WILLMAR — Like shoppers headed across parking lots to the doors of their favorite stores, ice anglers pulling sleds and gear made beelines across the open ice of Foot Lake to their chosen spots last weekend.
Tim Swanson and two friends were among them: In a single morning of fishing each had caught their limit of 10 crappies. Their keepers were in the 10- to 12-inch range.
“It’s an amazing fishery,” Swanson said of Foot Lake. “How it just keeps kicking out fish year after year with that much fishing pressure.”
Swanson is a natural resources technician with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries office in Spicer, which gives him a little bit of an inside scoop on the Foot Lake fishery. But the number of portable ice fishing shelters that popped up on the lake last weekend made it evident that Foot Lake’s ability to kick out crappies is hardly a secret.
It’s been that way for year after year now. Fish house counts in recent winters have continued to show some of the highest numbers on Foot Lake when compared to the 40-plus other lakes managed by the fisheries crew in Spicer.
“It might be the most consistent crappie lake we have in this area,’’ said Dave Coahran, fisheries supervisor for the Spicer office.
Coahran has never attempted to rank them, but when it comes to consistency in producing crappies, he rates Foot and Willmar Lakes in Willmar and Rice Lake near Paynesville as among the best.
Foot Lake, with 544 acres of water, and Willmar Lake, with 636 acres of water, are connected water bodies. Fish migrate freely between them. Coahran said the fisheries crew conducted a gill net survey on the two lakes this past summer, something they do every five years. They found good numbers of crappies in both.
They pulled some of the highest numbers of crappies ever from Willmar Lake in nets placed in the north end near the golf course. “Foot Lake was kind of normal, which is still pretty good,” he said.
The crappies in the nets ranged from 7½ inches to about 12 inches in size, suggesting there are a number of year classes represented
In the summer months the crappies spread out in the lakes. Come winter, many migrate into Foot Lake for its deeper water. Parts of Foot Lake were dredged in the late 1970s into the early 1980s. Foot Lake has a maximum depth of 24 feet as compared to 14 feet in Willmar.
Both lakes offer the habitat and forage to keep putting out crappies, Coahran said.
Water clarity in the nutrient-rich waters of Foot and Willmar Lakes is on the bottom of the scale, but that works to the benefit of crappies. Sunfish like clear waters and abundant, underwater vegetation. In contrast, crappies and walleyes hold the edge when the water clarity is not so good, explained the fisheries supervisor.
There are bluegills in Foot and Willmar Lakes, and their numbers are increasing in recent years, Coahran said. Yet their numbers are still low enough that they represent only limited competition for the crappies.
The same is true for perch in terms of not providing a lot of competition for food in Foot and Willmar Lakes, he said.
Foot Lake and Willmar Lakes provide a diversity of forage for crappies. They have lots of nutrients, and as part of the Hawk Creek system and connection to the Minnesota River, there is a surprising diversity of fish species in these two lakes.
While there are no specific studies to show it, Coahran is confident that Foot and Willmar Lakes have good numbers of shiners and other minnows to provide forage. The lakes also have a larger than usual crop of freshwater drum or sheepshead right now, which might also benefit the crappies and walleyes. Until they grow to a certain size, the young-of-year drum provides forage for predators.
Like the crappies, walleye numbers in Foot and Willmar Lakes are consistently good too. This year’s netting showed an average of 8.3 walleyes per net in Foot Lake, or better than its long-term average of 5.8 fish. Wilmar Lake produced 12 per gillnet, as compared to a long-term average of just over 16.
Anglers target crappie year round, of course, and this spring saw lots of shoreline fishing, Coahran noted. The lake’s proximity to Willmar, and the access provided by 55-acres of city park land, all help make Foot and Willmar Lakes popular fishing destinations.