com or call Ben's Bait and Tackle at (218) 326-8281.

LAKE LIZZIE

Lake Lizzie northeast of Pelican Rapids has been a consistent winter crappie hotspot, which is tough to say about most lakes that tend to fit into a cycle where the fishing is good for a few years and then it's lean for a few years. Lizzie not only produces some good numbers of crappies, but the size of the fish can be impressive.

On Lizzie, think deep water next to midlake structure. There's plenty of that in this lake. You're looking for a sunken island that tops out at a few feet sitting right next to a 40-foot hole. There are a few spots in that northern basin where you find this phenomenon.

Crappie anglers also find themselves congregating over the 50-foot hole just to the north of the islands where the water gets shallow before entering that southern basin. Crappies stack up there all winter long.

In 2006, put Lizzie on the list of lakes to make a crappie outing on. This is going to be another good year.

For more information, visit the Pelican Rapids area Web site at

www.pelicanrapidschamber.com, or call Park Region Sport Shop at 1-800-962-8553.

PELICAN LAKE

Pelican Lake, just south of Ashby, is a great lake to fish in wintertime because the water clears up and the crappies are very nice-sized. In the summer -- due to the shallow nature of the lake -- you get a pretty healthy algae bloom that can turn anglers off. It seems to slow the bite as well. Come winter, ice over the top and that cold water lets algae settle to the bottom, and the fish start biting again.

There are only a few holes in Pelican and they're not much over 20 feet deep, but the crappies like them, so you get the fish stacked up in a concentrated region, making them easy to find. Winter water visibility is better, but it still pays to use glow lures to attract the crappies.

Another benefit of the lower visibility is that the crappies aren't prone to bite in spurts. While the evening bite may still be the best, you can generate some action almost any time of day. Like most lakes with poor water clarity, the night bite is generally poor.

To learn more, call Dahlen's Sport Shop at (218) 747-2901.

BIG PINE LAKE

Why anyone would call a 400-acre lake "big" is amazing, so maybe that's why some people refer to Big Pine as North Pine Lake. Maybe they weren't talking about the body of water when they named it. Maybe they were talking about the crappies.

To find the crappies on Big Pine requires a search strategy that has you moving and drilling. There's no midlake structure, well-defined holes or sharp dropoffs. This allows the crappies to meander the entire lake, typically in depths from 12 to 20 feet.

There's also no rhyme or reason to where the crappies will be in relation to their vertical depth in the water. I've found fish just a few feet under the ice over 18 feet of water on Big Pine, and on one trip, they were so tight to bottom the only way we knew they were there was spotting them with an underwater camera.

So drill a few holes, send down a lure and hope to get lucky. Keep moving and drilling, and don't hesitate to try some of the holes that weren't producing for you earlier. Fortunately, Big Pine is not so big that you can't cover a good portion of the lake to find those meandering crappies.

There are not a lot of options for information or nearby bait and tackle shops for Big Pine Lake, so if you get into some big crappies, the secret is all yours.

PRIOR LAKE

With Prior's close proximity to the metro area and the heavy fishing pressure that it receives year-round, there shouldn't be any big fish left. But there are, and there are some real nice crappies, too. Of course, this is one lake that does tend to cycle from big to few to small to big again, and there is likely another good year or two for those 3/4- to 1-pound crappies again this season.

The north end of Prior -- referred to as Lower Prior -- has some great crappie holes tucked right up next to sunken islands or deep holes sitting right in front of a shallow bay. These spots concentrate crappies all winter long.

Upper Prior -- the south end of the lake -- has much less structure density, but there are plenty of crappies there with fewer anglers chasing them. The only drawback to fishing Upper Prior is that the crappies tend to roam, so you do have to be in the search mode to find them. In fact, you're likely to find some of the biggest crappies in the lake schooled up in 16 to 20 feet of water right in front of one of the bays.

Since Prior gets a fair share of fishing pressure, it's always tempting to nudge up next to a community of anglers to see if you can capitalize on their good fortune. This seldom works for the biggest Prior Lake crappies. If you want to get into the slabs, you need to break away from the community spots and find your own fish. Drill some holes in likely spots and keep up the search. If you're only catching the five-to-a-pound crappies, you're in the wrong place. But remember, those smaller fish will be the next group of big ones in about five years. There are still a lot of big crappies in Prior, so take advantage of the situation while it lasts.

For more information, call MK Fishing at (952) 447-6096.

As in much of life, timing is everything. Now's the time to take advantage of a hot crappie bite when you can find it. These hotspots are good places to start this winter. See you out on the ice!

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