The days are getting shorter, the water is getting cooler, and the evenings are getting crisp. A change of seasons is occurring in Minnesota, both on the calendar and in the thoughts of many sportsmen.
The dreams of catching summertime fish are being replaced by visions of shooting ducks and geese, or possibly pheasants and trophy bucks. However, anglers should not be putting the boat into cold storage just yet. There is plenty of time to fill a pail with panfish, throw a walleye in the live well, or battle a bruising bass before water surfaces turn to ice.
There are many advantages that come with fall fishing in Minnesota. Every year, when the summer vacation season ends, recreational boating and angling pressure drops significantly on most of the lakes and rivers in Minnesota. Also, some of the nicest weather of the year often occurs in September and October, with calm winds and bright blue skies.
This is a relaxing and quiet time of the year, with the changing colors of the season adding to the attraction. At the same time, fish tend to awaken from their annual, late-summer slumber, becoming more active from this point on into November.
Regardless of your species of choice, the fall bite can be one of the hottest and most enjoyable of the year. Throughout Minnesota, all indications are that the autumn of 2011 will be one of the best in recent years. Following is a look at several locations that have the potential to be especially productive for some of our favorite game fish!
In the north, walleye anglers may want to stick to some of the most recognizable names. According to Henry Drewes, northwest regional fisheries manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, fall fishing on the major walleye lakes was excellent in 2010, and is expected to be once again this year. Drewes also noted that the walleye populations in Leech Lake, Lake of the Woods, Cass Lake and Upper Red Lake are all currently excellent, with a diverse size structure of multiple year-classes.
Lake Winnibigoshish is a fall favorite that should once again be productive. A frequent visitor to this fishery, Gus Bauman has had success fishing shallow water in the autumn.
“During low light periods, we’ll get ’eyes to hit surface lures and shallow-running crankbaits between the main lake and Cut Foot Sioux,” Bauman said. “But the water can be so clear and they can spook so easily that it is best in the late evening or after dark; boaters must be very careful in this area.”
Bauman suggested that during the daylight hours, anglers might want to try trolling deep, or possibly move onto Little Lake Winnibigoshish, where a jig-and-minnow combo can be productive in and near the Mississippi River.
In the southern portion of Minnesota, in addition to many of the prairie potholes such as Lura Lake and Albert Lea Lake, Madison Lake is always a good destination for late-season walleyes. Found just a few miles east of the city of Mankato, this fishery has a long history of producing during the fall.
Another area worth taking a look at is Lake Pepin. This portion of the Mississippi River, near the town of Lake City, is a picturesque destination where both eagles and walleyes are abundant.
If it is jumbo perch you are after, Lake Mille Lacs, Lake Winnibigoshish, and a majority of the large walleye lakes in the north are loaded with yellow perch that exceed 12 inches in length. In southern Minnesota, large perch are more difficult to find. However, Lake Geneva and Freeborn Lake, both in Freeborn County, are capable of producing a few nice fish. It should be noted that these are shallow potholes, without aeration systems, and both susceptible to periodic oxygen depletion.
NORTHERN PIKE & MUSKELLUNGE
In northern Minnesota, Owen Baird expects that pike anglers will find Gull Lake, Upper and Lower Mission Lake, and the mine pits found in Crosby and Ironton, all to be good choices this autumn. Baird, a DNR fisheries specialist at the Brainerd area office, stated that there is currently a moderate abundance of northern pike in Gull Lake, with a majority of the fish ranging from 20 to 29 inches. There are also a fair number of larger pike available.
In Upper Mission Lake and Lower Mission Lake, the pike abundance is considered to be moderately high, with some fish that approach 40 inches in the mix. All northern pike from 24 to 36 inches must be immediately released there, and anglers can keep only one fish over the slot on these connected lakes.
The mine pits may have a low abundance of pike, but they are home to some truly monster fish. These pits are designated stream trout lakes, and anglers should be aware that special angling restrictions are in place.
Although the northern pike in southern Minnesota don’t usually compare in size to those caught in northern lakes, there are locations where they are quite plentiful. Fishermen looking for a battle with a pike may want to consider Lake Elysian. Located in Waseca County, recent DNR test net surveys and angler reports have been positive. Although the pike found there are not huge, with most falling in the 3- to 6-pound range, they are fairly plentiful and may have surpassed walleyes as the most popular species in the fishery.
Other lakes in the south to take a look at include Lake Tetonka in LeSueur County, and Lake Mazaska in Rice County. Both of those lakes have an excellent pike population as well as the ability to produce some very large fish.
Interest in Minnesota’s muskellunge fisheries possibly is at an all time high. In the northwest, Fisheries Manager Drewes reports that the popularity of fall muskie fishing continues to rise, with excellent action reported right up to freeze-up. That would include Leech Lake and Cass Lake, with their naturally producing muskellunge, as well as several stocked bodies of water, such as Big Detroit Lake, Bemidji Lake, and West Battle Lake.
In the southern half of Minnesota, muskellunge fisheries are more scattered, but the fish that are found in them can be very respectable. Located in Rice County, near the city of Faribault, French Lake is stocked on a regular basis and has a healthy population of adult muskellunge. A good proportion of the fish have a length greater than 45 inches, with some that stretch beyond 50 inches.
In Martin County, near the town of Sherburn, Fox Lake is a rapidly improving muskie fishery. A check with Brian Schultz, at the Windom area office of the DNR, revealed that in 2008, the angler catch-rate on Fox Lake was an extremely impressive, 1 fish for every 16.7 hours fished.
Some of the best bets for autumn bass fishing are located in the south, and Lake Tetonka may top the list of hottest fishing locations. This lake’s 1,300-acres is the home of largemouth, smallmouth, and white bass. Lake Tetonka has produced a state-record largemouth in the past; there also are trophy smallmouth bass lurking about.
Several of my personal favorite bass spots are located in this portion of the state. Reeds Lake and St. Olaf Lake, both in Waseca County, along with Beaver Lake located in Steele County are all small panfish ponds — with huge largemouth bass potential. I have seen at least one 5-pound fish pulled from each of the three, and local reports indicate that sort of catch happens fairly frequently.
Moving to the north, the prospect for catching autumn bass continues. Found in Wright County, two miles north of Annandale, Clearwater Lake has had a history of being one of Minnesota’s best largemouth bass lakes. The two basins of this fishery cover approximately 3,000-acres, and reach a maximum depth of 83 feet. Although it can be a challenging lake to fish, anglers can be rewarded with large bass, sometimes exceeding 20 inches.
Near the town of Grey Eagle, covering a portion of both Todd and Stearns counties, Big Birch Lake is a bass fishery that is worth a look every autumn. Largemouth and smallmouth bass are abundant, and generally average from 11 to 14 inches. However, trophy fish can be caught there, with fish that extend beyond 20 inches occasionally reported. With a state forest nearby, this is beautiful area to visit at any time of the year.
Crappies, bluegills, and sunfish are plentiful in Minnesota, and all are capable of entertaining fishermen during the months of September and October. This year, Diamond Lake in Kandiyohi County, and Lake Oliver in Swift County, are a couple of locations that stand out. The most recent DNR test net surveys suggest that Diamond Lake has an exceptionally high number of black crappies, with average length greater than 9 inches.
Although bluegill numbers are not quite as impressive, they can also reach a respectable size. Lake Oliver is a much smaller lake, which also is loaded with black crappies. Bluegills were introduced to the lake in 2002, with several thousand adults stocked over a two-year period. This introduction has been successful, and bluegills are now reproducing. They may not be overly abundant, but with an average size of nearly 7 inches, and fish that reach beyond 9 inches appearing in test nets, bluegills are certainly worth a look.
In Douglas County, south of Alexandria, Lake Andrew is another interesting location. After taking a look at the test net surveys of this 900-acre lake, I contacted Erik Gravley, owner of Lake Andrew Resort. I was informed that beginning in August, there is a good panfish bite there. Gravley stated that sunfish anglers find success just out from the emergent vegetation that is prominent on the west side of the lake, while crappies can be found around submerged vegetation north and east of the public access.
Having owned the resort for the past 17 years, Gravley has watched the fishery change gradually. “We used to have a better sunfish population than crappies,” Gravley recalls, “There were crappies in the lake, but you would only catch one or two at a time and they were big … the 14- to 16-inch variety.
“But in recent years the crappie bite has been better. The average crappie size isn’t as big as they used to be, but we are still seeing a number of fish in the 10- to 12-inch range. We have also been catching a lot of walleyes over the past three years. We have seen a steady increase in size during this stretch, so we are anticipating a very good year for walleyes.”
While nearly all of the deeper ponds found in southern Minnesota are capable of producing fall panfish, there are always a few with a hotter bite than the rest. One of these may be Clear Lake, located in Waseca County, within the city of Waseca. The lake has been kicking out some beautiful bluegills in recent years, and has a large population of black crappies.
Mentioned earlier for its walleye reputation, Madison Lake is also the home of some monster panfish. The length of the black crappies and white crappies within this fishery will often exceed 12 inches, and anglers may also run into some truly bull bluegills.
Many of the rivers across our state are loaded with catfish, and autumn is often the time when some of the largest of the year are caught. If it is flathead catfish you like, look to the larger rivers. The Minnesota River, Mississippi River, and Red River are three of the best within and along our borders. The St. Croix River, where our current state-record 70-pound flathead was captured, should be an excellent option. Another yearly favorite is Blue Earth River from the Rapidan Dam to the city of Mankato.
Channel catfish are much easier to find. In addition to all of the rivers previously mentioned, the Watonwan River in the south, and the Sauk River to the north are two others worthy of angling attention.
It may surprise some anglers that channel catfish are routinely stocked in numerous lakes in southern Minnesota, and in the Twin Cities metro area. While they are often overlooked, during the autumn months fishing those lakes can be an exciting alternative. Lake Marion is one of the locations. Found in McLeod County, near the town of Brownton, the fishery was stocked with more than 12,000 fingerlings in 2004, and again in 2006. The total number of fish has increased dramatically in recent net surveys, with naturally reproducing fish accounting for a large percentage. Anglers should expect to see plenty of fish in the 12- to 20-inch range, with the opportunity of catching a 30-inch or larger channel. Other similar lakes would include, School Grove Lake in Lyon County, Tanners Lake in Washington County, and Golden Lake in Anoka County.
Keep in mind that a majority of the locations I have mentioned within this article have more to offer than just the selected species. For more information, check the Lake Finder link, at www.dnr.state.mn.us. In addition, the same rivers that have the potential to be hot for catfish will also produce fall walleyes. A jig-and-minnow combo can often entice both species at this time of the year.
Now that we have decided what to catch and where to find them, only one thing remains. It is time to catch some scenery, some sunrays, and some fabulous fall fish.