Hotspots For Our Spring Crappies

Hotspots For Our Spring Crappies

Until the walleye opener, crappies are king in Minnesota. You can catch your share of filets on these waters. (March 2006)

Crappies are king in Minnesota — at least until the walleye opener comes around in May. With willingness to bite, sweet-tasting filets and light-tackle-busting strength, the crappie is a much sought after species.

Go to that trusted crappie hole you had so much luck at a few years ago, however, and you could be sorely disappointed with what you find. Crappie hotspots can change from decade to decade — and even year to year — due to ever-changing populations. A lake considered to have a hot crappie bite may last for only a few years because it only held one strong year-class.

"A lot of lakes have good year-classes that move through, only to go away over time," said Al Stevens, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries program consultant. The unfortunate thing about good crappie lakes is that those with the most consistent crappie populations tend to have a shortage of large slabs.

Depending on whom you ask, a true slab tends to be anything larger than 1 pound, 8 ounces. Catching a crappie in the 2-pound range is reason to celebrate, and anything over 3 pounds is reason to gloat heavily. The state-record black crappie is 5 pounds, while the state-record white crappie weighed nearly 4 pounds.

"Catching a crappie over 10 inches is an impressive catch and a rarity on those lakes with major populations," Stevens said.

The reason for this is because large numbers of crappies means greater levels of competition. The presence of other predators such as bass and walleyes can also limit the size of crappies. Upper Red Lake is a perfect case study.

"It's the oddball, in that it has a large population of large crappies," Stevens said. "But the reason that happened is because there was a lack of competition from walleyes for so many years."

Obtaining a recent copy of a lake survey can be a great tool for finding the next great secret crappie lake. Check out the population numbers and the bulk of the population according to the data. If there are a lot of small fish, mark down that lake for three years from now. If there are a lot of larger fish, hit it now before those fish die out or are caught.

"Crappies tend to live around 10 years in most southern lakes and 14 years or so in northern lakes, meaning that if a lake has a strong 1995 year-class, such as Red Lake does, it is near the end of its cycle," Stevens said.

Another good resource for finding quality crappie lakes is flipping through the fishing regulations. Check the special regulations section where all the lakes with slot limits are listed. You can stumble on some hotspots or some lakes to keep an eye on for the future. If the lake has a slot limit on crappies or a restricted limit, chances are there's a healthy crappie population that's being protected.

Being a crappie is difficult. Besides having the most mispronounced name in the fish world, there are so many things anglers think they know about you that are just plain wrong.

Perhaps the biggest misconception surrounding crappies is that they are shallow right after ice-out because they're spawning. To make a long story short, crappies do not spawn anywhere near ice-out. The optimal surface water temperature for spawning crappies ranges from 64 to 72 degrees — temperatures not found until mid-May into June.

The reason crappies are shallow and willing to bite shortly after ice-out is because they're hungry. Above the ice, people mark the date of ice-out on their calendars as a monumental occasion. This sign of spring is welcome below the water as well. Rising water temperatures mean a boost in the food chain and an increased metabolism. These crappies are hungry and they'll chase their food wherever it may lead them.

Having ended the winter in deeper water, crappies quickly move shallow to feed on baitfish once the water warms. These baitfish try to escape predators like crappies, so they relate to cover where they have at least half a chance to escape the gaping mouth of a hungry crappie. Thus the best crappie locations tend to be reeds, flooded brush, fallen trees, docks and leftover shallow weeds.

As the spring progresses and the water approaches their spawning temperature, crappies tend to relate to their spawning areas — usually soft-bottomed bays that provide cover at the proper depth. The question of depth is closely related to the body of water, but generally crappies spawn deeper on clearer lakes and shallower on murkier lakes.

So until the walleye opener, devote some of your time to crappie fishing on these waters this season.

UPPER RED LAKE

"Boy oh boy, there are a ton of crappies in this lake still ripe for catching," said Terry Tuma. He ought to know, as the presenter of numerous seminars on crappie fishing and a big fan of old papermouth.

Upper Red Lake has been the talk of the state for almost a decade, which means that this hot crappie bite is almost over. Still, it is the best opportunity around for some major slabs. The population may be near the end of their life cycle, but they are big and tougher than ever. The bad news is that there are not any strong younger year-classes, meaning that once this population is gone, the lake will return to being just another "crappie" lake.

Tuma said the best news about Upper Red Lake crappies is that once the ice leaves, hardly anybody chases them.

"The fishing gets tougher once the ice is gone, but with a little help from your electronics, you can get on them with a little effort," he said.

On Upper Red, Tuma loves fishing with red glow jigs tipped with emerald shiners around 3 inches long.

"A lot of people would use fatheads or crappie minnows, but I like shiners because these crappies are so big and they get aggressive with the larger bait," Tuma said.

Drifting and trolling for crappies on Upper Red is another option, especially as the water warms up. Regardless of the tactic, Tuma once again stressed the use of electronics on Upper Red. The lake is seemingly devoid of structure, and the crappies tend to roam all over its 100,000 acres. "If you aren't marking them, don't waste your time on that area," Tuma said.

You can find additional information at www.upperredlakeassn.com, or by calling the Northwood's Lakes Area at

1-866-866-1866.

FERGUS FALLS AREA

The Fergus Falls area is home to some very unique crappie fishing opportunities, thanks to numerous harvest and size restrictions. The majority of lakes with crappie regulations are located in the Fergus Falls area.

"The lakes with crappie regulations are really good fisheries that only seem to be getting better over time," said Jim Wolters, the DNR's assistant fisheries manager for the region. "We have so many small and large lakes with good crappie populations, anglers around here have a great time."

Two such lakes with special regulations are North and South Lida lakes Pelican Rapids in Otter Tail County. There is an 11-inch minimum-size restriction on the lakes that, Wolters said, has been in place since 1997, which is plenty of time to improve the average size of crappies.

There are special regulations for Norway Lake as well. But instead of a size restriction, there's a reduced harvest limit of only five crappies.

Not all the good crappie lakes in the area have special regulations, with Star Lake being a prime example. Wolters said this large lake has a ton of habitat for crappie production. Still, special regulations seem to be the best tool for protecting the crappie fishery. Special regulations are being added this year on Franklin Lake near Pelican Rapids. Check the regulations for details.

For a truly unique crappie angling experience, anglers should fish Annie Battle Lake in Glendalough Park. This lake has a restriction on all motorized and battery-operated equipment, which means a canoe, rowboat or wading are the only ways to fish the lake. "It gives people the opportunity to go after crappies using primitive methods, relative to modern equipment like motors, depthfinders and ice augers," Wolters said.

Additional information can be found at www.visitfergusfalls.com or by calling the Fergus Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-726-8959.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

The Mississippi is home to a massive crappie population that is generally overlooked by the vast majority of river rats. Walleyes, smallmouth bass and catfish are their preferred species, which is just fine with your average crappie angler.

Tuma loves chasing walleyes and bass on the river, but he's never one to turn down the chance for a crappie filet, and he enjoys spending time on the Mississippi. The entire river system from north to south has the potential for crappies, but the best opportunity lies south of Red Wing.

"That's the best area in May and June, but they do move quite a lot. So just because an area was good today doesn't mean it will be that way tomorrow," Tuma said.

Riprapped areas without a lot of current are great locations to begin searching for spring river slabs. The fish can be very shallow in these areas, as well as at the tips of wing dams. River crappies tend to prefer calmer areas without significant current.

Floats with small jigs are the preferred method, and because of the presence of current, a larger-than-normal jig is important. A 1/16-ounce jig is a good rule of thumb, though a 1/8-ounce jig is best in areas where the current is still too heavy. Check with the folks at Four Seasons Sport Shop in Red Wing for the latest hot colors and jig styles.

Additional information can be found at www.redwing.org or by calling the Red Wing Visitors & Convention Bureau at 1-800-498-3444.

LAKE MINNETONKA

This lake is home to terrific populations of most every game fish in Minnesota, and the crappies are no exception. Home of the annual Crappies Contest each spring since 1968, Minnetonka's easy-to-access channels and bays make it a crappie fishing mecca during the early season. The contest typically features several 2-pound-plus crappies, and anglers from shore tend to do almost as well as those from boats.

The advantage of fishing from a boat is that you're better able to access the edges of a lot of the shallower locations like bays, shallow breaklines and points. These areas — particularly those with green weeds — hold massive numbers of crappies in the spring and well into the summertime. Minnetonka's crappie population includes both white crappies and black crappies in healthy numbers, according to the DNR's west-metro fisheries office.

"The deciding factor is what kind of spring are we having and what is that doing to the water temperatures," Tuma said.

The competition from other predators is fierce on Minnetonka, but the 3- to 5-foot range tends to be dominated by crappies early on. Once the milfoil thickens up, crappies tend to seek shelter beneath its canopy — largely from the massive muskies that roam the lake. These crappies tend to be less afraid during lowlight conditions and during the nighttime, according to anglers who report good catches during that time of day.

Fishing information can be had by calling Wayzata Bait at (952) 473-2227 or Minnetonka Outdoors at (952) 470-8800. To learn more information about the area, contact the Wayzata Chamber of Commerce at www.wayzatachamber.com, or call (952) 473-9595.

LAKE WACONIA

Growing up as a Minneapolis boy meant regular crappie-fishing trips to Lake Waconia, both in the winter and in the spring. The population was good way back then, and it's going very strong today. Cindy Mase, owner of In-Towne Marina in Waconia, said the crappie population is better than ever.

The west-metro DNR fisheries office strongly supports her assessment by citing Waconia as having an excellent population, especially for a metro-area lake with high fishing pressure. Almost half of the crappies sampled in a DNR study were larger than 8 inches, and the largest fish was nearly 12 inches.

Finding crappies on Waconia is not too difficult in the spring, and almost as easy even during the tough summer bite.

"There are a few generic locations around the lake where a variety of species are caught throughout the year, crappies being among them," Mase said.

Locations include each of Waconia's major reefs and points, but my personal favorites include Wagners Bay and Pillsbury Reef. In the spring and early summer, the weedline anywhere along these structures is hard to beat, especially in the range of 8 to 14 feet of water.

"The beach area is a good one because it has vegetation, as well as a good sandy area where they feed and prepare for spawning," Mase added.

You can find more information at www.fishandgame.com/intowne, or by calling Mase's In-Towne Marina at (952) 442-2096.

MILLE LACS

The ice-out crappie bite on Mille Lacs is storied, with both number

s and sizes being caught. Interestingly, the action tends to drop off significantly once the water warms. Some would theorize that anglers are too busy chasing the other popular game fish such as walleyes, smallmouth bass, northern pike and muskies.

While there may be some truth to that, the fact is Mille Lacs is a tough summer bite for crappies. Diehard walleye and smallmouth anglers who fish areas where the crappies may be holding up don't report accidental catches of crappies.

"People think they'll catch them, and some of them get a few, but finding where they hide is tough work," said Kelly Deneen, assistant manager of Johnson's Portside.

Tuma's assessment was pretty much the same. "Nobody fishes them in the summer, because nobody can find them."

On the other hand, both Deneen and Tuma admitted that there's a lot of water out there and said the crappies can't be too far away. Tuma thinks the crappies spend the summer in the big bays relating to the sparse weed growth, though it's a mystery to him that virtually nobody is able to catch them.

Great spring locations for crappies include all the bays and marinas, but especially Mac's Twin Bay, Izaty's Bay, Wahkon Bay and Isle Bay. Deneen said there were some summer catches last year in the area around Malone Island, though it's not a consistent location. Tuma said the Garrison area is also a good location in the spring.

Additional information can be obtained by calling the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council at 1-888-350-2692, or go to www.millelacs.com.

SPRING LAKE

Located in the southwest metro just down the road from Prior Lake, Spring Lake is a 580-acre hole with an up-and-coming crappie fishery.

The west-metro fisheries office reports that the crappie population is producing larger-sized slabs, but not necessarily numbers of fish. A survey conducted in 2004 revealed that 90 percent of the crappies were larger than 8 inches in length.

Tuma's favorite locations include the two major points on the south end of the lake and the area around the outlet on its northeast corner.

"Spring Lake can sometimes give you a tough bite, but it's worth it to stick it out with some finesse tactics that will work anyplace, but especially on Spring Lake," Tuma said.

Downsizing bait is one way to coax crappies to bite. Instead of throwing them shiners and fatheads as a rule, try crappie minnows or wax worms on a 1/64-ounce jig.

"We get too hung up on crappie minnows and bobbers, but there are many other tactics that work for crappies, including live-bait rigging and trolling," said Tuma. "The key is to move, move, move, whether fishing early season or midseason."

Additional information can be found at www.priorlakechamber.org or by calling the Prior Lake Area Chamber of Commerce at (952) 440-1000.

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