Crappies not as plentiful as many think

Most of the time when I write this column you’re not going to get a preachy point of view out of me. We’re all fortunate that in the fishing community, times have changed from only a few decades ago and the majority of anglers out there practice catch and release, particularly with big fish. It’s common knowledge that catch and release works and more of our fisheries are healthier now than they were in the past.

Of the popular fish to catch and keep across Northwest Ontario – walleye, lake trout and crappie – crappies are actually the species that get exploited the most. A misconception is that crappies are a panfish that grow quickly and can’t be overfished but in our cold northern waters, these fish are relatively slow growing.

The problem with crappies is that by nature, they are a schooling fish. In the fall and through the winter they congregate in predictable locations where you might have 80 or 90 percent of a population in a bay or small lake, all living together in a basin, over a small area. When anglers find these spots, it’s easy to wipe out a lot of fish. They are different from walleyes and trout that really spread out and move around a lot more.

The other problem with winter crappies is that they are often found in deeper water, over 25 feet and because of their physiological structure, don’t do very well releasing in those depths. There are some shallower waters where you can find them in depths under 20 feet, where I have found they release fine, but in water deeper than that, the fish might swim away but it’s not likely that they are making it back to the bottom. 

Whether people want to hear that or not, it’s the truth. So, the dilemma becomes do you continue to catch and harvest crappies after you have captured dinner? I can remember fishing in Nestor Falls back in the early 2000’s, where most crappies are found in more than 30 feet of water. It was excellent fishing and we would always catch a bunch of fish but we would try to release the smaller crappies. When they swim away you figure that everything is fine but when they are brought up from those depths, their air bladder inflates and they are simply not able to get back down in the water column because they are full of air. I can remember drilling holes on some of the popular community spots and seeing previously released crappies come floating up the hole.

Sadly, there have been a bunch of smaller lakes across the region that have been exploited and the crappie populations have taken a big hit. It takes seven to ten years to replace those bigger crappies that we all want to catch they don’t just get to be twelve inches long in a year. The tell-tale sign of a fishery that is getting overharvested is you will catch a bunch of smaller crappies in the 8”-10” range. On waters that are not fished hard you will catch crappies in the 12”-15” range regularly. I’m not a biologist but that is what I have experienced on dozens of waters across Northwest Ontario over the past 20 years that I have enjoyed crappie fishing.

If you haven’t fished for crappies through the ice or are unsure of where to look, they typically flock to the deeper holes in the bays or lakes that they live in. They forage on bugs and invertebrates that pop up out of the mud bottom basins that they prefer. So having a map makes is easy to identify these locations. Then it becomes a matter of drilling a bunch of holes and looking around with a sonar unit to find the fish. Once you find them, smaller spoons and jig tipped with soft plastics typically work great. They can get finicky about biting but are often pretty easy to catch.

If you get on some crappies this winter, they are great to eat so keep a few for dinner and then maybe consider chasing some bigger walleye, lake trout or pike around. Catching and releasing them in over 25 feet of water simply doesn’t work.