Downstate Lunker Largemouths

Last year was exceptional for catching big bass in Minnesota. These experts think 2006 will be even better on these lakes. (May 2006)

In 2005, Minnesota's largemouth bass state record was broken by Mark Raveling (left) when he and fishing buddy Jay Carlson decided to fish Lake Auburn just west of the Twin Cities. Photo by Tim Lesmeister.

If the 2006 largemouth bass open-water season even closely resembles 2005, it should be a dandy year. In 2005, the largemouth bass state record was broken by Mark Raveling of Spring Park when he and his fishing buddy, Jay Carlson, decided to spend a day in October casting topwater lures to the edge of the milfoil on Lake Auburn just west of the Twin Cities.

Give credit to the weather if you must, but every bass angler I talked to last year was catching fish. Danny Suggs had a four-day period on Minnetonka where pitching a Texas-rigged tequila sunrise Berkley Power Worm up to the docks was his ticket to non-stop action. Karen Savik, a national tournament professional, was relying less on her big, heavy jigs and finessing loads of bass with a smaller jig/worm combination. Matt Pretzel won a tournament on Lake Waconia with a limit of fish averaging 5 pounds per fish with a deep-water jigging technique that worked all summer for him on the lakes he fished.

Last year could be a hard year to follow, but anglers are hoping that 2006 will provide the necessary conditions to repeat 2005's bass action.

"There were a lot of factors besides weather that made last year great," Suggs said. "I think catch-and-release is keeping more big bass in the system. Milfoil is spreading and it looks like that weed has a positive effect on the bass numbers, the bass sizes and the forage base. And anglers are getting smarter and catching more fish. That's a good thing -- as long as they release them."

"Just competing in a few local tournaments raised my fishing skills to higher levels," said Pretzel, who started fishing state, regional and local events eight years ago. "When you have some money or prizes on the line, you tend to work harder and you learn how to coax fish even on a tough bite."

Savik said her ability to keep an open mind will often be the difference in a good day or a great day on the water.

"Too many fishermen get locked into one approach that works for them and they never vary," she said. "I've seen guys pitching jigs into milfoil in 6 to 8 feet of water when the bass were suspended 10 feet from the weedline and hitting crankbaits. Sometimes a slowly sinking plastic worm is the best option, and other days, a fast-moving crankbait. You just have to give them what they want."

What those bass want is a lake where the spawning conditions are perfect, the forage base is adequate, the cover is plentiful and the anglers put them back when one does decide to take a ride on a line to the boat. What anglers want is stable weather and a body of water where those lunker largemouths are easy to pattern. Here are a few lakes where you could find that combination -- if the weather cooperates.

LAKE WACONIA

This is Pretzel's home lake and he has watched over the years as Waconia has evolved from a back-troller's paradise where anglers chased the large populations of walleyes on the midlake structure to one where deck boats flip the milfoil flats in search of big largemouth bass.

"There's always been bass in Waconia," Pretzel said, "but in the past eight years or so, probably because of the milfoil actually, there have just been a lot of really big ones."

Pretzel's weight of 24 pounds, 15 ounces for a five-largemouth limit was hardly unusual, he said.

"We have a lot of great days on Waconia, and that means catching a couple over 5 pounds, a bunch in the 4-pound range and plenty of 2- to 3-pounders."

Pretzel's go-to presentation on Waconia is the 3/4-ounce live-rubber jig tipped with a scented plastic trailer. He pitches the jig to the edge of the deeper weedlines.

"Not all weedlines are holding bass," Pretzel said. "The best locations are those where the vegetation ends because there's a dropoff. The best dropoffs are the ones that hit the deep water on a hard bottom. Most of my biggest fish are coming out of 14 to 18 feet of water."

Waconia has a public access on the east side with plenty of parking and a ramp that will handle any fishing boat. The bait and tackle shop in Waconia has staff that keep up with where the fish are and what they're biting on. Mase's In Towne Marina can be contacted at (952) 442-2096, or visit the Web site at www.fishandgame.com/intowne.

LAKE FRANCES

"We're always looking for the 'sleeper' lakes, you know, the ones that don't get a lot of bass fishing pressure so there are a lot of big fish there," said Danny Suggs as he described Lake Frances, which sits just to the north of the town of Elysian in Le Sueur County. "There's no shortage of tiny bluegills in this lake, and I think that's what the bass are eating," Suggs said. "That's why I like to set up on the weedline on this lake and cast deep-diving crankbaits in a bluegill pattern."

Sugg's approach has him positioning the boat in 10 feet of water directly over the vegetation and casting toward the deeper water.

"The bass are a foot or two off the bottom at the edge of the heavy vegetation in 12 to 14 feet of water, and when that deep-diver hits that zone, those bass jump right on it."

Suggs has tried his trademark plastic worm presentation, "but all I catch are those big yellow bullheads. They really like those worms."

For more on Lake Frances, call White Water Bait and Tackle at (507) 362-4277.

LAKE O'DOWD

Karen Savik is well versed at all of the techniques that attract big largemouth bass. She has to be to compete on the FLW national tournament series. But when the bass are calling for a jig-and-trailer pitched into the heavy cover, Savik is in her element. That's usually the case on Lake O'Dowd just south of Shakopee in Scott County.

"The lake has marginal water quality, so the milfoil doesn't grow very deep," Savik said. "This concentrates the fish in the milfoil that stretches from the shoreline into about 8 feet of water. Some of the best bass fishing can be where the downed timber on the shoreline meets the thick milfoil."

Often described as "toe-to-toe" bass fishing, you need a stout rod and heavy line. Combine this with a 3/4- to 1-ounce live-rubber jig tipped with a scented plastic trai

ler and you have the perfect combination for big O'Dowd largemouths.

"O'Dowd is not a deep lake," Savik said, "so there's no cover in deep water to concentrate on. Just start working the cover around the islands and all of the visible milfoil. O'Dowd has an impressive population of big bass, and they do like their heavy cover."

The access can be found on the west side off County Road 79, but get there early on weekends if you want a place to park. For more information, call MK Fishing at (952) 447-6096.

LAKE ANN

Just south of Howard Lake in Wright County is a small -- 380 acres -- body of water that gets plenty of back-trollers because of the large numbers of walleyes. Lake Ann doesn't see many bass anglers, and Savik is just fine with that.

"It's the perfect lake for a jig-worm," she said. "The vegetation settles down in about 10 feet of water, and there are a lot of bass in this zone. It's a lake where you can catch some big ones, too."

The jig-worm is simply a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce weedless jighead that is tipped with a scented plastic trailer.

"The jig-worm is so easy to use," Savik said. "You just cast it out to some cover, let it settle to the bottom and then drag, hop and swim the jig back to the boat."

Savik even rigs the worms sideways on the jig at times, where she inserts the hook about halfway down on the body of the worm so the plastic trailer runs perpendicular to the hook shank instead of parallel.

"You don't add any action to this presentation," Savik said. "Just cast it to the vegetation and let it slowly sink. The bass hit it as it drops."

For more regarding Lake Ann, contact the All-Season Sports at (763) 972-3112.

LAKE WASHINGTON

Matt Pretzel has a theory that besides the additional cover that milfoil provides, the reason that milfoil-laden lakes are productive big-bass fisheries is because not too many anglers are good at digging big bass out of this slop. He said Lake Washington just southeast of Litchfield is a good example.

"This lake was a decent bass lake with lots of smaller fish." Pretzel said. "Then along comes milfoil and now we're catching some big fish there. When you're on Washington, you see many boats working the deep edges of the points and inside turns, but no one is working right in the middle of the slop where the big fish are. That's where you need to be."

Pretzel admitted that it takes some practice to be able to manipulate a jig through the thick mats of milfoil, and he said he's still mastering the technique as he learns new twists every time he's on the water. But if you want to be successful on the big Lake Washington largemouths, get good at pitching big jigs.

"At first, you get hung up and a bit frustrated, but it won't take long and you'll get a few good bites, catch some big fish and develop some confidence in the technique," Pretzel said.

Pretzel suggested following the 10-foot breakline on Washington and pitching the jig into 6 to 8 feet. That's a lot of 10-foot bottom contour on this 2,600-acre lake, so even a long day of fishing will not allow you to strain all the cover.

For more information, contact Darwin Outpost at (320) 693-0019.

LAKE DEMONTREVILLE

Bass get lunker-sized in many Minnesota lakes because of the natural conditions that exist there in the form of cover and forage. Others like Demontreville near Lake Elmo in Washington County get some help producing big largemouths because of Department of Natural Resources' restrictions. This lake has been catch-and-release-only for largemouth bass for some time now.

"The word is out on Demontreville," said Suggs, who was fishing this lake long before the special regulations were implemented. "There have always been big bass in this lake, but now a lot more anglers know about it. It gets some pressure now, but since all the fish are released, they're only smarter."

When Suggs said the fish are smarter, he is referring to the conditioning factor that comes into play when bass -- or any species for that matter -- become wary of a presentation they've been caught on once.

"You have to keep working with variations of the popular techniques or try some things that are totally different if you want to catch the big bass in Demontreville," Suggs said. "I'll fish a plastic worm on a Carolina rig or use a drop-shot technique to trigger bites. Topwaters are also a great way to fish Demontreville."

To get more information, contact Blue Ribbon Bait in St. Paul at (651) 777-2421.

LAKE CALHOUN

It wasn't long ago that there were bass tournaments on Lake Calhoun, a 400-acre lake just south of downtown Minneapolis. They were part of the city's Aquatennial celebration and consisted of the top tournament anglers who were invited to compete. It was extremely tough competition, and Savik won one of the last tournaments held there. And she did it with a 4-pound average!

"Calhoun is full of big bass, and because of the motor restrictions, there isn't any fishing pressure at all on the lake," said Savik, who is referring to the electric-motor-only restriction. "On a beautiful weekend in July, there may be only one fishing boat on the lake."

Savik used her expertise flipping the milfoil with a jig-and-trailer to catch her bass.

"There are milfoil-topped points that extend into deep water, and you flip the jig to both sides of the points," she said. "You also want to spend some extra time on those tight inside turns. The weeds grow deep, so you can be in over 15 feet of water and still flipping to milfoil."

For more on Lake Calhoun's restrictions, call Minneapolis Parks at (612) 230-6400, or visit their Web site at www.minneapolisparks.org.

BIG BIRCH LAKE

"Sometimes you just get tired of throwing a jig," said Matt Pretzel as he described the fishing for lunker largemouths on Big Birch Lake just east of Sauk Centre in Todd County. "There are big bulrush beds on flats sitting right next to deep water, and the largemouths are there."

Pretzel said anglers like to work the edge of visible vegetation, but he likes being right in the middle of it.

"It's work, but it's fun," he said. "Just use a lighter spinnerbait with a medium-sized blade and you can get through even the thicker stuff."

When the bass aren't cooperating in the shallower regions, there will be plenty of opportunities in the pondweed, cabbage and coontail.

"I use a spinnerbait there as well," Pretzel said. "I just move up to a heavier lure, and since I like to cove

r water quicker, I use an Indiana-style blade."

For more on Big Birch, call Fletcher's Bait at (320) 352-2155.

SHIELDS LAKE

When Danny Suggs was fishing club tournaments on the lakes in Le Sueur and Rice counties, he heard talk of a lake with a prolific population of bluegills. Of course, he was thinking bass.

"Wherever you have a strong population of small bluegills, you need to check out that lake for big bass," Suggs said. "That's what led me to Shields, and I found some real nice largemouths there."

Shields Lake, just northwest of Faribault, has some bulrushes on the west side, a lot of pondweed, cabbage and coontail, some weed-topped sunken islands in the middle of the lake, and there's very little pressure for bass.

"There might be a few dozen boats on the water with people fishing on a weekend," said Suggs, "and only two are bass boats. The rest are fishing the weedline or deeper water for panfish or walleyes. This allows you to key on that shallower vegetation and hammer on those big largemouths."

Suggs recommends that you start with topwater lures on Shields and then move to spinnerbaits and then to crankbaits as you develop your pattern.

"Shields has always been a great topwater lake," Suggs said. "There's enough slop that you can throw a Skum Frog, and where the weeds sink below the surface, a chugger works great."

For more info on Shields, call Nagel's Live Bait at (507) 334-8341.

* * *

The 2006 bass season is soon to begin, and optimism is running high. Let's hope Mother Nature provides us with another great year for lunker largemouths!

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