September 30, 2010
As we make the transition from winter to spring, crappies are putting on the feedbag. You can catch a mess of them on these Minnesota waters.
Photo by Tom Evans
By Noel Vick
I've been there as well, gazing at winter's final breath. A layer of rotted ice spans indefinitely toward the horizon, into a March mist. The surface is too porous for travel, yet days - at worst, weeks - from parting and dissipating.
It's a bleak time. Ice-fishing is in the books and the open-water season waits to happen. Spare time is spent playing with winter tools, prepping the boat and summer gear, and all the while neglecting domestic duties and ducking spouses. Rakes are like kryptonite.
Because spring yields this layover, however, anglers have ample time to prepare. The gap is a godsend. Summer isn't like that, though. It changes into autumn without warning. One must sacrifice sunshine and bobber bites to untangle decoys and repair mouse-eaten camouflage. Same goes for fall. One day you're field dressing a buck and the next day you're setting a string of tip-ups.
The moral of this story is to embrace the acrimonious transition of seasons. Use the intermission to your advantage. Plan more than ever. Prepare like a field general and attack the hardwater like a Bud Grant-coached Viking squad. And as part of the regimen, digest and dissect the following crappie hotspots as soon as you can float your boat.
LAKE MINNETONKA There are advantages and disadvantages to fishing metro Twin Cities waters. On the upside, for the statistical majority of Minnesotans, they're close at hand. Secondly, panfish flourish in most urban and suburban lakes. But for what metro lakes offer in sheer numbers, they typically underachieve in size. Metro panfish are notably diminutive. Extreme fishing pressure isn't a friend of tape-measure crappies and palm-sized bluegills.
Now, having said that, there are a number of lakes offering the promise of mass, and Hennepin County's Lake Minnetonka is the best.
At 14,000 acres, Minnetonka's magnitude alone begs for attention. And what makes it especially fascinating is how those acres span and link. Minnetonka is a skein of contiguous lakes, bays, harbors, coves and connecting channels. Likewise, it's a shallow and stained fishery that doubles as something clear and deep. Essentially, it's built for rearing fish both voluminous and massive.
In the spring following ice-out, Minnetonka becomes a magnet for shore-casters. Despite the challenge of accessing on foot some of the most treasured areas, panfish are caught off public piers, along channels and community stretches along wind-protected bays.
From a boat, however, the lake is yours. Eyeballing from west to east, consider Halstead's Bay, focusing on the inlet from Spring Creek. Leading downward, motor to the southernmost tip of Smithtown Bay and place a few casts in the channel. Adjunct Lake Virginia deserves honorable mention, too, but you'll have to re-launch to sample it.
Straight overhead on the topside of Enchanted Island sits Phelps Bay, another springtime favorite. Zimmerman's Pass is a good starting gate there. Farther up, you'll encounter the legendary trio of ESB: Emerald Lake, Seton Lake and Black Lake. The petite but feature-oriented tracts warm early and kick out photo-quality panfish every spring.
Moving east, it's prudent to traverse the perimeter of Big Island, paying keen attention to its coves and fields of emerging weeds. Nearby Gideon's and St. Alban's bays offer a weekend's worth of spots, too.
Keep the backwaters of Carson's Bay on your shortlist, as well as the upper and shallower reaches of Brown's Bay, particularly where it bonds with Tanager Lake. Traveling south and east, put a bead on Gray's Bay and its battery of arms and channels.
Minnetonka's definitive north, including West Arm and North Arm, houses its share of panfish, too. Stubbs Bay and Maxwell Bay produce with consistency, and the shallows of Jenning's Bay and Forest Lake heat quickly and attract crappies and bluegills.
In general, no matter where your internal compass points, center on finding dark and shallow water in an element-protected setting. Minnetonka's many connecting channels, private harbors and back channels are without question the key locations to begin. Fear not shallowness, either, because depths of only 1 to 4 feet often hold fish. But during cold fronts, panfish frequently move back out into 6 to 15 feet of water.
If you don't live in the metro area, you can get local lodging information from the Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce at (952) 471-0768 or www.lakeminnetonkachamber.com.
WHITE BEAR LAKE It's not fair granting the west metro so much press without giving a shout out to the east. So, for the folks on the sun-up side of town, I offer you White Bear Lake. Right away, there'll be people wondering why I didn't draft nearby Bald Eagle Lake. No other metro lake that I'm aware of has surrendered more 2- and even 3-pound crappies in recent years. Fine, go there. Beware, however, the rabid boat traffic and probable boat-landing circus.
White Bear Lake, at 2,416 acres, puts up some impressive panfish numbers, too, and getting on the water is far easier. Once the ice recedes, head straight to the southeast flank of Manitou Island. Here, cattail upon bulrush paints the shoreline, covering a wide range of depths and structures. Pick through the dead hardstems and you're sure to raise a slab.
The west shore at Lions Park is fishable by boat and shore. In fact, crappies and bluegills frequent the entire span from the fishing pier east to Bellaire Park. And if you continue southeast, there are several first-rate spots leading to White Bear's southern brink.
Although the upper part of White Bear isn't as prolific, it too harbors a contingent of spring panfish. Check the northeast bank of Manitou Island, particularly where it and the mainland bridge converge. The shallows north of Ordway Bar commonly contain panfish as well.
For area information, contact the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce at (651) 429-8593 or www.whitebearchamber.com.
THE RUSH LAKES Depending where you live and your overall philosophy of life, you'll consider 1,464-acre West Rush Lake either suburban or rural. As the inner core sprawls, this fabled panfish producer gets ever closer, and evermore bludgeoned, too. In spite of the beating though, it keeps putting fish in buckets, and in the spring, attracts wall
West Rush was built to build panfish. The water is fertile, sporting ice-tea coloration and infinite caches of zooplankton. Humps blanket middepth flats, and islands cascade into rich basins. And up on the north end, soft-bottomed shallows stretch for acres and emergent vegetation reigns.
Even when the banks are shoulder to shoulder with people - a regular occurrence on sunshiny spring days - you can circumnavigate crowds on the spacious north face or find a sparser piece of real estate elsewhere. Downward, along West Rush's east shore, there are a handful of shallow and fertile bays. The east and deep south hold promise, too.
Slow-trolling and fan-casting is the favored tactic due to the vastness of the areas in question. Rig up a slip-bobber and insect-ish lure - such as a Northland Bro Bug or Lindy Genz Worm - smother it with maggots, set the depth to about 18 inches and commence peppering in all directions while maintaining slow movement with the electric trolling motor. That's how I track fish on lakes such as West Rush anyway.
Neighboring and related East Rush Lake is worth a spin, too. West Rush is best noted for its whopping crappies, while those in-the-know respect East's reputation of giving up monstrous bluegills. East is far shallower, slipping to only about 25 feet, and greener weed-wise than West Rush. The distant south lobe is vegetated and fairly flat, and experiences spiking temperatures immediately following ice-out. Work the alcove and outlet to Rush Creek. The north rim and boat channel to West Rush also warrant some time.
To fish the Rushes on the road, you can lodge in Cambridge. Ring the Cambridge Area Chamber of Commerce at (763) 689-2505 or contact them online at www.cambridge-chamber.com.
LAKE WASHINGTON Maintaining this session of fairness, I'm redirecting to the south, beneath the concrete and asphalt to Le Sueur County's Lake Washington. At 1,487 acres, Washington is a mouthful, but due to its somewhat plain composition, the angler is at an advantage.
In the spring when panfish assail warm and food-enriched shallows, the north end really shines. And as with the Rush's, simply commence fan-casting and keep the craft in motion until contacting fish. The southern bayou known as Crystal Bay is another hotbed, as is the shoreline leading northward into the marsh. Again, you needn't be a rocket scientist to understand the surroundings. You must, however, put your nose to the grindstone and search for fish.
Due north of Crystal Bay - east bank of the north arm - stands a plethora of emergent vegetation that deserve attention. Similar surroundings on the opposite shore of First, Second and Third points offers similar habitat, complete with balmy shallows and dead flora intermingled with soon to be emergent greens.
Big fish are hooked on Washington each spring - crappies in the 2-pound-plus range - so don't hesitate throwing fatheads and jigs with gusto.
Mankato is a mere hop from Washington and myriad southern dandies. Learn more about the area lakes by calling the Greater Mankato Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-657-4733 or online at www.mankato.com.
SHIELDS LAKE Like Lake Washington, Rice County's Shields Lake isn't a diamond in the rough, but rather a diamond mine that's recognized but seemingly inexhaustible nonetheless.
The 872-acre machine takes a hurting from the locals and urban travelers, yet continues to impress with both its average panfish size and absolute quantity. Post ice-out, Shields is study in slinking shallows, dark and dirty, and anywhere the wind doesn't howl.
The northeast bay is a prime target. It presents the ideal blend of warm shallows, deep-water access, copious vegetation, an influx of new water and is a direct target for sunlight. I'll give it an "A." The bay on the true north end, near the boat landing, is another hotspot. And if it isn't happening in those places, try the two islands with jigs and waxies.
The ringing of the southern bells isn't exclusive to a couple of ponds, either. If it were me and I was breaking away for a couple days in April or May, I'd add the following to the realm of possibilities: Circle Lake, Fox Lake, Duck Lake, French Lake, Dudley Lake, Gorman Lake, Hall Lake, Lake Jefferson, Mazaska Lake, and Lake Tetonka. Got the picture? It's pretty good down there.
Contact the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce for lodging information. They can be reached at (507) 334-4381 or www.faribaultmn.org.
LAKE RIPLEY She's a dish, a fairly featureless and drive-right-past-her kind of dish. Meeker County's Lake Ripley, however, tenders more bite than bark. The lake is tailor-made for growing panfish because it's one big basin. Highly vegetated shorelines spill quite uniformly to an 18-foot abyss. The water is tainted, and in the spring, panfish press up against the north shore.
The slowly tapering northeast shore is studded with emergent vegetation, providing prime ice-out habitat and plenty of elbow room. You might want to investigate depths near the outlet/dam and Lake Ripley County Park, too.
While in the vicinity - if Ripley isn't ripping - head over to 545-acre Lake Minnie Belle. It's radically deeper, reaching nearly 50 feet, but in the spring, panfish flock to classic confines. Most notable of them are a bay on the northwest, another to the southwest and the southeast shore.
Litchfield places you in proximity of Ripley. The Litchfield Chamber of Commerce is reachable at (320) 693-8184 or www.litch.com.
CLEARWATER LAKE Clearwater Lake, at 3,196 acres, has a population of black crappies to die for.
In the spring, they beeline for identifiable and accessible waterscapes. Right off the bat, you may want to motor into adjoining Otter Lake, which is reachable from Clearwater's northwest corner. From the same landing you're in quick reach of the enticing north bay and connecting Grass Lake, both of which lure spring bluegills and crappies.
To the south, lesser Bungalow Island has a string of attractive alcoves. And for kicks, investigate Clearwater's western basin. It's markedly deeper and loaded with intense structure, but on its southern flank lays several good indentations.
Wright County, in fact, has a host of legitimate panfish lakes. If past performance is indicative of future results, jot down the following names: Beebe Lake, Waverly Lake, Maple Lake, Sugar Lake and Cedar Lake.
Contact the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce at (320) 251-2940 for lodging information, or at www.stcloudareachamber.com.
LAKE IRENE I'm telling you what. If when penciling in your spring fishing schedule and there's on
ly room for one journey, then I'd point my truck toward Alexandria. It is to panfish what Red Wing is to walleyes. On a map the region is a checkerboard of blue and you'd be hard-pressed to pick a bad crappie lake.
Lake Irene, at 630 acres, is extra special. It brims with my all-time favorite spring panfish ingredient: hardstems. The shorelines are riddled with bulrushes, making for hours and days of investigation. Of particular interest are shallows at the far northern and southern heads.
Besides Irene, dividends are often paid on Chippewa Lake, Lake Geneva, Lobster Lake, Lake Mina, Lake Minnewaska, Lake Osakis, Lake Oscar, Red Rock Lake, amongst others.
For the skinny on lodging, contact the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-235-9441 or www.alexandriamn.org.
INGUADONA LAKE Here again I'm directing you to a specific body of water that swims in a sea of bounty. Cass County's Inguadona Lake is 1,077-acre gemstone that shares the area with at least a dozen other extraordinary panfish lakes. At present, however, Inguadona stands out because of its crop of huge crappies.
Inguadona is slender and deep and composed of two hunks that are divided by a bridge. This constitution is beneficial to the spring angler, too. The northern and southern extremes of both lobes present opportunities. A large and fertile bay on the west side of the lower lake merits a peek, and you'd be remiss to not totally pound the channel area on both sides.
If by chance you're in the Longville area for an extended stay, see what the locals are saying about these beauties: Boy Lake, Island Lake, Portage Lake and Welsh Lake.
Contact the Longville Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce for area information at 1-800-756-7583 or www.longville.com.
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Now you have a bunch of great crappie lakes for this spring. Be there when they put on the feedbag.
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