By Joe Albert
JANUARY - Crappies: Fairmont Chain of Lakes
Located in the city of Fairmont along the Iowa border, the chain of lakes has a solid reputation as crappie producers during the winter, and 100-fish days!
There's been a crappie resurgence in the lakes in recent years. Justin Sommer, who owns Sommer Outdoors in Fairmont, recalls fishing as a kid and being happy with a crappie or two.
By January, there's plenty of ice for anglers to access the lakes, which aren't particularly deep. Amber Lake is deepest, with a maximum of 19 feet.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, anglers have a chance to catch both white and black crappies in the chain.
Other Options: Lake Waconia Crappies: Find a school of crappies and catch dozens in short order. Blackduck Lake Yellow Perch: It's not uncommon for fishermen to catch foot-long perch.
FEBRUARY - Yellow Perch: Lake Winnibigoshish
Checking in at more than 56,000 acres, Lake Winnibigoshish is among the state's largest. It's also one of its best when it comes to producing both numbers and sizes of yellow perch.
While the perch population has been down on the lake in recent years, down years, when DNR nets produce 50 to 70 perch per lift, are still better than good years on many other lakes.
"The perch population went through a period of lower abundance and fewer larger fish in the system, but it is recovering well right now," said Gerry Albert, DNR large lake specialist for Winnibigoshish. "It appears the size structure is improving, and it looks like that will continue on."
Other Options: Chisago Lake Bluegills: Population and size of bluegills in the lake are above average. North Shore Kamloops Trout: Kamloops stage along Lake Superior tributaries.
MARCH - Walleyes: Mississippi River Pool 4
Whereas the walleye season for inland waters in Minnesota opens in mid-May, the season never closes on the Mississippi River. The river's Pool 4 near the southern town of Red Wing attracts walleyes on their annual spawning run from Lake Pepin, and they converge in the Red Wing area just below the dam.
It's a relatively confined area and can be a busy place, but the results tend to be worth the effort. Anglers can catch good numbers of fish and also have a shot at trophy walleyes weighing 10 pounds or more.
Other Options: Southeastern Minnesota Trout: There's a catch-and-release winter trout season on our famed streams in the Bluff Country. North Long Lake Bluegills: Find submerged vegetation and you'll catch bluegills.
APRIL - Lake Sturgeon: Rainy River/LOW
The massive Lake of the Woods may be best known for its walleye fishing, but it's also becoming a prime destination for people who want a shot at catching the fish of a lifetime. The Rainy River area where it enters Lake of the Woods provides the opportunity to catch 60-inch and longer lake sturgeon during a harvest season that begins in mid-April and lasts into early May.
"In 1990 if you caught a sturgeon longer than 50 inches, you probably got your picture in the paper," said Tom Heinrich, DNR large lake fisheries specialist for LOW. "Now, nobody even bats an eye for a 60-inch fish."
Other Options: Lake Minnetonka Crappies: The lake has many channels that hold crappies when ice goes out. Big Stone Lake Walleyes: This hotspot opens for walleye fishing in the mid-April.
MAY - Walleyes: Leech Lake
One of Minnesota's most popular walleye lakes, 110,000-acre Leech opens to fishing on the second Saturday in May. Anglers find good numbers of walleyes and, depending on the weather, find them in a wide variety of locations.
Good starting points are the lake's rocky points. If the spring has been warm, opening-day anglers can find clusters of fish on the lake's abundant structure. Fish hold tight to the bottom, and so anglers who drift or troll live-bait rigs don't need to use snells longer than about 5 feet.
Leech Lake has special regulations for walleyes that differ from the statewide regulations. Check before you go.
Other Options: Nokasippi River Suckers: Look for suckers, then cast a gob of nightcrawlers in front of them. Bad Medicine Lake Rainbows: Stocked fish hang near the surface when the water is cool.
JUNE - Bass: Alexandria Chain of Lakes
The main lakes that make up the Alexandria chain provide anglers the opportunity to catch bass just about any way they want. Boat docks are abundant on these highly developed lakes, and many of them hold bass. Deep weedlines often hold large schools of fish.
Mushroomhead jigs tipped with 4- to 7-inch, natural-colored plastic worms are especially productive and produce a nice mixed-bag of fish when retrieved along weedlines. While the lakes have a reputation for producing large quantities of bass, opportunities for 5-pounders exist.
The best way to target them is flipping heavy jigs into deep vegetation. Additionally, smallmouths are being caught with more regularity.
Other Options: Cass Lake Walleyes: Cass produces numbers of fish for anglers trolling crankbaits along structure. Lake Sarah Walleyes: Weed growth makes the lake tough to fish, but June is a great time to target walleyes.
JULY - Smallmouth Bass: Rainy Lake
Located in the far northern part of Minnesota, Rainy Lake's bass season is open for about a month before the fishing really turns on. But once it does, Rainy Lake is among the state's top options for smallmouths.
While the lake doesn't churn out monster smallmouth bass — a big one at Rainy is about 4 pounds — it holds an abundance of hard-fighting fish. There's really no need to complicate things early in the season. Tie on a crankbait or spinnerbait, find a rocky shoreline, and start covering water. If you locate a concentration of spawning fish, rig a soft-plastic crawfish bait and start fishing the area more thoroughly.
Other Options: Lake Minnetonka Largemouths: Big bass are concentrated in vegetation such as milfoil. Pitch jigs or soft plastics. Horseshoe Chain of Lakes Catfish: The Horseshoe Chain kicks out plenty of channel catfish.
AUGUST - Catfish: Minnesota River
There's no better time to target the monster flathead catfish that call the Minnesota River home. The river spans more than 300 miles and flows across the southern portion of the state, boasting a flathead catfish population that rivals anywhere else in the nation. Nearly all stretches of the river hold flatheads, which provide good fishing opportunities in the west where other summertime options are limited.
There's a devoted and growing group of flathead anglers who target them closer to the Twin Cities. The fish are as abundant as they are big — 30- and 40-pounders are caught regularly.
Nighttime is the best time to catch flatheads; deep holes and snags are among the best spots. Use heavy tackle to keep the fish out of the abundant snags on the bottom.
Other Options: Lake of the Woods Muskies: Abundant muskies and some of the state's best scenery. What's not to love? Lake Bemidji Walleyes: Shallow-running crankbaits trolled after dark are hard to beat.
SEPTEMBER - Largemouth Bass: Gull Lake
The bass in Gull Lake don't grow to massive sizes — a 3-pounder is a good fish — but there are plenty of them, and plenty of places for them to hide. The lake's abundant shallow cover remains productive in September, and fishing can be especially good as the fish feed in preparation for the winter.
Boat docks provide the most abundant form of cover, though the lake also has plenty of reed beds and other shallow cover, such as trees that have fallen into the water. Start the day throwing topwater frogs and other baits through the lake's reeds. As the sun climbs higher in the sky, the fish tend to gravitate toward docks and other cover, so lures that can be skipped underneath overhead cover perform best.
Other Options: Mississippi River Muskies: The portion of the river near Brainerd holds huge muskies. Green Lake Largemouths: The lake has a largemouth population our DNR describes as "abundant."
OCTOBER - Northern Pike: Upper Red Lake
More than a decade ago, the main story emerging from Upper Red Lake was the crash of the walleye population. Black crappies filled the void. These days, the walleye population has come back and the crappie fishery is again relegated to the background. But through it all, Upper Red Lake has remained one of the state's best places to catch a trophy northern pike. In fact, DNR fisheries biologists in their spring surveys have handled pike nearing 50 inches.
Focus on the shallows this time of year and pay attention to subtle differences in depth. Upper Red doesn't have the sort of structure you find in other lakes, and so 6- to 12-inch changes in depth are important.
Other Options: Lake Miltona Muskies: Large baits trolled over open water can produce muskies longer than 50 inches. Lake Osakis Crappies: The DNR classifies the lake's crappie population as "very abundant."
NOVEMBER - Muskies: Mille Lacs
Mille Lacs remains one of our best bodies of water for catching massive muskies. While the number of big fish isn't where it was 5 to 10 years ago, there are enough out there to coax anglers out of their deer stands.
Recently, anglers have caught and released muskies exceptionally close to the state record, which weighed 54 pounds and measured 56 inches.
While early season anglers cast small baits, November is the time to throw baits that are a foot long, weigh a pound, and mimic the forage species muskies target. The fish are loading up on high-fat ciscoes, which are hanging out around shallow rocks.
Other Options: Lake Vermilion Walleyes: Anglers dressing warmly and pulling crankbaits at night find good results. Prior Lake Panfish: The lake has good bluegill and crappie populations, and both species bite readily.
DECEMBER - Panfish: Clearwater Lake
Located in Wright County just outside the Twin Cities, Clearwater Lake is a 3,158-acre body of water that has good populations of both bluegills and crappies. Ice generally has set up on the lake by December; anglers should venture onto it only after they're certain it's safe. Locate green vegetation. That's the spot for bluegills and crappies.
The lake has a solid panfish population (bluegills, green and hybrid sunfish and pumpkinseeds), as well as a black crappie population that's healthy "in terms of their size and age structures," according to the DNR.
The lake's west side is especially productive for crappies. December anglers should begin their search around the places where the water drops off from sunken islands.
Other Options: Tamarack Lake Bluegills: The lake freezes fast and provides excellent fishing for bluegills. Upper Red Lake Walleyes: The hottest action occurs when the ice is thick enough to allow access.