Bassin' In The Northwoods

Most folks pursue walleyes in northern Minnesota, but you shouldn't overlook the awesome largemouth fishing on these waters. (July 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

In Minnesota, the walleye is king. This has been the case for generations. If you were raised in this state, chances are good that when your father first took you out to do some serious fishing, he put a spinning rod with a live-bait rig in your hand. You would back-troll for hours dragging night crawlers and leeches over rockpiles while waiting for that telltale "tick-tick" to signal a bite.

What you probably didn't know then and may not have known until now is that those "walleye lakes" in the northwoods have big largemouth bass swimming in them. Seriously. Lunker largemouths hide in the coontail and cabbage on the weedy shoreline flats and in the backs of the grass-bottomed bays "up north." But back in "the old days," who would want to fish for bass when there were walleyes to be caught?

Times have changed. Fishing for largemouth bass has taken hold, even in the walleye capital of the world. Anglers now pursue bucketmouths with a passion as fierce as that of any of our homegrown walleye fanatics. These bassers are leaving no lily pad unturned as they tap into their topwater lures, spinnerbaits and jigs to tempt largemouths -- even in the northwoods of Minnesota that was once the bastion of walleye anglers. What they are discovering is that these previously untapped bass resources are loaded with largemouths more than willing to crush a lure.

Here are some northern Minnesota lakes where you could end up yelling out, "Son, that's a big bass!"

LAKE VERMILION

In the late 1990s, competitive bass fishing made its way to Lake Vermilion when some high-visibility tournaments were held. While most competitors initially thought smallmouth bass would be the target species, these tourney anglers soon discovered that the lake had a healthy population of largemouth bass, and the smallmouths took a back seat. Even after the word got out about the fine largemouth fishing on Vermilion, this huge lake still has acres of cover where bass have never seen a lure.

The key to finding largemouths on 40,000-acre Vermilion is the vegetation. The bigger main-lake basins are mostly sand, rubble and rock, but the bays -- and there are plenty of them on Vermilion -- grow lush beds of cabbage and coontail. There are also bulrush beds lining shoreline areas where the bottom is soft.

A nice benefit from northwoods lakes is that the water stays cooler for longer periods, and this means the largemouths can be found in the shallow cover throughout the season.

Anglers who enjoy fishing with topwater lures for bucketmouths will appreciate the willing response they get on Vermilion. Chugger-style topwater lures and floating frogs are productive around the lily pads, and spinnerbaits in the bulrushes guarantee success.

First-time bass anglers to Vermilion are often tempted by the boat docks lining the shoreline, but unless there is some vegetation surrounding this manmade cover, you will only find the smallmouth variety of bass using it. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

For more on Vermilion, go to www.lakemilion.com.

BURROWS LAKE

Located entirely in the Chippewa National Forest,Burrows Lake provides that picturesque northwoods feel, but this lake definitely has all the qualities of a productive largemouth bass lake. Just beware of the landing if you have a large boat. The marginal ramp is better suited to the smaller winch-on style of boat.

Once on the lake, you will notice that the water clarity is good, the weedline is deep, and there are plenty of lily pads for bass to hide under. The smart angler starts shallow and works deep when chasing bass on Burrows. Start working the pads with topwaters, preferably the floating frogs you can twitch in the pockets. From the edge of the lily pads into about 15 feet of water, you can work jigs and crankbaits in the coontail and around the stalks of the submerged grasses.

There are plenty of largemouths in Burrows, and while most will be in the 2- to 3-pound range, an occasional 5-pounder is caught.

For more information, visit www.northminnesota.com.

LEECH LAKE

The largemouth bass in Leech Lake concentrate in the rice beds in the bays, but this can be a problem because anglers can be tough on the rice, which is a bad thing for those who want to harvest this food source in the fall. With this in mind, be extremely careful to navigate your boat without damaging the rice, which can be done by staying on the edge of the beds while using your electric motor to maintain boat position.

There is an art to fishing rice. This heavy cover won't succumb to lures with many hooks that dive. You need to be able to pitch weedless jigs or strain the pockets in the beds with spoons like the Northland Jaw-Breaker or the Johnson Silver Minnow.

The largemouths on Leech Lake have a reputation for their quality sizes. While it may seem like there are plenty of huge bass in this lake, it's because they are concentrated in the rice. Therefore, consider this a resource that can only be maintained by catch-and-release bassin'.

For more information, go to www.leechlake.com.

POKEGAMA LAKE

The largemouth bassers familiar with the great fishing on Itasca County's Pokegama Lake tend to spend much of their time outside of the main basins. After dropping in the boat, they run up through the Jay Gould Channel to fish in the beds of vegetation in the river channel feeding the 6,600-acre main lake. It's a good game plan because there are numerous largemouths there, but don't rule out the main lake where many bucketmouths reside, which has been proved regularly by tournament anglers.

Most of the other largemouth hotspots on Pokegama are on the north end. It is here where anglers will find beds of standing bulrushes in Sugar Bay, cabbage flats in Poole Bay and Meyer's Bay, and a nice combination of both in Salter Bay.

For more information, go to www.grandmn.com.

WHITEFISH CHAIN

There are many lakes in this chain bordering the town of Cross Lake. They consist of Arrowhead, Bertha, Big Trout, Clamshell, Cross, Daggett, Island, Little Pine, Loon, Lower Hay, Low

er Whitefish, Middle Whitefish, Pig, Rush and Upper Whitefish. This chain is well developed, so there are plenty of boat docks, and according to the bass anglers who fish here, those docks are loaded with largemouths.

Those people prone to brag will insist that a jig and twistertail pitched around the docks will result in non-stop bass action -- but then they should also readily admit these fish run in the 2-pound range. The more-secretive anglers won't tell you that the numerous bigger bucketmouths prefer to hang on the edge of the vegetation and are generally caught with deep-diving crankbaits and jigs.

The water clarity in many of the lakes on the Whitefish Chain is high, so expect a weedline capable of reaching 16 to 20 feet deep.

For more information, visit www.whitefishchain.com.

SWAN LAKE

The Otter Tail area is surrounded by some of our state's finest walleye waters. There are also some real largemouth bass "jewels" in this mixture of lakes. One of them is Swan Lake just south of Fergus Falls.

At slightly less than 700 acres, Swan has been substantially developed, so there is no shortage of docks to key on. Early and late in the season, the shallow south end is where largemouths will congregate in the weeds. During the peak of the summer, most bass anglers tend to spend their time in the deeper main basin. Consider Swan a great numbers lake, but don't rule out the possibility of landing a largemouth in the 4- to 5-pound range. The bigger fish will prefer the deeper water, sometimes even hanging out away from the weedline. Deep-diving crankbaits and plastic worms on a Carolina rig are a preferred method for the bigger bass.

For more information, go to www.swanlkresort.com.

FISH HOOK LAKE

You will want to use big baits when busting up the surface water around the bulrushes on Fish Hook Lake in Hubbard County because smaller spinnerbaits won't get past the rock bass. Half-ounce spinnerbaits and bigger chugger-style topwaters around the edges of the emerging vegetation may elicit a bite from one of the bigger rock bass, but largemouths can easily outcompete their cousins to crush a lure wandering by.

Be sure to slip through Fish Hook's channel on the south side that opens up into some tiny basins full of bulrushes, cabbage and coontail. This area gets some attention from bass anglers, but there always seems to be plenty of largemouths there, so it's always worth checking out.

For more information, visit Park Rapids' Web site at www.parkrapids.com.

ALEXANDRIA CHAIN

The Alexandria Chain consists of lakes Carlos, Darling, Geneva, Le Homme Dieu and Victoria. You won't hear any complaints from bass anglers when it comes to the sheer numbers of largemouths in these waters, but what they will whine about is the size. While an average day on the water can provide plenty of pole-bending action, finding bucketmouths pushing the 4- to 5-pound mark isn't easy.

On Lake Darling, the largemouths concentrate in the weedy bay on the west side. On Lake Carlos, bass anglers are drawn to the weedbeds on the north end, but there is also a large, weedy flat on the east side that deserves attention. Le Homme Dieu is considered the best of the basins for largemouths, and the grass off the tip of Government Point and to the north is a productive patch of real estate. Both the northeast and west sides of Lake Geneva provide quality cover for bass, and if you want to find some true lunkers on this chain, this is the lake to target.

For more information, go to www.alexandriamn.org.

LAKE MINNEWAWA

In the northwoods, if you find a lake with a healthy crop of wild rice as well as a solid population of largemouths, you're going to enjoy some great fishing. Walleye anglers tend to avoid the thick rice beds, so the bass go relatively undisturbed. You'll find that on Lake Minnewawa in Aitkin County.

The northeast basin is where you will find the rice providing the outstanding cover for the largemouths. Use floating lures in the pockets and weedless spoons to dig out some big bass from this slop.

The central basin is where you find the deepest water in the lake, and anywhere you find a bed of cabbage with a little coontail mixed in, you're going to get into the largemouths.

The game plan most bass anglers find productive on Minnewawa is to hit the rice during the low-light periods in the morning and evening, and then work the cabbage/coontail in the middle of the day.

For more information, visit www.mcgregormn.com.

COTTON LAKE

There are some big largemouth bass in Becker County's Cotton Lake, and they love the edge of the deep weedline. This is a perfect lake for anglers who have mastered the art of presenting deep-diving crankbaits.

The southwest corner of Cotton is shallow and the vegetation tapers out into 18 feet of water before losing its grip on the bottom entirely at about 20 feet. Position the boat in 12 feet of water, tie on a crankbait that runs down to 16 feet and cast it out into the deepest water -- and then crank it back fast. You want the lure to be coming out of the deeper water and heading right at that wall of weeds. As the lure begins to turn up, it should be right at that hard edge of the vegetation where the big largemouths are lying, and those lunkers will hit it every time.

The bass in Cotton group together tightly, so where you catch one, you will catch more. If the lure is digging into the weeds, move out a few more feet into deeper water. If the lure doesn't brush some weeds when it turns to come up, you're out too far. The shallow flat in the northeast corner is also great for largemouths.

For more information, go to www.visitdetropitlakes.com.

GULL LAKE

Gull Lake has become a regular stop for regional bass fishing tournament circuits. There are plenty of resorts on the lake, plus Gull's close proximity to Brainerd gives you additional lodging and eating options. Then there are the loads of lunker largemouths to be caught.

If you like to explore the far reaches of a fishery, you will appreciate all the nooks and crannies Gull offers. On the south end in Steamboat Bay and Wilson Bay, there are shallow fingers off the main basins that provide bass habitat in the form of cabbage beds and deep coontail. It's a spinnerbaiter's paradise.

If you want to explore the northern reaches of this productive body of water, you can navigate the channels leading into Upper Gull Lake and Roy Lake, where bass cover is dense and it looks like anywh

ere you toss a topwater is a high-potential spot.

The smaller basins on the north end of Gull are high-percentage locations for largemouths, but bass anglers know this, and these spots do get fishing pressure.

If you are looking for some easy fishing without having to explore the far reaches of Gull, hit the docks in the main basin. All you need is a spinning rod spooled with 8-pound-test line and a 1/8-ounce jig tipped with a 3-inch scented plastic grub or a 7-inch plastic worm. Working that jig around the edges of the docks any time during the open-water season will result in fish. You'll catch walleyes, northern pike and a lot of largemouth bass, some of which will reach 17 to 20 inches.

For more information, visit www.brainered.com.

* * *

Deciding on the species to fish for on many of the lakes in the northwoods of Minnesota has become a quandary. You know there are walleyes on all the rockpiles and sunken islands, but those big beds of cabbage and bulrushes are tempting to the point where you have visions of big largemouth bass jumping to toss the lure. There is a solution to this dilemma. Fish for walleyes in the morning and evenings when they bite the best. Fish for largemouth bass in the middle of the day when they are very willing to smack your bait. You may have to take a few more rods along and an extra tackle box, but it will be worth it.

And don't forget your camera, otherwise, your dad won't believe there were largemouth bass in those "walleye lakes" all these years!

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.