To Upper Red Lake cabin owner Kenny Neu, a crappie fanatic living on a walleye lake, there’s no greater thrill than hooking into a hungry school of those shimmering, black-and-gold panfish with paper-thin lips.
He’s convinced it’s the best experience you can have in a Minnesota fishing boat.
“When a group comes off the lake, they’ll have a nice limit of walleyes,” Neu said. “But all they can talk about is that one nice crappie that someone caught.”
For anyone who can relate, spring is the best time. In winter, crappies can be caught in bunches from an ice-fishing shanty if it’s carefully positioned over the right hole. But in the first weeks following ice-out, on a sunny afternoon with warming temperatures, crappies move into shallow narrows to feed on baitfish and regain energy for spawning. Anglers can simply cast their tiny jigs from shore — at times, no live bait necessary — and it’s game on.
As water temperatures rise to the mid-60s, the fish can readily be followed to their spawning beds near bulrushes and other cover. Male crappies will snap at lures that fall into their patrol areas as they guard their nests.
“From the end of April to mid-May, you can get into a good population of crappies,” said Jack Naylor of Apple Valley-based Minnesota Valley In-Fisherman Club. “There can be a lot of fish in certain areas.”
But Naylor belongs to a cohort of experienced crappie aficionados who see the predictable pattern and abundance of spring panfish as a double-edged sword.
“People abuse the resource and keep too many,” he said. “Word gets out on a good panfish lake, and it gets fished out.”
Gary Korsgaden of Park Rapids, who writes a fishing column, said the trend of earlier ice-outs exacerbates the problem by lengthening the panfish harvest that typically occurs before walleye season opens. The longer spring crappie season now comes with social media that draw crowds to lakes where the bite is hot.
“It’s unethical in a lot of people’s’ eyes to hammer on vulnerable panfish,” Korsgaden said. “Taking a few for a meal, sure. As long as it’s not excessive.”
Minnesotans harvest a combined 20 million sunnies, crappies and yellow perch per year, by far the most of any category of sport fish. Among those panfish, crappies are easily the most prized, a 2016 survey of Minnesota anglers said. Of respondents to a panfish mail survey conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota, 55 percent of anglers said they “strongly prefer” crappies, while 37 percent said they strongly prefer sunfish and only 13 percent said they strongly prefer perch.
Jeff Reed, fisheries research scientist in Glenwood for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said crappies are a boom-and-bust species belonging to what the DNR considers “consumption-based fisheries.” So, there’s no serious consideration right now for lowering the statewide, 10-crappie bag limit, he said.
On the other hand, Reed said, adding crappie restrictions on individual lakes continues to be a management option at DNR to respond to an overall shrinking of abundance and size of the fish. Currently, 39 Minnesota lakes have special possession limits and/or minimum-size regulations. It’s a way to spread out the harvest beyond the sometimes overly aggressive pulse of spring, Reed said.
For now, bluegills (with a 20-fish bag limit) are getting more attention for possible across-the-board restrictions. But the review will go on for years and tighter crappie limits could be next.
“With panfish in general, our sizes are getting smaller in the lakes,” said Bemidji area resort owner Ed Fussy, a member of the DNR’s advisory panfish working group. “We’re trying to do something about it and not just sit on our hands.”
Fussy, owner of Pimushe Resort in the Chippewa National Forest, said public opinion surveys have shown that most Minnesotans believe panfish bag limits are about right. That can make for tough sledding at the Legislature when statewide changes are proposed, he said.
But when people have gone along with crappie and sunfish restrictions at individual lakes, they’re generally happy with the results, Fussy said.
“Results are noticeably better when there’s less fishing pressure,” he said. “A nice fish outweighs numbers of smaller fish, hands down.”
Bruce Samson, who revels in spring crappie fishing in the region around Lake Osakis, said he’s not sure tougher regulations would change the habits of the people who enjoy taking panfish by the bucket. A more effective approach would be to increase conservation enforcement measures, he said.
“Humans behave poorly when they’re not being watched,” Samson said. “To me, a limit of crappies should be what you can eat in one meal.”
Naylor’s focus, too, is on catching rather than keeping crappies. He’s been fortunate enough already this spring to catch and release more than 100 fish in an outing with friends. His most important technique is to keep his jig moving ever so slowly, he said. For him, the action triggers more bites than suspending a bait beneath a bobber. Bobber setups are easier and still effective for youngsters, he said, but even kids should keep those lines moving on a slow retrieve.
“The most important thing for spring crappies is to keep it slow,” Naylor said.
While crappie minnows are favored by a lot of anglers, Naylor usually fishes in spring with jigs that are one-32nd of an ounce, with feathers or hair. A pink jig head with yellow feathers is a favorite combination of his, but pink and white or black and pink also are worth trying.