Big Slabs From Small Waters

Big Slabs From Small Waters

There are a ton of great crappie lakes in Minnesota, and the majority of them are small bodies of water. Here are a few of the best bets. (March 2009)

After bluegills, crappies are the most commonly caught fish in Minnesota. Photo by Kenny Darwin.

The most commonly caught fish in Minnesota, after the abundant bluegill, is the crappie. They grow big, can be fished throughout the year and put up a great fight when you get one on the line. Oh yeah, they taste darn good as well.

Minnesota is home to white and black crappies, although the black crappie is the most abundant -- found throughout the state -- while white crappies are primarily found in the south. There are a ton of great lakes for crappie anglers to try and the vast majority of them are small bodies of water.

Finding those small bodies of water where crappies are bigger than your hand is a tough but worthy pursuit. Because there's always the fear of exposing a secret honeyhole, those small waters are yours for searching.

In this article, we focus on lakes large enough to support extra fishing pressure; however, overharvesting any body of water diminishes the fishery.

Catch-and-release is critical for preserving the future of trophy fisheries. Some lakes mentioned offer opportunities to harvest wallhanger crappies.

What defines a trophy crappie?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but get into the range of 13 to 15 inches and you have a crappie that most anglers have never caught. Anything above 16 inches is definitely a trophy.

In addition to this article, the next best place to find high-quality crappie lakes is in the Minnesota fishing regulations. Those lakes with special crappie regulations have been selected because of their potential. Many of these lakes have been protected for several years and DNR biologists are seeing the payoff. Lakes where 8- or 9-inch crappies were the biggest are now producing 13- and 14-inch crappies.

One of the biggest things to remember about crappies is that they aren't as predictable as anglers think. Oh sure, in the spring they flock to the bays, channels and shallow-water locations to feed and prepare for spawn, but once the water warms up, they begin to roam.

Crappies roam for a variety of reasons but mainly in search of food and shelter. Food sources vacillate throughout a lake as summer progresses triggering movements and changes in activity. Shelter means escape from large predators. It's an unfortunate coincidence for Mr. Crappie that the lakes where he's most abundant are also lakes filled with big predators like muskies and pike.

UPPER RED LAKE
Beltrami County
It won't be much longer before Upper Red Lake falls off the map for being a trophy crappie fishery. The year-class that made the lake legendary is almost all gone due to predation, harvest and old age. While that story is near an end, there is still good news. Upper Red Lake is probably the only lake in the state where an angler has a legitimate shot at catching a 17-inch crappie pushing 3 pounds.

"Crappies are now few and far between, but if you are looking for a trophy lake, you can't beat it with plenty of fish upward of 14 to 16 inches and even larger," said "Tackle" Terry Tuma, a crappie-angling expert.

"Last year was a good year early on, so hopefully, history repeats itself this year as well."

Bryan Sathre of Fathead Guide Service makes a run up to Upper Red several times in the winter and spring, and said when you find them, the fishing is awesome for several hours. He prefers using small jigs like a firefly tipped with a minnow below a float system or worked along the bottom.

"The key is to stay mobile and plan on fishing for other species like walleyes or northerns if crappies can't be found," he said.

Sathre agreed that crappies are harder to find, but said there are still plenty of pigs out there, and if a wall mounter is what you desire, this is the place to fish.

Only part of the lake is open to fishing and the boundary is not always well marked on maps. To simplify, it is recommended that anglers stay east of the longitudinal coordinate of 94° 43´ 12.0˝ W to ensure they are on state waters. The main landing is on the east side of the lake right off Highway 72 by Waskish.

For more information, go online to www.upperredlakeassn.com.

PRIOR LAKE
Scott County
The Twin Cities is home to some of the best crappie lakes in the state and Prior Lake is one of them. Although it has an abundant population of 8- to 9-inch fish, trophy crappies are difficult to locate, although a few double-digit fish are caught every year. The west metro DNR fisheries office said crappie growth rates are good on Prior.

"Prior is an untapped crappie lake except for the springtime when it seems like everybody is fishing the channels and shallow bays," Terry Tuma said. "I like deep points, sunken rockpiles, a deep breakline or a deep weedline. I strongly believe they roam the basin of the lake as well, so that means using your electronics and trolling motor to roam rather than anchor."

Jig spins and live-bait rigs with a colored hook and bead are two of Tuma's favorites in the summertime.

"These tactics are very productive, but not a lot of anglers are using them because they'd rather just use a float system and cast," he said.

For more information, visit www.cityofpriorlake.com or call (952) 447-9800.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER
Lake Pepin
One of Tuma's favorite places to chase crappies is the widening of the river known as Lake Pepin, a relatively unpressured crappie fishery, since anglers prefer to target bass, walleyes and other species.

"Fishing on the river means going after big fish. This is true from Lake Pepin all the way up to Red Wing," Tuma said. Fishing riprap areas and wing dams is the name of the game, but be prepared for a fight because, like any other river fish, these crappies are strong having built their muscles fighting the current.

"Crappies don't seem to sit right in the current, they tend to like shallow slackwater areas adjacent to current. I'm talking about 2 to 4 feet of water in many areas," Tuma said.

Riprap areas where there's a bend, a sandbar or an inside turn seem to

be the best crappie-holding locations.

"I'll use a float and jig when fishing shallow, but when they are out deeper or holding around wing dams, I'll use a live-bait rig," he said.

Fathead minnows are Tuma's favorite, although he occasionally uses crappie minnows, wax worms or artificials like a Powergrub. Jig sizes are generally a bit larger to deal with the current, but if using a float to avoid rocks, a smaller jig will work.

For more information, go to www.lakecity.org or call (800) 369-4123.

LEECH LAKE
Cass County
Call Leech a sleeper lake and you aren't giving it the credit it deserves. Leech is another example of a body of water targeted for many species and largely ignored for crappies.

"Leech is one of those lakes that don't get fished for crappies like it should," said Pat Smith of Thorne Brothers Custom Rod and Tackle.

With 10 public landings dotted around the lake, crappie anglers can access almost any part of the lake they want.

Sathre said there are some good numbers of 13- to 14-inch crappies in Leech but also plenty of smaller fish. "Leech is really good with so many reed beds holding crappies after the spawn. The shallow bays do well as do the rice paddies and lily pad beds around the Federal Dam area," he said.

Smith said by midsummer the crappies are out in the standing cabbage beds. Both anglers like to go after them with a jig-and-minnow or slip-bobber with a firefly jig tipped with a wax worm.

For more information, visit www.leechlake.org or call (800) 735-3297.

BOWSTRING LAKE
Itasca County
Considered a secret lake by some of the locals, Bowstring is a topnotch crappie lake with good numbers and sizes and plenty of locations to fish, including several crappie cribs.

There are two main public accesses, one on the south end and the other on the northeast side, giving anglers several options. With more than 9,000 acres of water, there are numerous locations to consider. Bowstring has a strong year-class of crappies that have reached the 12-inch range, although there are plenty of smaller ones.

Typical crappie locations are good places to fish on Bowstring, but there are also a few little bedspring cribs worth checking out, Smith said.

"Check with an area bait shop or fishing guide, although don't be surprised if they don't say anything, because it's been a big secret for a few years," he added.

For more information on Bowstring Lake, visit www.deerriver.org or call (888) 701-2226.

LAKE KITCHI
Beltrami County
Kitchi is a great little lake with three landings that has some good solid crappie fishing. It is a great location if all you want is numbers and aren't worried about size. There are a few chunky crappies in this lake, Sathre said, but it's a great lake to take the kids because they'll have plenty of fun and fishing action.

Connected to the Cass Lake Chain, Kitchi features a very shallow basin with a few deep holes. DNR surveys show there is an abundance of crappies, including some decent-sized ones. Good reeds and sand flats are near the deep holes where crappies tend to hold throughout the year, even during ice-fishing season.

"Work the reed beds around the shallow basin and you'll have great luck for crappies, not to mention a few bonus walleyes," Sathre said.

For more information, visit www.casslake.com or call (800) 356-8615.

CASS LAKE
Beltrami County
One of Sathre's favorite lakes, Cass Lake is full of walleyes, pike and muskies, but it's also a great crappie destination. It's also one of those lakes that truly fit the definition of a sleeper. Check DNR survey details about Cass and it looks like there aren't any crappies at all, but talk with anglers and you'll quickly find that only locals know what's going at Cass.

Sathre is one of those locals who had done very well crappie fishing on Cass over the years. There used to be fish cribs in Allen's Bay, but they have since deteriorated. If you have an old map that labels those cribs, give it a whirl, but don't be surprised if nothing even gets marked on your electronics.

"When fishing Allen's Bay, the best way to go about it is to fish the weedlines pitching jigs on a slip-bobber. There's also good fishing on the southwestern end of the lake by Salistar Marina. Those weedlines are great, plus there are some suspended humps holding crappies and perch."

For more information, go to www.casslake.com or call (800) 356-8615.

LAKE MINNETONKA
Hennepin County
Lake Minnetonka is not home to as many monster crappies as it used to be, but they are there and they are catchable. If size doesn't matter so much, Minnetonka is still a good choice because there are plenty of crappies out there, most of them in the 10- to 11-inch range.

"Springtime is the easiest time to fish Minnetonka," Smith said. "The shallow bays and channels are great, but not enough anglers work the outside weedline. The fish are there and easier to catch."

That is especially true in the summer, he added, when crappies begin moving around the lake. Changing food sources, not to mention big predators, including large muskies and largemouth bass, keep crappies on the move.

"Backtrolling plastics on the outside weedline is something most Minnesota panfishers fail to do," he said. "They'd prefer to anchor and cast, but you have to remain mobile to catch these moving schools of fish."

For more information, go to www. lakeminnetonkachamber.com or http://minnetonka.waterpatrol.org.

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