Mid-Summer Crappies

Dan M. Asks:

We vacation near Park Rapids in July and by then the crappies can be hard to find. What tips do you have for locating them and what baits seem to work best. Thanks


Good question Dan.  You're right, when it comes to mid-summer, crappies can be a bit more challenging.  In most places I fish, early morning and evening low-light periods are definitely where most of the action happens, so be ready to fish when fish are active.  Also, be sure to target lakes where crappies are abundant in the first place.  Typically, I focus on one of a few patterns for mid-summer crappies depending on the lake.  

Pattern #1 - Slow rolling a jig and paddle-tail or twister-tail of any variety is a great way to catch weedbed fish.  Especially cabbage or lily pad bound fish that hide in the depths, or smack in the shallows during the day, you'll have good luck staying off of inside turns and/or points in the cabbage and casting up to them.  1/16 oz jigs are about the right size, but pair the weight to where and how you're fishing.

Pattern #2 - Increasingly, I'm falling in love with trolling Northland Tuff Tubes under the power of a trolling motor in the wide-open.  This may be a flat, or out over 50FOW, but use your electronics to side-image new paths, and your down-imaging or 2D sonar to find fish under you.  Various jig weights and plastic sizes get the job done, and this will be the subject of upcoming articles because of how well it works.

Pattern #3 - Don't forget vertical jigging over open water schools, or even weedline fishing for crappies that choose to feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates like bloodworms.  The best weedlines are deep, dense, and form some sort of point or inside turn.  Soft bottom adjacent or butting up against these weedbeds are what crappies need to find food.  

Fish some new areas, and use your electronics to dial in new spots during the day, so you'll be ready to take them on at dawn or evening hours.

Good luck,


Which Fillet Knife, Why?

Erik V. asks:


On opener, you posted some pics of you cleaning some eyes. What kind of electric knife do you use and why? Do you ever use a "traditional" knife?

Great question Erik.  For those walleyes, I was using a Lithium Ion Cordless Fillet Knife.  I've got a few sets of blades for different sized fish, and for fish that are walleye sized and up, they're the best I've found.  They make quick work of knocking off the sides, and yet are able to cut out the rib cage portions from fillets easily as well.  I like a fixed blade traditional knife for eyes too, but feel I'm a bit faster on the electric for those species.

I own a number of smaller traditional knives for panfish and walleyes, and the upside to these are that they're relatively inexpensive, sharpen easily, and are better for detail work.  For $50, you can have a few of them everywhere, in the boat, at the cabin, in the truck, etc.  I like the simple rubber handled versions with a non-slip grip.  Wood handled versions are great, and that's what I started on, but much of that part is personal preference.  


Are Big Walleyes Sterile, and Does Putting Them Back Help or Hurt the Population?

Bill W. Asks:

Just got back from a great trip to Lake of the Woods. Subject came up with lots of discussion. Are big walleyes sterile and does putting them back help or hurt the general population. One said a MN DNR conservation officer told them to take them home, as they don't breed and they compete with smaller walleyes.  What is the right choice?

Thanks for the question Bill – there’s a lot to chew on there.  We can start with a couple of fisheries-related truths, but the devil’s in the details and interpretations of these facts and what it means for you as an individual out there fishing is the key.

I think a graphic showing typical walleye size distribution in lakes would be a good start.  As you can see, a chart of male and female walleye size distribution for the Winnebago, WI system reveals few surprises.  Females are generally larger, and for both sexes, the number of larger individuals becomes fewer and fewer.  This is due to a host of factors like angling pressure and desire to catch and keep larger fish, but even in completely un-fished systems the number and biomass of larger fish is far smaller than that of fish in any other class.   

 2013 Lake Winnebago, WI walleye size (length) vs. amount distribution.

2013 Lake Winnebago, WI walleye size (length) vs. amount distribution.

As for spawning, big walleyes are far from sterile.  In fact, they produce more eggs than their smaller female counterparts by far.  However, in some systems, most notably Lake Erie, these larger walleye’s eggs have been studied for viability (number that hatch vs. number that are actually laid).  There and in other select systems with rapid growth rates, 20-24” or so fish have better egg viability, meaning that more of them hatch and go on to survive. 

Large fish (24”+) contain obviously successful genetics, many more eggs, and still produce an incredible number of walleye fry.  Therein lies the rub.  To fisheries managers considering that size distribution graph, mid-range fish as a group can be considered more valuable to the overall health of the fishery, so they aim to regulate take among this class of fish.  That’s not primarily because of their spawning success, it’s because this range of fish size represents the bulk of the spawning biomass for the entire system being that there are more 20-24” fish in the lake than any other size class.  In northern systems where walleyes grow much more slowly, those sizes are slid down the ruler a bit more.

In my opinion, anglers and even some fisheries managers have perverted these principles to arrive at the false notion that big walleyes are sterile, "dried-up", or that they simply don't contribute to the system in a meaningful way so you'd be well advised to keep them.  Some have even penned thoughts regarding walleyes that die of old age as “lost opportunities to anglers.”  I have read their arguments, done the scientific literature reviews from across the United States and Canada, and have seen the aftermath play out both personally and from afar.  Suffice to say, I disagree, and feel that the implications of selling this story only exacerbates several problems for both anglers AND fisheries managers.

First and foremost, the most unflinching facts are that no matter the system:

1.       Large walleyes are highly sought after

2.       Large walleyes are more rare than their smaller counterparts

3.       A walleye caught and killed cannot be caught again

4.       A walleye caught and killed cannot spawn, no matter how viable their eggs may be  

Which to me, supports the conclusion that ALL spawners should enjoy some form of protection beyond the ability of nature or stocking programs to completely and consistently replace fish removed from a population through natural or angler-driven mortality.  

I’m not a fish-worshiper either, in that I love taking fish for the pan, especially walleyes.  In most systems I fish in the Midwest, walleyes are the most intensively managed species, are regularly stocked, and present one of the most responsible species choices for harvesting some fillets from.  It's simply a matter of expectations and maintaining good fishing where it is already.  The larger point that’s missed here however is the last one in that no matter the system, spawners represent a future made not-so-certain by weather, bait, depredation, and a host of other environmental factors.  

The message relating to the thought of large fish don't matter or contribute to the overall health of the fishery is a dangerous one.  Large walleyes that die due to old age or natural causes are not a loss to the fishery, only in a small way are they a loss to those anglers that keep all fish.  Even with reduced fertility, they do produce offspring, and to toss them out and say they don't contribute is inaccurate.

While Lake Erie may very well be able to produce more overall fish per year, the vast majority of fisheries cannot once you account for both fishing and natural mortality.  It's inevitable that these theories spread and become applied to non-like fisheries, including the jump into other species like gills and pike where we know that large individuals are incredibly important to the overall population.  

In viewing the graph above you see that taking fish less than 20”es dramatically reduces the amount of females taken in general, though admittedly, targeting such a large percentage of males-only has created problems in some notable fisheries where both hook-and-line anglers and gill-netting takes place simultaneously.  Erie may present some additional challenges, in that fish less than 20”es can be difficult to come by because of how quickly those fish grow, but as discussed, the vast majority of the walleye world does not enjoy similar productivity.

Anecdotally, the fall-out becomes similar to what you heard Bill, and what I’ve seen purported in person and online.  Facts get twisted, statements are revised, and studies are used to endorse behavior that while at times legal, certainly doesn’t promote the future of good numbers of larger fish in all systems.  In today’s age of social media angling, large piles of bloodied fish on the ice or stringer shots of pale, warm walleyes not only fly in the face of the value of catch and release angling, it provides detriment to future generations of anglers that see these practices as generally acceptable.

So what's a walleye angler to do?  My boat rule for almost all of the waters I fish throughout the Midwest is that 20” and larger eyes go back, and most times that drops down to 18” fish if we have other species or an abundance of smaller fish.  Reasonable exceptions are legal in most states, including a trophy fish or two being allowed per angler.  However, this is a far cry from “we should be taking only larger fish, or all larger fish.”

We value them because of their size and because they are rare, and many of us are willing to spend much larger amounts of money to target walleyes in areas where large fish are less rare.  To preserve those opportunities and with luck even foster or promote them, I see little reason (scientific or otherwise) to harvest increasing numbers of large walleyes outside of the occasional trophy.  


Reverse Spooling for Leadcore

Nate H. asks:

I just bought a few walleye rods/reels for leadcore, how should I spool them up?

Pulling leadcore is really painless as long as you get the rigging right from the start.  For that reason, I recommend buying your leadcore setups in pairs, with the same reels that will hold the same amount of line.  Linecounter values differ depending on how full the spools are, so it's best to do two in tandem.

Backing of some sort is usually preferred, should you get snagged or hook into a big fish, you'll have some extra line on the spool to handle it.  I like to use high-visibility Sufix Elite in 17-20# test to fill up bigger leadcore spools.  The problem is knowing how much to put on!  

A little trick I learned a few years ago was to start with two empty baitcasting line-counter reels, and start spooling up the first one BACKWARDS.  Crank on the number of colors of leadcore you're going to run (I recommend a full-core, or 10-colors) if you're trying this for the first time, then attach your backing line via a braid-to-mono knot like the Uni-to-Uni or Albright Special.  Then crank on as much backing as is necessary to fill the reel about 1/8" from the lip of the spool.

Now, take your other empty reel, ZERO-OUT THE LINECOUNTER, and tie the tag end of the backing from the full-reel onto the empty one.   Begin cranking line onto the empty reel until you reach the leadcore.  Note the line-counter value at the knot where your backing meets your leadcore, and you've got the amount of backing to put on the next reel before tying on your leadcore to that spool.  This reverse spooling technique ensures the same amount of backing on each spool, and that you can compare line-counter values when referring to what distance (and resultant depth) the fish are preferring.

If you're really intimidated by this step, don't be afraid to let store associates from any reputable tackle shop or big-box do this part for you.  Don't let it scare you away from running leadcore, as it's a really valuable technique from now heading into the mid-late summer.


Big Gills - What Should I Keep?

I was fishing with friends over opener, and got a few questions about keeping panfish during the spawn:

I thought you said that fish were vulnerable during this time period, and we shouldn't keep any?  What's OK to keep then and what's not?

It's a great question, and I'll admit that there's plenty of grey-area in assigning a subjective "this is good" or "this is bad" when talking about keeping fish.  It's also true that panfish can be vulnerable this time of the year as they congregate in large number around shallow bullrushes, docks, or other spawning areas.  Keep in mind however, that when I say "vulnerable," I mean vulnerable to overharvest, meaning that you can still enjoy fishing for them and even take a few for the pan.    

For some, this is a question simply of legality, in that if it's permissible by law to catch 10 fish from a lake per person, and no one is exceeding daily or possession limits, then we shouldn't concern ourselves with further details.  That's certainly the simplest interpretation, and one that can't get you into any trouble, but often falls short of protecting the resource in a manner consistent with what we'd hope to see there in the future.  

Still, rather than thinking about this in terms of the law, or even good vs. bad, I like to look at it as what's sustainable - so as to promote the same or better fishing quality in immediate and further years.  While the dangers of playing armchair fisheries biologist abound, simple facts and heaping piles of documented fisheries (and anecdotal) evidence suggest that in small waters, highly pressured areas, and lakes with small panfish populations to begin with, one-size-fits-all limits can't begin to arrive at a take that's sustainable.  Numerous published findings suggest that the failure to adhere to such goals result in the removal of the largest individuals in the system, thus reducing the genetic ability of bluegills especially to continue to produce large individuals in these waters.  Plainly spoken, take the majority of the big ones out, and you'll never see big ones there again.  It's not a matter of allowing future generations of gills the time it takes to grow large after severe over-harvest, it simply means that there's no more genetic large-fish stock left then to ever get there again.    

 Here's a 10" plus gill that's also a male.  Note the dark colors, large ear tab, with blue accents around his gill plates.  This fish not only presents a giant of his species that would be great for any angler to catch again, his release during the bluegill spawn is vital to keeping big bluegills present in this lake.   

Here's a 10" plus gill that's also a male.  Note the dark colors, large ear tab, with blue accents around his gill plates.  This fish not only presents a giant of his species that would be great for any angler to catch again, his release during the bluegill spawn is vital to keeping big bluegills present in this lake.


While the research is clear, and my years of chasing big gills across the map have seen countless gems abused and now a shadow of their former glory, what's not clear is how best to carry yourself as an angler that likes to eat fish!

 Here's a great eater.  It's a female just shy of 9"es.

Here's a great eater.  It's a female just shy of 9"es.

Make no mistake about it, I'm not one for fish-worship, though my panfish-preaching tends to be loud and proud.  It may seem to the contrary, but I love meals of fish and often take the chance to eat panfish fresh when I can.  We can have our fish and eat them too, but it's a matter of self-restraint and knowing what to keep, when.

I've written frequently about limiting constant catch and kill return trips to the same body of water, having a plan going into it so you know when to start releasing fish, and teaching kids along the way so as to promote generational changes from angler to angler.  Still, one of the more important things you can do is measure your fish, and know what sex they are.  

9" plus gills in most waters are rare no matter where they are caught, with true 10" fish being a trophy bluegill.  It's hard, even for pros to "eyeball" the size of a gill, so use a bump board and release fish over that 9" mark.  Gills are notoriously over-judged in terms of their size, so take the time to learn what a true-10 looks like, you'll be surprised how big a fish needs to be in order to get to this mark.  If 8" fish are abundant, consider releasing everything larger than that, as even 8" fish in many lakes are a rarity.  

 Here's a big pre-spawn female still full of eggs.  Consider releasing due to her size above anything else.

Here's a big pre-spawn female still full of eggs.  Consider releasing due to her size above anything else.

As far as which sex to release, male fish especially during this time of year are crucial to nesting success and continuation of larger individuals in the species.  These are the painted-up, dark blue, red, and brilliant purple gills we see up shallow in stacked, tire-sized depressions they are protecting.  They have large ear tabs, a brutish looking appearance, and truly represent the term "bulls" when you see the larger ones.  Their presence prevents smaller cuckold males from invading nests, and promoting inferior genetics among bluegills in that particular body of water.  Females are often bright yellow or more pale in appearance, and will contain large egg sacs before spawning.  Especially females smaller than 8-9"es present an opportunity to keep a few for a meal, and release the rest.

As of last year, 5 gills at 7"es each fed my young family of 4 a great meal of fish tacos with sides.  That was a surprise even to myself, as fish can go a long way when paired with other items.  Appreciate the fishing, and by no means let this detract from you keeping fish to eat.  It's one of the great joys of fishing!  Just do your part to impose a more responsible self-limit when the current regulations may not adequately protect the resource.  This is especially true during the spawn where all the biggest and most vulnerable males in the lake are concentrated on beds.




Targeting Truly Massive Crappies

Ryan Repke asks:

I'm just wondering if you knew of any lakes that produce big crappies. I'm all about selective harvest. I release fish 99% of the time and have tight lips when it comes to spots as I'm sure you do too. Not looking for your spots but any info would be greatly appreciated. I mainly fish pool 2 for walleye and crappie. My biggest is 15 and I really want to beat that PB. I've researched a lot on stocking reports and creel surveys but just can't seem to find a lake that produces 16+ inch crappies. Thanks

Thanks Ryan.  I think it a noble quest to get out there and break previous personal-bests, especially by putting in the work to track down a specific species.  I can start out by telling you something you probably already know by now, in that a 16”+ crappie is a rare find.  While there may be certain water bodies that kick them out with more regularity, I think the key to understanding here is that few kick them out with consistency, and even more rarely to the same individual.     

I can speak from experience in saying that most of the truly big crappies I’ve taken have been on accident, while fishing for walleyes or bass, and my personal best at 16.25”es didn’t come from Rainy, Upper Red, or Lake of the Woods.  It came from a small farm pond while bass fishing a cold front with a ¼ oz. jig and 4” white curly tail grub.  Others in that 16” category were taken with jig/minnow presentations early season when fishing shallow for walleyes, and in northern WI muskie waters, both being lakes that get zero press for their crappies.  The pattern here being that there was no pattern or good tip-off and indication that giant crappies would be there.     

Many others in the 15” to 16” category come from famed northern waters previously mentioned, but are increasingly in short supply.  Instead, it’s the nearby contributing waters, nearly always difficult to get to, barely connected to these historical big-fish-factories, and not well-known for crappies that most of my best fish come from.  These northern fish are old, so they rely on time and little pressure to grow this size.  There are quite a few obscure northern MN waters that hold fish over 15”es, but for every 1 fish over 16”es, you’d have to catch at least a hundred 15’s.      

There exist several record-keeping groups that track master-angler, trophy caliber fish of all species, and this is a good place to start if you’re hunting for monsters.  Keep in mind, not all people are entirely honest in their accountings of fish sizes (real shocker there), but patterns still will emerge.  Creel and stocking reports are moderately helpful, but the gillnets should tell a story, particularly if larger individuals are present in any number whatsoever.  Keep in mind you’re talking about a very small percentage of the lake’s total crappie population. 

The two biggest factors that contribute to large crappies I’ve taken are both timing (seasonal) and presentation.  My biggest crappies have come in the mid-spring time-period around docks and shorelines sometime around the spawn, and during the first few weeks of the ice fishing season.  Both are opportunities to catch big crappies poised to out-compete pesky smaller fish.  To attract big fish and deter smaller ones, fish big.  In the spring, that means larger jigs and plastics.  Fish slowly, but accept that fact that you’re trying to keep 12” and smaller fish away.  In the winter, that means spoons, 3” jig/plastic combinations, and rattle lures like the Slab Rap or Rippin’ Rap.  Most of my biggest winter crappies have come by walleye fishing with walleye-sized baits. 

I wish you luck, and let me know when you crack that pig!


Favorite Weedy Walleye Tactic

David Cook asks:

I would say I'm above average walleye fisherman and catch a lot of walleyes but one thing I have been trying to figure out is how to catch them in the weeds. I can not figure out a method or maybe it's just the confidence in doing it to be successful doing it. With that being said here's my ?. What do you like to do or what is your favorite way to catch walleyes in the weeds? I have seen so many videos of people catching walleyes in the weeds and having super success. I try pulling Spiners over the tops but I can not figure out right weight or amount of line to have out. I always just snag weeds right away. Any help or advice would be awesome. I have tried for 2 years and I can just not get it.


Dave – You’re not alone.  It’s a part of my own game that I’d like to get better at.  The guys I know that are great at finding walleyes and weeds virtually live there, relying on weed bites throughout the year for resident fish that are always there in at least some number. 

There’s a few ways I’ve been successful in getting walleyes to bite in the weeds, and much depends on time of year, where you’re fishing, and what types of weeds you’re targeting. My favorite way is definitely to rig around deep cabbage edges, and even within if sparse enough.

Knowing your weeds is important.  Cabbage is considered a broad-leafed, rooted plant in our lakes, and to me is the premium in fish-holding capability.  Coontail is a close second, though there are many species that hold fish, especially in the absence of the big two mentioned above.   

The first challenge to finding fish then is identifying great cabbage.  Being a map nerd with a natural resources background, I’m fascinated by the amount of great information the MN DNR has on its Lake Vegetation Reports.  While not available for all lakes, there are detailed maps with vegetative reports on species, locations, and abundance for the fishiest walleye “weeds” in all of our lakes.  Research the lakes you fish, and study these reports closely to see if there aren’t some prime weedbeds that exist in key locations.  To me, these are cabbage locations with an interesting twist, inside turn, or point, with access to broad sandy shallows inside, and immediate depths outside the weedbed.    

Early on, a lot of lakes I fish weeds for have the deep end of that cabbage being around 10-14FOW.  Fishing then when it is sparse, you can drag rigs in and amongst the weeds themselves, but need turbid, stained water or a good chop with some overcast conditions to make it a real winner.  Otherwise you’re just pushing fish around the shallows with your boat.  The perfect weed bite lakes in my opinion do not have crystal clear water, but have enough clarity to support ample weed growth to depths in the mid-teens by mid-summer.

Early I’ve pulled shiners, rainbows, or even large creek chubs on a short leash (3 foot leader or less), with a heavy 1/2oz. bullet sinker and a float.  This is a great early season big fish technique.  Later, as weeds develop more, I’ll float a worm up off the bottom a bit.  My experience is that it takes some floatation to keep away from the bases of those stalks which are the snaggiest and least forgiving.  You may tangle in the leaves or upper portions of the stems, but can easily pull through here.  Detecting fish vs. weeds is something that takes time and feel.  Especially with crawlers, gills in that same cabbage love to harass you.  That said, there’s many times I’ve caught walleyes in with gills on early weed bites so don’t be discouraged. 

A good way to get the feel and reduce snagging is to take a VMC Walleye Wide Gap hook , size 4 or 6, and texas-rig the crawler by just burying it into the body.  The larger gap allows that worm to collapse on the hookset, and though you will convert more bites to fish in the net by leaving the hook exposed, the frustration factor in not snagging as many weeds will keep you in the game.

Stick with it, try different lakes, and grow your confidence in this technique as it’s worked well for me.

Crappie and Bluegill Spawn

Bobby Kuenen asks:

How far out from  the crappie/gill spawn are we? I've been fishing the lakes around Faribault and catchin bass but just starting to see some panfish up in the shallows.

Hi Bobby - I've been out a few times including opener, and just fished a bit yesterday.  All I can say is man, what a difference from near 70 degree water temps to the 56-58 degrees I saw on Thursday.  

On the opener, we had 80+degree air temps, and crappies were around their beds, appearing to be finished from the few lakes I was on.  Bluegills were starting to move in and were just off the weed edges eating everything.  Everything now is in a bit of shock from what I saw.  There were fish shallow on the inside weedlines, but much more inactive than I'd seen before the cold weather we've been having.

Generally speaking - crappies spawn first in that 55-60 degree area, with gills next in that 68-70 degree mark.  That said, this spring hasn't been normal with that big swing of cold and rain.

From what I'm observing in southern MN and western WI, crappies appear to be done with some visible nests still holding a fish or two.  Bluegills were just pushing into the shallows around opener but had not been building beds on the lakes I've been on, and they'll be set back here until water temps gradually get where they need to be and stay there for a week or so.  Should that happen, it'll all come at once!  

Keep in mind that each lake is different, and water temps both leading up to the cool down, and how quickly they've rebounded will play a strong role in the progression of the spawn for each species.