By Glen Schmitt
Panfish always have been part of the mix on Big Stone Lake, but its walleyes have historically been the main angling attraction for this 26-mile-long fishery on the Minnesota/South Dakota border.
During the past decade or so, the focus for many anglers, especially during the ice-fishing season, has become Big Stone’s perch. In recent years, its bluegill and crappie numbers, along with the impressive size of these fish, are turning heads as well.
At this point, the cat is out of the bag as far as Big Stone being a destination lake for perch anglers. But even as the ice-fishing masses have gravitated to it and fishing pressure increases, Big Stone continues to produce great numbers of perch.
As for its bluegills and crappies, they’re still a relatively new consideration, somewhat of a recent storyline, that’s likely going to make headlines in years ahead.
Record perch numbers
On the perch front, there seems to once again be plenty of opportunity heading into this ice-fishing season. DNR gill-netting work this past fall yielded 284 perch per lift, up from 258 in 2019, and an all-time high number of fish.
A wide range of perch sizes were sampled this fall, with fish in the 9- to 10-inch class well represented. There also are plenty of shorter fish coming up, as well as some over 10 inches in length.
The reality regarding Big Stone is that you’re not going to catch limits of 11- and 12-inch jumbos, but you’ll catch a lot of perch and certainly plenty of keeping-size fish.
“We had the highest catch rate we’ve ever had for perch on Big Stone this fall. It keeps producing a lot of fish,” said Chris Domeier, DNR Fisheries supervisor in Ortonville. “Those 91⁄2-inch fish set the bar for harvest, but you’ll catch some 10-inchers and a few 11-inch perch. A normal, keeping-size perch on Big Stone runs between 9 and 10 inches.”
Artie Arndt, owner of Artie’s Bait and Tackle in Ortonville, rents a fleet of fish houses on the lake, and he and his guides seem to have this Big Stone perch bite dialed in.
Arndt agrees that Big Stone is known more for its ability to kick out numbers of eating-size perch rather than trophy-caliber jumbos, but that’s what draws a lot of winter anglers to the lake.
He says the perch bite this past fall was excellent, consistently good for eaters, and he expects that to continue into this ice-fishing season.
“I’m surprised on how consistent the perch bite has stayed, and the lake is really a home run for taking a family fishing,” Arndt said. “I tell people you’ll have 50- to 100-fish days. You’ll have those throwbacks, but you’ll catch a limit of perch to keep.”
It’s fair to say that Big Stone won’t show up on most lists of noted bluegill lakes – at least not at this point. But that might change down the road if its bluegill population continues to trend in the direction it’s heading.
Bluegills always have been present in Big Stone, but numbers definitely are higher now than they’ve ever been. So, too, is the number of large bluegills that swim in the lake.
While there’s a wide range of sizes, the lake is developing a reputation for giving up bluegills over 9 inches in length. These fish grow fast, and Domeier says Big Stone is quickly becoming a destination bluegill lake.
“We’ve seen a substantial explosion in bluegill numbers and some really nice fish in the mix,” he said. “It’s not real hard to catch one that’s 9 to 10 inches. Big Stone is a world-class bluegill fishery right now.”
While bluegill numbers continue to climb and the size of some of them is impressive, this is not your “shooting-fish-in-a-barrel” catching scenario, especially during the ice-fishing season.
These bluegills tend not to be isolated in specific areas on Big Stone during the winter months. They generally roam the basin and are often mixed in with the lake’s perch.
“We don’t have those spots like a lot of lakes that hold a bunch of 9- to 11-inch bluegills during the winter,” Arndt said. “They’re more of a bonus to the perch bite. You’ll catch a limit of perch and have three or four bluegills mixed in.”
One of the keys to maintaining and building the number of bluegills in the lake is releasing bigger fish. Both Domeier and Arndt are serious about promoting catch and release of larger bluegills.
Crappies less abundant
Big Stone’s crappie population isn’t nearly as great as those of perch and bluegills. As they do in many lakes, crappies go through cycles – population swings – that dictate overall abundance.
According to Arndt, they’re also hard to locate during the ice-fishing season and tend to be mixed with pods of perch.
“Crappies are hard to dial in and target during the winter,” he said. “We find isolated schools, but we struggle to get on them.”
But, some is better than none, which was the case not that long ago. Catching a crappie on Big Stone wasn’t a likely option in years past.
According to Domeier, the lake currently has three recognizable year-classes of crappies. On the upper end of the tape, fish will run 10 to 11 inches in length with a few bigger slabs mixed in.
“Twenty years ago, I would have laughed if people told me they caught crappies on Big Stone,” Domeier said. “It’s getting to be more common now.”
So what’s changed?
Domeier says there was no magic management tool that has helped improve Big Stone’s panfish populations.
With the exception of some reduction in bag limits – perch to 15 and bluegills to 10 fish daily – the DNR hasn’t done anything to the lake in recent years that has affected its panfish numbers.
Mother Nature has played a larger role in management, with significant changes to Big Stone’s ecosystem. The lake has much more vegetation now than before, and that’s created the panfish boom.
The north and south ends of the lake are now highly vegetated, providing ideal cover and rearing habitat for the lake’s small perch, bluegills, and crappies. This, more than any other factor, has allowed Big Stone’s panfish to grow in size and numbers.
“We haven’t changed anything we’re doing; it’s all about the habitat,” Domeier said. “Purely a habitat change and that cover to protect those little fish. Unless there’s a major change in habitat, they should sustain themselves.”
Fishing pressure’s effect
So why hasn’t the increased fishing pressure during the ice-fishing season had more of a negative effect on Big Stone’s panfish? There’s no question there are more people on the lake now and keeping more fish than ever before.
As far as the lake’s perch, they have a natural life cycle of about five years on Big Stone. Sampling by the DNR rarely yields a yellow perch that lives beyond that age.
While fishing pressure is likely affecting the overall abundance of larger perch, they tend to get cropped off as they approach 10 inches, and Domeier says fishing pressure has little effect on the overall perch population.
“We might find a few 6- and 7-year-old perch, but most of those bigger fish are five years of age and they have an early mortality rate,” he said. “We don’t have an answer for that; it’s just a natural thing.”
“We’re still seeing plenty of recruitment,” Domeier added. “It’s not fishing pressure and there really is no reason not to keep some of those perch.”
It’s also worth pointing out that a large portion of the lake barely sees any fishing activity during the winter months.
Even though the lake is 26 miles long, Arndt says much of the lake remains untapped. There likely are pods of panfish that never get touched during the ice-fishing season.
“Most of the pressure is only in about an eight-mile stretch,” he said. “Two-thirds of the lake hardly gets fished in the winter.”