Evan Erbsen, 7, gets some fishing instructions Sunday from his stepfather, Tony Bilyeu, on Silver Creek Reservoir. In the background, Jessica Erbsen helps Evan's 9-year-old sister, Paige. The Rochester family caught perch, sunfish and crappies. (Photo by Eric Atherton / sports@postbulletin.com)

On Saturday, I was part of a group of seven anglers who drove to Kellogg to fish the Mississippi backwaters. After a long day on the ice, we had caught a total of three small perch.

My route home took me past Silver Creek Reservoir east of Rochester, and the parking lot was crammed with vehicles, with several pickups parked out along the highway.

Clearly, we had made the wrong choice of fishing destinations, so on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday I picked up a scoop of crappie minnows and headed out to the reservoir.

It had been a few years since I'd drilled a hole on Silver Creek. Years ago this reservoir in Haverhill Township was the hottest spot in our region, producing stringers of 12-inch crappies and some truly eye-popping northern pike.

Overharvest took a toll on the crappies (which resulted in the current 10-fish local limit), and a major fish kill a few summers back devastated the northerns. I checked the reservoir a couple times last winter, and seldom did I see more than a handful of vehicles in the lot.

That wasn't the case Sunday. I arrived at 8:30 a.m., and the lot was nearly full. When I crested the dam and could see the lake, I saw shelters scattered all over, which I took to be a good sign.

The guy at the bait shop had told me to look for water that was at least 13 feet deep, so I pulled my sled to a group of a half-dozen shelters about 200 yards from the dam and cranked out a hole. My Vexilar showed 13 ½ feet, with some fish on the bottom, so I tipped a jig with a waxworm just to see what would happen.

Silver Creek was never my go-to spot for sunfish, but that appears to be changing. I had a hard time getting my jig to the bottom, as sunnies would intercept as it descended. Most were what I call “tweeners” – big enough to think about keeping, but not big enough to actually go into the bucket.

If I did get my bait through the sunnies, then bottom-dwelling perch inhaled it. Silver Creek Reservoir's perch tend to run small, but these were bigger than I remembered. Not keepers, by any stretch, but in a year or two they might be.

I'd left my shelter at home on this 40-degree day, which let me keep an eye and ear on what other anglers were doing – and everyone seemed to be catching fish. Families were taking advantage of the beautiful weather, and from several shelters nearby I heard the excited chatter of kids as they pulled sunfish and perch through the ice.

It soon became clear, however, that waxworms wouldn't put any crappies on the ice, so I switched to jigging with minnows – and the hot bite instantly seemed to cool. When my jig was just five or six feet below the ice, fish would materialize on my flasher, but they wouldn't hit. I assumed those suspended fish were crappies, but I didn't know for sure.

After 10 or 15 fishless minutes, my line seemed to go slack as the minnow descended. I set the hook and reeled in an 8-inch crappie.

I released it, put on a fresh minnow and suspended it just four feet below the ice. Within seconds, a blip appeared at eight feet, then rose straight up toward my jig. My rod tip quivered a bit as the panicked minnow tried to escape, and then the line went slack again.

I set the hook, and this time was rewarded with a 9 ½ inch crappie.

I'm not a huge fan of bobber fishing on the ice, but I could have used a tiny stick float on Sunday. The crappies were coming up and gently inhaling my minnows, and if I didn't watch my line very carefully, the fish had plenty of time to sense the hook and spit the bait. Of the dozen crappies I caught, not one gave the slightest downward tug on the rod tip.

It was challenging fishing, but boy, it was fun. There's no fish I enjoy catching more than crappies, and while these weren't big by any measure, they were beautiful, especially on a sunny day that brought out the hints of blue and green in their skin. I kept my limit of five, all of them right around nine inches, and couldn't have been happier.

I briefly switched back to waxworms to put a couple 7 ½ inch sunfish in my bucket, then took a stroll. Everyone I spoke with had fish. I saw sunfish, some nice crappies and even a few keeper-sized perch. Some guys using tip-ups had a pair of 30-inch northerns.

I also noted that people were very stationary. Anglers came out, drilled holes, set up their shelters and stayed put. Clearly, fish were biting all over the lake, and no one seemed to mind the long walk from the parking lot.

This is a success story that's worth celebrating. Silver Creek Reservoir once was closed to the public, and now it's become one of the best fishing spots in southeast Minnesota. I'm convinced that the 10-fish daily limit has helped the reservoir bounce back nicely, and the lack of boat access has helped keep fishing pressure at a reasonable level.

I would, however, like to see a bigger parking lot. I drive a short-bed Toyota Tacoma, and I still had a hard time getting out of there on Sunday. I can't imagine what that lot will be like on a 70-degree day in early May when the crappies are spawning.

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