Minnesota's Chilled-Out Pike Waters
September 30, 2010
Anglers are downright giddy about the improved fishing for big northerns in our state. But instead of sending you to where everybody else is going, you can laugh all by yourself on these waters. (March 2007)
Photo by Dale Spartas
Old-timers know that northern pike fishing in Minnesota just ain't what it used to be, but it's getting better again. The days are gone when a stringer full of log-sized pike was just another day, which is just fine. Anglers today better understand the need for catch-and-release fishing, especially when it comes to growing trophy-sized pike.
Also, gone from a lot of lakes are the days when all you can catch were hammerhandle pike, or "snakes." Sure, there are still lakes where a 22-inch northern is a monster, but the opportunities for catching pike in the 30-inch range has vastly improved, and catches in the 40-inch range are no longer major news stories.
"I think we can break the 50-inch mark on a few big-pike lakes like Upper Red if anglers don't overharvest and release those big ones when they catch them," said Steve Ladany, the promotions coordinator for Northland Tackle.
A 50-inch pike would be in the 35-pound range, far short of our state record of 45 pounds, 12 ounces, caught in 1929 out of Basswood Lake along the Minnesota-Canada border. Still, the thought that trophy-pike fishing is once again returning to Minnesota has many anglers downright giddy.
Some of the best lakes for trophy pike are Minnesota's big waters, such as Upper Red, Mille Lacs, Winnibigoshish, Vermilion, Minnetonka, Lake of the Woods and Leech. Each one is well known as having quality pike fishing, but for this article, we're sending you to less-pressured lakes with some unique opportunities. The next state-record northern may not be swimming in one of these lakes, but there sure are a lot of big pike that would even make Grandpa proud.
Minnesota's Arrowhead Region has a lot of big-pike lakes, but many of them can be tough to access because of the ruggedness of the terrain or the fact that they do not allow motorized watercraft. But there is an exception to the rules in Cook County and near the cool town of Grand Marais.
The Gunflint Trail starts in Grand Marais and snakes through some of the best pike-fishing country to be found anywhere. On the way up the trail, Monty Montgomery of Buck's Hardware Hank in Grand Marais has a few favorite pike hotspots that are not to be overlooked.
"I really like Northern Light Lake and Elbow Lake because they are not your traditional pike lakes, but they are full of decent-sized pike in the 5- to 7-pound range," Montgomery said.
Both lakes are tea-colored, thanks to the tannins in the water from the bogs surrounding them. These dark and shallow lakes become filled with weeds in the heat of the summer but are awesome spring and summer locations -- which up in Cook County means most of May, June and maybe July. Perch are the main forage base in both lakes, so if you are using artificials, that's the color pattern to mimic.
Northern Light Lake is located about 10 miles up the Gunflint Trail and is basically a wide spot on the Brule River. Because of that, the access can be a bit iffy, particularly in the spring when the water is up.
"You might have to back up through a half-block of 4-inch water, but it is well worth it," Montgomery said.
He also said to focus on the headwater and tailwater sections of the lake, and on the points located off the channel. Fishing the river itself can also be good, particularly the deeper spots upriver from the lake. According to the Department of Natural Resources' area fisheries office in Grand Marais, Northern Light has a high population of pike, with an above-average number of fish larger than 25 inches.
Elbow Lake is Montgomery's second choice when fishing along the Gunflint Trail, and he said it produces a fair number of decent-sized pike in the 5- to 7-pound range. Elbow has a nice concrete ramp and dock, but it is rather rocky off the landing. You can also find northerns along the weedbeds lining the shorelines, particularly the one arm of the lake that is difficult to access.
"It's a good area to fish if you have a smaller boat because not everybody can get back in there, so the fish don't get a lot of action," Montgomery said.
Live-bait rigs tend to work the best on these lakes simply because the weed cover makes it tough to get a good trolling run going. Burning spinnerbaits and bucktails through the weeds is another tactic that will produce pike in these waters, though most anglers stick with live bait.
For additional information on these lakes, contact Buck's Hardware Hank at (218) 387-2280, or the Grand Marais Area Tourism Association at 1-888-922-5000. Information can also be found at www.grandmarais.com or at NorthernWilds.com.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, also known as the BWCAW or "B-dub," consists of 1 million acres filled with about 1,000 lakes. The simple fact that these lakes have restricted access and usage creates the possibility for awesome pike fishing.
I've fished a lot of the lakes in the BWCAW and have found the average pike catch to far exceed the rest of our state. Most of the lakes are either too small or too infertile to support a state record, but there are some big waters where a record-setter is a possibility.
Basswood Lake is in the BWCAW, but there are motorized watercraft allowed on some parts of the lake if they are less than a specific horsepower. The same holds true on Saganaga and Seagull, where big northerns love to prowl. Even lakes adjacent to but still outside the BWCAW like Gunflint offer great pike fishing.
The toughest part about fishing these lakes is getting the entry permit to allow you to fish on them. Permits are available on a first-come, first-served basis beginning around the first of the year, but odds are that if you have a flexible schedule, you can go online now and still find a date and entry point open for motorized watercraft.
For information on the permit process, contact the BWCAW Reservation Center at www.bwcaw.org or 1-877-550-6777. Information on the area can be found online at CanoeCountry.com.
For the past three years, I have fished in the Frank Schneider International Memorial Muskie Tournament, and I selected Lake Bemidji as m
y lake of choice. There are a lot of big muskies swimming in Lake Bemidji, but while they prefer to avoid my offerings, the pike have been more than willing to keep me smiling.
Each year, we averaged at least one northern an hour, and rarely did one measure under 25 inches. This past year was our best ever for pike, with a few 30-inch fish caught and one around 3 feet long. With plenty of deep water, lush cabbage beds, tons of mid-lake structure and ample food sources, there's no doubt Lake Bemidji can grow monster pike.
The cabbage is a great place to start because the pike can be found up in the middle of the beds or just off the edges. When the water is cooler, don't forget to fish as shallow as 4 or 5 feet; however, as the water warms, look for Esox along the deep edges where the cabbage stops abruptly at the dropoff to the basin of the lake. Live-bait rigs, casting artificial lures and trolling are all great tactics for these pike. Just remember to practice catch-and-release on Bemidji so I can catch them again!
Northland Tackle's Steve Ladany loves piking on Turtle Lake, where he owned a resort for 18 years.
"In the early part of the season, fish off the deep dropoffs where there's a good sharp drop from the shallows into the depths," Ladany said. "These are spots where the pike sit and wait for high-energy oily fish like tullibees and whitefish."
As the summer fades in August and September, try casting right up in the shallow cabbage locations.
For more information on the Bemidji area, go to VisitBemidji, or call 1-800-458-2223.
Duluth is a beautiful town nestled on the westernmost edge of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. The big lake's cold waters are not very productive for pike fishing, but where they meet with the St. Louis River, the fishing is outstanding. Known to some people as "The Harbor," the map name for these waters is St. Louis Bay.
"Pike are native to the area, and it might have declined a bit after we stocked muskies, but large northerns have always been common," said John Lindgren, a fisheries specialist for the DNR's Duluth office.
Lindgren said in the last three or four years, the DNR has seen more northern pike than normal, meaning the fishing this year could be better than ever. The St. Louis River is typically full of warm, dark water that doesn't meet most pike criteria for ideal habitat. Lake Superior is cold and clear, making it good for pike, but the lack of forage throughout the basin results in tough fishing. But where the St. Louis River meets Lake Superior, you have a pike dream come true.
Fishing St. Louis Bay and mouth of the river means combining lake-fishing tactics with river-fishing techniques. Northerns have been known to hang out along deep weed edges, as well as around bridge pylons and below wing dams.
Should the big waters of Lake Superior call you out into them, don't be afraid to try it -- as long as the waves aren't crashing in. Just be sure to take along a weather radio and a cell phone. Lindgren said muskies are caught all the time in the waters immediately outside the shipping canal, and it would make sense that some pike are swimming there as well.
For more information on the Duluth area, go to VisitDuluth.com, or call 1-800-4-DULUTH.
CHISAGO CITY AREA
Just northeast of the Twin Cities metro area in the Chisago City Lakes are some of the best fishing opportunities around. Bass and panfish tend to get most of the attention around these parts, thus leaving thin competition for big northerns. Luckily for pike fans, most of the Esox here are anything but thin.
Brad Pusenka gives out fishing advice at Frankie's Live Bait & Marine in Chisago City, and he tells his customers they should try North Center and South Center lakes.
"Those are probably the two best lakes in the area for big pike throughout the year," Pusenka said.
Roger Hugill is the DNR fisheries manager for the area, and he said North Center and South Center have quality-sized northerns. "There's a 20- to 36-inch protected slot to help protect that quality size," he said. The quantity of quality pike is not super high, but Hugill said he works to keep the northerns in balance with the rest of the fishery so that the perch population remains stable.
Pusenka's favorite spots to fish are on South Center around Pancake Island and in front of Whispering Bay.
"I like to fish the bays and stay on the weed edges, just sitting back with a big sucker minnow and bobber," Pusenka said.
Another high-quality lake in the area that Pusenka fishes is Sunrise, which is located just north of Chisago City and close to Center City. Pusenka said Sunrise boasts a great early spring and fall bite. "This is a good lake as soon as the ice goes off for the biggest pike in the area," he said. Sitting along the edge of the cabbage weeds is a great way to find fish, as is throwing spinnerbaits and in-line spinners.
For additional information, contact Frankie's Live Bait & Marine in Chisago City at (651) 257-6334, or the Chisago Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce at (651) 257-1177, or or ChisagoLakesChamber.com
BRAINERD LAKES AREA
Most likely, you've heard of the Brainerd Lakes Area, and more often than not, the best pike waters listed are Pelican, Gull and Whitefish. These are great pike fisheries, with Whitefish offering the best opportunity for a high-quality northern simply because of its size and reduced pressure compared with the other two lakes. But there are other options.
For a more "off-the-beaten-path" fishing experience for Brainerd Lakes Area pike, Jason Erlandson of Dave's Sportland Bait & Tackle recommended fishing Upper and Lower South Long Lakes. Located just southeast of Brainerd off Highway 18, these lakes are home to some trophy northerns.
"We run into a lot of pike on both Upper and Lower, and usually fish it during the early part of the season along the cabbage beds and deep weedlines," Erlandson said.
Tim Brastrup, DNR fisheries manager for the Brainerd area, said multiple 20-pound fish are taken from the lake each year by spear-anglers, but the lake keeps producing them because of a magnificent forage base of tullibees.
Brastrup also recommended fishing on Thunder Lake, which is located north of Outing on Highway 6. Thunder also has a healthy population of tullibees for growing big pike, along with plenty of islands and points in front of bays providing excellent ambush spots.
For more information on the Brainerd Lakes Area, contact the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce at 1-
800-450-2838, or go online to ExploreBrainardLakes.com. Dave's Sportland Bait & Tackle can be reached at (218) 963-2401.
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Quality big-pike fishing won't return to the days of yesteryear without your assistance, so be sure to practice CPR -- catch, photo and release. Pay special attention to the rulebook as well because there are many lakes with special pike regulations these days. That list is also a great place to look for more suggestions on top Esox lakes to fish in Minnesota. And be sure to take Grandpa along to see what he thinks about our state's awesome northern pike fishing nowadays!