Best Minnesota Lakes for Panfish

by Maureen E. Johnson, featured columnist

Hey, don’t get snobby towards the panfish! The kids love ’em, don’t they? Don’t you remember Dad taking you to the Lake Nokomis bridge with a can of waxworms and some tiny hooks? Now you think you’re to big for that. By the way, why don’t you take Dad to Lake Nokomis?

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Lake Fannie (Isanti County MN):
This tiny 366-acre lake near Cambridge is loaded with nice-sized crappies, especially on the lake’s northeast end in depths of about 33 feet. Start out near the public access to Lake Fannie in about 20 feet of water and gradually progress to the deeper areas to find where the big schools are located. The lake’s maximum depth is 33 feet, and much of this deep water is concentrated along the northeast end. The west end is okay depthwise as well, and is therefore another good spot to search for crappies, though schools here tend to be restless and move about a lot. Some seasoned anglers advise using a bigger minnow, such as a 5-inch sucker, to keep the attention of a school once you’ve located one. Then haul ’em in using a tiny jig tipped with a crappie minnow.

Fish Trap Lake (Morrison County MN):

A very popular recreation lake near Lincoln Minnesota, Fish Trap is a favorite among crappie anglers in the summer, who will tell you that the place to be is the deep water around the lake’s points and sunken islands. Fish Trap is also a great place for crappie in the winter months, though few realize it. sunfish are also plentiful in Fish Trap, especially around the big coontail-dotted cabbage beds hovering over the deeper parts. Areas like this are spread out all over the lake’s many bays and arms. In the winter, drill in the weedline in depths of 12 to 16 feet, make use of that underwater camera, and watch them come right up to the jig and wax worm trap you set for them! Several resorts can be found around the Fish Trap Lake, as well as a campground, making this a great place to take the whole family.

Little Rock Lake (Benton County MN):

Little Rock is home to an excellent number of black crappie, and even a few white crappie as well. Crappie anglers tend to gravitate around the east and west sides of a sunken island located in the main basin’s south-central region, where the lake reaches its greatest depth at 23 feet. Because the crappie tend to move around, mobility is essential to keeping up with the schools. We recommend using glow-in-the-dark jigs and smaller crappie minnows for the best productivity. Bear in mind that crappies here move to the shallower areas during the darker hours, and flock to deeper waters during the sunnier hours. One point of interest is that although the 1,450-acre lake lacks vegetation-and therefore doesn’t hold many a sunfish search may pay off, as many of them are over 9 inches!

Lake Osakis (Todd County MN):

A popular walleye fishery, Osakis is also a good bet for plenty of quality-sized sunfish and black crappie, winter or summer! According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 76% of the sunfish sampled in 2002 were greater than 6 inches, and 75% of the black crappie sampled measured over 8 inches. Osakis spans 6,270 acres and has a maximum depth of 73 feet. The water clarity here is fair, but due to lots of particulate matter in the water, using your brightest jig along with that wax worm is always wise. In the winter, catch sunnies by drilling around the edges of weedy areas and points. Also enjoy the nice population of smallmouth bass while you’re here!

Bluegill sunfish

Maple Lake (Douglas County MN):

Maple is a small, mostly shallow lake in west-central MN, located between Alexandria and Glenwood. Maple is moderately fertile, and is home to a diverse species of fish, including largemouth bass, northern pike and walleye. And the fact that there’s some quality fish in this lake doesn’t escape crappie anglers, who are packed in like sardines on the lake’s east and west sides, near the County MN roads. It’s quite challenging to fish this area, where the fish have gotten smart. Instead, increase your odds (and enjoy the solitude) by moving to the lake’s center, where it narrows. The area around a sunken island is prime crappie territory, where schools of them lurk in a nearby deep hole. Please note there is a size limitation in effect here, mandating the release of crappies less than 10 inches. Don’t worry, though; you’re found to find some biggies here.

Camp Lake (Crow Wing County MN):

Never mind what the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported for this lake, there are plenty of above-average sunfish in this 478-acre haven near Pine Center, according to some seasoned anglers. Try venturing out to the small island on the north arm of the lake, where you’ll find plenty of sunfish-rich vegetation. There are several shallow areas around this and other sections of the lake, where it is important to remember that silence is a fishing virtue! Simply use a jig and wax worm, remain silent, and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a few half-pound sunfish and some good-sized bass as a bonus!

Pebble Lake (Otter Tail County MN):

A mere 169 acres south of Fergus Falls, Pebble is an excellent numbers lake! You probably won’t find any whoppers here, but you’ll sure have fun stacking up loads of sunfish! The best time to fish here is between midmorning and late afternoon. Along the lake’s northeast corner you’ll find plenty of sunfish-infested cabbage and coontail, which you’ll want to target right along its edges. The water clarity is an amazing 15.8 feet, so if you’ve got an underwater camera, be sure not to leave home without it!

Lake Winnibigoshish (Cass/Itasca Counties):

Ah, to live in MN! During the winter, anglers travel from all over the world to sample Winnibigoshish’s jumbo perch! Yellow perch is the dominant species of panfish here, with many measuring 11 to 12 inches or longer! In the darker hours of morning and evening, the perch linger around the top of midlake reefs, and gradually move out toward the structure’s edge at greater depths during the lighter hours. In Lake Winnibigoshish, mibility is key, so be ready to follow the fish. For bait, employ a shiny 1/8-ounce jigging spoon with a fathead minnow on the tip of the treble hook. Lake “Winnie” is also an excellent place for jumbo-sized northern !

Loon Lake (Crow Wing County MN):

South of Crosby lies this l tiny ittle sparkling 40-acre jem just bubbling over with big sunfish. Oh, shoot! I just told you my secret. Loon Lake doesn’t have a lot of struction, so you might as well wander all over the lake; it shouldn’t take long to cover the whole thing, given its small size. You should see plenty of action here, so come prepared with lots of bait, such as waxworms and maggots. You will also catch some fish. Also bear in mind that bulrush is an emerging species here, providing excellent spawning areas for panfish and bass alike. And for those who like diversity, the lake is also home to green sunfish, pumpkinseed and hybrid sunfish. But all fish are welcome here – except perch. The lake is tricky to get to, but you’ll find it’s worth the effort. Public access to Loon Lake is off of Cty MN Road 102. Follow a trail for 1/3 mile to the outlet at the SW end of the lake.

Upper Red Lake (Beltrami County MN):

Though the number of crappie in Upper Red Lake has been declining since reaching a peak in 1996, anglers have continued to strike some big ones! At least the kids will think they are big. The best time for black crappie here is between late afternoon until sunset, and you’ll increase your odds further by using glow-in-the-dark spoon lures tipped with crappie minnow. There’s also a good number of perch as well, though finding quality fish will require a day’s time and a bit of patience. When perch fishing, use a minnow or maggot-tipped jig along the lake’s bottom. But who wants perch?

MN Department of Natural Resources for Sunfish and Crappies

Be sure to check out the best Minnesota lakes for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, and muskies

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