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Kawartha Crappie Cornucopia

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Kawartha Crappie Cornucopia

Ontario crappie expert Pete Garnier says he is disappointed if he doesn’t catch at least 30 crappies, noting that 100 fish days are common in the Kawartha Lakes area. • Credit: Gord Pyzer

Fishing in Southern Ontario



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Quite possibly the hottest ice fishing news over the past decade or so has been the opening of ice fishing for panfish on the Kawartha Lakes system in Southern Ontario.

Because the interconnecting waterway is only 90 minutes away from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and because it receives significant open water pressure from anglers targeting walleye, bass and muskies, the lakes have traditionally been off limits during the winter.

That changed with the new panfish regulations, however, and the ice fishing is nothing short of off the chart.

"It is an interesting scenario," says Pete Garnier, one of Ontario's top bass pros, "because lakes like Scugog, Sturgeon, Pigeon, Balsam and Rice are world-renowned and receive plenty of pressure during the open water season. But because they've been traditionally closed to ice fishing, they're relatively unexplored in terms of winter angling."

Indeed, Garnier, who lived for many years in Lindsay, Ontario, in the heart of the action, and who still sneaks "back home" every chance he gets, says, "The whole system is riddled with phenomenal panfish opportunities.

The Kawarthas are so varied, you can find a lake that is tailor-made to your particular style of fishing
The Kawarthas are so varied, you can find a lake that is tailor-made to your particular style of fishing. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

"To tell you how untapped the crappies are, on my first trip this season, I iced well over 100 fish. I arrived just before sundown and drilled 14 holes, but I never left the first hole that I started fishing. I was astonished. It was non-stop action. As soon as I caught and released a crappie and dropped my jig back down, I caught another fish. I got home at 3:45 am the next morning and I left them biting. I can't imagine how many fish I caught that night."

Garnier says he is disappointed if he doesn't ice at least 30 crappies an outing, and that he regularly sees 1000 or more bluegills over the course of a fishing day when he drops down his underwater camera.

The ice fishing sage also notes that another benefit of panfishing in the Kawarthas is that the lakes are large (typically 4,000 to 10,000 acres in size) and offer a variety of bottom profiles and basin configurations.

"Scugog is shallow and weedy," Garnier explains, "while Cameron and Balsam have hard bottoms and deeper basins. Rice Lake, on the other hand, has a bit of everything, so depending on your strengths, you can find a lake that's tailor-made to your way of ice fishing. And because they're interconnected and close to one another, you can hop from lake to lake in a half-hour or less."

To maintain the amazing quality of fishing in the Kawartha Lakes, Pete Garnier says it is critical to practise selective harvest, keeping a few smaller fish for the table and releasing the larger brood stock to spawn
To maintain the amazing quality of fishing in the Kawartha Lakes, Pete Garnier says it is critical to practise selective harvest, keeping a few smaller fish for the table and releasing the larger brood stock to spawn. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

A master at reading his sonar, Garnier favours the late afternoon and evening period for panfishing, noting that the crappies, bluegills and pumpkinseeds are typically tucked inside the weeds during the day. When the sun hits the horizon, however, they start moving toward the edges and out as far as the first major break.

"Hunting weedbeds produces consistent action throughout the day for aggressive bluegills and pumpkinseeds," says Garnier, "and if you're willing to drill a lot of holes, crappies as well. But the night-bite is where it's at for shallow water crappies that drop their guard and get on the prowl. The beauty of panfishing lies in its simplicity.  A handful of ice jigs" -- he sticks with Eco Pro tungsten ice flies -- "is all the tackle you really need."

Garnier routinely tips his jigs with a Berkley Power Wiggler during the day, opting for a bigger profile Honey Worm during the low light periods. His newest go-to soft plastic presentation, however, involves slicing long thin strands out of the tail portion of a pearl white 1 1/2-inch Berkley Gulp Grub. The added bulk and bigger profile makes it much easier for fish to find it in the low light conditions after sunset.

Garnier also notes that he has experimented with virtually every scent on the market, and has discovered that dabbing his lures with BioEdge Bloodworm elixir has increased his success rate immeasurably.

"Folks forget that Southern Ontario is on the same latitude as Northern California," says Garnier, "so our bluegills, pumpkinseeds and crappies get an extra eight weeks of growing season, compared to the rest of the province. Plus the Kawartha Lakes are below the Shield and extremely fertile. In several lakes, a 9 1/2-inch bluegill is average, with lots of 10- to 10 1/2-inch fish weighing well over a pound.

Pete Garnier’s ice fishing partner, Rick Kewel broke his personal best crappie record four separate times on Saturday, while ice fishing in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario
Pete Garnier’s ice fishing partner, Rick Kewel broke his personal best crappie record four separate times on Saturday, while ice fishing in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

"Just this past weekend, I had two friends out fishing with me and the three of us iced 100 crappies each. The average fish was 12-inches long, with plenty of 14- and 15-inchers, a few 16s and one bona fide giant that measured 17.25-inches long."

As good as the fishing is in the Kawarthas, however, Garnier is quick to remind anglers who may new to "panning through the ice" that it's critical to practice selective harvest. By all means, keep a few smaller fish for the table, but release the bigger brood stock to ensure the Kawarthas continue to thrive.

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