Our Super Smallmouth Waters
September 30, 2010
From the northwoods to the farm country to the urban areas, Minnesota has a wealth of smallmouth bass honeyholes that everyone can enjoy.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
It's always a tough choice. Every year we have to come up with a list of great places to fish smallmouths in Minnesota, and it's hard to settle on just 10 waters. That's because even though we have only a few hundred smallmouth lakes and rivers, many of these are absolutely first-class. Pristine northwoods lakes, fertile farm-country waters and urban honeyholes -- our state's diverse bronzeback hotspots offer excellent numbers and sizes of fish, often in scenic settings.
Whatever type of smallmouth bass fishing you prefer, one of these places is sure to fulfill your desires.
Burntside Lake near Ely in northeast Minnesota seldom gets mentioned as a bronzeback hotspot, although numerous nearby lakes are well-known smallmouth destinations. Maybe it's because Burntside's excellent lake trout angling overshadows its smallmouth fishing.
Whatever the reason, the smallies don't get much attention, and this sprawling 7,100-acre lake has plenty of them. A recent Department of Natural Resources netting assessment showed good numbers of smallmouths and also an improving fish size, now nearly a 14-inch average. This is a full 2 inches larger than the average size in past surveys.
Anglers also catch a lot of smallmouths from Burntside. A creel survey a few years ago found that smallies make up a significant percentage of the lake's catch, including plenty of outstanding 16- to 18-inchers. Increasing fish sizes may have two causes: more catch-and-release and more smelt. Releasing rather than killing smallmouths is obviously beneficial, and Burntside's abundant smelt may enhance growth rates by giving the smallies a high-protein food source.
Though much of Burntside is deep -- over 40 feet -- it also has over 50 islands, three dozen small bays and 75 miles of shoreline, offering plenty of smallmouth habitat. Target rock/rubble shorelines and offshore humps where depths are less than 25 feet. The north side of the lake has the most undeveloped shorelines, plus some smallmouth-friendly bays. There are six boat ramps spread around the lake.
Contact the DNR Tower office (218-753-2580) for more info, and the Ely Chamber of Commerce
(www.ely.org) for amenities.
Here's another little-known northwoods smallmouth destination I love.
The beautiful Cloquet River tumbles quietly and largely unnoticed through the forests of St. Louis County north of Duluth. It's only large enough for canoes and other small boats, but those willing to put in the extra effort to fish this stream will find plenty of smallies. Nearly 30 miles of the lower river from the Island Lake Dam down to the St. Louis River are rocky and fishy. The Cloquet's low alkalinity keeps most smallmouths under 15 inches, but bonus catches of pike, walleyes and channel catfish should make up for the smallies' lack of size.
Wade-fishing is possible around Highway 53 and Highway 7, but be sure to wear felt-soled boots because the river's smooth, black boulders are very slippery. Floating by canoe is the best way to reach the Cloquet's more remote sections. The 10 miles of river from Highway 53 to the St Louis River is one good stretch. Upstream, a nice eight-mile trip is from County Road 48 to County Road 15.
In northern rivers like the Cloquet, many smallmouths and other species concentrate in head-of-pool areas just downstream of rapids and riffles where food sources are the highest. Both spin-fishers and fly-rodders can really score at these hotspots by using jigs or flies in black or chartreuse.
The Cloquet is one of the 100 top smallmouth destinations described in the new book, Smallmouth Fly-Fishing, which is available from
Turtle Lake is a north-central Minnesota beauty. Clear, clean and forest-fringed, 2,000-acre Turtle is in Itasca County just north of Marcel.
Turtle has long had a local reputation for producing hefty smallmouths, and both recent DNR surveys and angler reports show that fine smallies still swim in the lake. Nearly 30 percent of the bass surveyed were over 15 inches, and anglers occasionally catch lunkers over 19 inches.
During the summer, shoreline fishing can be productive during mornings and evenings, and overcast days. Targeting shorelines that are 4 to 6 feet deep and have boulders or thick bulrush stands is a good way to find shallow-water fish. Working medium-running crayfish-colored crankbaits along these types of shorelines is a productive tactic. When it's bright and sunny, the smallmouths in Turtle often drop into 20- to 30-foot depths. DNR surveys confirm the fish's propensity to use deep water. Midsummer nets set at 30 feet deep have produced good numbers of smallmouths. A good way to catch these deep-water smallies is to locate humps and rockbars in the east section of the lake with your depthfinder. Then work these targets with tube jigs, especially ones in camo and pumpkinseed. The narrow section of Turtle Lake that runs north and south is deeper than the eastern portion, but still holds plenty of bronzebacks. In this section of the lake, target rocky points and deep humps.
For more information on area lakes and facilities, contact the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce
(www.grandmn.com) or Frontier Bait (218-832-3901) in Marcel.
Alexander is one of the most popular lakes in Morrison County because of its pleasing scenery and diverse fishery. The lake's healthy populations of walleyes, muskies, pike and panfish cause many folks to overlook the smallies. This is great for you and I, since Alexander has an abundance of smallmouths.
Due to several unusually good spawning years, right now 2,800-acre Lake Alexander holds above-average numbers of hard-charging 14- and 15-inchers, plus some much bigger bronzebacks. Like many clear lakes, Alexander fishes best on overcast days. However, my friend Bob Thompson does reasonably well on the lake even during sunny conditions. He scores by carefully working offshore humps down to 30 feet using jigs on 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line. The Haystack Island area on the south side of the lake has a lot of rocky humps and plenty of smallies. Nearby weedbeds can hold some impressive muskies, plus quality-sized largemouths. The west end of the lake is another structure-rich area where smallmouths are common.
d boat ramps provide easy access. The DNR Little Falls office (320-616-2450) monitors Alex.
Several years ago the excitement over Mille Lacs' gargantuan smallies was at a fever pitch. Many headed to the big lake expecting to quickly hook lunkers. Of course, this didn't always happen, since big smallmouths aren't pushovers anywhere. However, over the past decade, Mille Lacs has proven itself to be one of the very best "big bronze" destinations in the entire region. Those who take the time to learn the big lake can regularly catch fish over 4 pounds. And with a 21-inch minimum size regulation in place, Mille Lacs is likely to remain the place to go for eye-popping smallmouths.
The easiest way to connect with Mille Lacs smallies is to focus on the south end of the lake. The south shore -- with its multitude of rocky islands, humps and rockpiles -- supports the most fish. And sometimes they're on top of rockpiles only a few feet deep. Twin Bay, Isle Harbor, Wahkon Bay and Cove Bay all have rocky areas where smallmouths can be found. But these south-end smallies have seen a lot of lures the past few years and often require finessing with smaller baits, lighter lines, slower retrieves and quieter approaches.
Another way to catch Mille Lacs smallies is to leave the popular southern zone. Smallmouth numbers may not be as high along the west and north shorelines, but fishing pressure will be less and the bass are just as big. Carefully target the small amount of rock along those shorelines and also any submergent weed patches. Spinnerbaits are the ticket for weedy conditions, and crankbaits are the choice for covering open water. Tube jigs can't be beat for finicky fish.
Contact the Mille Lacs Tourism Department for the scoop on guides, resorts and other services at 1-888-350-2692 or
One of Minnesota's nicer streams, the Kettle combines beauty, quietness and accessibility with fine smallmouthing.
Flowing 50 miles through Pine County, this St. Croix River tributary offers a variety of fishing experiences. The 10 miles of water above the town of Willow River is fine for the on-foot angler and also canoeable during the higher flows of early summer. The next 11 miles of river from Willow River down to Highway 23 is easy to float all season long. Heavily forested banks with rugged outcroppings make appealing scenery, and long, rocky pools will stimulate your fishing instincts. However, don't bother working the entire pool. Most smallies take in-line spinners or a fly-fisher's bright-colored streamer at the head of each pool.
Between Highway 23 and Sandstone, a series of rapids cause many anglers to steer clear of this short stretch of river. The last 10 miles of the Kettle River inside St. Croix State Park is more fishing-friendly. The lower river's dozens of riffles and mini-rapids aren't dangerous, and a lot of bronzebacks relate to them.
The DNR (1-800-657-3929) offers a free Kettle River Canoe Guide map that marks river miles, accesses and nearby roadways.
Everybody knows Minnetonka is a wonderful largemouth bass lake, but not so many people realize that its smallmouth fishery isn't bad either. Sure, 'Tonka's smallies are far fewer than its tremendous bucketmouth population, but savvy anglers can still connect with some fine bronzebacks. And because there are only a couple of smallmouth lakes in the metro, 14,000-acre Minnetonka is one of the few next-door spots that Twin Cities smallmouthers have to fish. While catch rates aren't high, 17- and 18-inchers are common, and even a 5-pounder is possible.
In recent years, smallmouths seem to be expanding in Minnetonka and occasionally turn just up about anywhere. However, the eastern third of the lake is still the most productive. Focus on Wayzata, Browns and Robinsons bays as well as Big Island. Classic rock reefs and points are always worth trying, though submerged weedbeds around hard bottoms are often better. Even that largemouth favorite -- the boat dock -- is good if it's over gravel or rock.
Crawfish-colored crankbaits are good if vegetation isn't too heavy, but spinnerbaits also have their place, and 4-inch finesse worms are hard to beat for finicky feeders. Be willing to go down to 20 feet during midday, but to get the best bite, try weekday mornings when boat traffic is least.
Stop by Wayzata Bait at 15748 Wayzata Boulevard for the latest scoop on Minnetonka bronzebacks.
Green Lake is an oddity. It's large at 5,400 acres, it's only 90 miles west of Minneapolis and it has a superb smallmouth fishery, yet few smallmouth fans are aware of Green's fantastic fishing. And strangely, many local anglers despise the native smallies and view them as a threat to their beloved walleyes.
In fact, these anti-smallmouth folks have been working to repeal the 14- to 21-inch protected slot currently in place, so the smallies can be fished down to what they were in the 1980s. If you enjoy battling big smallies, be sure to get out to this Kandiyohi County lake this season while the fishery is still robust. Naturally, most fish will be under 15 inches, but stout-bodied smallies over 20 inches are also possible, and a few of these lunkers break the 5-pound mark.
You'll find the smallies on the multitude of midlake reefs and humps that are scattered across Green Lake. Rock and gravel humps from 10 to 15 feet deep hold fish all summer long. In the fall, smallmouths move into the 20- to 30-foot zone. Crankbaits that run deep enough to bang bottom are good when fish are active, while vertical jigging with a grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead is effective for more sluggish fish. Patches of aquatic vegetation can also be found in Green Lake and often hold quality-sized pike, including some over 30 inches.
The six boat ramps around the lake allow easy access. The Fergus Falls DNR has more information on Green Lake, and Mel's Sport Shop (320-796-2421) in Spicer is a good source for info.
SOUTH TEN MILE LAKE
A western Minnesota lake along the Otter Tail and Grant County border, Ten Mile is another little-known smallmouth jewel.
This is a 1,400-acre body of water that has had a 21-inch minimum-size regulation on its smallies for four years. Bronzebacks seem to be prospering with the protection. Before the new regulations were implemented, South Ten Mile had good reproduction, but few fish survived to larger sizes. Now, DNR assessments have found that nearly half the smallmouths are over 15 inches, an excellent average size. The lake also has a few largemouths, but big rock bass and nice-sized pike are more numerous. Rock bass pushing 10 inches are common, and pike from 25 to 32 inches are also abundant. If that's not enough species diversity to keep you occupied, the lake's walleye population is also quite high.
The smallmouths can be found in the hard-bottomed areas of the lake, especially in the 8- to 15-foot depths. South Ten Mile also has large stands of bulrushes on the south and west sides of the lake, and during early
morning, some fish relate to these shallow, weedy areas. If the surface is flat, early-morning topwatering can be exciting and productive.
There's a boat landing at the south end of the lake. Contact the Fergus Falls DNR at (218) 739-7576 for more information.
The Root is a beautiful, limestone-laden stream in southeast Minnesota's scenic bluff country. It offers good smallmouthing for 55 miles from Chatfield down to Rushford.
The Root is floatable by canoe, but during late-summer and early-fall dry spells you'll have to drag over some shallow riffles. Too much water is a more common challenge. Heavy rains on the stream's agricultural watershed cause it to run turbid. Periods of low rainfall offer the best fishing.
Fishing the Root for years, I've long regarded it as a great "numbers" destination. When conditions are good, a lot of 10- to 14-inch smallies are likely. However, 18-inch-plus dandies are also possible, especially in the lower reaches downstream of Lanesboro in Fillmore County. Early-season fishing -- late May and June -- is good if water visibility is at least 18 inches. July and August is more consistent, and 1/16-ounce jigs and bottom-bouncing flies are hard to beat during the summer.
Angling pressure is only light on the Root, and weekend recreational canoe use is seldom more than moderate. A dozen bridges span the stream offering access.
To find your way around any state waterway, get a detailed map like the Minnesota Atlas and Gazetteer by DeLorme Mapping (207-865-4171). A state canoe guide is helpful and available through the DNR Rochester office at (507) 285-7176.
Learning to read the water and figuring out the best techniques can be confusing for the beginning stream angler. Taking a stream smallmouth school from the Minnesota-based Smallmouth Angler Fishing Service (www.smallmouthangler.com) is the best way to quickly learn the tricks of river smallmouthing. Anglers practicing catch-and-release have significantly improved Minnesota's smallmouth fisheries. But the good times will only last if we continue to let 'em go and let 'em grow. That fine fish you release this year may be the lunker you catch next year!
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Minnesota DNR Information (lake reports),
www.dnr.state.mn.us or (651) 296-6157; U.S. Geological Survey (river levels),
www.usgs.gov/state; Smallmouth Angler Fishing Service (smallmouth guiding, schools, information),