They’re the “second fiddle” of Devils Lake fish species in terms of abundance, ranking far below walleyes and perch and lagging behind northern pike and white bass.

Catch a crappie on Devils Lake, though, and chances are it’s going to be a slab (as anglers say in crappie-speak). Where and when and how to catch them – that’s the tricky part when it comes to fishing crappies on Devils Lake.

“It’s mostly an incidental thing, but there’s certain times of year when we can catch them on purpose,” said Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, a veteran outdoor communicator and host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show. “There are times in the spring and then through the ice when we typically see most of them caught.

“Summer and fall, it really is incidental.”

This past spring, Mitchell says he was fishing in Black Tiger Bay when he hooked into a 15-inch crappie. Anyway you measure it, that’s a slab.

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“Most of them are almost always over 12 inches,” said Mitchell, who’s logged hundreds of hours fishing Devils Lake in the past 20 years. “I’ve caught a few small ones over the years, but I’ve caught more crappies over 14 inches than I have less than 14 inches.

“Think how crazy that is – when you catch them, they’re big. Devils Lake builds a pretty beautiful crappie.”

Fisheries perspective

Todd Caspers, Devils Lake fisheries biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said fisheries crews occasionally catch adult crappies in trap nets in the spring while trying to catch pike or walleyes to collect the eggs and milt for spawning purposes.

Like many angler catches, the crappies that fisheries crews encounter in trap nets on Devils Lake are incidental, Caspers says.

Todd Caspers
Todd Caspers

“We rarely catch them during our normal summer gill netting survey,” he said. “Crappies are not a fish that is very susceptible to gill nets though, so it isn’t surprising that we don’t encounter them very often while gill netting.”

There’s no question that crappies are reproducing in Devils Lake, though, because Game and Fish crews encounter young-of-the-year fish in small trap nets in late July while sampling fish to determine the spring hatch success for Devils Lake fish species.

Most of those crappies likely are gobbled up by predator fish such as pike and walleyes before they can reach adulthood, Caspers said.

“The few that do survive grow well and can grow large,” he said. “We have sampled crappies throughout the Devils Lake System, from Lake Irvine through Stump Lake, but Six-Mile Bay and Pelican Lake seem to be the places where crappies are the most prevalent.”

That meshes with Mitchell’s experience, as well, he says.

“Most of the crappies that I’ve caught are in two key areas: The north end of Six-Mile Bay or Pelican Lake in that Golden Pond area, the northern part of the Mauvais Coulee,” Mitchell said. “I’ve caught a few in Black Tiger and East Bay and Creel Bay.

“And I wouldn’t brag that I can just go out and catch them at will. There’s just certain times where if I really look for ‘em I can catch a few.”

Some anglers, especially from crappie fishing hotbeds such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, do quite well targeting crappies on Devils Lake, he said.

“And sometimes, the success they have would surprise you,” Mitchell said. Anecdotally, he says there seem to be more incidental crappie catches this year.

“I know people that have been specifically targeting them, they’re catching more, too,” Mitchell said. “So, I think there’s way more crappies in this lake than what people would ever envision, and they’re huge.”

Top fisheries

A search of the Game and Fish Department’s online database shows anglers have reported 89 Devils Lake crappies to the Whopper Club, dating back to 1987. Crappies have to weigh at least a pound and a half to qualify.

There’s a two-way tie for North Dakota’s state record crappie. Lake Oahe produced a 3-pound, 4-ounce crappie in February 1998 that stood as the sole record holder until January 2013, when an angler fishing the Jamestown Reservoir caught a 15-inch crappie that tied the mark.

Oahe and Jamestown Reservoir both are among North Dakota’s premier crappie fisheries, said Scott Gangl, fisheries management section leader for Game and Fish in Bismarck.

Jamestown Reservoir is perhaps North Dakota's most consistent producer of crappies, both for size and numbers, based on angler catches and fish sampled in North Dakota Game and Fish Department surveys, which yielded this catch. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Jamestown Reservoir is perhaps North Dakota's most consistent producer of crappies, both for size and numbers, based on angler catches and fish sampled in North Dakota Game and Fish Department surveys, which yielded this catch. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Pipestem Reservoir historically is a good crappie fishery, as well, but a winterkill a couple of years ago decimated the population, Gangl said.

Recruitment – the addition of new fish to the population from a particular year’s hatch – tends to be inconsistent with crappies in North Dakota, Gangl said. Game and Fish doesn’t stock crappies except in rare situations, he said, relying instead on natural production.

Scott Gangl, fisheries management section leader, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Scott Gangl, fisheries management section leader, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

“We see really good reproduction just about every year, but we don’t see a lot of survival into their next year,” Gangl said. “When we do get a good year-class – and this is pretty common in reservoirs like Pipestem and Jamestown – it’s a big one, and those fish just continue to grow and grow and grow until they get to a size that anglers discover them and start mining that year class. That’s been kind of a classic trend that we’ve seen.”

That certainly was the case when anglers first discovered the big crappies a few years back in Lake Oahe, Gangl said.

“They were just pounding on them,” Gangl said. “Crappies in these reservoirs, especially through the ice, if you can find the old river channel or creek channel or whatever kind of structure, you can find those fish suspended out there and they school up pretty good.”

Lake Oahe has been a prime producer of big crappies in North Dakota in recent years, driven by a strong hatch about 10 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Jason Mitchell/ Jason Mitchell Outdoors)
Lake Oahe has been a prime producer of big crappies in North Dakota in recent years, driven by a strong hatch about 10 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Jason Mitchell/ Jason Mitchell Outdoors)

Reservoirs tend to offer the best crappie fishing in North Dakota, Gangl said, as opposed to the numerous natural lakes that have appeared on the landscape since the wet cycle began. Nelson Lake, a 573-acre reservoir that provides water for the Milton R. Young Power Plant, is another good one for crappies, he says.

“That one sees a little more consistent production in crappies, maybe because it is a little bit warmer and they can grow a little bit better out there,” Gangl said. “In the southwest part of the state, we’ve got a few smaller reservoirs that have relatively good populations of crappies. They don’t get to the 12- to 14-inch size consistently, but you might see some 8- to 10-inchers – nice fish that are fun to catch.”

Limited resource

Game and Fish crews have experimented with crappies in a few natural lakes in southeast North Dakota, Gangl said, but like Devils Lake, the catches tend to be incidental.

“None of them are real big go-to destinations, but they do produce a few fish,” Gangl said.

Crappies in North Dakota may never rival perch and walleyes in anglers’ hearts, but the people who target crappies take it seriously, Gangl said.

As in neighboring states, crappie anglers in North Dakota also tend to be secretive.

“The people that really do like the crappies, I think they realize it’s kind of a limited resource, and we do, too, ” Gangl said. Crappies were among the first panfish species to see a reduced daily limit, currently at 10 in North Dakota.

“We know that those year classes are not infinite, so by lowering the limit, you can extend that fishery a little bit longer than if people were out there taking twice as many every day,” Gangl said. “When it comes to panfish, I think crappies are kind of that gem that you can find once in a while.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.