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The quest for crappies is a favorite springtime pursuit, even if the fishing is better than the catching

Filled with anticipation, we cast out small jigs tipped with plastic tails below bobbers along a weedy shoreline – perfect spring crappie cover – and waited for them to sink.

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Craig Hanson of Grand Forks steers his boat away from the ramp at Lake Sarah near Erskine, Minnesota, on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. Everything worked great during the boat's inaugural voyage of the season.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

ERSKINE, Minn. – The seeds for this little adventure had been planted a couple of days earlier in a late-night text message.

“Whatcha doing Tuesday?” it read. “It’s going to be 70 degrees and windless. I would take you to my serious early crappie spot in my boat if you are game. Easy peasy if you want to go.”

With weather like that in the forecast after a winter that seemed as if it would never end, the invitation was too good to resist.

As fishing fun goes, spring crappies are pretty tough to beat.

There was reason for optimism. Craig Hanson of Grand Forks has plied the waters of Lake Sarah for years, most recently in April 2021, when he and a son-in-law hit the kind of spring crappie bonanza of which fishing memories are made.


For a confirmed crappie fanatic, it doesn’t get much better.

“We were just ecstatic,” Hanson said.

Two seasons of lamprey control were limited by the pandemic shutdown and precautions for fisheries crews.

The parking lot was empty when Hanson pulled into the boat ramp Tuesday afternoon, May 9. That would likely change for Saturday’s Minnesota Fishing Opener, the unofficial beginning of summer across the state, but for now, we had the lake to ourselves.

Hanson, 71, retired from Farm Credit Services in November 2019 after 30 years with the ag lender and now works part-time bringing farmland buyers and sellers together for AcrePro of Grand Forks. He had filled his spring Minnesota turkey tag a few days earlier, and it was time to shift gears and get serious about fishing.

“No one’s here – we like that,” he said. “Look, they’ve got the dock in, too.”

Maiden voyage

There’s always uncertainty when launching a boat for the first time of year, but Hanson’s 50-horse Mercury four-stroke started at the turn of the key, and everything worked as it should.

The water temperature was 52.5 degrees when he steered his year-old Lund 1650 into a shallow bay just minutes from the ramp on its maiden voyage of the season.

Now, if the crappies would only cooperate. Hanson hadn’t heard any reports, but the crappies had bit in previous springs, and he had the photos to prove it.


There was only one way to find out.

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Craig Hanson of Grand Forks watches his bobber for signs of a bite Tuesday, May 9, 2023, on Lake Sarah near Erskine, Minnesota.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

Filled with anticipation, we cast out small jigs tipped with plastic tails below bobbers along a weedy shoreline – perfect spring crappie cover – and waited for them to sink. In his excitement to start fishing, Hanson had forgotten the minnows back at the truck, but they would keep until our next stop.

Now, if history would only repeat itself.

“I’ve been in here at times when it didn’t matter which way you threw it and a crappie would hit,” Hanson said. “You can just sit there and catch them in every direction.”

Popular getaway

At 366 acres and lined with cabins, Lake Sarah is much smaller than 887-acre Union Lake located just across the road and 1,641-acre Maple Lake a few miles to the west. Still, it’s a popular getaway about an hour’s drive from Grand Forks.

“This productive lake possesses a heavily developed shoreline and occasionally experiences large water level fluctuations,” the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said in its lake survey report on Lake Sarah.

Walleyes, northern pike, bluegills and crappies are the most abundant gamefish species in Lake Sarah, DNR surveys show. The DNR implemented a special regulation of 10 sunfish per day in 2022.

Based on a survey the DNR conducted in July 2021, walleye abundance in Lake Sarah was “slightly higher than average” but down from record highs observed during the previous survey in 2016. The average walleye was 17.2 inches long, the DNR said, with fish from 9.5 to 29.2 inches long measured in the 2021 survey.


Northern pike were the most abundant species sampled in the DNR survey, ranging in size from 14.1 to 36.7 inches long with an average size of 19.4 inches.

As for crappies – our target species for the day – the survey produced crappies in “average abundance,” the DNR said, ranging from 8.5 to 12.5 inches in length with an average size of 10.4 inches.

A few 10.4-inch crappies, perhaps sweetened with the occasional “slab,” would be fine by us.

Hitting the spots

The crappies weren’t cooperating at his first stop of the afternoon, so after retrieving the forgotten minnows from the truck, Hanson worked his way around the lake, hitting crappie spots that had produced in the past and others he’d never fished.

Aside from a scrappy northern pike, a couple of tentative bites and a heavier fish that shook Hanson’s jig before he could see it, the fishing was better than the catching – as the old saying goes.

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Craig Hanson plays a fish Tuesday, May 9, 2023, near the end of an afternoon of crappie fishing on Lake Sarah near Erskine, Minnesota. The fish spit the jig before Hanson could see or land it.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

Perhaps, we theorized, the water hadn’t warmed up enough for the crappies to move shallow. Whatever the reason, there would be no repeat of that magical day Hanson experienced with his son-in-law in April 2021.

That’s fishing.

“It was like I was hoping it would be today – bobber down,” Hanson said, recalling that memorable day on the water. “I had high hopes because we had succeeded in those high hopes before at this time of year.”


Still, it’s hard to be disappointed about spending a beautiful spring afternoon on the water of a lake you have to yourself. The conversation was good, the boat ran great, the joyous sounds of chorus frogs and the raucous honks of Canada geese filled the air and the sky was alive with all manner of ducks and other waterfowl.

The sighting of a pair of loons – the first of the season – confirmed that spring had officially arrived in this part of northwest Minnesota.

So did the first mosquito, which was sluggish and easier to swat than it should have been, despite the shirtsleeve weather.

As for the fishing, it’s never good to set the bar too high on the first boat fishing trip of the season, and on that count we definitely succeeded.

There’ll be better days to come.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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