The Badger State is blessed with an abundance of papermouths, and spring is the best time to catch a mess of them. It's no surprise that Wisconsin panfish anglers are crappie lovers. (March 2006)
There aren't too many sure things when it comes to fishing, but a hot spring crappie bite is about as close as it comes. Many Wisconsin waters provide crappies in good numbers, while others offer fewer but bigger fish. You shouldn't have to drive far in our state to find crappies, and you shouldn't have to work too hard to catch them.
After ice-out, crappies often remain for a few weeks in their deep-water winter haunts, where you'll find them suspended 10 feet or more below the surface. To catch them in early spring, hang a tiny jig or ice fly beneath a slip-bobber and drift it over a school.
As the sun warms shallow dark-bottomed bays, crappies begin to move into these shallows in preparation for spawning. Look for them near reed beds, rocks or wood, and tempt them with a small minnow under a slip-bobber.
Once crappies start spawning, you should be able to catch them with small jigs and plastic tails. Rig two jigs 18 inches apart, one above the other, so you can fish the entire water column in shallow water. Don't be surprised if the action gets so fast that you hook a double now and then.
On most lakes, panfish populations ebb and flow in a dynamic cycle. One species can dominate the fishery for several years, and then another species takes over. Here's a look at a baker's dozen of waters where crappies are doing well right now, and where you should have no trouble catching a mess of slabs this spring.
The largest lake in Walworth County at 5,200 acres, Geneva is not your typical crappie lake. Clear and deep, it lacks the shallows and dark water associated with most crappie waters, but still holds good numbers of papermouths. Shortly after ice-out, you'll find crappies suspended over rocky humps at the west end. As the water warms, crappies move into Williams Bay and Geneva Bay where they spawn along the shore. In summer, fish those same humps or look for suspended fish over deep weeds. Crappies also hang out near the many private piers and other man-made structures.
There are good public launch sites in Williams Bay, the city of Lake Geneva and Fontana, but parking spots fill up quickly on weekends.
Contact Geneva Lake Bait and Tackle, at the intersection of Highways 67 and 50 just north of Williams Bay, at (262) 245-6150; or the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-345-1020 or online at www.lakegenevawi.com.
Often overlooked by anglers heading to lakes Mendota or Monona, 2,000-acre Lake Waubesa offers the best crappie population on the Madison Chain.
Waubesa is fairly shallow with plenty of structure and weeds, so crappies are not hard to find. Early in spring, motor under the trestle at the lake's north end and look for them in shallow Upper Mud Lake. As the extensive weedbeds develop, fish the outside weed edges. Crappies spawn on the shallow flats where you can sometimes sight-fish for them. Off Rockford Heights on the east shore, fish cribs hold crappies at any time of year.
Gene Dellinger of D&S Bait in Madison likes white tube jigs, with or without minnows. He said the humps on the east side of the lake are a good summer spot for crappies.
You can launch at Babcock County Park on the east shore or Goodland County Park on the west shore.
Contact D&S Bait, Tackle & Archery, Northport Drive, Madison at (608) 241-4225, or www.dsbait.com.
Considering the volume of ice-fishing traffic that Fox Lake sustains all winter long, it's a wonder there are any crappies left come spring. But Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Laura Stremick-Thompson assured us that crappies continue to do well on this 2,600-acre Dodge County lake. Her recent surveys revealed an abundance of both white and black crappies, in all year-classes.
"Fox Lake has a heavy algae bloom in the summer," Stremick-Thompson said. "And white crappies feed heavily on zooplankton, which eat algae, so we encourage anglers to fish for crappies."
The lake property owners' association has installed a number of fish cribs and brush bundles to supplement the lake's sparse vegetation. These are crappie magnets that hold fish throughout the year.
Launch on the southeast shore in Clausen Park in the city of Fox Lake or on the northwest shore in Town Park off Blackhawk Trail.
Contact Phil & Sons Tackle Box, Highway 33 in Beaver Dam at (920) 885-6766; or the Fox Lake Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-858-4904, or online at www.foxlake.com.
WISCONSIN RIVER & LAKE WISCONSIN
A client of guide Dave Ehardt's lost a monster crappie last fall when he tried to hoist it into the boat rather than wait for the net. That super slab is still swimming somewhere between Wisconsin Dells and Okee.
"I've caught crappies up to 17 inches," Dave said. "But that one was bigger. We did really well on crappies last fall, and they should bite just as well this spring."
Lake Wisconsin is a 9,000-acre flowage with miles of shallow flats on both sides of the old river channel. Brushpiles and natural stumps provide good structure. In early spring, crappies hold in the deeper channel, but as soon as the water begins to warm up, they'll head for the shallows. It's not unusual to catch them in just 2 feet of water.
DNR fisheries biologist Tim Larson said the system holds good numbers of both black and white crappies. Moon Bay, Whalen's Grade and Harmony Grove are favorite spots.
The river itself from Lake Wisconsin upstream to The Dells dam is better known as a walleye fishery, but you'll find crappies in backwaters and anywhere there is woody cover. Jigs and plastics or small minnows both work well.
To fish the upper river, launch at River's Edge Resort on Highway A in The Dells. There are several landings on both banks of Lake Wisconsin, and several have good fishing right off wheelchair-accessible piers.
Contact Owen's Live Bait at (608) 742-2823; Dave Ehardt at (414) 803-7160; or River's Edge Resort at (608) 254-7707, or log on to their Web site at www.riversedgeresort.com.
HOLCOMBE FLOWAGE & LAKE WISSOTA
These two flowages on the Chippewa River in Chippewa County offer great crappie fishing, according to DNR fisheries biologist Joe Kurz.
"Both have always had good crappie fishing," he said. "We're planning a comprehensive survey of all fish species on Wissota this spring, and an electro-shocking survey of crappies on Holcombe next fall."
The largest of the two at 5,800 acres, Wissota has better natural structure in the form of weedbeds, woody structure and fish cribs. In recent years, Chippewa Rod & Gun club has put in some 500 cribs, and anglers key in on them to catch crappies. Shortly after ice-out, look for crappies near cribs, brush and downed trees in Little Lake Wissota -- also known as Paint Creek Flowage -- and Yellow River Flowage, which are inlet bays to Wissota.
Launch at the Chippewa Rod & Gun Club landing on the west shore on Redard Road, off Highway X at the narrows to Little Lake Wissota, or off Highway S near the railroad trestle at the upper end of the flowage.
Holcombe has a lot more shoreline, though only about half the acreage. Much of Holcombe's shoreline is wild, with good marshes where crappies spawn in spring. Holcombe High School FFA has put a number of cribs in the flowage to supplement natural structure. The shallow bays have good weeds, which is where to look for spring crappies here. Try Cranberry Lake at the southwest end or Pine Lake at the southeast end. In summer, look for crappies in the river channels and off the mouths of the spawning bays. There are several good landings around this flowage.
To learn more about this area, visit www.holcombe.uslakes.info. Contact the Chippewa Falls Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-888-723-0024 or www.chippewachamber.org; and the Holcombe Sport Shop at (715) 595-4293.
MILLER DAM FLOWAGE
Also known as Chequamegon Waters Flowage because it lies in the Medford Ranger District of the Chequamegon National Forest, Miller Dam Flowage is located on the Yellow River between Gilman and Perkinstown in the heart of Taylor County. Its 2,700 acres cover a maze of inlets, bays, stumps and river channels that offer plenty of holding structure for its abundant crappies.
Its dark, shallow waters warm quickly in spring, and crappie action is good here shortly after ice-out. The inlet bays at the north end are the first to heat up in spring. Most anglers prefer minnows, but small feathered jigs fished naked or tipped with plastic tube tails will take fish, too.
There are three federal boat ramps, where a daily or annual fee is charged, and one county ramp, which is free. There is a national forest campground on the east shore. Boatless anglers can catch crappies from shore at the campground and at the Highway G bridge.
Call Taylor County Tourism Council at 1-800-257-4729; and Fuzzy's General Store at (715) 785-7977.
Best known for giving up the world-record muskie back in 1949, the "Big Chip" is also a dynamite crappie fishery. This 15,000-acre flowage boasts 233 miles of shoreline, 140 islands and countless bays, humps, flats and floating bogs that provide cover for game fish and panfish alike. The flowage is open to winter fishing, but crappies may not be kept from Dec. 1 through March 7. A bag limit of 15 crappies is strictly enforced during the open season.
Those regulations help ensure a strong crappie population and good number of larger fish. Guide Dave Dorazio said that shallow bays with submerged wood are top spots for spring crappies. Look for them on Crane Lake at the northwest end, Moss Creek Bottoms at the northeast end and Scott Lake at the south end. Artificial baits and live minnows both take fish.
Contact the Chippewa Flowage Resort Association at their Web site, www.chippewaflowage.com; or Pastika's Sport Shop in Hayward at 1-800-844-2159 or www.pastikas.com; and Dave Dorazio at (715) 462-3885.
Iron County's Turtle-Flambeau Flowage is another large northwoods flowage with excellent crappie fishing. Wilder and more remote than the Chippewa Flowage, Turtle-Flambeau is nearly as big, with 14,000 acres, over 200 miles of shoreline and 150 islands. Vegetation is sparse and structure limited here, so river channels, stumpfields, marshy shorelines and flats are places to look for crappies. Blair Lake, Rat Lake and the bars off Schenebeck's Point are good summer and fall crappie spots.
DNR fisheries biologist Jeff Roth has initiated an intensive management plan for panfish on a number of Iron County lakes, including the Turtle-Flambeau, and he said it's beginning to pay off. The flowage is probably the only lake in Wisconsin with a 10-fish panfish bag limit and a 10-inch minimum-size limit on crappies.
"We did that to improve the size of fish and quality of fishing, and it seems to be working," said the DNR's Joe Kurz. "We've also put a lot of cribs in open-water areas, which attract both fish and fishermen. At a lake-management visioning session in 2004, local anglers said the crappie fishery is as good as it's ever been."
Roth plans to survey the flowage's crappies this spring to get an idea of how the population is doing. A comprehensive survey of all fish species here is slated for 2009.
There are good landings off Popkos Circle Road and Highway FF on the northeast end.
Call the Turtle-Flambeau Association at (715) 769-3680 or go online to www.turtleflambeauflowage.com; or Flambeau Flowage Sports on Highway 51 in Mercer, at (715) 476-2526 or www.flambeauflowagesports.com.
THREE LAKES CHAIN
Whoever named this Oneida County chain of lakes must have been a couple of fingers short of a handshake. There are at least 17 lakes on this portion of a chain of 28 lakes on the Eagle River, known technically as the Burnt Rollways Reservoir. A dam by that name near the Oneida-Vilas County line separates the Three Lakes (or upper) chain from the Eagle River (or lower) chain.
Are you thoroughly confused by now? Don't worry! Just remember these lake names: Planting Ground, Big and Whitefish. Those are among the top crappie lakes in the chain. All of them have shallow bays where crappies spawn and weedflats where they hang out in summer. On Whitefish Lake, try the weedline along the south shore or the weedy bay on the west side. On Big Lake, good spots are the bay at the north end near the channel to Dog Lake and the three large bays at the south end. Planting Ground has some good shallow bays for spring crappies, along with nice offshore structure that holds them in summer.
The landing off North Big Lake Loop Road provides access to the head of the chain, while several others are scattered throughout the lower lakes.
Contact the Three Lakes Information Bureau at 1-800-972-6103 or at www.threelakes.com; Jokin' Joe's Bait and Tackle at (715) 546-3776; Gare's Guide Service at (715) 477-1058 or www.garesguideservice.com /a>.
HIGH FALLS & CALDRON FALLS FLOWAGES
Located on the Peshtigo River in Marinette County, these two flowages offer great crappie fishing with a northwoods feel, not too far from Wisconsin's east coast.
The 1,100-acre Cladron Falls is shallow, with extensive back bays filled with stumps and vegetation. Look for crappies in the stumpfields early in the season. Later, they'll tuck themselves right into the tops of downed trees, where weedless jigs and plastics will coax them out. They also suspend 5 to 10 feet down over deep water near the dam and in the river channel.
High Falls Flowage is larger, covering 1,700 acres downstream of Caldron Falls. Rocky bars, reefs and sharp dropoffs provide fish-holding structure. In spring, crappies frequent the inlets, mouths of bays and wood at the flowage's upper end. Later, they suspend over deep water near the dam at the south end.Wisconsin Public Service Corporation maintains six public landings on Caldron Falls and eight on High Falls, so there is good access on both flowages.
Contact the Crivitz Recreation Association at 1-800-274-8480 or online at www.crivitzrecreation.com; Mike Mladnek Guide Service at (715) 854-2055 or www.mikemladenik.com; and in Crivitz, Hook, Line & Sinker Bait at (715) 854-2073.
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There are plenty more good crappie waters in the Badger State. So if one of these is not close to home, check with your local DNR fisheries biologist to find one near you. Many of them are smaller lakes that can stand a little fishing pressure, but not the attention that mention in an article like this could bring. Do a little snooping around and you're bound to come up with a prize water or two of your own.
(Editor's note: The author's Web site, www.dansmalloutdoors.com, has more information on Wisconsin fishing opportunities.)