Badger State Crappie Hotspots

The spring thaw is coming! That means it's almost time to go crappie fishing. You can't go wrong on these waters.

By Ted Peck

Wisconsin crappie catchers have a wealth of waters across our state in which to chase ol' papermouth.

Right now, almost all crappie fishing in America's Dairyland is done astride a five-gallon bucket. But in a few short weeks the silver slabbers will be moving close to shore to warming open water in a pilgrimage that will repeat itself every week for each 100 miles traveled from south to north in Wisconsin.

Crappies are early spawners, moving into shallows close to woody cover or reeds to procreate around Mother's Day and beyond. Warming water after ice-out triggers a dress rehearsal for the spawn as crappies seek both food and a degree of comfort. The movement of crappies from deep-water wintering haunts to spawning areas in shallower water is fairly easy to track on most waters, with fish tending to stack at a comfortable depth that moves predictably closer to the bank with every warming day.

Some crappies seek out warm, shallow water and attempt to spawn long before most anglers even think about looking within cane pole range of the bank - especially in lakes with channels and canals on their northern exposures.

A major key to targeting these fish is doing some serious looking - first at the surface temperature gauge, then with a good pair of polarized sunglasses. The drive to find warmer water is powerful this time of year. And dark-bottomed, shallow fingers off of the main lake - especially with northern exposures - warm quicker than you might think.

Following is a look at some of our best inland crappie waters for the weeks ahead.

Photo by Tom Evans

LAKE WISCONSIN
This southern flowage on the Wisconsin River system is home to both size and numbers of both black and white crappies, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Tim Larson.

Like most Wisconsin River flowages, Lake Wisconsin is a matrix of shallow, stumpy flats adjacent to the old river channel. A number of fish cribs have been placed in and near the channel here over the years, holding crappies essentially all year long. Shortly after ice-out the slabs in this stained flowage will seek shallow water - very shallow water.

Guide Ron Barefield has been on a crappie-catching pattern here for years, whaling on slabs in waters less than 2 feet deep when most anglers are still out fishing the brushpiles.

Ron and I trade guide trips several times each year, enjoying the experience of somebody else running the trolling motor for a change. When challenged by my volunteer fire department to provide a fish fry last April, Barefield came through by taking me to his Lake Wisconsin hotspot. Our combined limit of 50 crappies was enough to feed all the firefighters, their wives and kids - and other folks I've never met before. Happiness is a crappie filet. The shallow bite in Lake Wisconsin is right around the corner in what may be our first open-water opportunity.

Contacts: guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756; Owen's Live Bait, (608) 742-2823; Mi Place Bait, (608) 635-4020.

BIG EAU PLEINE & DuBAY
These two flowages at the upper end of the Wisconsin River system between Wausau and Stevens Point are perennial big-crappie producers, with 14- to 15-inchers commonplace, and bigger fish caught every now and then.

As is the case throughout the Wisconsin River system right now, the flowage crappies here are preparing to move up out of the old river channel to hug wood in shallower water. A good depthfinder and GPS are essential in locating the biggest crappies in this system. When you stop hitting stumps with your outboard's lower unit, a glance at the depthfinder will probably reveal the old river channel. The key to finding big crappies is marking the exact location of stumps next to the old channel edge, and that's where the GPS comes in.

Smaller stumps often hold bigger crappies than larger "wood" because dominant crappies can patrol this little kingdom more efficiently. Unlike spots where you might fill a 25-fish limit with eater-sized crappies, a stump on the channel edge will only give up one or two fish.

The 10-foot-long Crappie Commander rod made by HT Enterprises right here in Wisconsin remains the gold standard for serious crappie catchers all over the United States. When coupled with a medium spinning reel and 10-pound-test Berkley FireLine, there is no more efficient crappie weapon on the market.

For the big gals on these flowages you need a big presentation. A 1/4-ounce hot florescent pink jighead with a glow, white or chartreuse Fuzz-E-Tail body and a 2-inch or even larger minnow complete the presentation.

Use stealth to approach a good stump. Bounce the top of the stump several times with the heavy jig, then hold it stationary just a couple of inches above the wood. If a crappie doesn't gernip the bait, try the same approach on the shallower backside of the stump, finally working your way around to the deeper channel side. On the deepwater side of the stump, work the bait all the way up and down slowly, just as you would an ice jig. Upon reaching the bottom, let the lure plop into the mud a couple of times, then bring it up just a couple inches to hover.

Big crappies don't necessarily bite right away, simply because they don't need to. Patience is an important component in success. It will take at least five minutes to probe a single stump, with perhaps every fifth stump yielding crappies. When you find a productive stump, plug it into your GPS.

Here are two other critical components to bagging bragging-sized crappies on these flowages: attach your jig on the line with a loop knot that is secured with a drop of super glue, and have a net handy with a handle as long at that 10-foot cane pole. Slab crappies know how to use their weight to gain freedom. You may only be able to move the real sows a few feet before they wiggle free. The long-handled net can spell the difference between a story about the flowage queen and a wall mount of platter dimensions.

There is good access on 6,800-acre Eau Pleine Reservoir and 6,300-acre Lake DuBay. It's big water, but take your time. These waters eat lower units.

Contacts: Wausau Convention and Visitor's Bureau, 1-800-236-9728, www.visitwausau.com; guide John Sparble, (715) 848-0734.

PETENWELL & CASTLE ROCK
Both of these sprawling flowages in the middle of the Wisconsin River system offer tremendous crap

pie action, especially right after ice-out. Key in on creek entry points and backwater areas, especially at the upstream end of both flowages.

You'll find crappies somewhere in the first eight miles of Castle Rock Flowage down from the Petenwell Dam. Up on Petenwell Lake, start by probing the waters just below the Nekoosa Dam, the Devil's Elbow area and the sloughs around Strong's flats on the southeast end.

According to the DNR, there are always several good year-classes of crappies swimming in these flowages. The biggest problem with getting hooked up after ice-out depends on how fast the ice goes out. If spring comes easy, getting to the best crappie spots is no problem. If it arrives in a gush, there are better - and safer - places to fish.

Both flowages have multiple access points. With nearly 39,000 acres between the two, one of the new Fishing HotSpots maps can be very handy.

If you've traveled from some distance and either current flow or wind is a problem, don't go home without probing some of the shoreline riprap and boat harbors. As is the case on Lake Wisconsin, these mooring areas warm much quicker than surrounding waters, with crappies finding them a lot earlier in the year than you might expect.

MILLER DAM FLOWAGE
This 2,700-acre flowage in Taylor County is nestled between two major interstates in the Chequamegon National Forest, just far enough off the beaten path to assure excellent angling for crappies and other species.

This flowage west of Medford offers good opportunities for the non-boating crappie angler at several locations, including right offshore from the campground not far from one of the flowage's boat ramps. Another excellent bank-fishing location is where County Highway G crosses the inlet.

Shallow waters here warm quickly after ice-out, pushing slabs close to shoreline cover where the venerable "pinky" hair jig and plastics - particularly tube jigs - work quite well. Florescent colors are the only way to go, with chartreuse, orange, yellow, pink and glow all catching fish.

Right after ice-out, target waters on the north side, particularly around the Weasel Creek inlet and Bear Creek inlet on Miller Dam's northwest side. Other good locations include the large bay on the flowage's east side south of the federal campground and another eastside bay south of the dam.

Miller Dam Flowage, also named Chequamegon Waters Flowage on some maps, has four boat launches. The one operated by the county is free. There is a $10 annual fee charged to launch at the three federally operated access points.

Crappies tend to mill around within a long cast of shore at ice-out before settling in close to woody cover to spawn. A RoadRunner horsehead jig with a red head and chartreuse tail is a good locator bait.

According to the DNR, at least four solid year-classes of crappies are swimming here, in numbers substantial enough to qualify this flowage as one of Wisconsin's very best crappie waters.

Contacts: Taylor County Tourism, 1-800-257-4729; Fuzzy's General Store, (715) 785-7977.

WOLF RIVER SYSTEM
Better known for walleyes and white bass, the Wolf River system is a profound and pretty much overlooked crappie fishery. Three major flowages are found between vast Lake Winnebago and the town of Orihula, where crappies make a migratory push out of Winneconne, Butte des Morts and Poygan lakes every spring.

When fishing up in the river, target brushpiles, deadfalls and the inside turns of river bends by throwing plastic fliptails. Color doesn't seem to make much difference when fish are on a rip. But if they are in a finicky funk after a cold front, you may have to experiment to find the hot color, or simply cut to the chase and pitch a minnow hooked under the dorsal fin set 1 to 3 feet below a slip-bobber at shoreline cover.

In the upper Wolf, some of the riverine sloughs around the New London area like Jenny, Colic and Templeton - and shallow Partridge Lake - are all popular local spots.

At the downstream end of all this water is nearly a mile of riprap along Boom Cut at the mouth of the Wolf and the infamous Highway 41 bridge at Butte des Morts that is one of the best multi-species hotspots on the entire Wolf/Winnebago system.

The key to hooking up in Winneconne, Butte des Morts and Poygan lies in paying close attention to detail. Spots like Pony Creek and Willow Creek up on Poygan are easy to locate. Subtle points, deeper spots at some of the inlets and transition zones along the weeds are a little tougher to zero in on.

There are plenty of boat launches, bait shops and lodging opportunities, and more water than you can fish in a year on the Wolf River system. Several solid year-classes of crappies are waiting to stretch your string.

Contacts: Lang's Landing, (920) 582-7501; Critter's Wolf River Sports, (920) 582-0471; Double B Guide Service, (920) 836-2377.

HIGH FALLS & CALDRON FALLS FLOWAGES
High Falls and Caldron Falls flowages are located about 12 miles northwest of Crivitz in northeast Wisconsin and both are great places to target for spring crappies.

Caldron Falls is a lot easier water to "read," with good numbers of crappies relating to classic woody shoreline cover and small, shallow bays.

At ice-out, crappies tend to stage in the middle of the mouth of places like Crane Bay before venturing closer to shore. Look for these fish to be suspended about halfway down in the water column.

Ice-out crappies can be spooky. Try a controlled drift with two fluorescent tube jigs set about 14 inches apart. Remember to fish above the "blips" on your electronics. Crappies' eye placement near the top of the head makes it more efficient for these panfish to attack from below - one reason why your bobber may go sideways or tip up rather than plop under water when a crappie hits.

Crappies are a little tougher to locate on Caldron Falls Flowage, but the average size is generally much larger, with 13- to 14-inch fish common - once you find 'em.

Drifting the bays and casting is a good way to locate fish that may be difficult to detect with electronics in the nether reaches of the more secluded bays. There is some terrific isolated woody cover off the main part of Caldron Falls Flowage that can hold some whoppers. Consider using the stump-bumping method that is so effective on Wisconsin River flowages if you can find this offshore wood. And don't forget to record the hotspot on your GPS.

Access is plentiful on these flowages, with six ramps on Caldron Falls and eight located on High Falls.

Contacts: Crivitz Recreation Association, 1-800-274-8480; Hook, Line & Sin

ker Bait, Crivitz, (715) 854-2073; guide Mike Mladenik, (715) 854-2055.

CHIPPEWA FLOWAGE
Crappie action on the sprawling Chippewa Flowage is almost always good from opening day in May until ice up. Two reasons why the crappie bite is so good here even when it's cold are a 15-crappie daily bag limit, and fact that there are over 15,000 acres of water and 140 islands for fish to relate to.

According to the DNR, there are at least five solid year-classes of crappies swimming here, with the larger specimens over 14 inches long.

Once you know what to look for, getting hooked up is fairly easy: just check out every shallow bay with woody structure with little crappie jigs under a small float. Ice-fishing jigs with those hyperactive little plastic Lindy Techni-tails are the shortest route to a 15-fish limit when jigs are pegged under a nearly neutrally buoyant pencil float.

Since productive wood may be in exceptionally shallow water, stealth is required. A 7- to 9-foot light-action rod will help you pitch the baits a long distance, while providing plenty of leverage for the hookset once you get a bite.

Popular spring crappie spots on this incredible flowage include Crane Lake on the northwest end, Moss Creek Bottoms on the northeast side and Scott Lake on the south end of the flowage.

"The Chip" can be an intimidating body of water the first few times you fish here. Take a spare prop and plenty of spare gas along, and a cell phone with a booster antenna. Don't forget water and snacks. And bug juice. Plenty of bug juice. If you forget the insect repellent and break down toward evening, you can make a sandwich out of insects in about five minutes, provided you have two slices of bread.

Contacts: Hayward Area Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-826-3474; Pastika's Sporting Goods, (715) 634-4466.

* * *
The spring thaw is coming, and that means it's time for crappie fishing. Enjoy!



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