Minnesota bass fishing can be as good as you’ll find anywhere, but maybe none better than what you will find on these waters.
By Joe Albert
The bass in Minnesota don’t grow as big as they do in southern parts of the United States. That whole six months of winter thing throws a bit of a wrinkle into the growing season. But few people would argue with the idea that Minnesota, on the whole, offers bass fishing that’s just as good as it is anywhere else.
Walleyes may be king in the state, and panfish may attract legions of anglers, but on several lakes across the state it isn’t uncommon to be able to go out and catch dozens of bass during a single outing.
Anglers may never catch a double-digit whopper in Minnesota. Our state-record largemouth weighed 8 pounds, 15 ounces, while the record smallmouth weighed 8 pounds. But the tradeoff is the opportunity to fish thousands of lakes with strong bass populations.
One of the best parts of bass fishing in Minnesota is the diversity of fisheries available. During one day on a body of water, it’s entirely possible to catch bass in water ranging from 1 foot to 30 feet or more. Anglers can spend the day skipping worms underneath boat docks and trees that overhang the shoreline, flipping jigs in bulrushes and among beds of cabbage, or dragging big crankbaits along deep weedlines.
The more adventurous of the bunch can toss buzzbaits over weed-covered flats where hungry bass feed, and reel rattle baits or spinnerbaits just below the surface, provoking bone-jarring strikes from aggressive fish.
Minnesota’s regular bass season opens May 26, while an early catch-and-release season kicks off two weeks before that.
The regular season in a small portion of the northeastern part of Minnesota — north and east of U.S. Highway 53 from Duluth to International Falls, as well as Ash and Pelican lakes in St. Louis County — opens May 12 as well and runs through Feb. 24, 2019.
The largemouth bass season continues through Feb. 24, while the regular smallmouth bass season runs through Sept. 9. From Sept. 10 through Feb. 24, anglers can target smallmouth bass on a catch-and-release basis. There’s no reason to think this won’t be another tremendous year for people who enjoy catching bass all across our state.
“Minnesota has tremendous bass fishing, and part of that is because we have such high-quality habitat on an abundance of lakes,” said Henry Drewes, regional fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.
Indeed, Minnesota has many lakes with strong populations of both largemouth and smallmouth bass. The latter species, in particular, has come on especially strong in recent years.
No other lake in Minnesota has captured the attention of the bass-fishing public like Mille Lacs, a 128,000-acre body of water in central Minnesota that’s gained fame for producing monster smallmouth bass. While the lake’s walleye population has been struggling and fishing regulations have been tightened, it has been drawing people specifically because of its robust smallmouth bass fishery.
In 2016, for example, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society held its Angler Of The Year tournament at the lake, and the winner — Minnesota native Seth Feider — won the event with 15 bass weighing more than 5 pounds apiece. Following that tournament, Feider and other anglers sang the lake’s praises as they weighed in football-sized smallmouth bass after football-sized smallmouth bass.
“This place is unbelievable,” said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Dave Lefebre, of Pennsylvania. “A lot of these guys caught the biggest (smallmouth bass) that they’ve ever caught in their lives.”
But while Mille Lacs may be in the spotlight right now, it’s far from the only lake in the state where fishermen can spend a day catching bass. Here’s a look at some of the lakes in Minnesota that fishermen should keep on their radar this year.
The 39,000-acre Lake Vermilion near Tower includes both largemouth and smallmouth bass, though the latter are more abundant. According to the Minnesota DNR, smallmouth bass abundance in the lake has increased over the past three decades. Anglers tend to catch more fish on the western side of the lake, while the east side is the destination for those who want a crack at a bigger fish.
Checking in at 210,000 acres, the Canadian border water known as Rainy Lake near International Falls offers excellent smallmouth fishing along its rocky shorelines and reefs. Smallmouth bass in Rainy range up to about 19 inches in length, though the DNR notes their growth is slow when compared to other lakes in Minnesota.
Leech Lake near Walker, which encompasses more than 110,000 acres and is Minnesota’s third largest, is known primarily for its walleye and muskie fishing, but there’s also an excellent largemouth bass fishery that’s centered around the shallow cover in the lake’s many bays. Flip jigs-and-pigs into the emergent vegetation, or cast topwater spoons or buzzbaits if you prefer the adrenalin rush of topwater fishing.
The Whitefish Chain of Lakes near Cross Lake offers perhaps the most diverse largemouth bass fishery in the state. Fishing is especially productive underneath the chain’s boat docks. Anglers who skip a Senko beneath docks can spend the day catching bass of all sizes.
The Alexandria Chain of Lakes near Alexandria has a well-deserved reputation for kicking out big numbers of bass. It isn’t particularly unusual for anglers who target deep weedlines to encounter large schools of bass and catch 50 or more fish during a trip. Jig worms are especially productive when fishing the chain’s weedlines, though it’s heavily developed, too, so there are plenty of boat docks to explore.
The smallmouth bass fishery in the 5,500-acre Green Lake near Spicer isn’t what it once was, but it remains a good fishing destination. Focus on rocks and you’ll find them. The lake also has largemouth bass, and skipping tubes beneath boat docks is a great way to target them.
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Though North and South Center lakes near Lindstrom receive a high amount of traffic and fishing pressure, they’re also home to good populations of largemouth bass. That’s especially true in South Center, which according to the Minnesota DNR, bass are “very abundant” and average 11 inches in length and just under a pound.
The 8,000-acre Lake Minnewaska near Glenwood features populations of largemouth and smallmouth bass that “have expanded in recent years,” according to the DNR. “Both species are abundant and larger bass are relatively common.”
Perhaps Minnesota’s best-known bass lake, the 14,000-acre Lake Minnetonka in the western Twin Cities has a reputation for producing high-quality bass from among the lake’s vest beds of Eurasian watermilfoil.
Heavy jig-and-pig combos weighing at least an ounce, or soft-plastic baits with weights of similar sizes, are good for punching through the milfoil mats and coaxing bites from largemouth bass that use the vegetation as feeding and resting areas. While this type of fishing can be relatively monotonous, it’s not uncommon for anglers to hook bass that weigh 4 pounds or more.
The 3,100-acre Lake Waconia near Waconia also is a bass-fishing hotspot. During the summer, many fish can be found in the vegetation that grows on offshore structure. Flipping plastic creature baits among the vegetation is a good way to locate schools of fish and to hook some of the lake’s bigger bass.
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On the south end of the metro area is Prior Lake, near a city of the same name, which encompasses about 1,300 acres and is quickly developing a reputation as a great destination for taking high-quality bass. While it can be tempting to target the lake’s many boat docks, anglers who drag Carolina rigs and other baits around and beyond the lake’s weedlines likely will experience the best success.
At 1,500 acres, Lake Washington near Madison Lake isn’t particularly large, but it is filled with good numbers of chunky bass. Additionally, the lake’s size also means anglers can explore the whole thing during the course of a day. A good approach is to toss topwater baits in the morning around the lake’s reed beds, and then start moving out toward deeper water as the sun climbs higher in the sky.
At Lake Frances near Greenland, which spans just fewer than 1,000 acres, recent DNR surveys haven’t turned up as many bass, but the overall size structure has improved. In 2016 nearly a third of the bass surveyed measured more than 12 inches in length.
Fishing Tips from the Pros
Sure, Minnesota is home to 10,000 lakes (actually more), but fishermen who want to cash in on excellent bass-fishing action shouldn’t overlook the state’s flowing water. While the Mississippi River around the Minneapolis and St. Paul area offers some of the state’s best fishing for catfish, northern reaches of the river — from about Monticello to St. Cloud, and Little Falls to about Brainerd — also offer plenty of fine fishing for smallmouth bass.
These portions of the river include lots of shallow water, and so anglers who use canoes or other small craft do especially well. Toss fast-moving baits such as crankbaits and spinnerbaits to determine where fish are holding — along the bank or out in the current, for example — and then slow down and fish more methodically.
The St. Croix River, which makes up a portion of Minnesota’s border with Wisconsin, also produces outstanding smallmouth bass fishing. The upper portion of the St. Croix is especially notable as smallmouth territory, and anglers who toss topwater baits can enjoy fast, heart-pounding action.
Southeastern Minnesota’s Root River is another gem that smallmouth bass fishermen shouldn’t overlook. Smaller than either the Mississippi or the St. Croix, the Root River offers a unique angling experience for fishermen who enjoy targeting bass in small waters.
JIG-WORMS ARE MAGIC FOR MINNESOTA BASS
While bass readily will eat live bait such as leeches and minnows, many anglers who target bass prefer instead to do so with artificial lures. There is a dizzying array of lures available today, but anglers who want to target largemouth and smallmouth bass in water of any depth shouldn’t overlook a mushroom-head jig and 4- to 6-inch plastic worm.
Fished on spinning gear and 6- to 8-pound monofilament, anglers can skip 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jig-worms beneath docks as easily as they can target deep weedlines for bass.
During the summer months in Minnesota, deep weedlines are among the best places to locate schools of active bass. One of the most effective ways to fish them is to make long casts parallel to the deep edge of the weeds and alternate between a few retrieve styles.
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Some days, the fish will gobble a jig-worm retrieved slowly and steadily just above the bottom. Other days, they prefer a jig-worm fished with more of a hopping motion. Either way, anglers should watch their line as the lure falls toward the bottom. Oftentimes, bass will grab the lure as it’s falling and the only way anglers will know they’ve got a bite is if they see the line jump.
Lakes in Minnesota tend to be relatively clear, which means choosing a natural-colored jig-worm often is a good idea. Pumpkinseed is an especially good choice. If you’re fishing around vegetation, one of the best ways to provoke strikes with a jig-worm is to let the lure sink and hang up on a weed. Then give the rod tip a sharp jerk to dislodge the lure. Bass in the area will have a tough time ignoring your offering.