March 06, 2018
By D.H. Willis
Great Plains crappie fishing is heating up across the region. Don't overlook these hotspots.
Crappie fishing ranges from great to average in the Great Plains this year. The best of it is predicted in North Dakota and Kansas. South Dakota and Nebraska will have good fishing, but it won't be at peak levels.
Across the entire region, crappies have grown in popularity over the decades. The approaching spring spawn is the very best time to go after this fun fish. Here is what to expect this spring in the best crappie waters.
Crappie fishing in the far northern Great Plains will almost certainly be excellent this year. Fish populations are soaring in the two premier crappie waters of North Dakota.
Jamestown and Pipestem reservoirs are the best and most consistent lakes in the state. Test nettings turned up very healthy year-classes there.
All of it is coming on the heels of good crappie fishing last year.
"We are doing well," says BJ Kratz, North Dakota Game and Fish Department southeast district fisheries supervisor at Jamestown, "It shouldn't be a lot different than last year."
Anglers were catching lots of crappies in the 9.5- to 10-inch range last spring and winter. It's a good year-class and they have grown since then.
Jamestown Reservoir has had consistently good crappie populations, but the upsurge in crappie numbers has been especially welcome in Pipestem.
The Pipestem year classes were stuck on one particularly good one in 2005. Fortunately more recent good spawns are filling the void there. And fishermen are still catching a few of those big, old fish that swim Pipestem.
"They are still there. They are approaching 13 inches now," says Kratz.
Jamestown is the other big crappie lake, and more and more fishermen are targeting crappies there.
"For some reason we sampled a lot of white crappies in Jamestown," says Kratz. "In years past it was dominant black crappies by 90 percent margin. But we may have a little boom of white crappies coming on in Jamestown."
Test nettings are now turning up 30 or 40 percent white crappies. The two fish look slightly different, with white crappies a lighter color and appearing longer and not as thick in the body.
"White crappies put up a little better fight than black crappies," says Kratz. "I don't know if they are more energetic or what. Maybe aggressive is a better word."
Ice-fishing is the main way people catch these fish. Winter fishing is more prevalent than in other plains states.
During spring spawn, it comes down to shallow shoreline fishing.
"That has been phenomenal when those fish move in," noted Kratz. "There are a lot of days you can go out and catch 50 to 100 crappies in a couple hours. That is a unique opportunity for those who don't have boats. Depending on how clear the water is, you can see them. It is not like looking for a needle in a haystack. You can see them."
One other lake high on crappie catches this spring will be Grass Lake near Lidgerwood. Kratz says 10.5- to 11-inch fish are swimming plentifully in that lake.
Some of the best crappie fishing in South Dakota will take place in the southeastern part of the state. Marindahl Lake has the highest number of black crappie. Those fish measured 8 to 10 inches when netted last year, and are even bigger now.
Strangely, anglers don't seem to be catching too many of them.
That is mystifying to Todd St. Sauver, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks fisheries supervisor in Sioux Falls. The majority of fish were 8- to 10-inch fish back in 2016 when the last test netting was done. They are even bigger now.
"Fishing (Marindahl) is usually a challenge for whatever reason," says St. Sauver. "It is in a somewhat remote location. If they are catching them we aren't hearing about it."
Beaver Lake in the southeast also has a growing black crappie population, though they are still considerably smaller size than in Marindahl. Lake Mitchell is also on the upswing with crappies now moving into catchable size.
The northeastern part of South Dakota sometimes has terrific crappie fishing. But now is not one of those times. The crappies there go in big swings. The cycles sometimes last a decade.
"They are real sporadic in this part of the world," says Mark Ermer, SDGFP northeast fisheries manager. "Sometimes we wait five years and sometimes 10 years. Those big year classes are very strong, and there is good fishing for five years. But then we slip back to low populations with big fish. Then we wait. We are definitely in a big dip."
Swan Lake is tops for white crappie. The largest proportion of those fish are now more than 10 inches long.
Amsden Dam northeast of Webster takes top ranking for crappie fishing in the lakes region. It's 200 acres and has decent crappie fishing right now, says Todd Kaufman, with SDGFP.
Also on the top list here is Twin Lake in Spink County.
White Lake near Britton will also be one of the better crappie lakes. But overall, the trend is down.
"There are crappies in a lot of our lakes, but we live and die by year-classes and we don't seem to have a lot of them right now," says Kaufman.
In western South Dakota, Bear Butte Lake near the state park of that name had the best netting results. Many fish were in the 8- to 10-inch range. Bear Butte is shallow and warms quickly in spring. It's a scenic spot to fish, lying between Bear Butte and the main part of the Black Hills.
Nebraska was a ground-breaking state in implementing more restrictive panfish size and creel limits. The results have been welcome. By cutting into the catch, anglers have more big crappies to go after and good year-classes can last longer. They spread out over more years. There is less feast-or-famine.
Unlike some other states, the big lakes aren't where some of the best crappie fishing is found. The small- to medium-size Nebraska waters are the best producers. It's due to the water drawdowns of the big reservoirs for irrigation, says Daryl Bauer, fisheries outreach program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
"The best (locations) are usually small and medium reservoirs and pits and ponds across the state," he noted. "The big reservoirs are irrigation reservoirs, and they fluctuate, which isn't great for crappie."
The smaller lakes that will be very good this spring include Wanahoo near Omaha, Czechland Lake near Prague, Whitney Lake near Crawford, and Branched Oak Reservoir near Raymond.
"Lake Wanahoo is a relatively new reservoir, and it has been a good crappie factory the last few years," says Bauer.
Anglers have been taking lots of 10-inch crappies and a few up to 12 inches.
"Folks are hammering them when they get to 10 inches," says Bauer. "Wanahoo has been like that the last few years."
The fishing has been both open water, and through the ice.
Whitney Lake is located in the Panhandle and is an irrigation reservoir, but still has good crappie fishing. It contains bigger fish, with many 12-inchers.
Sherman and Merritt reservoirs have also had consistent crappie fishing.
"There are both black and white crappies in Sherman," noted Bauer. "Merritt will be mostly blacks. We see some reservoirs where we have both black and white crappie present, and it changes from year to year. Black crappies tend to better with cleaner water and aquatic vegetation. White crappies do better with more turbid water and more open water."
All of it is held together with some of the first regulations in the country that treated crappies more as an important game fish to be conserved and allowed to grow, rather than as something geared toward heavy panfish harvest.
"Springtime it is the crappie spawn, and we will have lots of people targeting crappies," advised Bauer. "Then the rest of the summer it is hit-and-miss. And during ice-fishing we will have lots of folks targeting crappies."
The spawn occurs in late April and early May.
"Folks will catch crappies in early spring as soon as the ice is out on nice afternoons in shallow bays where they can tuck into some warmer water."
This is a stronghold of good crappie fishing in the central United States. There was a time when these fish were few and far between. But with the building of many federal reservoirs decades ago, crappie were one of the main species that exploded.
This year will be very good and there are excellent populations of these fish in many of the main waters. Fishing should be great.
Eastern Kansas typically has the most crappie fishing because that is where most of the reservoirs are located. Hillsdale Lake was superb last year, and biologists expect a continuation of that good fishing in 2018.
"We have good numbers of crappie," says Chuck Bever, Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism regional fisheries supervisor in Topeka. "Hillsdale is over by Kansas City, and it is traditionally a good crappie impoundment. I can foresee it as excellent because 2017 was quite a banner year."
Good spawn fishing will commence in April on the warmest sunny days when the white crappies move into shallow shorelines.
"As far as taking them (in Hillsdale), shorelines on east the side and west side are good," noted Bauer. "There is an excellent year-class and good food source, too. Hillsdale has been receiving timely rains for reproduction and forage production."
Like in other Kansas lakes, the small crappies eat plankton when they are young. In Hillsdale they feed on gizzard shad when they get bigger.
"It gets a lot of use," says Bauer. "It is a destination for crappie anglers, even though it has other species that are good fishing. Crappie fishermen dominate. But it has largemouth bass, walleye, white bass and catfish. Crappie fishing is king over there. It has a 10-inch minimum and 20-a-day limit. You get good catches of fish over 11 inches."
Being near Kansas City, Hillsdale get lots of fishing pressure. That's one reason anglers may want to try some of the other excellent waters in Kansas this spring.
Clinton Lake near Lawrence is one of the best. It has rebounded from low numbers.
"Clinton has shown improvement in recent years," says Bauer. "Crappie fishing is better. Several years ago it was unusually impacted by low water conditions, which is odd for that impoundment. The low water impacted production and young fish and forage. Crappie fishing is on the uptick out there. And it is a traditional crappie fishing impoundment."
Perry Lake also has traditionally good crappie fishing.
"There has been good reproduction the past several years," says Bauer.
Perry is one to watch because fish year-classes are coming on strong there. Perry is expected to be even better in 2019.
The rolling landscape of eastern Kansas is very good for crappie lakes.
"Some of the best crappie (fishing) in Kansas is in the northeast lakes," says Bauer. "We have adequate rainfall, but not overabundant rainfall that causes flushing. Young-of-the-year crappie are pretty consistent for continued crappie harvest. There are lots of secluded coves to get out of the wind where crappies like to spawn."