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Cutting Edge Crappie in Northern Ontario

Black crappies are one of the most beautiful sport fish found in Northern Ontario. • Credit: Gord Pyzer
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Cutting Edge Crappie in Northern Ontario

Crappie are easy to catch and rank at the top of the culinary food list.

The lilacs are blossoming across Northern Ontario and that can mean only one thing, the best black crappie fishing of the year is at hand, blooming right along with the fragrant flowers.

I've never fully understood the relationship between the sugary-smelling flora and the sweet tasting fish but it's obviously weather-related and a fishing pattern you can take to the bank. And talking about sound investing, it is no secret either, that Ontario offers some of the best black crappie fishing to be found anywhere in the world.

The fact we're blessed with more than 400,000 lakes and 2/5ths of all the fresh water on the planet plays no small part in the play, but a steadily warming climate along with the fact that the fish are colonizing ever more numbers of Northern Ontario waters means anglers can scarcely keep up with the most recent "crappie happenings".

Black crappie fishing in the spring is often a fun family affair, with everybody getting into the action, as Susan Butts shows here, proudly displaying the fish she caught in Northwestern Ontario’s Wabigoon Lake. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

Indeed, lakes like Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Georgian Bay, Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the entire Rideau/Trent/Severn system have been known and prized by crappie anglers for years. But it is the newcomers to the neighbourhood that are turning heads, especially, Wabigoon Lake in Northwestern Ontario and the bays and coves along the north shore of the St. Marys River in Algoma Country.

"We've known that crappies have been in the Wabigoon chain of lakes for a decade now," says John Butts, who lives in nearby Dryden, Ontario. "And every year we'd catch a few, usually by accident, while we fished for another species like walleye. But they've taken off over the last six or seven years to the point where big slabs in the 14-, 15- and 16-inch range are common today. And they're everywhere."

Indeed, Butts, who is the District Business Manager for Kingfisher Boats and a fixture on the North American professional walleye tournament trail gushes when he talks about what is arguably the most popular sport fish in North America.

"A few guys have been targeting the crappies in Wabigoon, Butler and Dinorwic lakes and trying to keep their success hush-hush. But now the secret's out and everybody's getting in on the fantastic fishing. So much so, that several of the resorts around the lake have seen their guest lists augmented by anglers from the States where crappie fishing is more of a religion than a sport."

Black crappies, like this duo caught by visiting Manitoba angler Tom Van Leeuwen, are found throughout Northern Ontario, with Sunset Country’s Wabigoon Lake and Algoma Country’s St. Mary’s emerging as two rising hot spots these days. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

When I asked Butts to name his favourite time of the year to target black crappies in Wabigoon, he chuckled and confessed it was a tough decision.

"Honestly, spring, fall and winter are equally amazing but I'd have to give a slight nod to the action right now. The weather is gorgeous, the crappies are up shallow spawning and it is one fish after another. I'll say this, though, the first person to figure out how to catch them in the summer will have tens of thousands of acres of water and hundreds of thousands of black crappies all for himself."

As for catching the gorgeously coloured, plate-size fish at this time of year, Butts said the best technique is floating a small 1/16th-ounce jig, suspended under a slip float, along the edge of one of the extensive pencil reed beds that populate the lake. He normally tips the tiny jig with a small 2- or 3-inch long scented, soft plastic Trigger X minnow or grub.

It's the same general presentation Kevin King favours for black crappies. Only King lives several hundred miles to the east of Butts, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, one of the last places most anglers would look for a black crappie hot spot.

Renown for its steelhead, speckled trout and salmon fishing, especially along the north shores of Lake Superior and Lake Huron -- as well as walleye and northern pike inland -- Algoma Country has flown under the radar for crappies.

Sault Ste. Marie angler Kevin King first discovered the burgeoning black crappie population in the nearby St. Marys River by catching the fish “accidentally” while ice fishing in the winter.  That is the kind of “accident” we like! (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

"I am going to get myself into a lot of trouble for saying that," King laughs out loud, "because a handful of anglers have been doing their darndest to keep it a secret.  But several of the bays and coves off the St. Marys River channel, between Sault Ste. Marie and Blind River offer unbelievable fishing, especially at this time of the year. I am talking about catching a fish on every cast. It's unreal."

King suspects the black crappies have migrated into the St. Marys River from nearby Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. And, he notes that while he has caught the popular panfish for the better part of the past decade, the fishing has picked up noticeably over the past two or three years. To the point, where he and his friends are now catching plenty of husky 14- and 15-inch fish.

There is no question, it is great news, but like Butts over in Dryden, King notes that the really exciting thing is that the black crappie fishing around the "Soo" is still in its infancy.

"Most anglers don't even know the fish exist around here," King says, "so they don't get pressured at all. And the river is chock full of prime black crappie habitat. There is just so much still to discover."

This brings us back to our starting point.

The lilacs are blooming, the black crappies are biting and you need to put Dryden and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario is at the top of your fishing agenda this spring.

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