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Minnesota's Feisty Bronzebacks

Minnesota's Feisty Bronzebacks

Our state is truly a smallmouth mecca. This variety of great destinations are sure to make your fishing season a happy one. (May 2008)

It's the gamest fish that swims.

That praise of the smallmouth bass was written 125 years ago and has been repeated often. While Minnesota fishermen may not have felt that way in the past, nowadays the smallmouth has plenty of fans even here in the land of walleyes. And what's not to love?

The smallmouth's aggressive strikes, spectacular jumps and never-give-up stamina impress even the most jaded anglers. Even better is Minnesota's diversity of extraordinary bronzeback hotspots. Our state is truly a smallmouth mecca. Here are a variety of great destinations that are sure to make your fishing season a happy one.

Not many think of this Hubbard County lake when they dream of smallies, but perhaps they should.

Although Potato has plenty of nice-sized smallmouths, most folks fixate on the lake's walleyes, panfish and pike. Twenty-five years ago, smallmouth bass were rare in this 2,100-acre lake north of Park Rapids. Now, DNR surveys record substantial numbers of the species.

Don't expect many smallmouths at your first stop on Potato. Rather, keep trying different humps and dropoffs that have rock or gravel substrates. A jig and minnow is good, but those proficient with tube jigs often do even better. If a productive location suddenly turns cold, the smallies may have spooked in the clear water. In this situation, rest the hotspot and try it again later.


June and July is the most consistent period, while fall sees some of the biggest fish taken. Two boat ramps are located on the north side of the lake. A nearby bait shop is Northern Bait Co., (218) 732-5113, in Park Rapids. Contact the area chamber at (800) 247-0054 or . for more information.

Without doubt, Vermilion is a North Country gem. The 40,000-acre beauty in northeast Minnesota contains miles of shoreline, dozens of islands and thousands of smallmouths.

And while those who target Vermilion smallmouths are fewer in number, they generally do quite well. The last two years were especially good reproductive years and should provide plenty of action this season. Smallmouths from the 1997 spawn have grown to 18 inches or more and fish born in 2001 will be nice 13- to 14-inchers.

Vermilion's two distinct parts -- the east and west basins -- are separated by Oak Narrows. Although smallmouths are found on both sides of the lake, some anglers feel the east end is better, an idea Greg Wilson agrees with. He said the islands between Stuntz and Armstrong bays are consistent producers. Near Tower, he found that docks also hold nice smallmouths. In the west basin, he recommends Wakemup Bay.

Vermilion is in the special northeast zone where the bass season opens in mid-May and shallow-water spring fishing is exceptional. Later in the season, working deeper shorelines and reefs is better.

Numerous resorts and guides operate on this big lake, though most guides concentrate on walleyes and muskies. For more information, visit Ace Guide Service at . For lodging assistance, call the Lake Vermilion Resort Association at (800) 648-5897.

The Mississippi River downstream of the Twin Cities is a popular walleye destination, while upstream, it's a well-known smallmouth hotspot. But few appreciate the 20-plus miles that flow through the metro area.

As a metro river fan, I have long regarded the 20-mile stretch from Coon Rapids down to the mouth of the Minnesota River a fine close-to-home bronzeback destination.

Although not as numerous as they are upriver, this section offers noteworthy smallmouth action. Also, the river is deep enough in most places that you can use a standard-sized boat.

The northern stretch from the Coon Rapids Dam down to the Lowry Bridge in Minneapolis isn't dredged, so it's uncrowded. There's quite a bit of natural rock for fish to relate to and in the summer, river depths may be quite shallow. In fact, in late summer, I often experience good action while wade-fishing.

In the heart of Minneapolis, the river is deeper and offers unique views of skyscrapers, nearby joggers and an occasional barge. Because this part of the Mississippi is dredged, the best structure is often riprapped banks, tile outflows, bridge piers and dam plunge pools. The three dams in this part of the river are especially good. Downstream of the Ford Dam, walleyes and white bass are common catches. Another productive area is the limestone-studded banks behind the University of Minnesota campus. Unfortunately, one good metro spot is no longer available. The I-35W bridge area consistently held fish, and just days before last summer's bridge collapse, I caught several nice smallmouths at that very spot. Since the tragedy, the area has been off-limits.

Crawfish-colored crankbaits are consistent summer baits. To most effectively fish the metro or upper Mississippi River, consider a guided trip with Smallmouth Angler ( ).

For river maps, call the DNR at (651) 296-6157 or visit www.dnr. .

Itasca County in north-central Minnesota is home to a cluster of fine smallmouth lakes and Deer Lake may be the best of the bunch. At nearly 4,100 acres, it certainly ranks as one of the largest smallmouth waters in the area. Combine Deer's substantial size, its scenic beauty and good numbers of bronzebacks and you have a premier destination. Best of all, DNR surveys and angler reports indicate an improving fishery. For example, a 1995 DNR electrofishing project captured 17 fish an hour. A decade later, the number had grown to 56 an hour. The study also found that the size of the fish had also increased over the years with one-third of the fish measuring 15 inches or better.

The size increase is largely attributed to more anglers practicing catch-and-release than 20 years ago. Besides impressive numbers of smallmouths, rock bass are also abundant in Deer Lake, so expect to catch plenty of those eager biters, especially when using smaller baits.

The mighty muskie is another species Deer Lake fishermen should be ready for. A muskie-stocking program has produce

d a significant fishery with estimates of one adult fish per seven acres.

To maximize success on Deer, the lake's high clarity should be taken into account. Naturally, the best fishing occurs in lower light periods of mornings and evenings and cloudy days. On sunny days, be willing to fish deeper than usual and use smaller-sized baits.

For more information, contact the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce at (800) 472-6366 or For fishing advice, contact the Fishing Hole in Grand Rapids at (218) 326-2899.

River-rich southeast Minnesota is the only region of our state lacking natural lakes. Nevertheless, it is home to 600-acre Zumbro Lake, a fishy reservoir north of Rochester. Created by damming the Zumbro River, this manmade lake shares some of the characteristics of larger reservoirs. It's long and narrow with some steep, rocky shorelines and points, and water clarity and levels fluctuate with the incoming flow from two streams.

It's home to diverse species like walleyes, crappies, largemouth bass and muskies, plus more riverine fish, such as white bass, catfish and, of course, smallmouths. Rochester-area bass fans regularly catch good-sized smallies in Zumbro, along with fair numbers of largemouths. Because it's the only substantial lake in southeast Minnesota, weekend use is often heavy, but weekday fishing is good.

Working shorelines and points littered with small to medium-sized broken rock is an easy way to connect with fish. And targeting less obvious rocky structure, such as small humps, flats and ridges 6 to 12 feet deep, is a way to find less-disturbed fish.

Spinnerbaits are popular with local anglers for both of Zumbro Lake's bass species. But when the fish are less active, it's hard to beat a trusty jighead dressed with a tube or grub body. Three boat landings scattered along the length of the lake allow easy access.

For more information, contact the Rochester Chamber of Commerce at or the Lake City DNR at (651) 345-3365.

Just about everyone knows that 14,000-acre Lake Minnetonka is one of the metro's top bigmouth destinations, but fewer are aware of its smallmouth potential.

Sure, 'Tonka's smallmouth population is low compared with its hordes of largemouths, but competent fishermen can still connect with some excellent bronzebacks. And, since Twin Cities lakes holding smallmouths are limited, Minnetonka has the advantage of being a close-to-home destination for many.

You probably won't catch high numbers of smallmouths from 'Tonka, but the quality is excellent. Stout fish exceeding 17 inches aren't unusual, and 5-pound giants are sometimes hooked.

Over the past 20 years, smallies appear to have expanded their range and turn up occasionally in all parts of Minnetonka. However, your best odds are still in the eastern third of the lake. Consider Brown's, Robinson and Wayzata bays and Big Island for the best numbers. Classic rock reefs and points are good, too. Even those largemouth favorites, boat docks, have potential if they're over gravel.

Suspending thin-minnow crankbaits within a couple feet of the bottom are effective as search baits where vegetation isn't heavy. And like they are in so many places, snagless-rigged jigs, including 3- and 4-inch grubs and tubes, are killers for thoroughly working specific targets.

Minnetonka's boat traffic, especially on weekends, is notoriously heavy, but surprisingly, even in mid-day some fish may be caught if you fish deeper than 15 feet. Naturally, the best fishing time is weekday mornings when boat traffic is light.

Stop by Wayzata Bait at 15748 Wayzata Blvd. or call (952) 473-2227 for the latest scoop on 'Tonka bronze.

Many rivers in Minnesota don't receive much attention, and the Big Fork certainly falls into that category. In the north-central region's Koochiching County, the Big Fork flows north to its junction with the much larger Rainy River. And what limited angler interest there is in the Big Fork is primarily for muskies. However, plenty of big smallies swim in this river, too. Some of the best fishing is in the lower 50 miles, which hold muskies, pike and walleyes, in addition to big smallmouths. Seven accesses for canoes and small boats are scattered along this section of river allowing day floats of varying distances. Start any trip below Grand Falls, in the town of Big Falls, and you'll encounter no other dangerous rapids. If river levels are above normal and folks are very careful, standard lake boats may be used on the lower Big Fork, but canoes, johnboats and other shallow-draft craft are usually more practical.

Smallmouths exceeding 20 inches and muskies over 42 inches are both possible on the Big Fork. To find the smallies, skip the areas with clay or sand bottoms and concentrate on rocky head-of-pool areas and eddies below islands.

The DNR offers a handy map of the Big Fork because it's a designated (though seldom used) canoe route. The maps are available through local DNR offices or the central office in St. Paul at (888) 646-6367.

While a handful of locals target the smallies, few other smallmouth devotees seem to be aware of Big and Little Birch lakes. That's a mistake because both lakes boast excellent populations of bronzebacks. A short stream connects these two central Minnesota lakes that straddle the Todd and Stearns county lines north of Melrose.

Big Birch weighs in at a hefty 2,100 acres and Little Birch a respectable 840 acres. That's plenty of water, but the lakes are small enough to traverse quickly and easily. Both lakes have above-average smallie numbers, with Little Birch claiming the highest number of fish per acre.

The lake has four boat landings and a nearby campground on state forestland on the west shore. Little Birch offers a boat launch on its north end.

For more information, contact the Melrose Chamber of Commerce at .

A quiet, scenic stream in east-central Minnesota, the Kettle provides good canoeing, as well as good fishing. In fact, this Pine County stream offers several types of angling experiences.

The 10-mile stretch above the town of Willow River may be fished by the on-foot angler and is also canoeable during the higher flows of early summer.

The next 11 miles, from Willow River to Hwy. 23, may be canoed or kayaked year 'round if flows are normal. Rock outcroppings and forested banks make great scenery and the long, rocky pools seem fishy. However, most of the predator fish in the Kettle -- smallmou

ths and walleyes -- are concentrated at the head of each pool. Thin-minnow crankbaits and in-line spinners will catch these eager fish. Just be careful not to park your canoe too close to your fishing spot. Anchoring 40 feet away is wise, and if the water is shallow, beach your craft and quietly approach on foot.

A series of rapids between Hwy. 23 and Sandstone causes most anglers to wisely avoid this stretch. The last 10 miles of the Kettle inside St. Croix State Park are more fishing-friendly. There are numerous riffles, but those with average paddling skills can handle them. Numerous bronzebacks relate to these fast-water zones. Some parts of the lower river can also be accessed from roads and trails inside the state park.

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