Chris Hanson (left) and Darren Troseth show off their black crappie catch from Upper Red Lake in 2007.
The History of the Red Lake Crappie Boom
by Scott Mackenthun
What can we learn from the past?
Minnesota’s Red Lake is an incredible walleye fishery situated in northwestern Minnesota on land held by two sovereign nations, the United States and the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe and their respective citizens. The lake has all the characteristics you would choose to build ideal walleye habitat. It sprawls into an Upper and Lower portion over a whopping 285,000 acres, making it the 16th largest lake in the United States. Red Lake is relatively shallow, with a maximum depth of 35 feet in the Lower portion and 17 feet in the Upper Portion. The lake is enveloped in a rock and rubble shoreline with a sand and mud bottom and a west-east orientation that catches the prevailing winds.
But for several years Red Lake completely switched from being a walleye hotbed to a crappie paradise. For those who lived it, the Red Lake Crappie Boom was a sight to behold, the makings of which emerge from an unlikely opportunity hidden in unique circumstances and exquisite timing.
To understand the Red Lake Crappie Boom, you must go back to the walleye collapse. About three quarters of the lake is controlled by the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe. In the late 1980’s through the 1990’s a combination of commercial fishing and recreational harvest took a massive toll on the walleye population. Commercial fishing was halted on the lake by 1999. The plan called for a ten-year walleye angling moratorium.
As walleye numbers came crashing down in the mid-1990’s before the closing of the fishery in 1999, a funny thing happened.
Retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Northwest Fisheries Manager Henry Drewes said, “In 1995, the sun and the moon and the stars aligned. We had a good blip in the adult black crappie population and they pulled off the hatch of all hatches that spring.”
It took a while but by 199 local anglers found the crappies. Word got out that people were catching 10- and 11-inch crappies by the hundreds, and folks started traveling to the lake to target crappie.
“It was as if every egg that those crappies laid, hatched and matured,” Drewes recalled. “Walleye populations and crappie populations don’t often thrive together. With the walleye population in a state of collapse, there weren’t any walleyes to eat the crappies. Those crappies survived and thrived, growing very fast. People were flocking to Upper Red Lake in scores.”
Big crappies, and lots of them, were a draw. People would buy bait, gear, equipment, and private access passes to plowed roads out on the ice and it would be a steady stream of traffic as sunset approached. Anglers could look out across the lake, several miles long in the state portion, and see the glow of vehicle headlights and lanterns lit up all over the lake. People were spread out but all were catching fish.
When you stopped at resorts and looked in fish cleaning shacks, you would find gut buckets full of filleted crappies and everyone hauling out their limits.
“I remember in 2002, I was leaving a movie in Blackduck with my kids,” Drewes reminisced. “It took us 15 minutes to get out on U.S. Highway 71 because of the traffic coming home from Red Lake. The crappie boom was a godsend; the local economy was severely impacted by the collapse of the walleye population, and out of nowhere came this year class of crappies that brought thousands and thousands of people to Red Lake to fish in the winter and all the way to ice out. The gas stations expanded, the bait stores came back to life, many of the resorts re-opened. It was a lifeline to the communities. It was truly an economic bridge.”
Each year got better for a while and the average fish was a pound and a quarter to a pound and a half.
The crappie boom lasted nearly 7 years. Earlier in the boom, you could set up in many reliable places and catch fish. By the tail end of the boom, you had to go searching.
“Ice fishing for those crappies was like drilling for oil,” Drewes explained. “You could be 50 yards from someone windmilling fish, and the guy 50 yards off had nothing. For three or four years, it was like every fish was 13 to 13.25 inches.”
Eventually, crappie abundance dwindled and walleye returned to their rightful place as the dominant species in Red Lake. “The crappies were a shooting star,” Drewes said. “They were bright and illuminated and magnificent, but they eventually faded and returned to their role as a background species.”
Drewes said that the Minnesota DNR was occasionally criticized by folks who enjoyed the crappie boom and wanted the lake to be managed specifically for crappie.
“We couldn’t have done it if we tried,” Drewes said. “It was a set of circumstances, natural processes that we really had no control over that created that phenomenon. It was just a blessing, an absolute blessing.”
Now Red Lake is managed for the species biologists say it is best suited for – walleye. The Red Lake Nation and the DNR manage the walleye harvest under a joint harvest plan. Controlled commercial walleye fishing continues on the lake. The annual harvest of walleye on the reservation is estimated to be more than a million pounds.
But some anglers in the know still pursue Red Lake crappies. According to one article in In-Fisherman magazine, crappies are still there. Big ones, too. Tyler Brasel of Bear Paw Guides said in recent years the lake has been kicking out plenty of smaller fish, indicating respectable up-and-coming year-classes for the first time since the “collapse.”
“No one targets crappies on Upper Red anymore,” says Brasel, who’s guided on the big lake for 17 years. “In the last three or four years, I’ve started to see smaller fish from multiple year-classes. Ordinarily, you’re not excited to see 7- and 8-inch crappies. Here, it’s a big deal.”
He pursues crappies through the ice once the walleye season closes in February. He also fishes for them in May and June, particularly just prior to the Minnesota walleye opener.
Brasel said, “The fish school by size. In one area, all you’ll catch are 12- and 13-inchers. On another spot, it’s nothing but 15s.”
These days you may have to hunt for them among the more plentiful walleye but for the crappie purists, Red Lake should never be overlooked.
Author Bio: Scott Mackenthun is an outdoor columnist, fisheries biologist, and freelance outdoor writer from New Prague, Minnesota. He can be reached at email@example.com.