April 27, 2016
Canadian crappie populations are exploding as historic fisheries flourish and new ones burst onto the scene. For a number of reasons, from a warming climate to the relentless efforts of the "bucket brigade," black crappie populations are blossoming across the Great White North.
While there are superb crappie populations in southeastern Manitoba's Whiteshell Provincial Park, the province of Ontario, with 400,000 lakes and rivers and more than two-fifths of all the fresh water on Earth, is clearly the Canadian crappie centerpiece, with two epicenters: the immense northwestern part of the province (Can you believe that crappies are now vying with walleyes and muskies in lakes like Wabigoon and Dinorwic for angler's attention?) and the southern region between the Great Lakes and the French River/Lake Nipissing line to the north.
As crappie populations thrive, more Canadian guides are focusing on the popular panfish and finding new and improved ways to catch them in the spring, summer, and fall.
SPRING FLING CANADA CRAPPIES
"Within days after ice-out in April, crappies flood into isolated pockets of shallow water in back bays and canals," says Pete Garnier, who fishes the interconnected Kawartha Lakes of southern Ontario. "Quickly warming water — often 8 to 10 degrees warmer than the main lake — triggers an explosion of life, a massive feeding binge, and incredible crappie catches.
"When the shallows hit the mid-50s," says Garnier, who won the 2012 Bassmania Classic, "it marks the peak of the run. Above those temps crappies start to scatter, set up for the spawn, and turn their attention from reckless feeding to guarding their nests."
More than 1,000 miles to the northwest, Lake of the Woods Guide Jamie Bruce says the window on early-season action opens later and is more compressed, often merging with summer in a matter of days. "There's a one- to two-week period, usually in early June, when most of the crappies come shallow to feed and then spawn," Bruce says. "I used to think this window was brought on solely by water temperature, but after recording water temperatures on the best days and comparing them year to year, I've been proven wrong every time. I now think it's largely based on lunar phases and the length of daylight."
Bruce's observation is intriguing because bass anglers have long associated the peak of the largemouth spawn with the full-moon phase as well. What doesn't seem to be in question, however, is the need to find suitable shallow cover in the form of boulders, wood, and weeds.
"I like targeting deeper isolated reed clumps to find groups of crappies that have recently come up from the depths," he says. "Ideally, these reed bundles are located between deep water of the main lake and shallow water of back bays and channels. It helps, too, if there's rock mixed in."
KNOCK ON WOOD CANADA CRAPPIES
If Bruce can't locate suitable clumps of last season's withered pencil reeds, he shifts to wood, noting that crappies use submerged trees, the gnarlier and more complex the better, adding that, "It blows your mind how many fish you can catch from one tree," he says.
Planting his Minn-Kota Talons into the soft bottom to stabilize the boat, he goes to work pitching a 2-inch tube or small hair jig suspended under a slipbobber into every nook, cranny, and hole he can see."Spring crappies usually eat anything that you can put in front of them," he says, "so lure choice isn't as important most days as finding the fish."
Ottawa based Tim Allard, who authored the award-winning Ice Fishing — The Ultimate Guide, also favors woodcover in spring but chooses a different presentation. "In thick stuff I like to use a telescopic pole to present a float and marabou, bucktail, or tinsel tied jig," he says. "These jigs take more abuse and you don't have to baby-sit them, which gives you more time to fish. Still, some days crappies prefer softies and you need to go that way. It's all about experimenting."
Allard says a big mistake he sees many crappie anglers make when fishing fallen trees is rushing in, pitching a lure to the heart of the cover, and spooking crappies that were hanging out on the periphery. "Crappies are suspenders," he says, "and a lot of times they hold around the outside edge of the wood. So don't rush in. Cast around the edges with a 2-inch minnowbait or jerkbait like the smallest Rapala X-Rap, or a bladed jig like a Blakemore Road Runner or Northland Thumper Crappie King."
While Garnier also dangles a Mizmo Earth Tone tube jig under a float for crappies in the spring, he says casting typically produces the biggest slabs. "I make as long a cast as possible and hold the tip at 11 o'clock," says Garnier, who uses a 7-foot light power rod spooled with 4-pound-test monofilament. "This allows the weight of the bow in the line to 'swim' the tube back to the boat at a slow and steady pace, 8 or 9 inches below the surface. I only turn the handle enough to pick up slack line and I never impart any movement.
"The best part of the technique is that it's visual," he says. "You get to see almost every fish swipe your bait. It's almost like topwater fishing and it accounts for my biggest crappies every season. Mizmo makes a 1/48-ounce jighead that's perfectly balanced for the system. The only limiting factor is wind. If it 'pulls' the bait too quickly, I switch to a 1/16-ounce SPRO Phat Fly and 6-pound mono."
SUMMERTIME AND LIVIN' EASY
Most crappie anglers tell you that spring and fall are their favorite seasons because the fish are relatively easy to locate and catch. Summer, on the other hand, is generally regarded with disdain. Don't believe it.
"Summer is the easiest time to catch black crappies in Canada," says Manitoba crappie ace Dave Kozyra, who guides for slabs chiefly in the Caddy Lake chain (Caddy, South Cross, and North Cross) in Whiteshell Provincial Park. "The fish are jacked in the warm water and suspend higher in the water column, especially around main-lake structures. I look for rockpiles, reefs, sunken islands, trees, and beaver houses. And I switch to larger baits to take advantage of the crappies' ferocious appetite."
Kozyra's "go to" summer presentation is a 1/8-ounce Northland Tackle Super Glo jig tipped with a 3-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Black Shad Minnow. He presents it two ways. "I like to cast it and work it through the top 6 feet of the water column, flicking it up and then letting it fall every 2 to 3 feet. Crappies chase it and inhale it on the fall. Use a good braided line like Power Pro Super Slick 8 that lets you feel the bite and helps set the hook. Crappies have a reputation of having paper-thin mouths, but when they inhale these baits it's not always easy to get the hook into the roof of their mouths and keep them pinned, especially in Manitoba, where barbless is the rule."
Kozyra says his flick technique also is deadly beneath a slipfloat, especially when crappies are lethargic on cool, windy, summer days. "When you jerk the bobber during the retrieve, the jig dances up sharply, and if there's a crappie watching, it inhales it on the fall. The bobber makes it easy to see in the waves."
On Lake of the Woods, Bruce says crappies spread out in summer rather than school up tightly, making it a game of one here and one there. "My most consistent pattern," he says, "is to fish over a 12- to 15-foot deep mudflat adjacent to a spawning area. I drive around with the trolling motor until I see a mark on sonar and then immediately lower a 1/4-ounce drop-shot rig with a 2-inch soft plastic minnow or tube. The drop-shot lets me instantly present my bait to the fish that I've just marked on the graph.
Tom Pearson, who owns Camp Narrows resort on the Northwest Arm of Rainy Lake — one of the most revered crappie hot spots in Ontario — looks for weedlines in summer and fishes them the same way anglers do for bass and walleye, albeit with smaller baits.
"The best weedlines are usually 6 to 15 feet deep," Pearson says. "I slowly move with my trolling motor along the perimeter of the cabbage, pitching marabou jigs and tubes alongside the leafy edges. Big bass are a bonus."
While Tim Allard also focuses his summer crappie fishing on grasslines using traditional tactics, he never loses sight of "no man's land" on the other side of the boat. "Years ago a friend and I were having a tough time locating crappies," he says. "It was early afternoon, the sun was high, and there was nothing happening in the weeds. So I pitched a small, sinking minnowbait off the other side of the boat over at least 28 feet of water. I counted it down for a few seconds, then started a slow twitch-pause-swim retrieve and a tank crappie nailed it.
"I plucked a couple more quality fish from the suspended school and have repeated the process many times since. When focusing on deep vegetation in summer, it pays to occasionally cast into the void. I've also modified the tactic slightly, strolling 1/16-ounce jigs behind the boat, and it's a killer method."
FALL CEDAR CRAPPIES
While southern Ontario crappie ace J.P. Bushey confesses to an unabashed love affair with giant Georgian Bay, he pulls himself away from that inland sea in the fall to fish the many inflowing rivers with a unique pattern he developed. "In fall, crappies move out to vertical, wall-type structures," Bushey says. "Many anglers fish deep basins of lakes, but I've had phenomenal fishing along wood walls in rivers like the Magnetewan.
"We've all fished wood for crappies," he says, "but I'm talking about finding trees that have fallen into the river and been swept out into the main channel. Several of my best treetops are in 25, 30, even 40 feet of water. I view them and the channel edge as vertical structure for crappies to rest, feed, and hide."
Not every treetop suffices for Bushey, who finds eastern white cedars best. It's the same water resistant cedar that manufacturers use to construct boat docks, shingles, windows, and boats. The best cedar trees have been down there a long time," he says, "but they've held their shape and continue to attract hordes of hub-cap crappies. The branches are plastered with thick algae and they're a haven for schools of tiny perch, dace, and other minnows that crappies feed on."
Bushey probes the deep river timber with a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce two- or three-toned Precision Jig. His soft plastic trailer is multi-hued, too. "Crappies in darker water latch onto contrast," he says, explaining that "multi-colored lures have always been great for me. Mister Twister has a line of Tri-Color Mini Tubes that work well. I don't insert the head into the tube. I put it outside the nose. It's a different look that crappies like."
Bruce describes his fall pattern on Lake of the Woods: "The first thing I look for are mudflats and basins in 20 to 40 feet of water close to spawning areas. Then I idle around, watching the graph and setting waypoints on every group of fish I see. I look for sweet spots like the transition between mud and rock that fall crappies key on. Side-imaging helps find these locations as well as spot fish."
With a number of crappie pods marked on his GPS, he circles around with a drop-shot rig tipped with a 3-inch Optimum Victory Tail minnow. If crappies are suspended, he uses a small, compact spoon. "Fall crappies aren't typically shy," he says, "so I use the heaviest bait possible. The faster you can get it down, the more fish you catch. I also carry a portable GPS with me in the fall to waypoint the best spots. When I come back in the winter, I know where the fish will be, which saves a lot of time drilling."
Winter crappies in Canada? That's a story for another day. Meanwhile, for the open-water seasons, we've barely scratched the surface of what may be the hottest crappie fishing anywhere.