Crappie resurgence offers bonus winter action on Upper Red Lake

Mar. 17—WASKISH, Minn. — It's not going to match the explosion of the late '90s and early 2000s, but there's been a resurgence of crappies this winter on Upper Red Lake.

Big time.

"It was amazing; since Jan. 10, I want to say, the fishing was out of this world," said Tyler Brasel, who runs Bear Paw Guides on Upper Red and rents nine, four-person "sleeper houses" on the big lake throughout the winter. "It reminds me a lot of the crappie heydays — it really does.

"When you get houses that are averaging 20-30-40 crappies an evening ... I mean, holy moly."

Crappie populations in Red Lake exploded in the late '90s and early 2000s in the wake of a collapse in walleye populations driven by overfishing in state and tribal waters. With few predators in the system, crappies moved in to fill the void, and anglers by the thousands flocked to Upper Red to enjoy the bounty.

Practically overnight, the town of Waskish on the east shore of Upper Red went from ghost town to boom town. Slab crappies in the 14-inch range — and occasionally larger — were common, and the boom lasted several years.

Red Lake today is once again a thriving walleye fishery, thanks to a historic recovery agreement signed in 1999 between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe. Through aggressive stocking and a moratorium on walleye harvest, populations rebounded quickly, and state and tribal fisheries managers reopened Red Lake to walleye harvest in 2006 with tightly controlled regulations.

Anglers continued to catch the occasional crappie on Minnesota's 48,000-acre share of Upper Red Lake, but they weren't exactly common.

Until this winter.

"It's not the crappie days of old, and it won't be," said Tony Kennedy, large lake specialist for the DNR in Bemidji. "It's a nice increase in bonus fish, I guess, is how I would phrase it."

By the numbers, the bonus has been sizable. Based on DNR creel surveys, anglers landed an estimated 15,000 crappies this winter on Upper Red, Kennedy says, compared with about 900 crappies, on average, over the previous 10 winters or more.

The current uptick in crappies, he says, is driven by a strong year-class in 2018 and a series of weaker year-classes beginning in 2010. A year-class refers to the number of fish recruited to the population from a particular year's hatch.

Annual DNR test-netting surveys in recent years hinted at the crappie resurgence, Kennedy says. Generally, crappies that pull off a decent hatch show up at age 1 in the gillnets as 5-inch fish, he said.

"We saw these fish coming, as we usually do — I mean, we get such infrequent recruitment of crappies up there," Kennedy said. "We saw this 2018 year-class, and so a couple of years ago, I was telling resorts, 'All right, there's going to be some more crappies coming — you're going to see it.' "

For some reason, though, the crappies weren't showing up in anglers' catches. Kennedy says he was beginning to wonder if something happened and the crappies weren't ever going to show up.

But, of course, they did. Anglers started catching a few last July and August, based on summer creel surveys, Kennedy says, offering a hint of what this winter would hold in store.

"I was surprised they didn't bite at age 3 or age 4 when they were 9 1/2 and about 10 1/2 inches long," he said. "Now this year, they're like 12 inches long and for whatever reason — I mean, they're 5 years old — and all of a sudden people are like, 'Oh, where did they come from?'

"We knew they were there the whole time; they just didn't bite until now."

Before 2018, Kennedy says, Red Lake hadn't produced a strong crappie year-class since 1997. Most of the crappie boom in the early 2000s was driven by an off-the-charts hatch in 1995. The DNR didn't start conducting annual creel surveys on Upper Red until May 2006, when walleye fishing reopened. That was right at the end of the crappie boom, Kennedy says, and anglers kept about 37,000 crappies during the winter of 2006-07.

This winter, by comparison, was about 40% of that.

"We see crappie reproduction every year. We catch the little ones in the seine hauls, but they never recruit to the fishery — they never survive," Kennedy said. "In 2010, we saw a few — in '10, '11, '12, '13, that range in there — but that wasn't even really enough to be noticed by anglers. And then we went all the way, basically, from '97 to 2018, really, between any reasonable number of recruits, so that's 21 years."

That's why Upper Red could never be managed as a crappie fishery, Kennedy says; recruitment is too inconsistent.

"We used to hear that all the time — 'You should have just left it as a crappie fishery and not put walleyes back in,' " Kennedy said. "Well, that wasn't very feasible. If you could have guaranteed everybody that the crappie fishing would stay like that indefinitely, people would sign up for that — but I don't think that was likely."

In the meantime, though, the resurgence of crappies in Upper Red Lake bodes well for fishing prospects through the remainder of this winter and after ice-out, when crappies will move into shallow water to spawn.

"I think if you know some of those spawning areas, you could probably go up and target them with the right timing and do well," Kennedy said.

Jonny Petrowske, a former Upper Red Lake fishing guide who sold his fish house rental business last year, got in on the fast action a few weeks ago during an afternoon excursion with his girlfriend, Alyssa Cummings of Bemidji.

"We fished all afternoon and it was horribly slow, then all of a sudden, about 5:30, it just took off, and it was as fast as we could go," said Petrowske, a fourth-generation Waskish native who now lives near Bemidji. "It was a lot like the old days.

"They weren't the giant 15-inchers, but we were seeing a lot of those 11s, 12s and 13s. It was kind of a mix. I'd say one thing — there wasn't any small ones."

The uptick in crappie fishing also allowed resorts to keep their rental houses on the ice even after walleye season closed Feb. 28 on Minnesota inland waters.

That was good for operators like Eric Meyer, an Iowan who bought Petrowske's fish house business, Red Lake Remote Ice Fishing & Sleeper Rentals, and is just wrapping up his first winter.

"It went well," Meyer said. "We stayed open for probably another two weeks after walleye season. We had people coming up, they just wanted to strictly go catch crappies, and the bite was good."

Brasel of Bear Paw Guides in Waskish says "there's no way in God's green earth" he would have kept his rental sleeper houses on the ice after Feb. 28 if not for the crappie fishing.

Monday, March 20, is the deadline to remove ice shelters on northern Minnesota inland waters.

"The week and a half or two weeks after (walleye season closed), it was just silly," Brasel said. "We had a lot of houses that caught 50-60-70 crappies, and whoever didn't land on a pod of fish or didn't happen to get lucky enough to get one of those schools that swim underneath them, we took them out, we drilled holes, we found pods of fish during the day, and everybody for the most part left here with some crappies, so it was fun."