Justin Sommer may be a little bit biased when he talks about how good Minnesota crappie fishing is, especially in the southern part of the state. After all, he owns a bait shop called Sommer Outdoors in Fairmont.
But it doesn’t take long to realize he’s not just blowing smoke. He truly believes the part of Minnesota he calls home boasts some of the state’s best crappie fishing.
“I remember going out when I was younger, and catching a crappie or two a day was something,” Sommer said. “Last winter, we were having 150- to 200-fish days. I think the populations have been really fantastic. And I actually think we’re probably on the verge of getting some stunted growth. That’s my biggest fear, and it’s because we have so many crappies.”
While that’s certainly not true everywhere across the state, crappie populations in general are doing well. There remain a number of boom-and-bust fisheries — especially in lakes where winterkill occurs from time to time — so anglers should check to ensure a die-off hasn’t occurred where they plan to fish, or that a single strong year-class that had been carrying a fishery hasn’t petered out. But all in all, this spring is shaping up to be another good one when it comes to catching crappies.
Many fishermen begin targeting crappies as soon as the ice leaves the lakes, and the strong bite can last a month or more until the fish vacate the shallows and migrate to the places where they’ll spend the summer. Crappies in Minnesota can be found spawning anytime the water is between about 57 and 75 degrees. Many anglers mistakenly believe the crappies are spawning when the fish are shallow in the early spring in the days following ice-out. That’s not the case, however. Rather, they begin making shallow forays into warm water for food, and will move back to deeper water when the water temperature drops. However, during springs with stable weather, crappies may remain shallow for extended periods of time, giving anglers ample opportunity to target them.
Following are looks at what anglers in various parts of the state can expect when the spring season gets under way. (Anglers should note there is no closed season for crappies in Minnesota, although our Department of Natural Resources does prohibit fishing in some areas that attract heavy concentrations of spawning crappies; those spots are well marked.)
The size of the crappies in the state’s southern reaches isn’t as big as it was in the past, but the abundance makes up for it. Whereas anglers were catching 10 1/2- to 12-inch crappies in previous years, the average size now is between about 8 1/2 inches and 10 inches, Sommer said.
“But we’re talking 200- to 300-fish days,” he said.
The best bite generally occurs in the week or two leading up to the statewide walleye-fishing opener, which this year is May 13. And the strong bite lasts a month and, in some cases, two. The bite kicks off in the channel between Amber and Hall lakes on the south side of Fairmont. It can be shoulder-to-shoulder type fishing right away, but it isn’t long before the channels between other lakes start to warm up and attract crappies, too. Sommer recommends small Flu-Flu jigs, or jigheads tipped with small plastics. Some anglers use bobbers, but not everyone. The key is to suspend the bait about 3 feet below the surface.
“You don’t even really have to cast out,” Sommer said. “Those channels are about 12 feet wide at the maximum. You just drop it in.”
Farther west is Big Twin Lake, a 457-acre body of water near Trimont in Martin County. The lake’s crappie population has increased dramatically in recent years. During a survey in 2012, Minnesota DNR test nets captured three times more crappies than they did just four years before that. Fish averaged about 7 inches in length, but ranged up to 12 inches. The best areas of the lake to target, according to the DNR, are the downed trees along the shorelines. Cottonwood Lake near Windom is another good option.
Moving to the north and east, check Lake Elysian near Waterville, which is home to both black and white crappies. The populations of both species have been trending upward for the past decade. The crappie population in Cannon Lake near Faribault goes up and down depending on recruitment, but of late has been trending upward. During the most recent fisheries assessment, about a third of the crappies there were 9 1/2 inches or longer.
Across the central part of Minnesota, and especially on lakes in the Brainerd area, the spring of 2016 was a fantastic crappie-fishing season, thanks to good crappie populations and weather conducive to keeping fish in the shallows. If the weather is good again this year, Nate Blasing, a guide with S&W Guide Service in Brainerd, expects good things again.
“Depending on the weather, I’m thinking it should be another banner year,” he said.
Many of the lakes Blasing targeted last year produced crappies of a variety of sizes, indicating there were several year-classes of fish. “There are pretty strong, multiple year-class populations in a lot of the lakes around here,” he said.
Blasing recommends targeting the lakes and bays on the Gull Chain of Lakes, as well as Pelican Lake and the Whitefish Chain of Lakes. He also points to Gilbert Lake, a 357-acre body of water where the daily crappie limit since 2005 has been five fish per day (the regular statewide daily crappie limit is 10 per day).
“That seemed to really turn around that population,” Blasing said. “They were all small for a whole lot of years, but now in the last couple of years, we’re getting some beautiful fish out there.”
Blasing’s springtime routine is relatively simple. He searches for shallow, dark-bottomed areas with pencil weeds or lily pad roots. Blasing often fishes for crappies with kids, and so his standard fare is a plain pink or red hook, a split shot, and a slip-bobber. Black, pink or white hair jigs produce well, too. While some fishermen skip live bait and just tip their hooks with plastics, Blasing still prefers to use a live crappie minnow. And if the fishing is slow in the shallows, or there don’t seem to be many fish around, he’ll head for cabbage beds in deeper water, where he’ll use Beetle Spins or little crankbaits to find concentrations of fish.
Another good option in central Minnesota is Todd County’s Lake Osakis, which supports a “high-quality fishery,” according to the DNR.
There’s an abundance of lakes in the Detroit Lakes area, and lots of good crappie-fishing options, according to Nathan Olson, the DNR area fisheries supervisor for that part of the state. The ice leaves smaller bodies of water sooner than larger ones, so they can provide fishermen some of the earliest action of the year.
“It’s probably best if they check with our office or one of the bait shops up here to see how the spring is progressing,” Olson said.
He advises anglers to search for warm, shallow areas where the spring sun heats the water. Oftentimes, the best fishing occurs after the sun has had a few hours to warm the shallows. “The fishing that people are thinking of is those shallow bays where the water is getting warm,” Olson said. “They can get in there and start throwing minnows or jigs under a bobber.”
As the water temperature warms and crappies begin spawning — which generally occurs in mid-May in Olson’s area — the best place to target is old bulrush beds, where the fish will search for “a nook and cranny between all that stuff,” he said. If water temperatures are changing frequently, anglers can find more consistent action on weed flats or dropoffs outside of spawning areas, where the fish will hold between their shallow forays.
Lakes Melissa and Sallie are among the top options in the Detroit Lakes area. Olson also steers anglers north of Detroit Lakes, where lakes such as North Tamarack and Height of Land can produce good numbers of crappies in a relatively secluded setting.
Three lakes in Olson’s area have special crappie regulations: Eunice, Little Cormorant and Maud. On each lake, the daily limit is five, and the minimum size limit for harvest is 10 inches. The regulation is intended to increase the number of large crappies, though there’s not currently enough data to draw firm conclusions. But the regulations have been successful in accomplishing that goal on lakes just south of the area, Olson said.
Farther to the north, things look good, too, according to Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager in Bemidji. “Across a large swath of northwestern Minnesota — from Alexandria and north — we are sitting on very abundant crappie populations, on average, right now,” he said. “We had a couple of very good year-classes — 2011 and 2012 — and those fish would be 10 1/2 to 12 inches on average. We are seeing them in large numbers on many lakes up here.”
Among the lakes Drewes highlights are those on the Turtle River Chain, Sucker Bay on Leech Lake, and a number of waters in the Park Rapids area. Farther east, Bowstring Lake has been producing good numbers of crappies, too. He notes that Upper Red Lake, which experienced a crappie boom more than a decade ago, can kick out crappies from time to time. “But they are back to being what I call a background species in the lake,” Drewes said. “It would be very difficult for the average person just to run up there with the expectation of catching crappies.”
Luckily for fishermen in Minnesota’s population center, there is an abundance of crappie-fishing opportunities around the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro area. It’s hard to overlook the massive Lake Minnetonka, which has a number of arms, bays and channels that warm quickly in the spring and provide excellent action. Prior Lake in the south metro is another good choice, and, according to the DNR, crappie abundance there is high and recent surveys have shown the mean weight of the fish “was highest on record.”
Other good metro-area options include White Bear Lake, Eagle Lake (near Maple Grove), Forest Lake, the Chisago Chain, and the South Lindstrom Chain.
Even in lakes with good crappie populations, anglers can have a negative impact on them if they keep too many. That can mean lower populations, or fish communities skewed toward smaller individuals because of angler overharvest.
Nathan Olson, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Detroit Lakes, sometimes will hear anglers talk about how they used to be able to catch big crappies on a given lake, but that they can’t anymore. “If you’ve got one good year-class, we have seen anglers hit them pretty hard,” Olson said. “In some instances, you can have good fishing for a year or two, and then that’s it.”
In addition to relying on anglers practicing selective harvest, the DNR also has instituted special fishing regulations in places where it needs to protect crappie populations, or is trying to change the size structure of a population, for example.
“It does come down to either enforcement or self-regulation at times,” Olson said. “Anglers need to know that people are watching them.”
In his area of the state, Nate Blasing, a guide for S&W Guide Service in Brainerd, says a combination of special regulations and an increasing number of people catching and releasing big crappies has paid off. “I see a lot of people releasing the bigger fish, which is good,” he said. — Joe Albert