Minnesota offers the angler plenty of lakes and river systems abounding with crappies. Conditions have been textbook perfect across the state for reproduction and growth, established in year-classes that tend to cycle based on size and quantity in each body of water. The 2019 outlook is exceptional. In each region, scores of lakes and river systems are rich with crappies in terms of both numbers and sizes.
While crappie fishing techniques are always evolving with technology and angler ingenuity, crappies remain relatively eager biters under the right conditions. How an angler chooses to fish is his or her own prerogative, whether it’s a bucket of fathead minnows or modern plastic imitations. Here are a few hotspots around the state with tips from local experts to put fish in your freezer.
PAUL BUNYAN COUNTRY – BEMIDJI TO CASS COUNTY
This area around Bemidji has roughly 113 lakes to pick from, and more than half of them contain plentiful crappies. This general region in the northern portion of the state offers anglers late-ice opportunities weeks longer than locations farther to the south.
Bemidji Minnesota DNR Area Fisheries Manager Gary Barnard recommends lakes connected to the Turtle River, like Blackduck, Gull, Julia and Big and Little Turtle. On nearby Itasca, Ozawindib and Rice lakes there is a five-fish limit.
As March ice melts, crappies put on the feed bag, says Jason Rylander, a veteran guide from North Country Guide Service.
“I start looking for suspended crappie in deeper holes near weedy flats,” he adds. “Late March and early April, my search goes shallow.”
Spoons and tungsten jigs tipped with euro-larvae, wax worms or plastics are his favorites. He drills a grid pattern and utilizes sonar to stay on top of the schools of fish, moving as often as necessary. Getting the tungsten jigs quickly down to the waiting crappie is key to his success.
Rylander recommends keeping fish you will eat, letting go the larger crappies and not attempting to release any caught out of 30 feet or more water depth.
“They just won’t survive,” says Rylander.
ARROWHEAD REGION TO ITASCA COUNTY
This area is characterized as a mixture of lakes, some of which have an abundance of crappies. Good bets include Bowstring, Sand, Pokegama and Bass lakes. Splithand is another good one, and it has a five-fish bag limit. Veteran guide of 38 years Tom Neustrom begins his search in 38 to 40 feet of water on lakes with those depths, then shifts to 18 to 21 feet in late March and April.
Daphnia and bloodworms move off the bottom early morning and late evening and activate crappies’ natural feeding instincts. Neustrom capitalizes on peak times — before daybreak until late morning and mid-afternoon till an hour after dark. Some fishermen also overlook fish movement just a few feet below the ice if their electronics miss it.
Neustrom’s tackle selections include small spoons, size 8 to 10 hooks tipped with wax worms or a minnow head. Tinglers are another all-time favorite. Aggressive crappies often translate to a need to get to the fish quick. In this situation, he likes a No. 3 Jigging Rapala. Purple iridescent, bluegill and perch patterns blended with orange-gold color are favorite color options.
“Pausing on a probable crappie spot,” Neustrom says, “[I] turn to my silent partner, a slip bobber with a small No. 6 or No. 8 ice fly tipped with a minnow hooked lightly through the back. Reluctant crappie won’t swim far for food. A split shot 10 inches from the ice fly anchors the offering.”
Caleb Garoutte from Swanson’s Bait and Tackle chases crappies on the 40-plus lakes surrounding the cities of Hackensack and Longville. This area is home to a healthy 2019 crappie population comprising both size and numbers. Garoutte’s top picks include a couple waters in the Woman Lake Chain, such as Broadwater Bay and Girl and Child lakes, and nearby Boy and Birch lakes. For larger slabs in the 12- to 14-inch range, with a chance for 15-inch fish, he sets his sights on Tenmile, Pleasant and Stony lakes. Nearby Moccasin, Little Webb and Inguadona lakes have a five-fish bag limit.
“Success is all about moving and cutting holes to keep on top of the crappie,” says Garoutte. In the early days of March, hit the deeper basins — 20 to 35 feet of water — then stay on the schools of fish as they move. In mid-March, head into the shallower water 7 to 12 feet deep with green weeds.
Garoutte uses tungsten ice flies tipped with a live fathead minnow to make crappies situated in the deeper basins eat. For crappies found in skinnier water, Garoutte uses pink, chartreuse and green ice flies tipped with live wax worms or plastic imitations.
Jason Bahr and his two sons Kyle, 16, and Tyler, 15, know where to find crappies. They spend more than 200 days a year on the ice and the water. March and early April are the best times for crappies on lakes around the area.
Bahr offers a number of lakes for crappies, including Middle Cullen and Serpent lakes. On Middle Cullen, he finds crappies in 10 to 22 feet of water. On Serpent, Bahr recommends finding the green weeds in the back bays. The evening is always prime time; as March turns to April, all day can be fruitful.
Pelican Lake, and more specifically Jones Bay, offers both size and quantity, but it usually won’t fire up until after dark when the zooplankton rise up the water column. This event can be seen as small flashes on the screen of a good depth sounder. On Mission Lake, another good option, crappies school up in the central lake basin, suspended 10 feet under the ice to the bottom. On Rice Lake, a stained, dark-colored lake off the Mississippi River system, the Bahrs often find fish on the outer weed edge in 10 to 12 feet of water.
The Bahrs rely on a few tools in their tackle box to catch crappies. Some of these include Juice Bait’s Rubber Chicken, Stinger Shads, Northland Tackle Scud Bugs and Skeleton Minnows on the plastics front. They also use tungsten jigs tipped with wax worms, as well as the traditional bobber and a small fathead minnow.
Mike Frisch is a local guide, co-host of “Fishing the Midwest TV” and co-founder of the Cabela’s School of Fish, a leading fishing education program in the Midwest.
“There are lots of crappie waters in the Alexandria area,” he says.
The “shinning” star is Osakis, which has yielded dazzling numbers the past several winters. However, Minnewaska is another well-known producer, and Ida and Reno lakes, as well as the Le Homme Dieu Lake chain all offer good late-winter crappie fishing. There are a bunch of smaller lakes in the area that produce too! Maple Lake has a five-fish bag and 10-inch minimum size limit.
Frisch likes deep-water pockets where the crappies school and suspend. A good sonar unit is critical, as fish will appear at various depths during the day. Keeping an eye on the sonar screen is also crucial to keeping your crappie offering in the right zone at all times.
Frisch leaves live baits at home. Instead, he relies almost exclusively on plastics like the various small Impulse panfish baits fished on tungsten jigs. Denser tungsten jigs with plastics are great for quickly getting back down when an active group of fish appears on the sonar screen.
Fishing expert, Joel Nelson, of Cannon Falls, Minnesota, knows where to find crappies in the Metro Minneapolis, Lake Minnetonka and Mississippi backwaters — particularly pools 4, 5 and 6. He’s also familiar with lakes along the Highway 35W corridor starting at Faribault to Owatonna and Mankato, waters that are under utilized and missed by most anglers hunting late-ice crappies. Goose, Mandall and Rabour lakes have a bag limit of five crappies.
At the end of February, Nelson finds his crappies by pinpointing the fish on inside turns off of submerged weedy flats. In March and the opening weeks of April, a time typified by successive days of warm south winds, he’ll find slabs along eroding shorelines in 2 to 3 feet of water.
Nelson’s all-time favorite is live bait — minnows or wax worms — but he also uses VMC Tubby tungsten jigs plus plastic tails. Water color determines his favorite jig colors. With dark water, he opts for bright colors and glows; in clear water, white and chartreuse get the call.
Veteran guide and outdoor writer Steve Carney (stevecarneyoutdoors.com) highlights Koronis, Cedar, Clearwater, Bald Eagle and Buffalo lakes. Hole cutting begins over the deep basins and ends at dark in the shallows. Carney has determined spoons sized more for walleyes, such as Little Cleos and Swedish Pimples, tipped with a minnow head or a wax worm hooks the 9- to 11-inch crappies.
DETROIT LAKES AND PARK RAPIDS
Nathan Olson, DNR area fisheries manager Detroit Lakes, can’t think of a lake that doesn’t have a population of catchable crappies in his area. Olson puts the bead on Tamarac, Toad and Little Toad and Big and Little Sugar Bush. Melissa, Eunice, Maud and Little Cormorant lakes have a five-fish bag and 10-inch minimum size limit on black crappies.
Park Rapids’ leading crappie waters include Fifth and Sixth Crow Wing, Spider, Two Inlets, Island and Eagle lakes. Big Mantrap and Mary lakes, also popular options, have a five-fish bag limit.
Tim Schmid, of Walking on Water Guide Service, says he believes March is the best opportunity of the ice season to hook hefty crappie. As the ice honeycombs, baitfish move shallow, and action turns up a notch on the areas among cabbage weeds.
Schmid prefers to use a rod such as the JT Panhandler or a 13 Fishing Tickle Stick and 100-percent Fluorocarbon line tied to jigging Rapalas or Clam’s Time Bomb or Leech Flutter spoons.
“The goal is to mark fish on [my] depth sounder’s sonar screen,” Schmid says, “then pin down the fish at that depth and location.”
Crappie Fishing with Brad Chappell
It’s hard to throw a dart at a map and miss a stellar crappie lake in the Fergus Falls-Ottertail region. This area has special crappie regulations on 10 lakes. On Annie Battle, Fladmark and Twentyone lakes there is a five-fish bag limit. On Franklin and Norway lakes, the limit is five fish over a minimum of 10 inches. On North Turtle and Stuart lakes, there is a 10-inch minimum size limit. At Venstrom, North and South Lida lakes, there’s a minimum size limit of 11 inches. Other reliable favorites include Dead, Star, Pelican, Big Pine and East and West Battle lakes.
Randin Olson, of Lock Jaw Guide Service, focuses on smaller waters such as Walker, Silent, Anna, Spitzer and Stuart lakes. Olson prefers having less area to search; it makes it easier to connect with the slabs. Moving from hole to hole fishing doesn’t start until flashes show on his depth sounder screen.
“Late March, I probe the shallows 2 to 3 feet below the ice,” he says. “My prime spots — the inside edges of the bull rush area to shore.”
He says small, lightweight jigs, like the Mud and Bro Bugs from Northland, out fish the heavier tungsten jigs.
“[You] don’t need the jig to sink like a rock.” Olson adds.
THE STATE OF MINNESOTA CRAPPIES
“Minnesota has a robust crappie population,” says Brad Parsons, Minnesota DNR Fisheries Chief. “Our management intent is to protect and enhance quality crappie across the state.”
Targeted spring survey information assists in determining the size and quantity potential of a body of water. Parsons says that knowing the capability of individual lakes assists his colleagues in selecting the correct management program. Currently, statewide, more than 30 lakes have a five-crappie possession limit, nine lakes have a 10-inch minimum size limit, and three lakes have an 11-inch minimum size limit. Parsons recommends anglers review the 2019 Fishing Regulations and check out the Minnesota LakeFinder tool on the DNR website as well as the site’s fishing section, which can be accessed under the “recreation” tab on the home page.
In spite of the dynamic, healthy crappie population present today. Parsons stresses the continued importance of managing the resource for future sustainability. Crappie is a favorite fish for food, and improvements in technology — such as better, warmer clothing, sleeper-style fish houses, improved electronics and mobility and even social media, which may allow fishermen to locate bites quicker — can lead to increased harvests, so those populations must be monitored often to ensure their continued safety.