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A tough secret to keep

Manitoba’s Mike Schamber discovered on an ice fishing trip to Northwestern Ontario, Ontario black crappies are big, beautiful and totally uneducated. • Credit: Gord Pyzer
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A tough secret to keep

A Northern Ontario’s black crappie goldmine

Be sure to check out these Ontario lakes on your next ice fishing trip for black crappie.

Mention the name Wabigoon Lake and most walleye and muskie anglers' eyes widen to the size of saucers. Only now, black crappies are stealing the scene in the big Northwestern Ontario lake situated near the town of Dryden.

"We've known there were crappies in the lake for the last decade," says local angler, John Butts, who has made a name for himself over the years fishing the various North American professional walleye trails. "In fact, they're not just in Wabigoon. You catch crappies consistently throughout the system, in neighbouring Butler, Dinorwic and Trap Lake as well."

According to Butts, local anglers have been nabbing huge slabs throughout the winter months, doing their darndest to keep it all hush-hush. But when so many big 13-, 14- and 15-inch fish crowd the waters and so many anglers are catching them by "accident", it is a secret that is hard to keep under wraps.

"The winter crappie fishing's just taken off," says Butts, who notes that, "it is a typical Shield lake deal. Find the deeper basins with 25- to 35-feet of water and you're pretty much guaranteed to catch crappies."

Twelve-year-old Liam Whetter’s hat tells you everything you need to know about ice fishing for black crappies this winter –- Go Fish in Ontario! (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

Being quite possibly my favourite fish to catch in the winter in Northern Ontario, I always find ice fishing for crappies to be a little bit of a paradox. That is because, in some respects, we shouldn't be catching them as well as we do in the frigid waters of winter. Black crappies, after all, are a warm-water species with temperature preferences and tolerances similar to largemouth bass. Yet, for most Northern Ontario-bound crappie anglers, winter is not only a good time to go slab hunting, it is the best time.

I'll let you in on another ice fishing crappie secret. Creel surveys conducted by fisheries technicians during the winter months suggest that while crappies are active all day long under the ice, first thing in the morning and between midnight and 2 am appear to be the peak feeding periods.

So, is it the early bird that gets the worm or the night owl?

Butts says that a good day on the Wabigoon system will see an angler ice 25 to 30 fish (the limit is 10) and that standard light crappie fare, incorporating 3-, 4- and 5-pound test line, tipped with a 1/32-ounce jig, dressed with a minnow or scented soft plastic is all that is required.

"You can make it more complicated if you like," Butts chuckles, "but this is an emerging fishery with limited fishing pressure, so the crappies are uneducated."

Hmmm -- easy access, plenty of nearby accommodations, great places to dine and unsophisticated crappies. I like those conditions.

Here is something else I like. It seems every time you turn around, there is another new Northern Ontario crappie fishery exploding onto the scene. With over 400,000 lakes and 2/5th of all the fresh water on the planet, it is not surprising, but what is a shocker is where some of the hotspots are popping up.

With over 400,000 lakes and 2/5th of all the fresh water on Earth, it is not surprising that new, phenomenal, black crappie fisheries are springing up across Northern Ontario. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

Like the north shore of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, between Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Blind River to the east. The area has long been a Mecca for trout and salmon anglers, as well as walleye, smallmouth and muskie aficionados, but you can now add black crappie ice anglers to the list.

Local Soo-stick Kevin King suspects the crappies have migrated into the bays and coves of the St. Marys River from nearby Lake Huron and have found the shallow, weedy habitat and warming water temperatures to their liking.

"Most anglers don't even know crappies exist around here," says King, "so they get virtually no fishing pressure at all. In fact, even for the few local ice anglers who are targeting them, they're still a bit of a mystery. There is plenty to learn and lots to discover."

Because the fishery is in its infancy, it is hard to know just how big the crappies are growing around the "Soo", although it is clear by their size that they snuck in here quite some time ago.

King says he regularly ices gorgeous 13- and 14-inch slabs while fishing with light jigs tipped with 1- to 3-inch scented soft plastic Trigger X minnows. His personal best crappie, in the limited time he has been targeting them, had its tail on the 15-inch mark. That is gargantuan. But, as he quickly notes with a grin, "I am sure it wasn't the biggest crappie out there."

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