When the majority of Minnesota anglers travel during the winter months to go ice fishing, it is for a specific destination and body of water.
That is for good reason, though, as lakes like Upper Red, Osakis, Lake of the Woods, and even Mille Lacs are known for producing a lot of quality fish. What these anglers don’t know, is there often is just as good ice fishing, and sometimes even better, just down the road on less renowned lakes.
These smaller bodies of water don’t benefit from ad campaigns from big-name resorts. Many anglers drive right past them, without even knowing the names of these fishing hotspots. Therefore, if you find the right spot, you could have an entire section of lake, if not the entire lake itself, all to yourself for a good portion of the winter.
Ice-fishing guides know that if they want to earn repeat business, they can’t do what many resorts do and line up their customers in a single area. They need to work around the crowds and give their clients a sense of being independent of the shantytowns that pop up every winter on productive spots. A good guide will take you to out-of-the way spots on lesser-known lakes in the vicinity of the prominent lakes that everyone else is fishing.
Here, select guides will share their expertise concerning some of the lesser-known bodies of water in their respective areas. Places they like to frequent when the throngs descend after hearing a good bite is happening. They’ll also share some insight on how to spread out and find a hidden gem of your own.
The Brainerd Lakes Area is the most visited area in the state for weekend anglers and recreationists. While the procession of people slows down a bit in the winter months, there still are plenty of people traveling to visit the more popular lakes like Mille Lacs, Gull, and Round. The Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza alone draws more than 10,000 people in one day to the frozen shores of Gull Lake.
Jesse Williams, of Angler’s North Guide Service in Crosby, knows all too well the allure and downsides of fishing the more popular waterways in the area. “Serpent Lake is right here in town,” he says, “yet guys would rather travel to Mille Lacs or Leech than chase the walleyes right in their own back yard. It gets some pressure at first ice, but once guys can start driving on the bigger lakes, Serpent empties pretty quick.
“Late in the season, all of the people spread to other lakes; you will have all of the mid-lake structure to yourself,” Williams continues. “You will see where there is evidence of prior fishing efforts so you can pick out where to avoid. If one side of a hump saw a ton of pressure early in the season and the other side wasn’t touched, you can still get some quality fish where no one else has been yet. You can put a limit of walleyes together pretty quickly that way.”
Williams also points to Bay Lake in the area as a great multi-species lake. “Bay is a huge recreational lake in the summer, but doesn’t see a lot of pressure in the winter. You might see only 40 fish houses across the whole lake, and it’s over 2,000 acres. Nearly all of the fishing activity takes place within a mile of the access so if you are willing to drive a little farther out on the lake, you will get to a point where you will hardly see any evidence of fishermen.
“I can’t think of a better lake to go to catch both panfish and walleyes in decent numbers and size just by fishing in one spot. Just find a spot adjacent to deep water. The beauty of Bay Lake is that the best fishing takes place at sundown and after, so if you get off of work and it is already dark because it’s winter, you can jump in the truck, head out on Bay and catch some crappies and walleyes.”
Williams also likes to capitalize on the newest wintertime fishing option, trout in the mine pits. These pits were mined for iron ore starting in the early 1900s and when the mining was done, the miners just let the pits fill up with water. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources began stocking various species of trout in the mines for summer anglers in the 1970s. The DNR opened the mine pits to winter fishing for the first time ever in 2015.
“This is an entirely new thing to the people of the area and it is going to take some time to really pattern how these fish feed in the winter,” notes Williams. “These trout are not like panfish, where they will sit in one spot on structure. They could be up in 7 feet of water one minute, and then back out over 100 the next. So you have to be willing to move a lot. A 20-foot depth change can make a huge difference in what you are seeing on your sonar.”
While the learning curve was steep in the first year, a lot of anglers are figuring out how to catch trout through the ice and there have been some very large rainbows, browns, and even lake trout coming through the bait shop in town.
The Alexandria area is no slouch when it comes to attracting visiting ice-anglers. Take one look out on Lake Osakis or Minnewaska when the panfish bites are hot. However, guide Joe Scegura has taken a slightly offbeat approach to finding waters for his clients.
“It seems funny to say it out loud, but some of the best crappie and bluegill lakes are also the best walleye lakes,” he says. “They have the forage base to produce plenty of big walleyes — why wouldn’t the panfish get big as well? There will be a group of fish houses camped out over a rock reef, and I am all alone on a weed edge catching massive bluegills because no one bothers to look for them because it is supposed to be a walleye lake.”
Scegura points to lakes like Miltona as an example, “Miltona is a great fishery, but the panfish get almost no pressure because of the walleyes’ notoriety. Almost everyone out on the ice is chasing walleyes.”
In the fertile waters of the Alexandria area, a lot of the tiny ponds that many anglers would think of as nothing more than duck sloughs often have some great panfishing opportunities.
“You will see this little speck of water on the map, and there isn’t any depth maps or survey information, most of them don’t even have names.” Scegura says, “You get out there, you drill a line of holes and next thing you know, you are catching big panfish. Some of these sunfish, gosh, they’re huge. You have a chance at catching many bluegills over 10 inches and crappies over 13 inches.”
Bemidji is surrounded by more famous lakes in the state. With these vast riches filled with walleyes and perch, it is easy to overlook even some of the larger lakes in the region. Cass Lake is just down the road, Leech and Winnibigosh just a few miles farther; Upper Red and Lake of the Woods are just a a short drive north. Local guide Matt Breuer of Northcountry Guide Service has been on Lake Bemidji and the surrounding area for more than 13 years. Yet, he is still surprised how often some of his favorite lakes are skipped by for bigger, nearby waterways, “A lot of people pass right on by on their way to lakes like Winnibigosh, Leech, Cass, Upper Red, and Lake of the Woods. Lake Bemidji is a very underutilized lake in the area.”
Breuer, who also rents sleeper fish houses on Lake Bemidji, likes to place his fish houses in areas that have high concentrations of fish all day and night long, “I like to key on humps and troughs as opposed to shoreline structure as fish will use that offshore structure at any time of the day. My rentals get a lot of perch and walleyes during the day, and then the eelpout start showing up overnight, along with a few more walleyes.
“Places on the lake like Half Moon Bar on the east side, Rockpile Bar in the middle of the lake, and Diamond Bar with all of its nooks and crannies are good places to start,” explains Breuer. “Start in deeper water during the day, and then move up shallower as the sun starts to set.
“The fish on Lake Bemidji tend to go for larger baits, so I advise a lot of my clients to bring larger baits like spoons, or Salmo Chubby Darters,” notes Breuer. “Bigger baits will keep the smaller perch away, but the big ones have no problem attacking them.
“Blackduck is another lake in the Bemidji area that people drive almost directly past on their way to Upper Red or Lake of the Woods,” says Breuer. “They don’t realize they are missing out on great walleye fishing that doesn’t have special slot restrictions like a lot of the big-name lakes do.” What this means, is you generally have a better chance of bringing home a meal of fish and the possibility of bigger fish.
“The amount of structure on Blackduck Lake allows for a lot of anglers to spread out and fish different areas. Blackduck is one of those lakes where you can fish several different tactics, as some fish will relate to weeds, some to rocks, and others to transition areas. Not to mention, when you run into the occasional sunfish or crappie, they tend to be pretty big.”
Breuer also mentions Plantagenet as a great late-season lake to hit, “There are some really nice perch that come out of there late in the season, and when you are on the perch, you will generally get a few walleyes in the mix.”
It can be hard to imagine people driving by large lakes such as these, all with great walleye and perch fishing. If you think large is an exaggeration, Bemidji is 6,500 acres, Plantagenet is 2,500, and Blackduck is 2,600. Yet, thousands of anglers pass them by every day, all winter long. When you have such a treasure trove of great fisheries, it can be easy to be swayed into hitting the premier lakes when they are just a few more miles down the road. Do yourself a favor this winter and try something new.
HARD BOTTOM, SOFT BOTTOM
One key factor when searching for walleyes and jumbo perch on lakes like Plantagenet, Blackduck, and Bemidji is keying in on bottom composition changes. Matt Breuer suggests learning how to read these transition areas with your sonar unit.
“A lot of times, perch will ride that exact line between hard and soft bottom, and where you are finding perch you will generally find walleyes traveling along with them.” he explains. “With a hard bottom you will see a very narrow line for the bottom because the transducer signal hits bottom and returns immediately.
With a soft bottom, the signal is absorbed into the lake bottom before it bounces back. By spacing out your holes, you can quickly zero in on that transition line by knowing what your flasher is telling you.
“When you gain that confidence in knowing what you are seeing on the display of your flasher, it will make you a better angler.” States Breuer. “In fishing, confidence is a huge contributor to success.” —Bob Bohland