Photo by Ron Sinfelt
It’s tough to be a Minnesota angler and not enjoy ice-fishing. But around this time of year, cabin fever is gnawing on us, and sitting on a bucket atop a frozen lake is getting kind of old. Right now, most of us eagerly wait for the melting of our ice-capped waters.
Whether you call it spring fever, March madness or just plain old wintertime blues, the need to float a boat or cast from shore is sorely missed by many of us right now. The good news for folks who like open-water fishing is that as soon as the lakes open up, there are plenty of tasty crappies to be caught.
“There’s nothing better than going crappie fishing from a boat when the water is still cold,” said Bryan Sathre of First Choice Guide Service out of Cass Lake.
Sathre loves chasing crappies, and he considers himself an ice-fishing nut because he actually puts a plank across open water to fish the last few days before ice-out. But Sathre knows that once the ice is gone, the open-water fishing is just as hot as the late-ice bite.
“It’s even fun getting out there when the ice is too bad to walk on, but there’s enough open water to take out the boat,” Sathre said.
The unpredictable thing about a crappie fishery is that it can change from year to year on your favorite body of water. What often makes a good crappie lake is one successful year-class. Once that population is caught or dies off, a lake can experience several years of slow action.
Upper Red Lake in northern Minnesota is a perfect example of this. Just about every article written on crappie fishing in our state over the last seven or eight years has mentioned Red. The big catch there consists of a single year-class of crappies that came about because the walleye population was next to zero. Over the years, the reports from Upper Red Lake progressed from phenomenal numbers, to great numbers and size, to nothing but trophy-sized fish. This year, that year-class continues to age, and as more fish are harvested, their numbers will decline. Red is not spotlighted in this article because people already know about it and, quite simply, there are plenty of other high-quality crappie waters to be found across Minnesota.
This article will focus primarily on larger bodies of water that can handle heavy fishing pressure on crappies. Minnesota is full of topnotch papermouth lakes — both with slabs and a lot of them. The way to find these secret lakes is to search around, ask questions and do your homework.
There are plenty of lakes that fit in the middle of this scenario. They may not be well known around the entire state, but they are local hot crappie lakes that can handle a bit more pressure if anglers practice selective harvest. Most of the lakes spotlighted in this article fit into that category.
Don’t forget to carefully read the 2007 Minnesota Fishing Regulations booklet before venturing onto a new body of water. The Department of Natural Resources is protecting more lakes with special size limits and bag limits so that these high-quality crappie waters stay that way for more than a year or two. That listing in the regulations is another great source for finding high-quality crappie lakes, because if it’s on the DNR radar screen as needing protection, then it’s a good lake. As one DNR biologist put it, “You can’t protect what’s not there, so if we’ve identified it, then the fishing is either good or a few years away from being good.”
SOUTH LINDSTROM CHAIN
Roger Hugill is the Hinckley area fisheries manager for the DNR, and he said there are a lot of quality crappie lakes in his area.
“There are all kinds of little lakes that have great crappie fishing in them, but also some medium-sized lakes that can be mentioned,” said Hugill, who noted the Chisago-area lakes are very productive even though they receive plenty of angling pressure, mainly because much of that attention is focused on largemouth bass.
Brad Pusenka of Frankie’s Bait & Marine in Chisago City said his favorite place for early-season crappies is the South Lindstrom Chain.
“The bite starts the same day the ice comes off, and it stays strong well into early June,” Pusenka said.
Some of Pusenka’s favorite locations include the area in front of the beach in the shallows below the dinner bell, and the area by the bridge over the channel between North and South Lindstrom lakes.
Leech Lake is known for its
walleyes and muskies, but the crappies are underfished on these big waters. “There are so many different bays around the
Shingobee area, White Bay and the Federal Dam area up in
the early-forming rice beds,”
“The area around the bridge is a great place to start if you get here as the ice is going out,” Pusenka noted.
The channel from Chisago to South Lindstrom is another good spot right around ice-out.
“I also like to fish on South Center by Pancake Island and up on the north end of North Center where there are some muddy bays that warm up quickly,” Pusenka said, noting the crappie bite is better where the water is warmer.
For additional information, contact Frankie’s Live Bait & Marine in Chisago City at (651) 257-6334, or the Chisago Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce at (651) 257-1177 or ChisagoLakesChamber.com
Hugill said folks looking to get away from the crowds should try the high-quality crappie lakes in his area. One of the first lakes that popped into his head was Goose Lake northeast of Cambridge between Highway 65 and Interstate 35.
“Goose Lake has such a good crappie population with opportunities for size that we are putting a five-fish bag limit on the lake for this year,” Hugill said.
Just a short distance north of Goose Lake is East Rush and West Rush lakes. East Rush has a lot more shallow-water locations, so it warms up faster, but West Rush has more shoreline and mid-lake structure, including numerous bays and islands.
Good lakes for numbers include Cross Lake in the town of Pine City and Pokegama Lake just west of Pine City. These lakes have an abundant population, a
lthough big crappies can be few and far between, Hugill noted. South of Mora is shallow Fish Lake, which is a favorite of Hugill’s.
“It has some surprisingly good crappie fishing and I’ve caught some ‘pounders’ on there,” he said.
North and South Big Pine lakes are also good locations, according to Hugill, because of their quality crappie populations.
“They cycle on a five- to six-year cycle, so the younger crappies are small but prevalent, while the older fish are few but very large,” Hugill said.
The access to North and South Big Pine lakes are located off Highway 23. The channel between the two lakes is navigable. There also is a public landing off County Road 18 on the north end of the lake.
“These are not the only lakes in this area that have
good crappie fishing, but they are the ones with a more sustainable fishery,” Hugill said.
Additional area information can be obtained from the Hinckley Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-952-4282 or Hinckley.com
Bryan Sathre of First Choice Guide Service lives in the Bemidji area and spends a lot of time looking for massive crappies. He said he always fishes on Red Lake and some of the other big lakes known for having a good crappie bite, but he thinks the best action comes on the little lakes in the area.
“Most of the little lakes are too good to mention because I want to keep them for myself, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which lakes are good,” Sathre said. “Just drop a line in one and you’d be surprised what you catch.”
Steve Ladany also lives in the area and at one time owned a resort on big Turtle Lake for 18 years. He fished Turtle a lot during that time, and also put plenty of his guests on a hearty spring crappie bite.
“That lake is really good in the springtime with tube jigs, twistertails and Slurpies,” Ladany said.
Ladany still manages to do plenty of fishing these days, although now it is even more job related than when he owned a resort. His duties as the promotions coordinator for Northland Tackle put him on the water a lot, either testing products out or showing people around.
Diedrich said an annual
crappie contest held each year on Clearwater produces a
number of slabs over a pound each. He also said as the largest lake in the area, Clearwater offers plenty of locations to fish even when the pressure is heavy.
Turtle Lake is just north of Bemidji and is close to two other similarly named lakes, both with a strong crappie bite — Turtle River Lake and Little Turtle Lake. Little Turtle is located off Highway 71 on Irvine Avenue north of town, while Turtle River is located east of Highway 71 on Turtle River Lake Road.
Another one of Ladany’s favorite area lakes is Beltrami. Ladany said Beltrami has a great crappie population, but only if you know where to look for them.
“There are a few islands that are good, and if you go from the public access to the west, there are a few bays that have sharp weedlines with dropoffs, making it a great staging area for crappies,” he said.
Crappies are not spawning during the early spring, as many people believe, but rather they are merely staging off the shallow areas or moving up into the warmer water of the shallows to feed on minnows. “They’ll move up into the reeds in 2 to 3 feet of water and then back into 25 to 30 feet of water,” Ladany said.
The early-season bite is great, but Ladany suggested crappie anglers stick around into early June when the pre-spawn bite picks up big-time.
Leech Lake is known for its walleyes and muskies, but the crappies are underfished on these big waters.
“There are so many different bays around the Shingobee area, White Bay and the Federal Dam area up in the early-forming rice beds,” Ladany noted.
On Leech Lake, your best bet is to use a small jighead or tube jig, or a slip-bobber with an ice jig underneath the float.
“When you use those tactics on Leech or any other body of water, make sure you have small enough tackle so that it allows the minnow to swim around, which the crappies love to chase,” Ladany said.
For more information on the Bemidji area, go online to www.visitbemidji.com, or call 1-800-458-2223. For more information on the Leech Lake area, visit www.leechlake.org or call 1-800-735-3297. To contact First Choice Guide Service, visit its Web site at FirstChoiceGuide.com, or by calling (612) 730-9620.
Nestled just north of Annandale is beautiful Clearwater Lake, which is a largemouth bass angler’s dream. A number of bass tournaments are held here each year, and the lake continues to produce a ton of big bucketmouths. Why am I talking about bass? Because the bassin’ is so good that the great crappie fishing gets overlooked by many people.
“It’s a really good lake to fish for crappies, especially in the early part of the season around the little bays and the channel on the south side of the lake,” said Jim Segner, owner of Little Jim’s Bait in Annandale.
The area right in front of the boat landing is also good early on. Later in the spring, Segner said to try a few locations on the north side just off the highway and on the east end in a little bay. Segner said to use a white Flu-Flu Jig with a head in the 1/32- or 1/64-ounce range, and tipped with a crappie minnow.
DNR area fisheries supervisor Paul Diedrich in Montrose agreed with Segner.
“The crappie population has declined a little in recent years, but the quality is good, and anglers can expect to catch fish in the 10-inch range,” Diedrich said.
Diedrich said an annual crappie contest held each year on Clearwater produces a number of slabs over a pound each. He also said as the largest lake in the area, Clearwater offers plenty of locations to fish even when the pressure is heavy.
Segner also recommended fishing on Sugar Lake just east of Clearwater Lake, or Pleasant Lake in the town of Annandale.
“There are a lot of other smaller lakes in the area that can have great crappie fishing depending on the time of year, so stop on by when you are in the area and we’ll give you the latest reports,” Segner added.
The big lakes in the Brainerd area tend to get most of the
fishing pressure, and for good reason. The waters of the Gull Chain and the Whitefish Chain offer some tremendous crappie fishing, but there are several
medium-sized lakes that are
also really good.
Diedrich also spoke very highly of the Sauk Rive Chain of lakes off Highway 23 west of St. Cloud and Annandale.
“The crappie population in these lakes is good, and the average size is pretty good, too,” he said.
Horseshoe, Cedar Island, Schneider and Knaus are the most commonly fished lakes in the Sauk River Chain, which has a lot of undeveloped shoreline.
“There’s quite a bit of water to fish between Horseshoe and Cedar Island, which is great for crappies in the springtime,” Diedrich said.
For more information on the Clearwater Lake area, contact the Annandale Area Chamber of Commerce at (320) 274-2474, or online at AnnandaleChamber.org Call the Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce at (320) 597-5300. Give Little Jim’s Bait a ring at (320) 274-5297.
The big lakes in the Brainerd area tend to get most of the fishing pressure, and for good reason. The waters of the Gull Chain and the Whitefish Chain offer some tremendous crappie fishing, but there are several medium-sized lakes that are also really good.
Jason Erlandson works at Dave’s Sportland Bait & Tackle on Highway 371 just south of Nisswa. He recommended fishing North Long, Hubert or Sylvan lakes for this year’s early-spring crappie bite.
“Those lakes are not pressured as much and tend to be overlooked by a lot of people who either don’t know about them or just forget that they are there,” Erlandson said.
The key to each of these lakes is not to fish too shallow right after ice-out.
“Once in a while you’ll catch a straggler in the shallowest stuff, but they tend to hang off the cabbage weeds in 6 to 9 feet of water,” Erlandson said.
A secret he uses is finding the deeper holes in the middle of a shallow-water area, such as a flat or mid-lake reef.
“The first few days after the ice goes out is when we catch probably the biggest fish before the spawn, and those holes are a great place to fish,” he said.
On Lake Hubert just east of Sportland Bait & Tackle on County Road 13, Erlandson said the best spot to fish is around the hole on the east side. A massive shoreline flat there gives way to a 15-foot hole.
On North Long, the best place to target in early spring is Merrifield Bay, the easternmost of the lake’s three main bays. The best way to access the lake in this area is off Highway 25 in the town of Merrifield.
On Sylvan, the eastern side of the lake past the
narrow channel is the best crappie location. Sylvan is off Highway 77. Just follow the signs for the Confidence Learning Center.
For more information on the Brainerd area, contact the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-450-2838, or visit the chamber’s Web site at ExploreBrainardLakes.com Dave’s Sportland Bait & Tackle can be reached at (218) 963-2401.
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So whether you have spring fever, March madness or wintertime blues, crappies can provide the cure for what ails you, and now is the time for treatment.