Minnesota’s nickname tells at least part of the story concerning the state’s remarkable fishing opportunities. But “Land of 10,000 Lakes” gives no account of the state’s thousands of miles of rivers.
It also doesn’t depict sportfish species that range from bluegills to the mighty muskellunge or the fact that the lakes include everything from small, shallow, weedy water bodies to a portion of Lake Superior.
In truth, the biggest problem with Minnesota fishing is the dilemma of where to go and what species to target on any given day. With those very questions in mind, we’ve selected three top spots for every month of the year.
JANUARY – Twin Cities Metro Lakes Bluegills
Dozens of small- to medium-sized lakes, including many in parks or neighborhoods, provide outstanding ice access that is close to home for virtually any angler in the Twin Cities. Most support at least decent bluegill populations, and many that are part of the Fishing in Neighborhoods (FiN) program are actively managed for bluegill fishing. The FiN Lakes section on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Web site includes annually updated information about the specific lakes in the program that offer the best prospects for ice-fishing.
Most of these lakes are small enough to just walk to spots, and they lend themselves to a simple approach. Drill a handful of holes in different types of locations, and do a bit of hole-hopping. If weather allows, you can continue to move and can drill a few more holes in the same depth range or general area as other productive holes. If not, pick the best spot and set up a portable shelter. The nice thing about bluegills is that if they are around, you usually can get some to cooperate, and once you figure out the right approach, the action can be outstanding.
FEBRUARY – Bowstring Lake Crappies
Crappies are plentiful, with good average size in Bowstring Lake, which is located just northwest of Grand Rapids. At 8,000 acres, Bowstring provides plenty of ice spots to explore and room for anglers to spread out, yet it’s not so huge that it is daunting. Bowstring has good reefs, rockpiles and weedbeds. For February crappies, the most important structure is a deep hole or the deep edge of a reef that borders the lake’s main basin. Plenty of both are easily identified on lake maps.
Pick a deep area and start fishing, using a small rattling spoon or jig to draw the crappies to you. If you don’t get hit or see fish on your electronics in 20 minutes or so, drill some more holes, either farther from the structure or slightly up on it, and take a more mobile approach until you find the fish. As a bonus, when you fish for crappies on Bowstring Lake, you enjoy good chances of hooking up with nice perch, bluegills or walleyes.
MARCH – Lake of the Woods Walleyes
After most of Minnesota’s top walleye waters have closed, massive Lake of the Woods remains open for walleye fishing, usually with excellent ice through all of March. Making a good thing even better, March serves up outstanding fishing as big numbers of hefty walleyes congregate in the Baudette area as they work their way into the Rainy River to spawn.
Lake of the Woods offers some of the nation’s finest prospects for really large walleyes. Biologists sample several 30-inch-plus fish every year. Beyond the trophy potential, though, this highly productive lake simply produces a lot of fish, and a really big 2011 year-class has extra-high numbers of fish in the 18-inch range in the lake right now. Lake of the Woods has dark water, and both ice and snow tend to be thick. Therefore, big, noisy ice lures in reds, golds and other bold colors tend to produce best.
APRIL – Round Lake Crappies
Not surprisingly, several roundish lakes in Minnesota share the name Round Lake. However, we’re talking about the 1,024-acre Round Lake in Jackson County in southern Minnesota. This shallow, bowl-shaped lake is surrounded by farmland and is therefore extremely fertile. In recent years “the crappie population has really exploded,” according to a fishing forecast published by the Minnesota DNR. Round Lake holds both black and white crappie, with white crappie being the most abundant. Black crappie catch-rates in trap nets and gill nets have increased steadily since 2009, and white crappie numbers are at historical highs.
Because it is so shallow, Round Lake used to suffer from winterkill. However, an aeration system installed in 1981 has eliminated that concern and fisheries are now very dependable. Between its shallowness and its southerly locale, Round Lake opens up earlier than most Minnesota lakes and provides a good early season crappie fishing option. Bright-colored jigs tipped with whole minnows work well in Round Lake’s normally stained water.
MAY – Leech Lake Walleyes
Our top pick for May has to be a walleye destination since the opener occurs midway through the month. Leech Lake offers outstanding walleye prospects and a huge amount of water for Minnesota anglers to explore. Leech also provides astounding variety, with vast shallow areas and very deep water and a good mix of vegetation, reefs, sandy bottoms and more. What all that means from a practical standpoint is that something will be good for opening weekend no matter how winter and spring have unfolded. Generally speaking, the fishing on Leech is best for the first month or so of the season.
Leech Lake walleyes are currently managed with a 20- to 26-inch protected slot to allow plenty of harvest while protecting quality fish to allow them to grow to trophy proportions. Good year-classes in 2011 through 2013 have high numbers of fish in the lake that are of legal harvest size, with a nice mix of slot fish also available for catch-and-release.
JUNE – Mississippi River Backwater ’Gills
Backwaters ranging from classic oxbows to broad, inundated backwaters are spread from well upriver of Brainerd all the way to where the Mississippi finally exits Minnesota in the southeastern corner of the state, and collectively these waters offer thousands of acres of fishing waters. The best prospects really vary according to the level of the river and where you live or like to fish along the Mississippi’s course. A common denominator of many of these backwaters is that they hold excellent populations of big bluegills and often a mix of other panfish.
During June, it’s tough to top the classic and simple approach of putting a piece of earthworm on a small hook, adding a float a few feet up the line, and casting to obvious shallow cover. An alternative to an earthworm is a wax worm or two strung onto an ice jig and again suspended beneath a cork. Once you find the fish, if you prefer a more active approach, you can cast a jig, a small spinner or mini crankbait and have a lot of fun catching big bluegills.
JULY – Boundary Waters Walleyes
Hundreds of lakes offer more than a million acres of water within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the region’s natural beauty and the protective rules that go with wilderness designation create an experience unlike anything else — anywhere. Opportunities range from extended, carefully planned canoe-camping excursions deep into the wilderness to day trips on fringe lakes, including some that are similar in character to the BWCAW lakes but outside the wilderness and therefore open to more kinds of boats.
Through most of the wilderness, only human-powered craft are permitted, so paddling and portaging are part of the adventure. Excellent fishing for walleyes (plus pike, smallmouths and more) is the reward. Backcountry trips demand that you limit tackle, but in truth light spinning tackle and a small box of crankbaits, minnow baits, jigheads and plastics are really all you need to enjoy good fishing. Outfitters in the gateway town of Ely can provide all the details about permits and wilderness rules and provide suggestions for routes, along with outfitting trip needs.
AUGUST – Minnesota River Flathead Catfish
The Minnesota River runs 320 miles through southern Minnesota and provides a tremendous amount of angling opportunity for many species. Among the most intriguing are flathead catfish, which are quite abundant and sometimes exceed 50 pounds. The best flathead habitat is downstream of Granite Falls Dam, with the lower half of that section providing the best navigation for larger boats.
Anywhere along the river, the best place to catch a flathead during the day is over deep water and tight to logjams. At night, the fish will roam onto flats that are adjacent to the same holes. By day or night, flatheads prefer live fish over anything else. They are predators, not scavengers. Good options include black bullheads, creek chubs and white suckers. Use big hooks, several ounces of lead to control the bait in the current and seriously heavy tackle to get the fish out of the cover and to battle them in the current.
SEPTEMBER – Mille Lacs Smallmouths
Local anglers have long known that Mille Lacs supports an outstanding smallmouth population, but in recent years, this big lake’s thick-bodied bronzebacks have gained national acclaim. The fishery only appears to be getting better. Catch-rates in biologist samples have been gradually increasing, and the most recent survey yielded the highest catch-rate in history. Fishing pressure for smallmouths remains only modest and the harvest is minimal between special regulations and a strong release ethic among the lake’s bass fishermen.
September finds the smallmouths in a fall feeding mode, and they tend to be fairly shallow and very aggressive. Identify shallow reefs and rockpiles, and move from one to the next, and you’ll likely find smallmouths fairly quickly. Soft-plastic grubs or craws, topwater walking baits and poppers, and shallow-running crankbaits that deflect off the rocks when they hit are excellent bets for catching Mille Lacs smallmouth bass.
OCTOBER – Lake Vermilion Muskellunge
Muskies can be finicky pretty much anywhere you go, and there’s no guarantee of action, but visiting Lake Vermilion during the fall certainly enhances your chances of tangling with “the fish of 1,000 casts.” Plus, if you do find muskie action, chances of a big fish are good, as Vermilion supports an outstanding population of trophy-class muskies. Lake Vermilion also is a beautiful North Woods lake, and is made even more so during October.
Because the muskies do grow big in Lake Vermilion, an “all or nothing” approach is probably the best way to go. Fish with a super-sized minnow plug, bucktail, swimbait or a spinner for casting or trolling. Specific to casting, big topwater lures and soft-plastic jerkbaits also draw strikes. Trolling and casting each have a place in a good October strategy. Trolling allows you to work far more structure and keep your lure actively fishing all the time. However, casting allows you to place your bait in key spots atop points and around shallow cover that you could never reach by trolling.
NOVEMBER – Mississippi River Largemouths
From Pool 2 in St. Paul (catch-and-release only) through the end of the Mississippi River’s Minnesota run, this big river serves up high quality largemouth bass fishing. Included in that run is bass-rich Lake Pepin. The river through this section is nutrient-rich and supports plentiful and diverse forage for bass, and extensive river backwaters offer very good bass habitat.
Largemouths, more so than their small-mouthed cousins, like to stay out of the current. Often, this concentrates them in backwaters and in large hard eddies behind solid structure such as wing dams and seawall cuts. Water tends to be lower during November, though, which allows more bass to move close to the main river channel to feed. A crankbait with chartreuse in its color scheme, a topwater lure, and a dark-colored jig are good lure choices for working the Mississippi River for largemouths.
DECEMBER – Upper Red Lake Northern Pike
Upper Red Lake may be the most famous place in Minnesota for early ice walleyes, but at the same time as the walleyes are biting, the big northern pike that call this massive lake home are in super shallow water and are likewise feeding aggressively. The DNR describes the current pike size structure as “impressive.” Along with trophy fish, the current population contains large numbers of 20- to 26-inch fish, which simply add fun action through the ice. A slot requires that all pike between 26 and 44 inches be immediately returned to the lake, and rules allow for keeping only one fish daily of more than 44 inches.
Two important things to realize about Red Lake pike at this time of year is that they are probably cruising shallower than you would expect and are eating larger meals than you would envision.