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Minnesota's Panfish Hotspots

Minnesota's Panfish Hotspots

Whether your taste buds prefer perch, crappie or bluegill filets, you can satisfy your appetite on these waters.

Photo by Michael Skinner

By Tim Lesmeister

It's funny how the perch, bluegills and crappies become the creme-del-a-creme in the winter months. In the open-water period these species become somewhat of a secondary option when the walleyes, bass and pike aren't biting. But in the winter, the panfish is the most sought-after fish in our state.

Anglers take to Lake Winnibigoshish from all over the country to catch jumbo perch. For some this is a right of passage. An individual I was introduced to from Wisconsin almost seemed embarrassed when he informed me it was his first trip to the huge perch factory in northern Minnesota. I patted him on the back and ensured him there were other people who have yet to visit this lake in the winter for the jumbo perch.

On many lakes during the open-water period, the crappies are often overlooked because they are so tough to find. This species suspends in open-water, and it's tough to know where to start the search. I've discovered that a lot of anglers just don't trust their sonars in the summer, and when they pass over a school of suspended crappies, they just can't be sure the boat is over a school of this species and they move on.

In the winter months, anglers seem assured that if they drill enough holes over the deepest part of the lake that eventually they will discover where those crappies are suspending and they will catch some. A lot of confidence for suspended crappies in the winter months, no confidence in the summer.

Bluegills, of course, are everyone's favorite "dock fish" during open water. Take the kids to a dock on any lake and catch a ton of little bluegills on whatever baits you choose. The problem is the big ones never get to the bait first. But in the winter months it seems that all those dinky sunfish are in hiding because the big pike have decided to roam their space once again, so the only bluegills that are moving freely and feeding are the big ones.

No wonder that the panfish become such a sought-after species in the winter. The big ones are now easier to get to, they're easier to find and anglers are confident in their program.


When it comes to bluegills it seems like all of the lakes in Minnesota harbor some of this species. The trick here is to get on a lake that has a lot of big fish. Do that and your winter sunfish outing will be productive.

The same goes for crappies. There are some lakes where the crappies are plentiful, but you have to fish all day for a half-dozen decent fish. Your goal is to find that lake that has many big fish, and they do exist.

For perch you are pretty limited. Only a few lakes in our state have those big jumbo perch that actually put up a good fight on a super-light ice-fishing rig. Like bluegills, perch seem to be found in many of the lakes in the state, but most of them are forage size, seldom reaching over 6 inches in length. To be worthwhile you need a fish that's at least 10 to 12 inches long, and when you get into some 14- and 15-inch perch it really makes your day.

Cass/Itasca Counties
The perch fishing on Winnie follows a typical pattern. You start out in the early morning on top of a midlake rubble reef and tempt a few that are in the big roving schools of aggressively feeding fish. As the sun creeps ever higher in the sky, those perch move slowly into the deeper water toward the sides of the structure. If you want to stay in productive water, you should be mobile and move along with the perch. Throughout the day the perch meander along the deep edges of the structure, and as the sun begins to drop in the sky the transition is back onto the tops of the reefs.

The smart Winnie perch-jerker rents a stationary shelter from one of the resorts on the lake and takes along a portable shelter for those periods when the fish are on the move. Make sure the stationary shack is on the high side of the structure so you can start and finish there. It's also nice to have the benefit of the heated stationary shack when you need to get some relief on those cold, windy days.

The bait rig is simple. A shiny 1/8-ounce jigging spoon with the treble hook tipped with a fathead minnow or the head of a minnow. You need a little meat on the spoon for the best results.

Crow Wing County
Straight south of Crosby is a little 40-acre lake called Loon Lake that can be a tough jaunt into, but does reap some panfish rewards when it comes to the big bluegills there. It's not a tough lake to figure out. There's no structure, it's just a bowl so you drill a few holes, fish them, and if you don't find the big ones there, drill a few more.

The beauty of a small lake full of big bluegills is that you can work the entire lake and find those schools of big fish. It doesn't take long if you have a buddy or two along to perforate the ice with a power auger and figure out where the big fish are.

Loon Lake does get some attention from the serious winter bluegill anglers. These are fishermen who don't mind putting in the extra effort it takes to get there, and they stay mobile in their search for the better fish.

Take along a lot of wax worms and maggots because the panfish action on this lake can be non-stop. Plan on a day of fishing and the results will be some battles with the brawny bluegills there.

Beltrami County
There are still some big crappies left in Upper Red Lake. This phenomenon hit a peak a couple of years ago, and last season anglers continued to take advantage of the good fishing for crappies. What they also discovered is that there is some good perch fishing on Red as well.

Roads are plowed to the fishing holes and many anglers don't even bother with shelters. Just pull up the vehicle so it creates a good windbreak, get out the lawn chairs, drill some holes and wait for the bite.

The best crappie fishing usually begins late afternoon and continues until the sun disappears. The best lures are glow-in-the-dark spoons tipped with a crappie minnow.

Perch fishing on Red Lake is an all-day affair. Use a minnow or maggot-tipped jig and keep it close to the bottom. With the perch on Red, you will find that for every five fish you catch, one is of quality size. Using an underwater camera on this lake doesn't work very well because the water has a lot of suspended particles and it makes it impossible to see the fish until they are right on the bai


Isanti County
Just to the east of Cambridge is a Y-shaped lake that is full of nice-sized crappies that are easy to find. On the northeast arm of Lake Fannie you'll find the deepest spot on the lake, about 35 feet. The crappies like to suspend over this deeper water.

It's best to start drilling holes straight west of the public access in about 18 feet and head northeast towards the deeper water. Spend about 20 minutes per hole until you have crappies coming to the bait, or move deeper. It doesn't take long to figure out where the crappies are suspending. They show up well on the sonar and readily take a minnow.

The west arm drops into 20 feet and can also be a good spot for crappies. From the long point that runs through the center of this southern basin, you start drilling in 12 feet of water and head straight north. The crappies in the west arm tend to school tightly and move around. When you find a school, use a trick that I learned from a Leech Lake guide, Brian Brosdahl. What Brosdahl does is drop a bigger minnow, maybe a 5-inch sucker, into the school of fish. This seems to hold the school under the hole longer. You then pick off a mess of fish with your tiny jig tipped with a crappie minnow. It's a good trick on Fannie.

Morrison County
Anglers love to chase crappies on Fish Trap Lake. There are a lot of nice-sized black crappies suspending in the deep water near the points and sunken islands there. Maybe they don't realize the bluegill fishing on this lake in the winter months is outstanding as well.

Big beds of cabbage rimmed on the deep side with strands of coontail and grass create a haven for the big bluegills in Fish Trap. Just pull up into any of the bays or arms that spread out from the lake and you are in bluegill country.

Don't be afraid to drill in water depths where the weeds are plentiful. The weedline is around 12 feet deep, and the sparse vegetation extends out into 16 feet of water. That realm between the 12- to 16-foot-range is a great place to place your bait.

The water clarity is good on the lake and an underwater camera is a good piece of equipment to take along. You can watch the schools of sunnies come right up to the bait. A few dozen fish will hover around the jig and wax worm and then one will commit to a taste test. If the fish looks too small, pull the bait away. If it's a quality-sized fish, set the hook. It doesn't take long to figure out which fish are the ones you want. You might as well leave the others alone.

Benton County
Little Rock Lake, north of Sartell, is a decent walleye fishery in the summertime. The lake doesn't get a lot of accolades because it is shallow, the water has poor visibility and there are a lot of carp and bullheads there, too. In the winter months, Little Rock becomes a hotspot for anglers who know it supports a nice population of big crappies.

Most of the crappie anglers set up shop on the east or west side of the sunken island that is right in the south-central section of the main basin. This is because that's where you find the deepest water, about 20 feet.

The crappie bite can be sporadic for the stationary angler as the schools of fish move around, but it can be a consistent bite for the mobile person.

The mud flats north of the deeper water are about 12 feet deep. It pays to drill some holes there as well. The pattern the crappies follow on Little Rock has them moving into the shallower regions during the lowlight periods and to the deeper water where they suspend when the sun is high. Use glow-in-the-dark jigs and smaller crappie minnows and you will find that the bite doesn't stop if you follow those fish.

Todd County
Another premier walleye lake, Osakis has some of the biggest bluegills around for the ice-anglers who want to take advantage of a great winter sunfish fishery. The lake gets its share of summer fishing pressure, and the bluegills are often part of the summer angler's program. But like Big Winnie that keeps cranking out big perch in the winter, Osakis just keeps cranking out big bluegills.

Winter bluegill anglers will find themselves on the big basin drilling holes on the edge of the big weedy flats and points. Since these spots are near some of the productive walleye structure, you will see some anglers out just a bit deeper with their favorite walleye sticks chasing this species as well.

The water clarity is fair and there is a lot of suspended matter in the water, so you just have to put on your flashiest jig and tip it with a plump, juicy wax worm. If there are bluegills below, they won't hesitate to bite. These big bluegills don't get big by starving themselves. If you're not getting bites, move to another spot along the edge of the vegetation.

Douglas County
Crappie anglers on Maple Lake stack up like cordwood on the holes near the county roads on the east and west sides of the lake. The dumb crappies get pulled out of the loop early on and then it's just the smart fish that are left. If you like a challenge, hang with the crowds on Maple and do your best.

If you like catching big crappies all by yourself, then there is a lot of prime crappie real estate that barely gets touched. In the center of the lake where it narrows down, there's a sunken island next to a deep hole that holds schools of suspended crappies. To the north of the point that extends off the west-central section of the lake, it drops off sharply into some deep-water crappies haunts. It's just a matter of searching some.

There is a size limit on Maple Lake. Crappies less than 10 inches must be released. This regulation has created a lake full of bigger fish, and they're now easy to find under the ice.

Crow Wing County
It was Dave Bentley who directed me to the fine bluegill fishing on Camp Lake. We drove out to a spot in the north arm of the lake where there is this tiny island. We drilled holes along the edge of the vegetation and put down an underwater camera. There was nothing. "We spooked them," said Bentley. "Just relax, they'll be back in a few minutes if you don't make a lot of noise."

The sunfish came back and we caught big bluegills non-stop for the next hour-and-a-half. Then some other anglers spotted us, stopped over and the fishing died.

"It's the noise," said Bentley. "When you're fishing in these shallow regions where the bluegills and bass are, you can't make any noise. It spooks the fish."

Come to think of it, we caught some real nice bass along with those bluegills. We watched them swim up on the cameras and inhale that tiny jig and wax worm. Wow, they put up a fight on that small gear.

The sunfish in Camp are plentiful. If yo

u plan on keeping a few for a fish fry you will be sorting, but mixed in with those quarter-pounders are some nice half-pounders.

Otter Tail County
Pebble Lake is a cute little bowl that sits just south of Fergus Falls. Just 170 acres, this lake is the perfect option when you want to go out and catch a mess of bluegills on the ice.

The place to drill is on the northeast corner where there is a big weedy flat. Try to get right on the edge of the cabbage and coontail, and if you have an underwater camera, this is the lake where you will get to see all that goes on around your bait. The water clarity is excellent.

The bluegills in Pebble are not monsters, but there are plenty of them. It's a great little lake to take a few youngsters where the action is good from midmorning until late afternoon.

* * *
Enjoy your time on the ice, and don't forget to buy the tartar sauce on the way home!

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