Our Northwoods Crappies

Northern Minnesota is known for its big black crappies. As soon as the ice goes

out, you'll want to be fishing on these lakes.

By Calvin Christopher

It was opener. Actually, it was the Friday before Minnesota's statewide walleye opener. But starting on about the Tuesday before, my head was already at the lake, visualizing spots, sifting through mental tackle boxes, certainly not concentrating on work. It goes like that every year.

On this particular year's opener we made the drive before sunset, which was rare. There would be time to fish crappies on opener's eve.

Grandpa often spoke of the lake's broad-sided crappies, but because we were squarely focused on walleyes - and seldom privy to ice-out escapades - they existed for us only in chronicle. But on this evening we went after crappies, and legend would be realized.

We motored to a favorite walleye run because the needlelike point offered crappie-favored characteristics: shallow and soft areas, wind protection and exposure to the sun.

The outboard was barely silenced when the first of many big crappies came to the surface, surrendering to a 1/16-ounce marabou jig. Fished without bait, Grandpa's yellow marvels mesmerized everything with fins and an appetite. These weren't crappies as I had known them - eaters, palm-sized fish - but big slabs. Seeing those engorged, peppercorn-blotted fish forever raised the bar, so to speak. Only slabs satisfy me now. And more often than not, I must hit the northwoods to find them.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The term "northwoods" is relative, though, implying different things to different folks. To me, as it pertains to lakes and escapes, northwoods means being upstate of anything metropolitan, surrounded by forest, closer to nature and free of daily rituals.

Minnesota's northwoods are known for their hulking black crappies. From behind the veil of pines and firs, crappies thrive in lakes both large and small. The massive waters cultivate more fish, but are less sacred. Small-water bites are short-lived because of fishing pressure.

Northwoods crappies, despite their dense populations and voraciousness, often perplex anglers during the soft-water months. In some cases they seem to disappear from the radar once the mosquitoes and black flies arrive. Springtime is different, though. Once the ice - heavy northwoods ice - finally recedes, crappies gather and occupy conventional venues. They seek the warmest water available, which often involves shallow bays, soft bottoms, dead and emerging vegetation, inlets, wind protection and a southern exposure to soak up the warming sun.

So with a sense of northwoods freedom and image of Jurassic crappies in mind, I phoned Ben Kellin of Ben's Bait & Tackle (218-326-8281) in Grand Rapids. He's an expert in the field of large panfish. The greater Grand Rapids area is crappies heaven. Riddled with waters big and small, the region presents numerous opportunities in the spring. What Kellin calls "small bites" are chief amongst them. That's when a small part of a small lake gets hotter than a motorcycle manifold, but only for a brief spell. He, of course, for the sake of overpressure, can't name any potholes in this forum, but would be willing to share a few in conversations across the counter.

But by the same token, don't assume that all the good stuff is guarded and tucked away in the woods. Kellin endorses the large and accessible, too. First on his ledger is 15,600-acre Pokegama Lake. This is seriously big water, but also manageable water. In the spring, actually before the ice even departs, crappies shuffle into Poole Bay, which lies in Pokegama's extreme northwest corner. The bay is long and irregular, and Kellin says to concentrate on its offshoots and shallow flats. Historically, the feed occurs in 4 to 8 feet of water, especially where those depths skirt the mapped 30-foot hollow.

Meyers Bay harbors ice-out crappies as well. This large outcropping is lined with bulrushes and cane, and that's precisely where Kellin suggests searching. From there, consider fishing the creek inlet area in Sugar Bay.

Pokegama's Wendigo Arm - east of Highway 169 - is deep and slender, but holds promise nonetheless. Specifically, Kellin recommends the lagoon in what he calls the "Troop Town area."

DNR data on Pokegama centers on our state fish, but don't let the dearth of crappie statistics fool you, because according to Kellin, Pokegama isn't shy of papermouths. He says that 11- and 12-inch crappies are common, and oftentimes those fish are flanked by legitimate monsters. Kellin's personal best is a 2-pound, 5-ounce crappie, which presently decorates his bait shop.

Nearby Split Hand Lake, at 1,352 acres, is the complete antithesis of Pokegama. It's considerably smaller, darker, shallower and far less interesting so far as structure goes. But what it does have in common with its titanic neighbor is an ability to manufacture crappies. In fact, Kellin claims that it might be the area's best overall crappie lake. On Split Hand, he says, it's rare to catch crappies under 10 inches, with 11- to 13-inchers being customary.

Split Hand's comparatively featureless bottom is trimmed by wall-to-wall bulrushes, and that's where its crappies hang out. Bulrush stands that form points and inside turns in 2 to 5 feet of water are best. And you'll need to treat them like bass, operating right in the thick of it. Kellin suggests using a float and minnow set at about 2 feet. And if past performance is indicative of the future, the action is hottest right as the ice leaves, slackens for a few weeks thereafter, and then re-energizes in early May.

Much has been made about Leech Lake's slab crappies over the past decade, and a high price has been paid for the lake's celebrity status. Stringers of bona fide 2-pounders were extracted, mostly at the hands of pre-opener walleye anglers. Beat to a pulp it was. But a couple of advantages of encompassing over 100,000 acres are that you're resilient to pressure and able to conceal certain treasures. Kellin says that Leech's east end still has fine crappies. Waboose Bay is his favorite venue. At ice-out, crappies invade the bay's emergent plant life. Afternoon bites are strongest, especially in 3 to 7 feet of water where bulrushes - deceased and new - sprout from sand floors.

Its crappies bludgeoned for years, Boy Bay is finally on the rebound. The gigantic body, which also holds favor with largemouth bass zealots, is a sea of springtime crappie habitat, namely shallows that swirl around emerging wild rice and bulrushes. Kellin recommends scouring Boy Bay's northern parts. He says to look for depths of 3 to 4 feet that feature bulrushes in conjunction with developing cabbage. Sections adjacent to the 8- to 10-foot trough - the Sheep Pastures area - are particularly plentiful. Be prepared, too, to explore for a while, because Boy B

ay spans seemingly infinite acres and its crappies tend to cluster.

The twosome of Bowstring and Sand lakes cede another shot at big-water ice-out crappies. Bowstring Lake, at 8,900 acres, is simply one of Minnesota's finest all-around fisheries, and its crappies certainly help carry that torch.

According to Kellin, Bowstring is one of those lakes where the spring bite conveniently coincides with the walleye opener, tendering myriad opportunities. Having said that, he makes it clear that Bowstring's crappies activate much earlier too, but few people capitalize on the situation.

Cow Bay and the Bowstring River entry - southwest end - combine to fashion more crappie habitat than can be fished in a weekend. To advance the search, though, Kellin says to key on developing cabbage in the 6- to 7-foot range. To the east, hefty Muskrat Bay holds similar promise and surroundings.

Sand Lake, which supplies the Bowstring River to Bowstring Lake, blankets 3,785 acres and likewise harbors some impressive black crappies. In the spring, most of the bustle occurs in the shallow south bay, the same one that feeds the Bowstring River.

Another upside of spending quality time on Bowstring and Sand lakes is that the identical shallows that maintain crappies often attract jumbo perch, too. Both bodies of water are renowned for their abundant and engorged yellow perch.

The most recent Department of Natural Resources figures disclose that Bowstring and Sand carry typical crappie populations for lakes of their types. But what the charts don't report is the number of colossal crappies that fin these waters. Only a jig, minnow and determination will disclose what Kellin and others - a list that includes me - know.

The big-water theme continues. Next in line are Cut Foot and Little Cut Foot lakes. Arteries of wildly famous Lake Winnibigoshish, Cut Foot (3,222 acres) and Little Cut Foot (1,357 acres) bequeath a fine alternative to the oceanic and frequently rough waters of their parent.

Kellin encourages anglers to commence with Little Cut Foot Lake - the shallow, twisting tract east of Highway 46. It warms the fastest and can be fished in relative calmness regardless of wind direction. Kellin says to jig up and down from the 6-foot mark.

The bays and arms inside larger Cut Foot surrender countless possibilities. In the past, says Kellin, the biggest catches sprang from 6- to 8-foot-deep flats. And to ease the decision process of which lake to fish first, you cam simply pound the narrows between them or venture toward Cut Foot and fish the Williams Narrows. One does, though, have to bear in mind that for several weeks - beginning in late April - the lake closes to fishing from Williams Narrows east to facilitate the DNR egg-stripping program and, in general, to protect the legions of transitory walleyes. Check the DNR Web site - www.dnr.state.mn.us - or the regulations booklet for closing and reopening dates.

For lodging and travel information regarding the aforementioned lakes, contact the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-472-6366, or www.grandmn.com.

Collectively, Upper and Lower Red lakes cover some 300,000 acres. Upper alone covers over 100,000 acres, 48,000 of it accessible by non-Indians.

Its crappies aren't classified confidential, either. This fact is evidenced in the winter by the thousands who descend on it every weekend. But astonishingly, once the ice goes rotten and black, most of its callers leave and don't revisit until the ice forms once more. That can't be said, though, for Carl Adams. Adams, who banks hours at Timberline Sports (218-835-4636) in Blackduck, relishes the day the ice goes out on Upper Red.

Adams points his bow toward the Tamarack River. The noteworthy tributary provides current, warmth and plenty of baitfish, all of which Adams credits for inviting so many crappies. The area he works encompasses 200 yards in either direction of the mouth, not to mention a ways into the river itself.

Usually, the fish set up on or nearby the 4- to 7-foot breakline. To locate crappies, Adams often slow-trolls a Beetle Spin and anchors once a school is discovered. He then switches to a float, feathered Northland Fire-fly jig and minnow, and begins fan-casting the vicinity. In recent years, juvenile walleyes have posed a problem, as they inhabit the same areas. The real trouble is that Minnesota's statewide walleye season has yet to launch, and walleyes - mostly stocked fish - will be protected for a few more years. So to neutralize the walleyes, Adams moves deeper. Red's crappies won't tolerate a horde of frenzying walleyes.

The Tamarack area slows down sometime from middle to late May. Once the bite weakens, Adams starts fishing near Hudec's Resort (218-647-8291), Ditch No. 5 and various other spots along the north shore. The south shore, he says, blossoms later yet.

As far as size structure goes, the gold rush is pretty much over. Two-pounders no longer dominate the waterscape. On the bright side, though, 1-pound-plus crappies are widespread and there are enough bigger fish still swimming about to keep things interesting.

Visit the Upper Red Lake Area Association Web site, which can be found at www.upperredlakeassn.com, for area information, or call 1-866-866-1866 for a tourism guide.

Adams also advocates Third River Flowage. The wide and sluggish branch enters Lake Winnibigoshish on its northwest corner. And it, in Adams' mind, is big-fish territory. The average crappie weighs in excess of a pound, but unfortunately they aren't always easy to find. The shallow baylike arm warms rapidly and its greenery flourishes. Usually, Adams finds his fish over early weed growth in and around 6 feet of water. And as it goes on Upper Red, he first pinpoints active fish by dragging a Beetle Spin and then he swaps for a float and jig.

Relieving the pressure from north-central Minnesota, we trailer-up, grab Dave Genz and wander west. Genz, a versatile sportsman who's most renowned for his contributions to ice-fishing, has a strong kinship with the lakes of west-central Minnesota. He knows them well and year 'round. And when it comes to ice-out crappies, Genz has more than a few favorites, but sets aside Lida, Crystal and Melissa.

Lida, at 5,564 acres, is rife with shallow shoreline habitat, but according to Genz, a place named Bass Harbor on the west shore might be all you need to know. Designated as largemouth bass spawning grounds, Bass Harbor enters protected status later in the spring, but is fair game at ice-out. The inlet is trimmed in bulrushes and cattails, and that's where the warmest water and crappies will be. Genz likes the north bays as a backup to Bass Harbor.

An 11-inch minimum harvest restriction is in effect on Lida through at least 2005 to improve size quality. Recent samplings indicate that the experimental regulation is improving average size structure.

Neighboring Crystal Lake is another Otter Tail County jewel. Genz says that 1,317-acre Crystal revs

even earlier than Lida. Boats are often seen skirting the bank, lodged between ice and shore, in route to the northwest bay. Inside the bay, crappies generally relate to flooded timber and bulrush stalks.

In the same general area, but rooted in Becker County, 1,830-acre Lake Melissa gets similar accolades for its capacity to dish out voluminous crappies. In the spring, Genz runs right for the southeast corner. Here, a 7- to 12-foot cabbage-rimmed depression gathers and holds oodles of fish. A 20-foot-plus hole off the northeast shore produces similarly.

DNR data substantiates Genz's opinion, saying that Melissa maintains a large and diverse black crappie population.

Call the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau at 1-800-542-3992 for information, or go online to www.visitdetroitlakes.com.

Hopefully, you didn't stick around thinking I'd finish with a smattering of petite and "underground" selections. Sorry. Those can't be named publicly. But what you were privy to was a sampling of large and reliable lakes that hold better-than-respectable crappies, and in straightforward places, not unlike the spot my Grandpa and I fished on that opener eve.

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