Grand Rapids is in the heart of Minnesota. Folks willing to fish the hard water can fill a freezer right outside the city limits.
by Mike Gnatkowski
February finds Minnesota ice-anglers ensconced smack dab in the middle of a long, cold winter and close to the end of the ice-fishing season for pike and walleye. Serious ice-anglers get after these popular predators before the season closes the third week in February. After that, it’s time to concentrate on crappies.
There is an abundance of great crappie waters close to Grand Rapids, Minnesota and the town welcomes winter anglers with open arms. It’s the prefect place to finish the season filling the freezer with crappie fillets.
Cut Foot Sioux
About the end of February most Minnesota anglers, including Steve Arbour, turn their attention to panfish and crappies in particular. The winter walleye and pike season is winding down as the action for crappies begins to pick up.
I joined Arbour on Cut Foot Sioux, which is actually a bay off of the expansive Lake Winnibigoshish. The outing produced some exceptional specks and a seminar on winter crappie fishing.
“There are basically three places to look for crappies on Cut Foot Sioux,” explained Arbor. “Straight out from the boat ramp in McAvity Bay in the deep basin there, either side of Battle Point in the holes there, and towards the opening of the lake toward Lake Winnie.”
Arbour said he typically finds crappies in 32 to 34 feet of water on Cut Foot Sioux. They can be on the bottom or anywhere in between depending on where the zooplankton is.
Electronics are essential for finding the specks and the level at which they are feeding. Arbour said smaller baits seem to be the ticket.
“I never use minnows,” claimed Arbour. “I catch lots of crappies on Rat Finkees, Ratsos, Wedgees, Hornets and Bro Bugs. The key is to watch your electronics, use light line, and keep moving until you find fish.”
Arbour said the crappies in Cut Foot Sioux will average 10 to 13 inches, but the sad part about fishing in 32 feet of water is that any fish you catch is going to be dead. “Don’t bother releasing them,” advised Arbour. “Just count them as part of your catch if you care about the fishery.”
Our outing on Cut Foot Sioux illustrated how important it is to watch your electronics when fishing winter crappies. Ice-fishing expert Scott Glorvigen had me set up with a unit that functioned as a flasher and as an LCG. The LCG provided an image that allowed me to see exactly how the fish reacted to my jigging cadence and how interested they were. A subtle bounce or quiver of the jig was usually all the crappie could stand and all I would see is a nearly imperceptible dip of the spring bobber on my St. Croix ice rod. Without the electronics and the LCG recorder, I probably would have missed a lot of bites. The LCG unit gives a detailed history of the fish’s reaction to the bait and isn’t just a blip on the screen.
Another winter crappie favorite of Arbour’s is Bowstring Lake. Covering some 9,220 acres, Bowstring is just northeast of Cut Foot Sioux in Itasca County. The deepest part of the lake is 32 feet and that’s exactly where you want to be to begin your winter search for crappies.
The lake is fairly uniform in depth with most of it 25 to 30 feet with slowly tapering contours and isolated humps. The crappies can be anywhere. Punch holes and keep moving until you find hungry and active fish.
Bowstring has some chunky perch in it, too. Look for the perch to be relating to bottom. Arbour catches the perch on the same plastics he uses for crappies.
You’ll find access on the north end of the lake and on the southwest corner. For information on bait, tackle lodging and other amenities in the area, contact the Grand Rapids CVB at visitgrandrapids.com or call 800-355-9740.
Split Hand Lake
1,420-acre Split Hand Lake is almost inside the Grand Rapids city limits, but it still is a consistent crappie producer.
“Split Hand Lake is a crappie factory,” said professional angler Brian “Bro” Brosdahl. “It gives up plenty of specks in the 10- to 11-inch range, but it will kick out some 13 to 14 inchers, too.”
Split Hand Lake has a maximum depth of 34 feet and is basically a big bowl. The lake is extremely fertile and stained with plenty of weeds that produce a bounty of insects the crappies to grow fat on.
Brosdahl said there’s a good night bite when the crappies move up in the water column to take advantage of insect movement. Look for specks to suspend from 22 to 24 feet over 28 to 32 feet of water.
Brosdahl said his best Split Hand lure is a Northland Forage Minnow adorned with either a single waxworm or a cluster of spikes. The northern half of the lake tends to produce the best fishing.
You’ll find a public access on the southwest corner of Split Hand Lake.
(Mike “Gnat” Gnatkowski has worn a lot of different hats during his years in the out-of-doors. He has been an outdoor writer/photographer/book author for more than 40 years. He continues to contribute to an array of outdoor publications as a freelance writer/photographer. He also scribes a very successful blog at GNAToutdoors.com).