Minnesota's Bluegill & Crappie Honeyholes

Minnesota's Bluegill & Crappie Honeyholes

Ice-fishing guru Dave Genz knows a thing or two about catching big panfish in our state. And now, he's even giving up some of his hotspots!

Every winter, Dave Genz "researches" new ways to catch big bluegills and crappies. Photo courtesy of Dave Genz

By Tim Lesmeister

You walk into the bait shop, kick the snow off your boots, look over and spot two guys huddled in the corner - and they're whispering. One guy has a serious look on his face as he listens intently to the other. You mosey in closer to hear the conversation and the guy listening taps the other guy on the shoulder and points your way. They split up and head for the door. Obviously they were discussing a lake where the panfish were huge and the bite was hot.

Everybody tries to keep the hotspots a secret, but it never happens. Someone discovers that honeyhole and just can't help but tell a friend, who tells a friend, who tells a friend . . .

And then there are guys like us who give up the secrets as fast as we learn them. I had been fishing a weedline in Crystal Bay on Lake Minnetonka during the summer months for bass and would pick up the occasional crappie there on a jig-and-grub. There was a deep hole in the middle of the vegetation and I thought it might be a great winter location. In early January last year I drilled some holes there and lowered the transducer into the hole. I thought there was something wrong with the sonar, but it was just marking fish - crappies, and tons of them. The fishing was phenomenal.

It wasn't long before the people I told this to came out to visit and set up portable shelters to fish from. There were a lot of fish and everyone had a great time catching them. Will the spot continue to be productive in 2005? Maybe not, but there are plenty of other places to catch big crappies.

Just ask Dave Genz, the angler who pioneered the mobile ice-fishing style. He'll tell you that the latest and greatest bluegill and crappie honeyholes are just an auger hole or two away for the angler who knows what to look for and has the tenacity to explore lakes that others won't go to until they hear about the hot bite going on there.

"To stay on top of the big fish, you have to go where the bite is best," said Genz. "It changes from year to year. As an example let's look at the high-water situations like we had when I first moved from Detroit Lakes to Minneapolis some years back. All the lakes in the Chisago area were high that year and I thought I'd died and went to heaven. I moved from Detroit Lakes to Minneapolis and found the fishing better. The water got high, spread the bluegills and crappies out, provided a lot of additional forage and then those fish had a chance to grow. When the water dropped in Chisago, Lake Pulaski was rising. The fishing got great there. This happens in lakes every year. Some provide great fishing for big panfish for a few years and then you start looking again once the big panfish bite starts to slow down from the fishing pressure."

Genz follows the hot bite every ice-fishing season, and here are a few of the lakes he plans to explore this season.

LAKE MINNEWASKA

Pope County

"This is an excellent bluegill/crappie lake," said Genz. "You want to stop and talk to the guys at the Bait Shop in Glenwood first, and even then you might find yourself following the crowds on this lake."

Genz is not one to follow the crowds, but he explains, "It's a big body of water, so your schools of fish are bigger, and that means it's not as bad to slide up between a couple of other shelters."

With a lot of anglers setting up shop on Minnewaska you might think the fish are going to be smaller in size because of the fishing pressure. Genz says this is not the case.

"It's a popular location for anglers, but there are a lot of nice fish there," he said. "You find panfish there that are honest three-to-a-pound in size. A big one is a half-pound. So maybe the fish aren't huge like you find in some lakes, but they're nice."

For more information, contact Koeps Glenwood Corner at (320) 634-4660.

BIG STONE LAKE

Big Stone County

Big Stone Lake is well known for walleyes, and anglers love this body of water because it's a border lake, and in the spring the walleye opener for Big Stone is a couple of weeks ahead of the regular-season opener. It's not a lake that generates accolades for it's hefty panfish, but that's because not many anglers fished for them in the past.

"There are huge sunfish in this border water," said Genz. "It's a tremendously popular spot for anglers on the west edge of the state, but there aren't that many anglers out that way, so Big Stone doesn't get a lot of pressure."

The winter pressure the lake does receive is definitely pinpointed at the big bluegills, which is kind of unusual because there isn't a lot of vegetation, which is where ice-anglers usually search for bluegills.

"The bluegills there relate to the rockpiles in this lake," said Genz. "Big Stone doesn't have a lot of weeds, so when you find a rockpile, you will find bluegills."

For more information, contact Bud's Bait at (320) 839-2480.

LAKE OSAKIS

Todd/Douglas Counties

Lake Osakis used to get a lot of angler attention in the early to mid-1990s because the winter fishing for crappies was outstanding. By the beginning of the new millennium, Osakis was getting a bit lonely because many of the anglers made the exodus to other lakes in search of more productive fishing. Now, according to Genz, Osakis is coming back.

"Up on the north end during the first part of January will be pretty good for big crappies," he said. "You need to get away from the crowds on this lake if you're going to find the bigger fish. There will likely be a lot of stationary shelters out on the ice, and these areas are going to be heavily exploited by now, and the fishing pressure will have removed the aggressive fish."

The key is to be mobile.

"Venture out from where the fishing has been heavy and you'll find schools of fish," Genz said. "That's what's nice about fishing the north end. The schools of crappies can be anywhere there. The obvious spots where it narrows down get hammered early, so find the untapped schools and you will be catching some big fish."

For more information, contact The General Store at (320) 859-5159.

EXPERIMENTAL LAKES

When Genz and I were discussing what constitute the best qualities in a winter panfish lake, he brought up some good points, which I noted, and one characteristic that pertains to regulations made some great sense. "If you're looking for some nice bluegills, just to have a great time catching fish, it's the experimental lakes that have them," he said. "You have to give the DNR credit because they're doing what needs to be done to produce some bigger fish, and it's working.

"The lakes that have these limits," continued Genz, "have been picked because they don't have all the stunted bluegills. Some have been reclaimed and they have a smaller population of bigger fish instead of an overpopulation of smaller ones."

Let's look at a few of the experimental lakes that Genz likes to explore.

LITTLE SAUK LAKE

Todd County

The special regulations on Little Sauk Lake only allow anglers to keep five bluegills and five crappies.

"It's not about keeping everything you catch to eat anymore," said Genz. "Fishing has become more of a sport, and the challenge is still to catch fish, but we release more these days. That release has made Little Sauk a great lake for big bluegills and crappies."

There is very little structure in Little Sauk, so Genz says to drill a few holes over the deepest water and do some jigging and watch the sonar. When you're fishing a lake that doesn't have well-defined points, sunken islands and reefs or bars, then it's the subtleties that count. Suspended fish are always an option when you can find them on Little Sauk.

For more information, contact Fletcher's Bait at (320) 352-2155.

When you are on a lake that has some structure, a weedline and some deep holes, Genz says that in January and February the deeper holes are where to look for both crappies and bluegills.

"You're looking for a deep depression surrounded by shallow water," explained Genz. "Any lake you look at, if you have a flat with a depression in it, that depression is going to hold fish in the winter months.

"In Minnesota," continued Genz, "most of the weeds in a lake die in the wintertime and fall down. The forage fish leave the weeds and move into the depressions in the bottom. It's all about survival. The food goes there and so do the fish."

KNIFE LAKE

Kanabec County

The special regulations on Knife Lake pertain to the walleyes and northern pike, but these too can have an impact on the panfish there. According to Genz, you need the bigger predator fish to help balance the lake, and that is just what the regulations are doing.

"If you want bigger panfish, there can't be huge populations of stunted fish," said Genz. "There has to be some way to keep the smaller fish in check, and the bigger predator fish do that."

There's not a lot of deep water in Knife, but there are some deeper - it's a relative term when you talk about lake depths - holes mixed in with the shallower sand and weedflats.

"Last year on this lake I was catching crappies and most of them were about 11 inches long," said Genz. "Nothing spectacular, but nice fish. I was using maggots to catch these fish. I switched to the Power Nymph and the next 10 crappies I caught weighed over 10 pounds total. I hadn't moved; I wasn't even fishing a different hole. The nymph was just triggering bigger fish."

For more information, contact Jerry's Sport & Bait Shop at (320) 679-2151.

I need to go into a little more detail about this nymph technique that Genz mentions. If you know Genz, then you realize he is a machine on the ice. He calls it his aggressive style of fishing.

"The standard concept over the years when using plastic trailers instead of live bait has been to use tiny little straight pieces of plastic," he said. "You use a subtle approach with this type of plastic trailer. You work them slow, and that's just not my style of fishing. I need to work them aggressively. When I fish, it drives me nuts to use those slow presentations. I call them the spring-bobber presentation."

Genz came upon the nymph technique by being in the right place at the right time.

"It was during one of the late-season periods a few years ago when I started working with this new technique," Genz said. "I was at the Trap Attack when it was still in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and Berkley gave me some of their Power Baits to try out. I had a bunch and passed some out to some of the other anglers down there. The guys kept coming back for more of those Power Nymphs. It was enough to get me fishing with them."

I asked Genz to describe the process.

"Use the Power Nymph and aggressive jigging in deep water," he said. "It's a 1-inch piece of plastic covered in tentacles, so there is some action to them. I tip a Lindy Fat-Boy (a thin-bodied jig that fishes horizontally) with the nymph. Sometimes I use them whole and sometimes I pinch them in half. You adjust the size to the mood of the fish.

"They look like a little nymph," he continued, "and when you use my method, you get all those arms moving up and down, and those fish get aggressive and hit it. In deeper water, you're using a more aggressive jigging approach. In shallower water, you tend to slow down. The deeper you get the more vibration you need to put into your presentation. Power Nymphs are great and I've had tremendous success with them."

CHESTER LAKE

Olmsted County

On Chester Lake, which is also referred to as Bear Creek Reservoir, the possession limit of bluegills is 10 from Nov. 1 until April 30. There is also a minimum size limit on bass of 15 inches, so there will be a predator to keep those stunted bluegills in check.

Over 2,500 bluegill and black crappie adults were stocked in 1996-1997. Many of the original adults stocked have grown to a size acceptable to anglers. The maximum depth of this 120-acre lake is about 40 feet, and the water clarity is pretty good, which makes this lake a prime option for using an underwater viewing camera. Genz has become a real advocate for the underwater camera, as long as it is used properly.

"The thing that the camera does to everybody is that it makes them change their presentation when they see that fish," said Genz. "You can be fishing aggressively, but as soon as you see that fish, then you tend to slow down. This can be a bad thing.

"When you change what you're doing, it can affect whether that fish hits the bait. You used an aggressive approach to get them in, and now all of a sudden you see the fish and you change. The fish isn't rushing up and hitting the lure, so you wonder what went wrong. What you want to do is keep using an aggressive motion to trigger that bite.

"My style is to keep

it going," he continued. "Don't let those fish examine the bait. It's steel and hardware, it's not something they normally eat. Let them look at it too closely and they're not going to hit it."

For more information on Chester Lake, contact B&M Bait & Tackle at (507) 282-4982.

LONG LOST LAKE

Clearwater County

According to a DNR report on Long Lost Lake, south of Zerkel, the lake "is a land-locked lake in southern Clearwater County. The primary public access is off County Road 39, approximately three miles north of Highway 113. The water level has risen 10.7 feet since 1993 and is now 8.7 feet above the ordinary high-water level. There is a potential for this lake to rise more, and the observed trend suggests this may happen. The rising water has inundated some cabins and adjacent woodland areas. The lake surface area has increased by about 60 acres, with much of that area now flooded timber. Submerged trees are creating some navigation hazards but are also providing additional habitat for various fish species."

Genz said a place like this is a panfisherman's dream.

"When you see a situation like this, you just know there are going to be some big bluegills and crappies there," he said. "It's what you look for that makes a lake a honeyhole. I'm a huge fan of rising water in lakes because this condition means that the panfish will be big, and in the winter months, that's what I'm after."

For more information, contact KB Sports at (218) 694-2278.

* * *

There are still plenty of lakes in Minnesota that are bluegill and crappie honeyholes. You can wait for the secret to get out on one and test it out, or you can find out on your own with a little "research."



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