Those slab-sized crappies that evaded your hook all summer long are vulnerable right now under the ice. Looking for a little revenge? (December 2009)
Angling legend Gary Roach tends to forgo walleye fishing during the winter in favor of targeting susceptible crappies of slab proportions.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.
Minnesota's Gary Roach may be known as Mr. Walleye, but when he takes to the ice in the winter, he tends to focus on crappies. "It's because the big crappies become vulnerable as they quit suspending and move out of deep water right after ice-up, and then school up and hover over the deep holes as winter progresses," he said. "Those fish you couldn't find all summer are now right below you."
Of course, not all of your favorite lakes produce big slab crappies. While most lakes in Minnesota will hold some crappies, many lakes carry a population of small fish. It seems as though the lakes that have the most crappies don't always have the biggest. Fortunately, there are enough bodies of water with decent populations of big crappies sprinkled around the state that anglers won't be left wanting for a place to go.
"Crappies can come and go in cycles," said Roach. "On some lakes, you have a few years of great fishing, then the population of big fish gets knocked down, the older fish die and you have to wait a few years for it to come back. On some lakes, the fishing for big crappies in the wintertime is always good. Those that produce solid fishing every year are usually the big lakes."
So it would seem that an angler must do his or her research to figure out where the big slabs are in any given year. "It pays to do your homework," said Roach. "Keep one ear glued to the bait shop wall, and never stop asking around. When that big slab bite begins, you want to be the first one on it."
Roach says there is no secret to catching crappies under the ice. His number one priority is finding the fish. "You need to drill plenty of holes, get out that sonar and look," Roach said. "Crappies tend to suspend high off the bottom, even when they are on the edge of the vegetation. You find those suspended fish, and you got crappies."
Lures for crappies should be able to hold a minnow in a horizontal position. The jigging spoon setup that Roach uses is the Buckshot Dropper Spoon, where the spoon is an attractor and the bait is attached to a small hook on a tag line coming off the spoon. This allows the minnow to be suspended slightly below the spoon, where it is an easy target.
Roach tends to use the horizontal jigs quite a bit for winter crappie fishing. The Bro Bug is a horizontal jig, and so is the Gum-Ball jig. With these, he slides the hook point into the minnow's mouth and runs it out behind its head. It's the perfect horizontal presentation.
"Light line is important too," said Roach. "When fishing suspended fish in clear water, you will discover they get line-shy real quick, so the lighter the line, the better the success."
Fortunately for us, Roach stays on the pulse of the Minnesota fishery, and he has a good idea where big slab crappies can be found. And fortunately for us, he likes to share his knowledge with anglers. "I've always wanted to see people out on the water and on the ice having fun," he said. "If you catch fish, it's fun, so letting people in on some great spots to catch fish is my way of helping out."
WHITE SAND LAKE
Crow Wing County
White Sand Lake is just west of Baxter, just a short hop from Roach's house. You might run into him there on a midweek evening as he sets up for the low-light crappie bite. He'll be sitting on the hole on the south side of the lake in a one-person, black-tarp fishing shelter. If the wind isn't blowing, the flaps will be open, and he won't mind if you stop and say hello.
"The crappies on this lake run two to a pound when you find them; they can get up to a pound or better though, and there are plenty of them," said Roach. "I catch about a dozen or so crappies in an hour and a half, depending on the bite, and keep a half-dozen to take home and fry up for supper. The fishing for crappies on White Sand is pretty dependable all season long."
Roach prefers the wind blowing out of the north when he's fishing White Sand so he can face his portable shelter to the south. "I like to set up a tip-up in 12 feet of water in the sparse coontail with a medium sucker minnow," he said.
For more information, call Lake and River Bait at (218) 829-0987.
This very well could be the year that anglers can catch those big crappies at Linwood Lake again. Crappies tend to be cyclical in both size and numbers, and for the past couple of years, Linwood Lake has begun producing some big ones again.
"Last winter, the lake got some fishing pressure for crappies," said Roach. "While this can knock down a population of fish, it can also create a fishery where the smaller population of fish gets bigger in size structure. Now, you get some three-quarter-pound slabs. This year, there will be plenty of big crappies in Linwood."
Roach says you'll know where to set up because there will be stationary shacks set up over the hole on the west side. He cautions that it might be a good idea to get out away from the crowds if you want to find the bigger fish. "Even 50 yards can make a difference when it comes to size structure," said Roach. "Even during the middle of the week, when the noise level in those communities of shacks is low, I tend to look for the bigger fish on the edges of that hole instead of right over it."
On Linwood, Roach likes to drill a bunch of holes right away and then move as needed when the bite slows in one. "You catch a couple out of this hole and then you have to move to the next one. It can be a sporadic bite, so I get the holes drilled right away so I won't have to worry about spooking fish when I drill."
For more information, call Vados Bait at (763) 784-6728.
"My favorite crappie lakes are those that have some deep holes where the crappies will stage during the midseason," said Roach, "but I also want a lake that is somewhat fertile so the fish have good growth rates and provide some quality angling. I've found this on Moccasin Lake just south of Leech Lake."
The deepest hole in the lake is just south of the access, but Roach's favorite two holes are those 50-footers to the north.
"Crappie fishing shouldn't be a
hit-or-miss situation," instructed Roach. "Since those schools of crappies show up real well on the sonar, you know you're on fish; it's just a matter of getting them to bite."
Roach says you don't always have to rely on minnows when it comes to crappies. Many times a fat wax worm or a few colored maggots will do the trick even better.
A good game plan on Moccasin will be to drill some holes right next to the hump in the middle of the lake in about 18 feet of water and work a zigzag drilling route toward the northwest popping holes until you hit the 50-foot zone.
Crappies will move to a shiny spoon that's being aggressively jigged, so try to entice some over for a bite. When the crappies show up on the sonar, if they don't grab the bait, send down a smaller-profile lure and let it sit. With crappies, always expect a soft bite, so be on your toes and set the hook as soon as you feel the least bit of resistance.
For more information, call Reed's Sporting Goods at (218) 547-1505.
Put yourself in the search mode and head out to Maple Lake just south of Alexandria if you want to get into some big crappies. This is a fun lake on which to hunt crappies because the fish migrate into the center of the lake during the middle part of the season and suspend over the deeper water. It's a lot of area to cover, and you might need to drill holes in multiple locations to find the fish. Big crappies -- two to a pound or better -- will really pop a crappie minnow suspended below a dropper spoon on a glow hook. That's right, a glow hook. The water in Maple Lake is very clear, which is why the winter bite for crappies is the best. That clear water also means the fish can spot a tiny glint of color from a distance.
"The first reaction for anglers on Maple is they get intimidated by all the potentially productive water, which tends to push them towards the community locations," said Roach. "There are plenty of big crappies in this lake, so find a spot of your own if you want to catch the big fish. Community spots just don't produce the big crappies."
Check your regulations before venturing out onto Maple. You will discover there are some special considerations for crappies. Anglers can only possess five crappies, and they all must be over 10 inches.
For more information, call Christopherson's Bait at (320) 763-3255.
BIG (NORTH) PINE LAKE
In Minnesota, a 400-acre lake is hardly "big," so maybe that's why some refer to Big Pine as North Pine Lake. Maybe they weren't talking about the body of water when they named it. Maybe they were talking about the crappies.
To find the crappies on Big Pine requires a search strategy that has you moving and drilling. There's no mid-lake structure, well-defined holes or sharp dropoffs. This allows the crappies to meander through the entire lake, typically in depths from 12 to 20 feet of water.
"There's no rhyme or reason to where the crappies will be in relation to their vertical depth in the water column on Big Pine," said Roach. "I've found fish just a few feet under the ice over 18 feet of water on this lake, and on one trip they were so tight to bottom the only way we knew they were there was spotting them with an underwater camera."
So, drill a few holes, send down a lure and hope to get lucky. Keep moving and drilling, and don't hesitate to try some of the holes that weren't producing earlier.
For more information, call Petry's Bait at (320) 233-7466.
Pelican Lake, just south of Ashby, is a great lake to fish in the wintertime because the water clears up and the crappies are big in this lake. In the summer, because of the shallow nature of the lake, there is a pretty healthy algae bloom that can turn anglers off. It seems to slow the bite as well. Come winter, the ice and cold water lets that algae settle to the bottom and the fish start biting again.
"There are only a few holes in Pelican, and they're not much over 20 feet deep," said Roach. "But the crappies like them, so you get the fish stacked up in a concentrated region.
"Winter water visibility is better," he continued, "but it still pays to use the glow lures to attract the crappies."
Another benefit of the lower visibility is that the crappies aren't prone to bite in spurts. While the evening bite might be the best, you can generate some action most times of day. Like most lakes with poor water clarity, the night bite is generally poor.
For information, call Dahlen's Sport Shop at (218) 747-2901.
This next lake profile is one of my own. I was lucky enough to get in on a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last season with Sam Heaton from Johnson Fishing to test out the new Humminbird sonars for ice-fishing. We met Bill Slaughter in Ely, loaded up the sled dogs and equipment and mushed up into Basswood Lake for some northern pike and crappie fishing.
After a day successfully chasing pike -- with some hitting the 40-inch mark -- Slaughter told us of a secret spot on Basswood that held huge crappies. Would we want to go the next day? Oh, yeah!
It's a long haul -- about 12 miles from the Fall Lake landing. While dog sledding might seem glamorous, it is mostly just plodding along behind the dogs as they pull the sled full of gear to the final destination. Since snowmobiles aren't allowed in this wilderness area, it's the best way to travel when you're loaded down.
When you are fishing with Slaughter on a sled dog trip, it is work. You have to tether the dogs. The holes can only be drilled with a hand auger. You fish outside in the elements. But it is rewarding!
Within minutes, the first crappies were coming in. Big fish. It reminded me of the heyday on Red Lake when you could set the hook on a 14-inch slab every few minutes. These crappies were suspended in 20 to 25 feet of water over a 40-foot-deep bottom. You absolutely need a great sonar when crappie fishing like this.
You also need a warm suit, good boots, and the ability to function well in temperatures that are seldom above zero degrees for the entire day. If this sounds like fun to you, consider a winter camping excursion where you pitch tents on the ice and spend a few days working areas for crappies, walleyes and huge northern pike.
For more information, contact Bill Slaughter at (218) 365-2650. His Web site is www.elymnguide.com.
There are dozens of lakes in Minnesota that will become the hottest property in the state for big crappies this winter. Some will be the old reliable lakes that hit the charts every year for big slabs. Some will be making a comeback after slipping for a few years. Some might be newcomers t
hat have never been exposed before and will surprise anglers who knew of the lake, but didn't know it had the potential to produce such fish. And there might be a secret that surfaces, like that hotspot on Basswood you can only get to by dogsled. Like Roach said: Keep one ear glued to the bait shop wall, and spend as much time on the water as you can.