Making crappie ice fishing happen on Lake of the Woods

by Tom Armstrong | January 19, 2022
A man is ice fishing for crappie

Travelling to ice fish for black crappie was something we’d talked about for years, but it just hadn’t come together. Being in Thunder Bay, crappie country is close, but beyond a day trip. So, with our baby in tow, my wife and I, along with my dad, headed 4.5 hours west to Sunset Cove Resort to finally make it happen.

The resort is run by Mike and Erin Gate, a couple passionate about hunting, fishing, and the outdoors. Sunset Cove is in an idyllic setting on the eastern shores of Lake of the Woods, where shore-line cabins provide access to year-round angling. Though we were there when things were covered in snow, I can envision summers on the large patio, fish fries and storytelling after days on the water.

On the ice

Ice access here is about as easy as it comes. Mike Gate maintains an ice road from the resort and keeps it wide and cleared enough that you could likely access the crappie grounds with a sedan.

On our first morning, we loaded the truck and headed out to one in a cluster of ice shacks. It was the end of February, temperatures were creeping down to -30 ̊C, and we were certainly grateful for a shack with a woodstove. We got settled in, and started fishing in the shack. It wasn’t long before we started catching jumbo perch as long as 12 inches, but crappie were elusive.

Hoping to intercept a school of crappie, I also drilled holes all around the hut. If you can get on a school of crappie, odds are you can stay on them all day. They may move slightly throughout the day, but it may be only 50 or 100 yards. I was convinced that every fish we hooked and lost was a dinner plate-sized crappie.

a trio hold some perch on the ice

Crappie cometh

Having jumbos dialed in helped us forget about the morning cold. Come mid-afternoon, we saw a school of suspended fish move in on the flasher. My wife, Corine, almost instantly hooked one, and I was vibrating with excitement, waiting to see a slab of a crappie poke its head through the hole. When a herring appeared, I was quite surprised, and though not a crappie, it was still exciting.

Even though the crappie wanted to make us work, we caught jumbo perch through the day, and a few more herring. Finally, the stars aligned, and in one of our holes outside the shack a school of fish moved in near bottom. Corine was jigging a panfish jig tipped with a small minnow, and it was inhaled. Her ultra-light crappie rod doubled over, and we were both screaming like excited children when a pan-sized crappie emerged from the hole.

We spent two days on the ice, and although the extreme winter never let up, we stayed on fish, catching more crappie, perch, herring, and sauger.

First ice

Mike Gate says the best crappie fishing comes from first ice, usually well before Christmas, and then from late February to the end of the season. Other opportunities include good walleye within walking distance of the resort and lake trout only an easy snowmobile ride away.

“Nestor Falls has been known as crappie central as long as I can remember,” says Gate.

Crappie populations tend to fluctuate, he said. With the last few seasons being on the downside of a cycle. Gate expects fishing to take an upswing in the next year or two. “You can catch fish throughout these cycles though, and it’s never a bad time to go.”

Nestor Falls certainly has been a name that comes up every time I talk to anglers about crappie. With the accommodations and access available at Sunset Cove Resort, it’s an ideal destination for ice anglers with crappie on their hit list.

Getting there: From Kenora, take Hwy. 17 east to Hwy. 71 and travel 97 kilometres south. The resort is on the west side of Hwy. 71.

Cost: A cabin for four costs $200 per night and includes ice-road access. Ice shacks are $130 per day and come with holes pre- drilled and firewood for the stove.

Accommodation: There are seven cabins, with three winterized for ice anglers, each accommodating two to eight guests with heat, hydro, running water, and luxuries, like satellite TV.

Sunset Cove Resort Mike and Erin Gate Nestor Falls, ON

Originally published in the Jan.-Feb. 2021 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine

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