Go around our great nation and ask any angler what Minnesota is famous for. You know the answer you’ll get: Walleyes.
And while we do love our marble-eyes — after all, the walleye is our state fish — there’s another up-and-comer making more and more headlines in our state every year: Bass!
What an amazing natural resource for fishing nuts like us! We have largemouths from lakes along the Iowa border all the way to the Canadian line, and from the Mississippi backwaters out to farm ponds and stock tanks in sight of both Dakotas. We may not be Florida or Texas, and we may not have 10-pound bass in abundance, but for overall quality of largemouth fishing, I would put us in contention for a top spot.
Then think for a moment about our smallmouths. Most of our rivers, starting with the magnificent St. Croix for its entire length, offer bronzeback fishing of some type. Don’t forget the Mississippi, especially as you get north of the Twin Cities. Lake-wise, the farther north you go — all the way up into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in the northeast — smallmouths smash baits and fight like crazy. I’d call our smallmouth fishing not just competitive, but world-class.
Yes, we truly have a veritable cornucopia of bass fishing opportunity in our state. Why, last September the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship even culminated in Minnesota.
So, are you a bassin’ fiend yet? Or just an occasional visitor to the weedbeds and rockpiles where green bass (as my kids, when they were little, aptly called largemouths) and brown bass (smallmouths of course) roam? Either way, this is going to be a great year to go bass fishing in Minnesota.
With voluntary catch-and-release ethic strong in our state, plus dozens of special-regulation waters that do even more good work to preserve quality bass fishing opportunities, this is a resource you must get out and experience.
There are many ways to go after Minnesota bass.
One, of course, is small-water fishing in ponds, backwaters and other diminutive waters. You don’t even need a decked-out boat to catch good largemouths in our state. Armed with a spinning rod and a handful of lures, you can put on waders, or hop in a canoe or kayak, and ply a lakeshore, weedbed or reed patch anywhere for bucketmouths.
Another good option is river fishing. That approach is most often oriented toward smallmouths. Find a rocky shore or stretch and have at it with live bait (leeches and nightcrawlers are tops), or lures that imitate injured minnows or scuttling crayfish. This is fishing action at its best, and absolutely nothing fights like spunky stream smallmouths.
Then of course there’s lake fishing. This is what many anglers are used to, and it’s a fine way to catch Minnesota bass. Whether you’re probing springtime or summer reed beds, hanging around the flanks of a rocky or weedy point, working a deep weed edge in summer or drifting across a rocky mid-lake hump, bass of both varieties can keep anglers occupied and happy.
But there’s another option, and while it may be a challenging way to give chase, it is also one of our most exciting and underutilized bass fishing opportunities: fishing our big lakes. Let’s detail specific approaches for finding and catching bass (both greenies and brownies) in some of Minnesota’s largest — and most productive — waters. It’s a challenge, but you can win it. Then we’ll explore seven top lakes for big-time, big-water bass in our state.
Catching Minnesota’s big-water bass is a three-step process. Like most fishing endeavors, the system is a continual breakdown of factors to help you hone in on the fish.
Know Your Target
The first step to bass fishing success on the big water is knowing which kind of bass you’re going after. Many of our best big-water bass lakes harbor both largemouths and smallmouths, and so you need to make a choice and start from there. Largemouth and smallmouth habitat is just so different that a one-size-fits-all fishing approach will net you poor results at best.
That said, homing in on one species can sometimes result in the incidental catch of the other. Here’s a perfect example of that. I’ve caught many a fine smallmouth while working a Mille Lacs weedline for largemouths. And I’ve tangled with beefy largemouths while fishing a Leech Lake rockpile for smallmouths. Go figure! But the answer for such an unexpected result is easy. Predators go where the prey is, and the prey is often among the weeds or in the rocks.
Pick Your Habitat
That’s the prefect transition to the idea of picking your habitat. Drop your boat into one of Minnesota’s large lakes and it looks like a daunting task ahead. That puzzle becomes much simpler when you have done your research and studied maps beforehand to identify prime habitat in which to start your search.
For largemouths, the basic approach is simple. Look for weeds. Whether the weeds are emergent (stands of pencil reeds, wild rice or lily pads, for instance) or submergent (cabbage and coontail, for example), bucketmouths are found wherever the vegetation is. Even better, vegetation is often limited in supply on our large lakes, and so finding the weeds is going to cut your bass search time way down.
For smallmouths, your habitat choice is equally easy, but different: rocks. This is not to say that bronzebacks avoid other kinds of habitat. Weed edges and gravel can harbor smallmouths too. But by and large, rocks are going to be your best bet. Why? Smallmouths prefer crayfish over all other forage, and crayfish love rocks. In addition, rocks give bass ample hiding places from which to rest and hunt. The bigger the rocks the better, with outright boulders the best of all.
Bass are abundant in the large lake systems we’ll be talking about. But abundance is a relative term. Even when you have chosen a specific target species and narrowed down to its preferred habitat, you’re going to have to cover some water to find active fish.
For largemouths, there are two approaches. They include moving along and casting, or slow-trolling along a weedline or breakline.
Moving along and casting is the approach for back bays with submergent weeds, as well as those emergent plants you can see. Using your trolling motor, tool along and cover water, fanning out with your casts. Try the deeper edges of the emergent vegetation, but also slide your boat back in the cover and fish right in the plants.
Slow-trolling a minnow bait or crankbait along a deep weedline is also productive. Casting just doesn’t work because your lure spends so little time in the fish zone as you cast and retrieve. Use a bait that digs down and runs a little deep, and then follow the contours of the weed edge or structure.
If the wind is right, try drifting along a breakline or weed edge with a slip-sinker rig or slip-bobbers, offering live bait such as a jumbo leech or a big (6- to 8-inch) shiner or sucker minnow.
Smallmouths take some searching too. It’s funny how you can find a perfectly fine rockpile, fish it hard, cover it from every angle, and end up empty-handed. Then, a half mile away, you’ll hit the mother lode. The bottom line is, all rocky areas are not created equal.
As stated before, look for areas with big rocks. Boulders are better. You want these areas to be close to deep water, but have a shallow element to them. Smallmouths will move up and down the water column as they get more and less aggressive during the day.
To cover water, become a trolling master and move your way around, exploring the structure’s corners, bends and irregularities. Try different depths. Hop a tube jig along for best results. Smallies can’t resist the crayfish-like action. In low-light situations, tossing minnow baits can be just the ticket.
I’m also a slip-bobber fan for smallmouths. It’s the perfect presentation for tooling around a rockpile or bar, casting here or there, trying different depths, and floating a bait above the rocks. Nightcrawlers or leeches are tops, with 5- to 6-inch sucker minnows an option.
Now that you’re armed with strategies and techniques for finding and catching big-water bass, let’s map out seven great spots to fish this spring, summer or fall — and maybe tangle with the bucketmouth or bronzeback of your lifetime.
Location: Itasca, Beltrami and Hubbard counties
Bass: Largemouth and Smallmouth
Details: It’s hard to say whether Leech is primarily a largemouth or smallmouth hole. It all depends on where you’re fishing. Concentrate in Leech’s bays and coves — especially the back ends that are full of vegetation — and you’re in largemouth country. That includes shallow inlet areas such as the Steamboat, Benedict, Shingobee and Boy rivers. Head to rock reefs in the big water, and points off Leech’s multiple islands, for smallmouths.
Location: Itasca and Cass counties
Details: Winnibigoshish isn’t rocky enough or clear enough for meaningful smallmouth fishing, although there are a few smallies in the lake. That makes largemouths the big draw. They are simple to find. Head to reed beds and explore. Concentrate on the deep edges, as well as inside turns, points and open pockets within the growth.
Location: St. Louis County
Bass: Smallmouths and Largemouths
Details: Vermilion may be best known for its walleyes and muskies, but its bass fishing is going strong indeed. With plenty of reefs, rocks, humps and sunken islands, the lake produces plenty of smallmouths. Search down as deep as 30 feet in summer and late in the season. For largemouths, it’s a shallow-water exercise working reeds, lily pads, docks and points near deeper water.
Location: Mille Lacs, Aitkin and Crow Wing counties
Bass: Smallmouths and Largemouths
Details: With all the press it gets, there’s no doubt that Mille Lacs is a bassin’ hotbed. Smallmouths are the main draw. Find the rocks and you’ll find the smallies. Fewer anglers know about Mille Lacs’ healthy population of fat largemouth bass. Look in the back ends of bays, in the reeds, and around docks on the south end.
Location: St. Louis County
Details: Target summer smallmouths on Kabetogama by focusing on the rockiest, boulder-strewn reefs out in the main lake. Earlier in the season, fish are found closer to shore, off points and rubbly shorelines. There are a few largemouths in the lake’s shallower, weedier north end.
Lake of the Woods
Acreage: 950,413 (307,010 in Minnesota)
Location: Lake of the Woods and Roseau counties
Bass: Smallmouths and Largemouths
Details: With all its islands and channels, there is no shortage of smallmouth water there. Concentrate on Four Mile Bay, and also around some of the shallower rock structure near Zipple Bay and on the north end of the lake. Largemouth habitat abounds in back bays.
Location: Koochiching County
Details: With its islands, rocky reefs, and boulder-clad shorelines, Rainy is a smallmouth factory. Fish shallow, less than 10 feet, through June; hit deeper water (down to 25 feet) in summer. After a brief feeding binge up shallow in September, the lake’s smallmouths head deep again.
There’s an old fishing saying, “Big bait, big fish.” In Minnesota, we can add this one: “Big lake, big bass.” Head out to some of our largest lakes this season to find fishing adventure. You could well tangle with the trophy smallmouth or largemouth of a lifetime.