A celebrated scene in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has the two outlaws, enjoying a carefree life of crime, wandering across the High Plains. Paul Newman, playing Butch Cassidy, gets the feeling the pair is being followed. Scanning the horizon with binoculars, he spots a lone horseman in the distance, doggedly following their trail. Incredulous, he turns to Sundance and asks, “Who is that guy?”
The “guy” is Bill Pinkerton, head of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, which later becomes the FBI. At the time, Pinkerton’s Agency featured a poster with a huge, ever watchful eye, staring straight into the hearts and minds of felons. The caption beneath it read, “We Never Sleep.”
If you’re a giant crappie living anywhere within several hundred miles of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Aaron Wiebe, Tom VanLeeuwen, and Mike Schamber are on your trail, you’re in the same dire trouble as Butch and Sundance. Eventually they’re going to catch you. Literally.
Having probably iced more 15-, 16- and 17-inch crappies than any other trio of ice anglers, the three Canadian amigos have made a name for themselves. Wiebe, who is a self-proclaimed “professional fishing addict” and full-time summer fishing guide, has captured 14 Top-5 finishes and 8 victories in the Crappie Division of the North America-wide Bounty Fishing.com tournament series. Along with wins in several other categories, he has amassed $20,000 in pocket change to feed his habit. VanLeeuwen and Schamber have almost as many wins and Top-5 finishes to their credit.
The amazing part is the three ply their trade not in the southern heart of crappie country—Alabama, Mississippi or Arkansas—but at the extreme northern edge of the black crappies’ range, on the Canadian Shield. It typically takes 15 years or more to grow a King Kong crappie there. And they specialize in catching the behemoths in the dead of winter through a hole in the ice.
To steal a line from Butch’s book, “How do they do it?”
The Information Highway
“Aaron’s information crazy,” VanLeeuwen laughs. “He stays up all night researching potential big crappie locations on the internet, following crumbs of information—I get email messages from him at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
VanLeeuwen confesses that in the early years, he and Schamber weren’t quite sure what to make of the young upstart who, like Pinkerton following Butch and Sundance, was always hot on their trail, or worse, a step ahead of them.
“Not long after I first met Aaron he asked me if I reeled with my right hand,” Schamber says. “Puzzling, I thought, but I told him I was right-handed. Weeks later Tom and I get an email message from him with photos of giant crappies. The last image is one of Aaron smiling, his fist clenched, and his middle finger up in the air. He was clearly sitting on our best secret winter crappie hot spot.
“He‘d seen a magazine photo of me holding a big fish, but the magazine had reversed the image—that’s why he was curious which hand I used to reel. Once he knew the image was backward, he scanned it into his computer, reversed it, blew it up, and matched up some strikingly familiar trees on the shoreline to find exactly where we were fishing. You gotta’ give the kid credit.”
But it’s same kind of detective work that VanLeeuwen and Schamber use to find their best winter locations. “The places where we find giant crappies,” VanLeeuwen says, “are off the beaten path. Doesn’t mean they’re inaccessible, just that anglers are unaware they hold big crappies. Sometimes they’re not well known crappie waters. If the masses ever find out, they hammer them down in a week. That’s why we’re so guarded about specific locations. Places like Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake and the other big name waters that get media attention offer good fishing, but the pressure makes giant crappies almost nonexistent. Again, you can find 12-inch fish, but we’re looking for 16 and 17 inchers.”
A small, obscure, out-of-the-way water attached to, or within the watershed of a much larger, well-known crappie lake is where our trio typically focus their search. As long as it appears to be connected and in a high water year a few crappies could migrate into it, Wiebe says it’s on his radar.
Other times, they follow up casual accounts of anglers inadvertently catching a crappie in a lake that isn’t suppose to have crappies in it. They also study lake-index reports, ponder creel and survey data, talk to cottage owners and scrutinize bottom-contour maps for the slightest possibility of crappies being present in a lake. Then they fish the most promising looking waters, often several times, going on little more than an informed gut feeling.
They often go back repeatedly, because, as VanLeeuwen explains, crappies often behave differently in dissimilar bodies of water. “We discovered one lake where we can only catch them after sunset,” he says. “On most Shield waters, morning’s the best time to fish for crappies—often you can catch them steadily throughout the day. But on that lake you have to fish after the sun’s down.”
They also check out-of-the-way lakes that were once famous crappie fisheries, but were fished down and have subsequently fallen off the screens of most anglers. Sometimes the crappie population has rebounded. They also check remote lake sections of well known crappie waters where most other anglers would never think to look.
“Whenever you suspect you’ve found a crappie gem, don’t give up on it,” Wiebe says, “until you’ve spent at least an entire day prospecting on the ice—especially not before you fish what you think are the absolute best spots during prime morning and evening low-light periods. Then if you don’t catch anything, move onto the next lake or the next main-lake section.”
They do some of their scouting for winter spots during late summer and especially autumn, when crappies are drifting into the deeper basin haunts where they spend winter. Sometimes they fish spots from a boat to confirm the presence of crappies, but mostly they’re check potential sweet spots in winter, focusing on high-percentage features that concentrate crappies once the lake freezes over.
“I was exploring an area in the boat once,” Schamber says, “when I found a 35-foot deep trough in an otherwise flat 33-foot deep basin. It was subtle and not marked on the map. So I punched the waypoint into the GPS. When we came back in winter a couple of other anglers had already set up on the basin. But we drilled holes over the deeper trough and caught big fish. We tried to be discrete, keeping our backs turned and using our snowmachines to conceal us releasing one slab after another.”
Go Big or Go Home
You’d think, being this precise and judicious, that Schamber, VanLeeuwen, and Wiebe would also be masters at making finesse presentations. They can be, yet for catching giant crappies, they mostly credit their success to the opposite approach.
“When I first met Mike and Tom,” Wiebe says, “and I saw the giant crappies they were catching, I couldn’t believe how they were fishing. I worried over whether I was fishing small enough—1/32- and 1/64-ounce jigs—and light enough with 1- and 2-pound line. Here they are, using 32-inch medium-action rods and 4-pound line, 1/16-ounce jigs and 3-inch long Berkley Power Minnows. Everything just seemed so over the top. And the fish were just smoking their baits—inhaling them.”
Now Wiebe realizes going bigger discourages 11- and 12-inch crappies, while the giants usually go for bigger baits. The first fish they catch at a spot often are the biggest ones in the school.
Schamber further emphasizing his regard for big lures. “I’m not interest in catching 12-inch fish anymore,” he says. “I want the giants and the giants generally eat big baits. Of all the really big fish we’ve caught over the years, 99 percent have been on lures most anglers associate more with walleye fishing—not crappie fishing.
“One a day last winter we started with 3-inch Power Minnows but for some reason the fish were just nipping. We switched to 3-inch tube bodies and that did it. Most anglers would have downsized in that situation, but it was just a change in profile that triggered the fish. We landed 45 fish over 15-inches long.” Then with a wink he says, “You don’t want to know how many of them were over 16 inches.”
Sticking with the “go big or go home” theme, the threesome says that 4-pound monofilament line is perfect for catching giant fish. VanLeeuwen favors the line watching properties of 4-pound Cajun Red, while Wiebe and Schamber use Cabela’s mono. Schamber also spools some of his reels with 4-pound Fireline Micro Ice line—same diameter as 1-pound mono.
“You don’t need ultra-light line,” Schamber says. “For the tiniest of lures, yes, but not for the bigger jigs. You get a better hook set with a bit heavier line—and if you adjust the drag properly, you’re never going to break off the fish of a lifetime.”
“Maybe it’s because the average angler doesn’t have the time to go out and get skunked,” Wiebe says.“How do you tell people they’re not adventure seekers? People want to fish where the fish are biting, while we always stay away from community spots. We drill a hundred holes and fish all day. If we’re into 12-inch fish, well, that doesn’t cut it. So we keep moving.”
That’s the final arrow in the three amigos crappie quiver—their insistence on remaining flexible and forever mobile. Which means if you’re a giant crappie hiding in a lake anywhere within a few hundred miles of Winnipeg, Manitoba, you might be excused for looking over your dorsal fin and asking, “Who are those guys?”
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer lives in Kenora, Ontario.