Minnesota's Diverse Smallmouth Bassin'

From the northwoods to urban areas, smallmouths are putting on quite a show across our state. You can get your entertainment needs filled on these 10 waters. (May 2007)

Photo by Michael Skinner

It's that time of year again to plan where to fish for smallmouth bass this season.

While big "up north" lakes like Rainy and Vermilion are regularly touted as top smallie destinations, dozens of other smaller waters seldom get any notoriety. However, many of these lesser-known lakes and rivers are also bronzeback hotspots.

Here are 10 great smallmouth bass destinations ranging from little-known northwoods rivers to urban lakes. They reflect Minnesota's tremendous diversity of bronzeback water, and offer excellent angling in a wide range of settings. There is truly something for every mood and style of fishing.

PELICAN LAKE

Oddly, a statue of a giant bluegill greets visitors to this body of water. I'm not sure if Pelican Lake still deserves its old title of the "Sunfish Capital," but I do know it is a bass mecca.

Pelican is big at 11,000 acres, it is island-studded and has a lot of water less than 20 feet deep, which makes it perfect for a variety of species, including smallmouths and largemouths. Right along Highway 53 in St. Louis County, Pelican is an easy-access north-country lake that nevertheless still offers noteworthy fishing.

One reason for the good-sized bronzebacks is the lake's special regulations. Pelican's 14- to 20-inch protected-slot rule has been in place since 1998, and it seems to be doing a good job of maintaining a quality fishery for both smallies and largemouths. Department of Natural Resources electrofishing surveys turn up especially high numbers of largemouths, but smallie numbers aren't far behind, and some of these are 20-inch lunkers.

Bucketmouth fans often focus their efforts on the shallow and weedy western and middle portions of Pelican. The west shoreline from Grande Pointe to State Point is especially good for largemouths. But the eastern side of Pelican is where the smallies are most common. From Schwelger Island east to Indian Point, there are more than a dozen rocky islands and numerous rocky humps that offer classic smallmouth habitat.

Five boat landings are scattered around the lake, and the town of Orr is nearby. The Orr Tourism Bureau can be contacted online at www.orrminnesota.com, while the DNR International Falls office can be reached at (218) 286-5220.

DEER LAKE

Another northwoods hotspot is Deer Lake in the north-central part of our state. At nearly 4,100 acres, this Itasca County beauty offers both the smallies and the anglers plenty of room to roam.

DNR surveys and numerous angler reports indicate the lake's smallmouths have substantially increased in numbers. Last year, nighttime electrofishing by the Grand Rapids DNR captured 56 smallmouths per hour, while just a decade earlier, the number was only 17 fish per hour. The size of the fish is also commendable, with a good percentage over 15 inches. Other anglers and myself have noticed this increase in smallies. Fifteen years ago, a dozen bronzebacks a day wasn't bad on Deer Lake, but recently, savvy smallmouthers often release two to three times that many every day.

Largemouths will likely be included in your daily catch, since that species is also becoming widespread in Deer Lake, though most are under 14 inches. Rock bass are extremely numerous in this lake, too, and while "rockies" are unappreciated by most Minnesotans, I enjoy catching good-sized ones because of their ferocious strikes.

Most of Deer's bottom is sand or small rock. Naturally, the rocky substrates hold the most smallies, but some nice fish also relate to deeper weeds. Deer has many homes on it, and midday can see plenty of human activity. This, combined with high water clarity, means midday fishing is best in water 10 to 20 feet deep. But in the morning and evenings, shallow-water action can be great. Two productive rocky areas are along the east shore and around the islands scattered across the lake.

For more information on area lakes and facilities, contact the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce at www.grandmn.com or 1-800-472-6366. The DNR Grand Rapids office can be called at (218) 327-4430.

DEVIL TRACK LAKE

Those who appreciate the rugged beauty of northeast Minnesota and fishing new smallmouth water should really appreciate Devil Track Lake.

Devil Track is a 1,800-acre Cook County lake just north of Grand Marais where smallies have only been reported for 20 years. Perhaps coming in from a connecting stream or from private stocking, smallmouths have really found Devil Track to their liking. DNR surveys turn up plenty of bronzebacks, including many in the good-sized 12- to 16-inch range.

Devil Track has numerous cabins and a resort, plus a public landing, hence plenty of anglers. And while walleyes may still be the favorite fish here, smallmouths are now a close second. An increasing number of Devil Track anglers focus on smallies because of their superior fight and willingness to strike all summer long. Much of Devil Track's shorelines hold bronzebacks, and the south and east sides of the lake also have several islands and numerous rock humps that are excellent.

The U.S. Forest Service landing is on the north side of the lake just off County Road 8. Grand Marais information can be found online at www.grandmaraismn.com, or call 1-888-922-5000. The DNR's Grand Marais phone number is (218) 387-2535.

LITTLE FORK RIVER

Here is a northern Minnesota smallmouth destination that's so far off the beaten path that very few anglers have even heard of it. Hidden in the flat forestlands of Koochiching County, the Little Fork River offers 100 miles of little-known smallmouth water.

The Upper Little Fork is very challenging to fish due to its numerous shallow rapids. But starting at Samuelson Park near Rauch, the stream becomes deeper, and rapids are limited. From here to the Little Fork's junction with the Rainy River about 100 miles downriver, smallmouths and muskies are the primary species.

The first 50 miles are exceptionally remote, and it requires wilderness camping and at least three days of canoe travel. I love this rugged wild stretch of the Little Fork, where I've been face to face with wolves and caught lunker smallies in the same day. However, the 50 miles of river from Dentaybow Landing to its mouth are much

easier to access, and day trips by small craft are possible. Big smallies and hefty muskies can both be caught here, but runoff from thick clay soils cause the Little Fork to become very muddy after rains, so fishing is best if it has been dry for at least a week.

The DNR offers a free map of the Little Fork because it's a designated canoe route, even though it is rarely used for canoeing. These river maps are available through local DNR offices and from the central office in St Paul at 1-888-646-6367. The closest sizable town to the Little Fork is International Falls, www.intfalls.org or 1-800-325-5766.

SNAKE RIVER

Here is a nice east-central smallmouth stream that's much more accessible than the Little Fork, yet seldom crowded. The Snake River flows over 80 miles though Kanabec and Pine counties, and it should be viewed as three distinct river sections.

The Upper Snake from McGrath to Mora has many rocky riffles and rapids, and requires good canoe handling skills to sample its piscatorial wares of smallmouths, pike and walleyes. It's best during early summer when water levels are higher.

The Middle Snake from Mora down to Pokegama Lake has few rapids and can be floated most of the season. But it has a plethora of small northern pike along with its moderate numbers of smallmouths.

The Lower Snake from Pine City down to the St. Croix River is a 12-mile series of long pools separated by shallow boulder-studded riffles. It can be canoed during early summer, and a core of fly- and spin-fishers wade-fish it all season long.

In the past, most smallies in the Snake were under 14 inches, but recently, much larger fish are also turning up. I have landed fish over 18 inches from various parts of this stream. Since the Snake is dark-stained, my favorite colored jigs and flies are black or those with some chartreuse. And because pike are numerous in both the upper and middle reaches, I always use a light wire leader no matter what lure I have on.

A DNR Snake River canoe map can be obtained from the DNR office in Pine City. For daily river levels, go to the U.S. Geological Services' Web site at www.waterdata.usgs.gov. To learn more about the Snake River and how to fish it, go online to SmallmouthAngler.com

COKATO LAKE

Lakes near the Twin Cities that have smallies are not common, but Cokato is a notable exception. While it is just 540 acres, it is also less than an hour from downtown Minneapolis, so it's nice for short outings.

On the west edge of Wright County and next to the town with the same name, Cokato has a surprising number of smallies. DNR sampling finds smallmouth abundance well above the state average for a lake of this type, though most are less than 15 inches. However, DNR biologist Eric Altena, who is also an avid angler, uses more old-fashioned methods to capture the bigger specimens. Using rod and reel, Altena has caught Cokato smallies up to 19 inches. I've had similar results. Using jigs and crankbaits, I've hooked fish nearly that large, plus good numbers of 12- to 13-inchers.

DNR assessment also finds that reproduction is fairly consistent in Cokato, and growth rates are better than in lakes farther north. Most of Cokato is sand, so any place there is rock, you'll find bass. The south end of the lake has several productive rocky humps, and the east side right in front of the boat landing has a large flat that can be good, especially along its outside edges.

Cokato also has many northerns, plus a more unusual species -- channel catfish. The hard-fighting channel cats entered this lake via the Crow River, and they will often strike bottom-running lures.

The lake's public landing and private camping are on the east shore. The DNR Montrose office can be reached at (763) 675-3301. You can research Cokato Lake Campground at www.cokatolakecampground.com

UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER

The Upper Mississippi has been Minnesota's top smallmouth river for years, and it continues to deserve that title. Though the Miss is next to 3 million people and sees plenty of summertime pressure, the catch-and-release regulations sustain an amazing fishery.

The 47 miles of river from St. Cloud down to Dayton has hundreds of smallmouths over 17 inches, including a few in the 21-inch 5-pound range. While guiding, I fished this 47 miles of the Mississippi more times than I can count, but I never tire of its changing moods or powerful smallmouths. The 12 miles from Monticello to Elk River is the most popular section due to its easy access. But truthfully, the entire catch-and-release stretch is prime, and downstream of the Highway 101 bridge is some of the deepest water and biggest fish.

Crankbaits, both fat-bodied and thin-profiled, are the workhorse lures on the upper Miss, though fly-fishers also catch their share of lunkers. Just remember not to treat the Upper Mississippi like a lake. Boulders lurking just beneath the surface are common, so high-speed boating isn't advisable.

For a DNR map showing river accesses and other features, call 1-888-646-6367. For more Mississippi River info, check out the new video available on Smallmouth Angler's Web site at SmallmouthAngler.com

WHITE BEAR LAKE

This lake is basically in the Twin Cities, but it has what smallies like: a lot of rocky bars and humps scattered among its 2,400 acres. In reality, White Bear Lake doesn't have high numbers of smallmouths, but the ones that do swim in it are often hefty. Each year, a few 5-pound "footballs" are caught from this lake straddling the Washington/Ramsey county line.

Besides having all the hubbub of an urban lake, White Bear is also extremely clear, so bars and humps at least 20 feet deep are the best bet during midsummer days. But on rainy or windy days, willing fish can be found much shallower. These are also the times when recreational boaters stay ashore, giving you more unmolested water.

White Bear expert Ray Kerkow recommended using 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line with tube jigs and slider worms. He also said that on any given day, probably only a few spots will hold active fish, so keep moving to find them. And if you can't find any willing bronzebacks, targeting largemouths and muskies in weedbeds is a good alternative.

White Bear has four boat landings around the lake. For more information, call the DNR's St. Paul office at (651) 772-7950), and Joe's Sporting Goods at (651) 488-5511.

LAKE PEPIN

This wide spot on the Mississippi River is one of very few lakes in southeast Minnesota, and at 25,000 acres and 18 miles long, Lake Pepin certainly deserves your attention.

Beginning just downstream of Red Wing and stretching almost to Wabasha, Lake Pepin holds an array of species. Wal

leyes, saugers and white bass are the long-time favorites, but in recent years, smallmouths have increased in popularity, as well as in numbers and size. More smallmouths could be partially caused by an abundance of zebra mussels whose filtering seems to clear Pepin's turbid water. Improving fish sizes is likely due to Lake Pepin's 14-inch minimum-size rule.

Dan Johnson has fished Pepin for years, and he recommended focusing on the water downstream of Lake City. He targets Lake Pepin's abundant riprap on both sides of the state line. Crayfish-colored crankbaits often produce in mid- and late summer, but Johnson said shad imitators can be better at times. When the fish -- both smallies and white bass -- really key in on shad, it is important to use lures the same size as that silvery forage fish. This means smaller sizes in the early summer and larger lures in late summer as the shad grow.

There are six boat landings on lower Pepin, if you include those in Wisconsin. For tips on lodging, marinas, tackle shops and dining, try Lake City Tourism at LakeCity.org, or (651) 345-4123.

RUM RIVER

The Rum River is over 130 miles long, but it is nearly as big at the headwaters as at its mouth. That's because the Rum is the outlet for giant Mille Lacs and it has no major tributaries. This means this central Minnesota stream has smallies almost from its very beginning.

The upper 30 miles from Onamia down to Milaca is prime water. Although it's shallow, the Rum in Mille Lacs County has enough rock and wood to support good numbers of 11- to 14-inch fish. Highway 169 and many county roads offer a dozen access points between Milaca and Onamia. The upper stream is often floatable by canoe in early summer, and on-foot anglers can score all season long. The 40 miles from Princeton to Cambridge has more walleyes than smallies, but bronzebacks can be found wherever the bottom has more rock than sand. The lower 30 miles down to Anoka is rockier, and smallmouths of various sizes can be caught.

Naturally, light spinning tackle is effective on the Rum, but this shallow stream is also excellent for fly-fishing. One way to quickly learn the intricacies of smallmouth fly-fishing is to take an on-the-water school. The experts at Smallmouth Angler (612/781-3912) offer excellent instruction.

* * *

The smallmouth bass is one of the finest fish in fresh water, and Minnesota is fortunate to have some prime smallie waters. We can both sustain what we have and make it even better if we recycle these fish and protect their habitat. Releasing bronzebacks is one way to improve our fishing, and so is supporting good land-use policies and shoreline protections. Safeguarding our rivers and lakes from environmental degradation pays off with a better fishing future.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Minnesota DNR Information (lake reports): www.dnr.state.mn.us; U.S. Geological Survey (river levels): WaterData.usgs.gov; Smallmouth Angler (instruction and info): SmallMouthAngler.com

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