Minnesota's Supercharged Smallmouths

Every year, more anglers switch to battling bronze-backed bass rather than getting their slip-bobbers jerked around by our state fish. Why don't you give smallmouthing a try this season? (May 2006)

Even though Wabana Lake is very clear, nice smallies can be caught on fly tackle in the mornings and evenings. Photo by Tim Holschlag.

Smallmouths!

For an increasing number of us, that single word conjures up exciting images of heart-stopping strikes, spectacular jumps and supercharged runs. Best of all, these visions can easily become reality in many places across Minnesota. All over our state from huge lakes to small streams, big and brawny smallmouth bass are ready to do battle.

Here are 10 great smallie hotspots for you to try this season.

RAINY LAKE

It's hard to talk about great smallmouth bass destinations without including one of Minnesota's biggest bronzeback waters. Rainy Lake is a staggering 220,000 acres, and much of it is good smallmouth habitat. And even if you just consider Minnesota's 54,000 acres of this mega-lake, you have a lifetime of water to explore, with hundreds of miles of shoreline and countless islands.

Similar to many lakes this far north, smallmouth reproduction in Rainy isn't consistent year to year, but some of the very large fish that successfully spawned many years ago are still available. These 4-pound-plus lunkers are numerous enough that a competent angler has a good chance of hooking genuine trophies.

One way to up your odds with these heavyweights is to use brighter, more obtrusive lures for Rainy's stained waters. Plugs in fire-tiger finishes are good, and suspending thin-minnow crankbaits in that color are especially effective. And when the surface is flat and water is less then 10 feet deep, topwaters that pop or chug can produce heart-stopping strikes.

Boat landings on the west end near International Falls allow easy access to as far as Soldier Point. To fish the east end of Rainy, accessing via Kabetogama and Namakan lakes is better.

For information on Rainy Lake lodging, guide services and houseboats, contact the International Falls Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-325-5766, or visit www.rainy-lake.org. Voyageurs National Park maintains many primitive campsites on Rainy. For a map of the park that marks campsites, call the U.S. Park Service at (218) 283-9821.

WABANA LAKE

Itasca County is home to a bunch of fine smallmouth waters, one of which is 2,200-acre Wabana Lake north of Coleraine. In fact, local Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor Chris Kavanaugh rates it as an excellent smallmouth fishery. He said there are numerous hard-bottom substrates, thus allowing the species to populate many areas of Wabana. DNR surveys back this up, finding good numbers of fish, plus a good size structure.

But since north-central Minnesota has so many die-hard walleye fans, the lake's abundant smallies get little attention from local anglers. You can find these unmolested bronze brawlers off Wabana's numerous rocky points and on the edges of its steep dropoffs. The water is quite clear, so using smaller jigs and small finesse plastic worms is a good way to fool fish during midday. The topwater bite can also be good early in the mornings, with small propeller surface lures being hard to beat.

Wabana Lake has beautiful wooded shorelines, since much of the lake is within Chippewa National Forest, and several campsites are available to boaters. Side trips to another interesting lake are possible, too. Those with small boats can access 360-acre Bluewater Lake via a short channel. Bluewater is quite deep, so its smallmouth numbers are limited, but its lake trout population is good.

For more area information, go to the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce's Web site at www.grandmn.com.

ZUMBRO RIVER

Limestone-rich southeast Minnesota is home to numerous smallmouth streams. A notable one is the Zumbro River in Wabasha County.

A beautiful stream from Zumbro Lake dam down to Millville, the Zum offers 25 miles of bronzebacks and canoeable water. The first 12 miles from Zumbro Lake to the town of Zumbro Falls has catch-and-release regulations and holds some fine smallies. This section also has a surprising number of muskies, offering the angler an exciting bonus catch -- or busted fishing gear.

Downstream of Zumbro Falls, the stream has more sand, but there are also many rocky outside bends where nice-sized smallmouths lurk. These areas where the current scours out the sand are obvious when the river is at normal levels, and this is where you should direct your casts.

A variety of spinning lures as well as flies work for Zumbro smallies. Lightweight 1/16-ounce jigs are consistent, and 3- to 4-inch thin-minnow crankbaits are nearly as good. Canoes for float trips can be rented at Zumbro Falls. Wade-fishing off County Road 11, which parallels the lower Zumbro, is also an effective way to fish.


Along with smallies, the lower 12 miles of this stream from Cannon Falls to Welsh offers many other species. Saugers, walleyes, white bass, channel catfish and drum are all available. Canoe-fishing is the most popular method here, and limestone bluffs of nearly 50 feet make floats through this section truly spectacular.
 

Of course, to really learn the ins and outs of stream smallmouthing, expert instruction is invaluable. The pros at Smallmouth Angler Fishing Service have been offering excellent smallmouth schools for 15 years. Visit www.smallmouthangler.com for more information.

CLEARWATER LAKE

This honeyhole has some of the best smallmouth numbers in central Minnesota.

A few miles northwest of Mille Lacs in Crow Wing County, Clearwater Lake is nearly 900 acres of fine smallmouth habitat. Though it has a decent landing at its north end, Clearwater doesn't get heavy pressure, which gives you room to roam and allows the smallies to grow large. In fact, a DNR survey found that 86 percent of the smallmouths are currently over 12 inches. Many of these are fat 15- and 16-inchers and can be found throughout the lake.

Thomas Smith, a longtime Clearwater fan, said that because the lake is indeed clear, it's wise to stay out at the 10-foot depth along the shoreline after the fish finish spawning in June. Smith also said some of the most

consistent summer locations are the half-dozen shallow humps scattered through the lake. These humps come within 6 to 12 feet of the surface and are composed of the substrates smallies love -- rubble and gravel. Steep, rocky dropoffs on the west side are also fishy spots. Working deep-diving crankbaits along the edges of humps and dropoffs is a good summer technique.

If the bronzeback action slows on Clearwater, a good alternative is to try for largemouth bass in the weedy south end of the lake.

For area services, check with the Brainerd Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-450-2838. For more lake information, try the local DNR fisheries office at (218) 828-2550).

BLACKDUCK LAKE

Tucked away in the woods a few miles east of Highway 53 in St Louis County is a lake that doesn't get much media coverage. Though it's overshadowed by nearby big-name waters like Vermilion, Kabetogama and Rainy, 1,200-acre Blackduck offers good smallmouthing. Yet despite its high numbers of smallies, most anglers still target Blackduck's walleyes or bluegills rather than its bass. So those of us who know a good thing when we hook it can have some fine fishing!

Because Blackduck is relatively shallow compared with many other northern lakes, much of it is suitable for smallies. This is especially true of the eastern half of the lake, which is less than 20 feet deep. Its four islands also have good potential, and so do all the shorelines that have fist- to head-sized rocks, which are considered rubble. In fact, the DNR fisheries office in International Falls said all this favorable habitat means smallies are "extremely abundant," and some of them reach 20 inches.

With a secchi disk reading of 10 feet, Blackduck clarity is about average. This means the morning and evening bite is generally better than midday fishing, but crankbaiting and jig-fishing at noon will still produce plenty of fish.

There's a good boat landing on the north side that usually isn't crowded. But the lake sees increased usage whenever nearby Kabetogama is too windy to fish, causing some of its walleye seekers to head to Blackduck.

For info on local services, go to www.orrminnesota.com.

THUNDER LAKE

Here's a lake that can add a real spark to your smallmouth fishing.

Thunder is one of the bodies of water in Minnesota where smallies seem to have significantly increased over the past 15 years. While smallmouths were occasional catches in the past, nowadays a savvy angler can consistently hook bronzebacks from this 1,300-acre Cass County lake. Recent DNR nettings back up this claim. The survey found that smallmouths were 50 percent more abundant in Thunder than in similar lakes. Even better, many of these smallmouths are in the 15- to 18-inch range.

However, Thunder Lake smallies aren't always pushovers. Water clarity is very high and the lake is along Highway 6, with 250 homes on it. With the high clarity and the fish seeing plenty of hooks every season, they can be wary during midday. Of course, the easiest way to counter extra-clear water is to fish during low-light periods, like mornings, evenings and rainy days. Then dandy fish can be caught in less than 8 feet of water by targeting the shorelines that contain boulders or bulrushes. During bright-light periods, it's best to move out to 12- to 20-foot depths. Then working jigs close to the bottom is the ticket to success.

For more info, call the Remer Junction Bait Shop at (218) 566-2390.

OTTER TAIL RIVER

The Red River watershed is outside the smallmouth's historic range, but nevertheless, some western Minnesota rivers have become good smallmouth fisheries in recent years.

One stream that's causing me to look west is the Otter Tail River in Otter Tail County. Smallmouths were first introduced in the Otter Tail a dozen years ago. The fish have greatly benefited from catch-and-release regulations and habitat improvement, and now this midsized stream supports a fine population of smallies.

On a recent five-hour float trip, local fly-angler Jim Swenson and I caught over three-dozen smallies ranging from 9 to 16 inches. We caught fish wherever there were rocks or a little wood cover. In fact, because the water was very clear that day, we saw numerous smallmouths we didn't catch, including several at least 18 inches.

Anglers have DNR personnel to thank for this success story. Besides introducing smallies to the river, they have also worked on bank stabilization and placement of in-stream cover. Through their efforts, smallmouths are now well established from the Friberg Dam downstream to the Wilkin County line. In fact, a DNR survey several years ago found that 36 percent of Otter Tail's smallies were already over 12 inches, with some nearly 20 inches.

Shore-fishing is possible right in Fergus Falls, and below the Friberg and Lake Orwell dams. A canoe is best for reaching the less-accessible sections. One good section is upstream of the Dayton Lake Reservoir. Both fly- and spin-fishing is productive on the Otter Tail, and one of the best books for learning river fishing is my new one, Smallmouth Fly-Fishing, which is available at www.smallmouthangler.com.

ST. CROIX RIVER

What a river. Though it is near the Twin Cities, federal protection keeps the St. Croix relatively pristine and fishy. It's big, too. The St. Croix is 150 miles long and composed of four dramatically different sections, with each section offering its own brand of smallmouthing.

The "extreme upper" St. Croix from the Gordon Dam down to the mouth of the Namekagon is 20 miles of very shallow, rocky water. It is good for wading and has high numbers of smaller fish. The "upper" St. Croix from the Namekagon down to Taylors Falls is 80 miles of shallow pools and riffles that can be floated by canoe, and this section holds smallmouths of all sizes. The "middle" river from Taylors Falls to Stillwater is 30 miles of big river, large enough for boats, and has the potential for big smallies. The "lower" St. Croix downstream of Stillwater to the Mississippi is really a lake. This 20-mile section is filled with watercraft of all sizes, but also has some excellent smallies.

Since the middle and lower sections of the St. Croix can be fished with standard-sized boats, I'll focus on these areas. Because the lower river has heavy boat traffic in the summer, it's best to fish on weekdays or before 10 a.m. on weekends. During these times, you'll find good action by focusing on riprap around the Interstate 94 bridge and downstream near the St. Croix's junction with the Mississippi. Crack-of-dawn folks often see excellent topwater action. In "the Dales" area near Taylors Falls, the middle St. Croix offers both spectacular scenery and good fishing. The bluff banks hold big fish, especially where rock outcroppings have collapsed into the river.

The Stillwater Chamber of Commerce at (651) 439-7700 can provide a list of local services.

CANNON RIVER

I once f

ished the Cannon River the day before a big snowfall. That November day 30 years ago was downright chilly, but I still fondly remember all those nice smallies I caught. You, too, will have warm memories of this southeast stream once you learn its secrets.

From Faribault to Welsh in Goodhue County, the Cannon has suffered from heavy flooding and dam drawdowns over the years. However, its fertility always returns, and the stream is capable of producing some fine fish over 3 pounds.

Along with smallies, the lower 12 miles of this stream from Cannon Falls to Welsh offers many other species. Saugers, walleyes, white bass, channel catfish and drum are all available. Canoe-fishing is the most popular method here, and limestone bluffs of nearly 50 feet make floats through this section truly spectacular.

Upstream of Byllesby Reservoir to Faribault is another 25 miles of water that can produce good smallmouth fishing, though it has less total fish. However, this section of the Cannon floods easily and runs high for extended periods, so the fishing here is best if little rain has fallen for two weeks. Wade-fishing is possible upstream of Northfield. Rattling crankbaits are good in the Cannon's algae-stained flow.

Good maps are valuable for finding any fishing hole, and they're essential for river fishing. A Minnesota Atlas & Gazetteer (207/846-7000 or www. delorme.com) will show you nearby roads. DNR canoe maps will show river details. Maps for the Cannon and other state rivers are available from the DNR Information Center at (651) 296-6157. For up-to-the-minute reports on river levels, go to the USGS' "Real Time Data" Web site at www.waterdata.usgs.gov/mn.

SAGANAGA LAKE

Since Saganaga has produced numerous walleyes over 10 pounds -- including Minnesota's state record -- I suppose it is no wonder the lake is so famous for its big walleyes. When I fished it last summer, I saw plenty of walleye anglers but not another smallmouth angler in two days. However, "Sag" is actually great smallmouth water. Many fish in the 2- to 3-pound range are present in this 18,000-acre border lake.

Because it's part of the Boundary Waters, there's a 25-horsepower limit on the Minnesota side. But that's plenty of power to effectively work the numerous islands dotting Saganaga. With so many islands and bays, there are miles of good shorelines to try. Those with small rock and wood cover will hold the most bronzebacks. I especially like the islands that run down the middle of Saganaga.

The northern half of the lake also has potential. The Northeast Arm and Curran Bay are excellent, but require an Ontario fishing license. The west end of the lake is called Cache Bay and is another hotspot, but it's in Quetico Park, so it's "paddle only" and requires an entry permit.

For information on nearby services, check with the Grand Marais Chamber of Commerce at 1-888-922-5000 or go to www.grandmaraismn.com.

* * *

These and other waters will only remain great if anglers practice catch-and-release. Because smallmouths are so slow-growing and easily depleted, good fishing can only be maintained if we each do our part. The fish we release today will be the lunkers we catch in the future.

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