Michigan crappie fishing: Here’s where to fish to fill your stringer or livewell with slabs this season.
Crappies are one of the earliest spawning fish in Michigan, moving into the shallows right after ice-out.
Timing-wise, ice-out varies greatly in Michigan. In Southern Michigan ice-out can happen in early March. Farther north in the Lower Peninsula it’s usually sometime in April before the ice begins to disappear. It’s not uncommon to have ice on U.P. lakes even into May.
Whenever ice-out happens, you can count on the following Michigan lakes to produce exceptional crappie action into early summer.
LAKE ST. CLAIR
Lake St. Clair is famous for its smallmouth bass and muskies. Few anglers realize that the lake has an outstanding crappie population as well.
“Crappies on St. Clair start right at ice-out, although they are much easier to catch once a strong warming front has come through,” offered veteran angler Joe Balog. “I’d say they peak around April 15. They’re in the canals throughout the spring. Then some of them go to open water through the summer in main-lake grassbeds. They’re hard to find then, but it can be done.
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“Others — probably the bulk of them — stay in the big, deep canals throughout the year. Those are also hard to target because there is so much boat traffic in and out of those canals at that time of year. Night-fishing can be productive then.”
And Balog isn’t the only one sold on Lake St. Clair. “Lake St. Clair (in Macomb/Wayne counties) provides a lot of opportunity in the lake and in the canals each spring for crappies,” shared Cleyo Harris, fisheries biologist out of the Lake Erie Management Unit in Waterford.
“The Lake St. Clair Research Station conducts a nearshore survey each year and in 2016 they captured black crappies ranging in size from 5 to 13 inches with about 76 percent of them being larger than 7 inches.”
Harris reported hearing good things from anglers about the quality spring crappie fishing in the canals.
Balog said that he has made big catches of specks in the marinas around Anchor Bay. One day when I fished with him we did very well in the canals off the Mile Roads — and that was in June.
Typical of crappies everywhere, LSC specks love minnows. They’ll inhale a jig of just about any kind, but you can hedge your bet with a white body and pink head, plus Beetle Spins.
For information on public accesses around Lake St. Clair, contact the Michigan DNR’s Waterford office at 248-666-7444.
Oakland County’s 1,280-acre Cass Lake supports a quality crappie fishery, according to biologist Cleyo Harris. “Our most recent fish community survey on Cass Lake was in 2001 although we have evaluated other specific fish species there since then,” said Harris.
“Recent surveys found some nice black crappies up to 12 inches in length and averaging 9.1 inches, and 87 percent of the catch being larger than 7 inches.”
Cass Lake doesn’t see a lot of activity in the early spring except from bass anglers and panfish zealots targeting crappies. Much of Cass Lake is deep, and so crappie anglers target shallow areas like Marsh Park on the northwest side, off the boat launch at Dodge Park No. 4, on the east side of Cole’s Bay and at the entrance of Mud Bay. Hot action starts right after ice-out and lasts well into May.
Wayne County’s Belleville Lake is similar in size to Cass Lake, but is part of the Huron River, along with several other reservoirs that are good crappie waters in their own right. Stained water, sinuous bends and plenty of stumps make Belleville’s habitat ideal for crappies. Belleville is known to harbor both white and black crappies, although the back crappies outnumber the whites by a wide margin.
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“Belleville Lake has a quality black population,” offered Cleyo Harris. “You’ll find crappies up to 13 inches and sometimes bigger, although the average is going to be around 9 inches.”
Crappies surge into the backs of south-facing, dark-bottomed coves especially if there’s structure nearby. Target the shaded canals and fingers that run off the reservoir right after first ice, as well as where the main river channel comes close to the bank.
For more information on crappie waters in southeast Michigan, contact DNR fisheries division, 248-666-7444.
“Three of the best crappie waters in southwest Michigan are Lake Templene (St. Joseph County), Thornapple Lake (Barry County), and the lower Kalamazoo River/Kalamazoo Lake (Allegan County),” said Southern Lake Michigan Unit fisheries manager Brian Gunderman. “The 2013 survey report has a lot of information on Lake Templene. In early spring, I would start fishing in the shallow bays and stumpfields east of Findley Road.
“Thornapple Lake is best known for its muskellunge fishery, but it also has a lot of crappies. All of the recent survey work on the lake has focused on muskellunge, so I do not have any length-frequency data for crappies.
“Based on our observations during muskellunge surveys, 10-inch-plus crappies are common. Thornapple Lake has a lot of wooded shoreline. Crappies tend to congregate around the logs and brushpiles in those areas.
“The lower Kalamazoo River/Kalamazoo Lake has produced more Master Angler crappies (14 to 15 inches) than any other body of water in our unit,” said Gunderman. “The last survey on Kalamazoo Lake was in 2010. Most of the crappies were in the 9- to 11-inch range. The largest crappie we caught in 2010 was 13 inches.
“In the spring, I would fish along the wetland shorelines where the Kalamazoo River enters the lake. The downside to the Kalamazoo River/Lake fishery is that there are fish consumption advisories for crappies.
“All of these lakes are located on river systems. They have high shoreline-to-surface acreage ratios (i.e., lots of nearshore habitat) and abundant supplies of minnows to fuel growth of crappies,” Gunderman explained.
For information on these and other crappie waters in southwest Michigan, contact the DNR Plainwell office at 269-685-6851.
When I was a kid growing up in Saginaw, we went out to the Bay near Quanicassee to shoot carp. As luck would have it, my car died and I walk to the closest house to call my dad. Turns out, a commercial fisherman owned the house and while I was using the phone I saw 4×4 crates loaded with big crappies. I never realized there were crappies like that in the Bay and most others don’t know it either.
“Saginaw Bay does produce some crappies (and occasionally some big ones), but they are mainly pursued by a few locals,” said Southern Lake Huron Fisheries Management Unit supervisor Jim Baker. “Most of the crappies are caught either on last ice or in the month of May in various marina basins, mostly along the east side of the bay from Quanicassee to Bay Port. The area off Geiger Road (Sumac Island access site) can be quite good in May.
“As far as inland waters go, I would say that Wixom and Sanford lakes are our best crappie lakes. These are the two southernmost impoundments on the Tittabawassee River mainstream. Again, May is probably the best month for crappies although quite a lot of crappies are caught through the ice every winter.”
For more information on crappies in the Saginaw Bay area, contact the Southern Lake Huron Unit at 989-684-9141.
West Michigan has a huge variety of crappie water from stump-filled impoundments to drowned river mouths to natural lakes. It gives anglers lots of opportunities for ice-out and last-ice fishing.
“Well, nothing’s really changed,” joked Cadillac fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. “Cadillac and Mitchell lakes are still going strong. Until someone tells me different, they’re still the best two crappie lakes in the region.
“When we last surveyed them in 2015, we found lots of 8- to 10-inch eaters and the occasional big slab. Both lakes have lots of weeds and edges that crappies like to cruise along, and an abundance of both aquatic insects and minnows on which to forage.”
Tonello said hotspots are in Big Cove and the mouth of Little Cove on Mitchell, off the city dock on Cadillac, and the new fishing dock at Mitchell State Park, and near the end of the canals where the lakes join.
“Houghton Lake is a good prospect for crappies in the spring,” offered Tonello. “They catch a lot of nice crappies in the south-facing canals right after ice-out. The land is private, but the water is public so you can use a small boat or kayak and fish ’em.”
Tonello said two impoundments of the Manistee River system, Hodenpyle and Tippy ponds, are full of crappies, but wait until open water to try them because currents make ice conditions iffy. There are slews of stumps along the river channels that attract crappies.
“All of the drowned river mouths, like Pere Marquette and Manistee, are crappie magnets,” said Tonello. “With their marshy environments and dark bottoms, crappies are just naturally drawn to them, but a lot of anglers haven’t figured it out.”
To find out more about crappie lakes in West Michigan contact the Central Lake Michigan Management Unit at 231-775-9727.
Northeast Michigan has several impoundments that are ideally suited for crappies. Stump- and timber-filled with tannic-stained water, these lakes are home to an abundance of crappies in the region.
Senior fisheries biologist Tim Cwalinski said that Fletcher Floodwater is the premier crappie water in northeast Michigan, and maybe the entire state. “Fletcher is large at over 9,000 acres, shallow, has lots of timber, and is our most consistent crappie lake,” offered Cwalinski. “There are enough fish that you can be pretty sure of catching enough eaters for dinner and have the chance of catching one of the platter-sized specks that everyone talks about from Fletcher.
“At 500 acres, Tomahawk Flooding is kind of a mini version of Fletcher,” said Cwalinski. “It’s shallow with lots of wood and standing timber so crappies do well in there. There are several good year-classes present so you can expect crappies of various sizes.”
Alcona Dam Pond is a 950-acre body of water in Alcona County on the Au Sable River that Cwalinski said has all the ingredients to be a top crappie producer.
“The pond has lots of vegetation and wood, and crappies do well in the riverine environment. Not only are there good numbers of black crappies in the pond, but there also are decent-sized specks available.”
Cwalinski said to check out their unit website for more information on northwest Michigan crappies.
EASTERN UPPER PENINSULA
Apparently, crappies are as rare as grouse teeth in the eastern U.P. “I can offer up really only one black crappie fishery in the Eastern Lake Superior Management Unit,” offered fisheries biologist Cory Kovacs. “Roxbury Pond East. This pond is about 4 acres located in Chippewa County near the shores of Lake Superior. MDNR has worked cooperatively with USFS-Hiawatha National Forest to develop this coolwater fishery.”
The pond is a work in progress. Brush bundles and yearling crappie planted in the pond are expected to provide a fishery in the near future as the crappies take advantage of the multiple minnow species found there.
And as any serious slab angler knows, crappies in the shallows are a sure sign that spring has arrived.