Before long, lakes and rivers throughout Minnesota will shed their winter coats of white and change back into a casual layer of sparkling blue. Anglers will make an adjustment in their attire, too, with waders and vests replacing snowshoes and parkas. Those are sure signs the spring crappie bite is approaching! It's time for fishermen to think about dressing a jig with a minnow and landing some slabs.
Although the date of ice-out varies from south to north in our state, crappies respond the same throughout Minnesota. As water temperatures rise in the shallow portions of a body of water, insects and baitfish begin to appear. Looking for an easy meal, crappies rise from the depths where they have spent much of the winter. They are energized by an increase in oxygen levels and a ravenous hunger. The abundance of food that congregates in the warming water is a natural magnet.
Following is a look at a dozen locations that appear ready for some exceptional, early-season action in 2012. Be aware that crappies are vulnerable at this time of the year. Anglers should not take advantage of the situation by overindulging. Please practice a bit of catch-and-release.
If you search for Cedar Lake on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Lakefinder link, you will discover that 16 counties in Minnesota are home to at least one lake of that name. As far as crappie fishing is concerned, it could be argued that the Cedar Lake found in Martin County ranks close to the top.
Near the town of Trimont, this 700-acre lake is comprised of two shallow basins, with a maximum depth of only 7 feet. Despite the fact that an aeration system is operated in each basin, low oxygen levels are occasionally found there during winter. However, it appears that the populations of both white and black crappies have been surviving quite well there for years.
Test net surveys were conducted in the summer of 2010, and the results could be considered impressive. The lake was found loaded with fish, a fair percentage exceeding 9 inches in length. Of particular interest were a high number of both white and black crappies in the upper portion of the 6- to 8-inch range. Those fish are now 4 and 5 years old and should still be fairly abundant.
According to Ryan Doorenbos, area supervisor of the Windom Area Fisheries Office, a growth rate survey was conducted at Cedar Lake in 2004. The survey found that at two years, black crappies averaged 7.34 inches, while the faster growing white crappies were at 8.03 inches. By age four, both varieties were approaching an 11-inch average. Doorenbos expects that crappie anglers will have good success on Cedar Lake in 2012, and added that the best access to the lake is located in the north basin.
LAC QUI PARLE
LAC QUI PARLE COUNTY
This expansive reservoir covers nearly 6,000 acres, with a maximum depth of 15 feet. Found near the town of Milan, the lake has numerous accesses. The fishery has a history of producing large crappies and the most recent net surveys would indicate that this should continue. In 2010, gill netting results showed that a high percentage of the white and black crappies found in this body of water exceed 9 inches in length, with black crappies averaging more than 1/2-pound in weight.
An impoundment of the Minnesota River, the water level at Lac Qui Parle is controlled at the river's outlet by the Churchill dam. During the spring, water levels fluctuate from year to year.
I asked Chris Domeier, at the Ortonville Area Fisheries Office, how these varying water levels can affect the movement of crappies early in the year. He responded that the fish normally return to the same areas in the spring, regardless of the level of the lake.
"The primary difference appears to be that the crappies follow the higher water up the shore and will be in the newly flooded areas," Domeier stated, and then provided the following example. "Voldin's Pit usually has a spring crappie bite down by the boat access, this year (spring, 2011) the bite was farther up the road in a newly flooded area, but still in the same general vicinity."
BIG STONE COUNTY
A prairie pothole with a whole lot of black crappies, this lake in western Minnesota is an excellent place to find pre-spawn success. Near the town of Correll and covering more than 1,900 acres, this elongated body of water is loaded with twists and turns. The lake has a myriad of islands, bays, flats and narrows. An outlet structure was installed several years ago, which aids in keeping water levels a few feet higher than they once were. The maximum depth of Artichoke Lake is now 15 feet. Accesses to the lake are located in several locations.
Artichoke Lake is a fishery that frequently experiences good reproduction. That was certainly evident in the most recent net surveys, performed by the Ortonville area fisheries staff in 2010. The lake has a high population of black crappies, with a good number of fish distributed through each year class. Nearly 20 percent of the fish sampled were in excess of 12 inches. According to Chris Domeier, crappies measuring 9 to 12 inches are most common, but fish up to 15 inches are seen fairly frequently.
BLUE EARTH COUNTY
A consistent producer of large crappies, Madison Lake is a worthy alternative nearly every spring. The popular lake is in northeastern Blue Earth County, at the southern city limits of the town of Madison Lake.
Public access is located within the city, as well as at a pair of locations on the lake's eastern shore. Deep holes and shallow bays exist in both of this fishery's basins, which cover an area of nearly 1,500 acres. With a maximum depth of 60 feet, this is one of the deepest lakes in the southern half of the state.
There are several places that may attract pre-spawn crappies, with the northeastern bay generally reported to be most productive. The shoreline area, near the bridge on the south side of Bray County Park, can also be a good fishing location.
BELLE AND CEDAR LAKES
This adjacent pair is located in central Minnesota, along the Meeker and McLeod County line. While they may be neighbors, the two certainly have differing styles. Belle Lake is an 800-acre bowl, with a maximum depth of 25 feet. There are two concrete accesses available for boaters. Cedar Lake is a shallow, island dotted, irregular body of water. Covering 1,900 acres, and with a maximum depth of only 8 feet, the lake consists of a continuous series of bays and lagoons. There is one small access located at the southern end of the lake.
In 2008, the Hutchinson Area Fisheries Office performed trap and gill net surveys on Cedar Lake. Black crappie numbers were the highest in recorded history, with six year-classes represented. The fish ranged from 3 to 13 inches in length, and appeared to be experiencing a rather fast growth rate. Approximately 26 percent of the fish sampled were in excess of 9 inches. I spoke with Lee Sundmark, fisheries supervisor for the Hutchinson Area, and discovered an interesting fact. Cedar Lake is managed as a waterfowl area, and has never been managed as a fishery!
Despite suffering from winterkill in the past, Cedar's black crappie population has been unaffected for numerous years. Sundmark stated that their office has actually removed a small portion of the unexpected abundance in recent years, using the fish to stock local ponds for kids.
"The crappies we are removing are averaging nearly half a pound," the fisheries supervisor remarked. "This should give you a pretty good idea of what kind of fish are out there."
He went on to suggest that anglers should cross the road, and give Belle Lake a try as well. Although the most current survey was more than 10 years ago, Sundmark emphasized that the lake has a good population of black crappies and should not be overlooked.
If you are looking for big fish, then a big river is a good place to look. In Minnesota, they don't get any bigger than the Mississippi. It could be that walleyes attract the most anglers to these Wisconsin-border waters, but the early crappie bite is probably a close second. While it is true that crappies can be found farther upstream, the portion of the river in southern Minnesota is home to some of the largest fish in the entire state. Extending from Lake Pepin to Winona, centering on Wabasha County, this stretch of the Mississippi River can be phenomenal in the spring of the year.
Following ice-out, large schools of crappies can be found feeding in protected bays, shallow coves, and backwater areas. Numerous accesses and shoreline angling opportunities exist. Your Minnesota angling license is valid on both sides of the river.
Hydes Lake may not be a household name, but it can be friendly to early-season crappie anglers. This little panfish pond is located southwest of Minneapolis, near the town of Young America. In recent years, according to Minnesota DNR survey results, black crappie numbers have been at record levels.
While this may not be a lake that will produce many trophy fish, it is very capable of kicking out numerous 10-inch fish. Covering only 220 acres, and with a maximum depth of 18 feet, Hydes is a lake where it should not be difficult to find crappies early in the year. The only access for Hydes Lake is on the northeast side.
FISH TRAP LAKE
The most recent net survey that was performed at Fish Trap Lake only tells part of the story. At first glance, this 2010 survey would appear to show that the lake has a very limited number of crappies. However, considering that this was a summer gill net sample, the number of fish recorded was actually pretty good. In most cases, crappies are much better represented in spring trap nets, which were not a part of this survey. The average size of the crappies was impressive, with only one fish appearing in the nets that measured less than 9 inches. Fish Trap Lake is found in Morrison County, near the town of Lincoln. The lake is 1,175 acres, with a maximum depth of 42 feet. A state-owned public access is located on the northwest side.
In a majority of northern Minnesota's crappie lakes, the population of fish is comprised entirely of black crappies. Near the town of Pine City, Lake Pokegama is one of the few that also has white crappies in the mix. This 1,550-acre lake with a maximum depth of 25 feet has a history of summer algae blooms. The lake is also popular with recreational boaters during the vacation season.
Those are just two of the reasons that make this a good springtime destination. The third is the size of the crappies found in Lake Pokegama. In 2010, test net surveys showed that the lake has a very healthy population of fish. While they appeared to be scattered through several year-classes, 66 percent of the crappies recorded were in excess of 9inches. Fishermen will find a public access at both ends of the lake.
Found near the town of Ponsford, this is another body of water that carries a popular moniker. In fact, according to Jim Wolters, this Bass Lake is one of two located in Becker County alone. Supervisor of the Detroit Lakes Area Fisheries Office, Wolters also stated that his department has documented a fair population of black crappies in this particular 200-acre lake in past net samples. The most recent survey was conducted in 2008.
While the abundance of crappies was about normal for this class of lake, the fish averaged in the 1/2-pound range. Keep in mind that this is a small lake, with a maximum depth of 28 feet. As a result, the total number of truly large fish will always be limited in Bass Lake. Public access is located in the northwest corner.
BIG SANDY LAKE
Following ice-out, the southern basin and bays of Big Sandy Lake have consistently been an excellent place to find slab crappies. And, it looks like this should be another exceptional spring. The large lake covers about 6,400 acres, and is deep, with a maximum depth of 84 feet. The popular fishery is located near the town of McGregor, in Aitkin County, with numerous access points available.
The lake is loaded with black crappies, which have the ability to reach an exceptional size. An increase in the population and size structure of the lake's crappies, which has been noted in recent years, is attributed to a decrease in walleye abundance.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, this trend will likely end as walleye numbers increase. However, the DNR reports that crappie angling has been the mainstay of the fishery for several seasons. The size, structure, and habitat of Big Sandy Lake make it capable of continually and consistently producing large crappies.