With so much great fishing for smallmouth bass in Minnesota, it's tough to narrow it down to our top 10 hotspots. But our expert has done his research so you don't have to.
By Tim Holschlag
It's that time again. Every spring I offer Minnesota Sportsman readers 10 great smallmouth waters to try. The trouble is, with Minnesota's multitude of blue-ribbon smallie destinations, I always have trouble narrowing it down to just 10.
Wild northwoods lakes, close-to-home haunts, big rivers, scenic streams - our state has so many excellent bronzeback locations. Of course, part of the problem is the fact that I never met a smallmouth lake or stream I didn't like. Put a smallie in a body of water and I'm interested, real interested. Even if it requires hard paddling or a long hike through the woods, I want to try it.
And I'm not alone. Thirty years ago, my passion for smallmouths made me an odd duck in the land of walleyes. Nowadays, I have plenty of company, with more and more people loving the power-packed smallmouths. It goes to show that today's anglers know a good thing when they hook it. And no matter whether you're a veteran or a rookie smallmouth angler, these waters offer something for everyone.
LAKE VERMILION For many smallmouth fans, piscatorial paradise means the deep blue lakes of northeast Minnesota. One of these north-country gems is Lake Vermilion in St Louis County.
A sprawling 40,000 acres, with dozens of islands and miles of shoreline, Vermilion affords anglers plenty of room to roam. Long a popular walleye destination, and more recently famous as a muskie hotspot, this lake also has good smallies. But Lake Vermillion smallmouthing is often overlooked, leaving plenty of water and fish for the serious smallmouth fan. And right now bronzeback populations in Vermilion are looking good. Excellent reproduction in the mid- and late-1990s means plenty of hard-fighting midsized models - 12- to 16-inchers - in the lake along with some 4- to 5-pound lunkers.
Because Vermilion is so large, with two distinct basins - separated by Oak Narrows - it's best for newcomers to concentrate on a single section of the lake. In the west basin, one area definitely worth trying is Wakemup Bay, especially the bay's many reefs and rock humps. On the east side near Tower, the islands between Stuntz Bay and Armstrong Bay are good. Even Vermilion's growing number of docks hold nice smallies. Jigheads dressed with 4-inch plastic worms are consistent producers during the spring and summer seasons.
Numerous resorts and guides operate on this big lake. For lodging assistance, call the Lake Vermilion Resort Association at 1-800-648-5897. For general information, go to www.lakevermilion.com
The author loves fly-fishing for smallmouth bass, especially hard-fighting 20-inchers like this one on Lake Vermilion. Photo courtesy of Tim Holschlag
LAKE KABETOGAMA Another famous north-country walleye destination, Lake Kabetogama offers much more than just plenty of walleyes.
Almost surrounded by Voyageurs National Park, "Kab" offers over 25,000 acres of beautiful wilderness water, plus dandy smallmouth fishing. And like many waters in our land of walleye mania, only a small core of anglers seriously pursue Kab's bronzebacks. Instead most anglers inadvertently catch the occasional smallmouth while targeting walleyes. But serious smallmouthing will pay off on Kabetogama. Last year's Department of Natural Resources survey found robust populations of the species, and Kab smallmouther Don Stevens says he consistently lands hefty bronzebacks up to nearly 5 pounds.
In the spring and early summer, Stevens targets spawning fish in gravel/rubble bays on the east side of the lake. In late June, Stevens moves to midlake islands and humps with rubble/sand substrates. He says the western end of the lake has a lot of clay bottom areas that hold more pike than smallmouths. But the humps around Sugarbush, Cutover and other islands are consistent smallmouth locations. In the summer, these shallow areas often develop weed growth. Stevens recommends working the weeds with topwaters and shallow runners early in the day, then moving deeper with deep-diving crankbaits as the day progresses.
To obtain a map and camping information on Kabetogama and Voyageurs National Park, go to www.nps.gov.voya. For local businesses, go to www.kabetogama.com or call the International Falls Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-325-5766.
TROUT LAKE Here's a third north-country beauty where smallies get overshadowed by a more glamorous species.
As its name implies, this is a trout lake - lake trout to be exact. One of several Minnesota lakes named Trout, this 1,900-acre jewel is in Itasca County, two miles east of Highway 38 and near Wabana Lake. Though it's locally famous for its deep-water lakers, Trout Lake also has some fine smallies swimming along its shorelines and around shallow midlake humps. And good fishing isn't this lake's only attribute. In fact, Trout's smallmouth populations aren't as high as in some northeast waters, but its beauty and tranquility compares favorably to Minnesota's most remote lakes. In the heart of Chippewa National Forest, Trout Lake is clear, quiet and forest-fringed with little development.
To find Trout Lake's smallmouths, focus on the 10- to 20-foot depths and skip the 80 percent of the lake that's deeper. Besides staying in the shallower zones, it's also critical to target wood cover or rubble, as in fist- to football-sized rocks. Covering water quickly with deep-diving crankbaits is a good way to find productive locations. Working that spot with a tube jig is a way to coax an extra fish or two from that location.
For local services and information, contact the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce at www.grandmn.com and Ben's Bait and Tackle in Grand Rapids at (218) 326-8281.
BIG FORK RIVER While many smallmouth fans have their favorite northwoods lake destinations, few realize that northern Minnesota also has some fine bronzeback rivers. The Big Fork, hidden in the vast flat forests of Koochiching County, is one of these little-known hotspots. Flowing north to its terminus with the Rainy River, the lower 50 miles of the Big Fork holds big smallmouths, muskies and other species. Seven canoe/small boat accesses scattered along this 50-mile section of river allow for day floats of varying distances. Just make sure you start any trips below Grand Falls in the town of Big Falls. Downstream of this tumultuous cascade there are no dangerous rapids.
I've released smallies up to 20 inches in the Big Fork and heard of guys landing muskies over 44 inches. T
o find the smallmouths, skip the areas with clay or sand bottoms and concentrate on rocky head-of-pool areas and eddies below islands. Due the to the fine-particle clay soils of the area, the Big Fork can run very turbid after a rain. Fishing is best if it's been dry for at least a week.
The DNR offers a handy map of the Big Fork and the other rivers highlighted in this article, because they are also designated - though seldom used - canoe routes. These river maps are available through most local DNR offices and from the central office in St Paul (1-888-646-6367). For the Big Fork, the closest sizeable town is International Falls. For more info, call 1-800-325-5766.
CLOQUET RIVER Here's another north-country river that gets little attention.
The Cloquet is a beautiful boulder-studded waterway winding through the woods northwest of Duluth. A major tributary of the St Louis River, the lower 30 miles of the Cloquet downstream of Island Lake is great smallmouth water. Don't expect many lunkers, because the river's low alkalinity keeps fish sizes on the small side, but high-jumping 10- to 13-inchers are plentiful. My friend Greg Breining likes to float the 10 miles of stream below Highway 53 because it's filled with rocky riffles and holds high numbers of fish. Breining advises, however, that the Cloquet's smallmouths are heavily concentrated in specific habitat. Slackwater pools may look appealing but they hold few fish. Instead, look for fish to be bunched in riffle/rapids areas. He says working these fast-water areas with black or brown jigs or flies, then quickly moving to the next spot, is the ticket to success.
Upstream of Highway 53 the Cloquet also holds plenty of smallies, along with a surprising number of channel catfish. During midsummer, low water may require pulling the canoe over a few shallow riffles, but overall the river from Island Lake down to its junction with the St Louis is floatable by canoe. A half-dozen bridge crossings serve as assess sites. One easy day float is the 8 miles from County Road 48 down to County Road 15. For local services, contact the Cloquet Chamber of Commerce at www.cloquet.com.
RUM RIVER It's an unusual stream. Though the Rum is over 135 miles long, it is nearly as big at its headwaters as at its mouth. That's because the Rum is the outlet for Mille Lacs and has few tributaries of any size.
It also means the upper stream carries enough water to support smallies. In fact, the 30 miles from Onamia down to Milaca is where most of the Rum's smallmouths are concentrated. A shallow waterway with a scenic wooded corridor, the upper Rum has enough rocky substrates and wood cover to hold a lot of chunky 12- to 15-inchers. Highway 169 and numerous county roads offer a dozen access points between Milaca and Onamia. The stream is floatable by canoe if its flow gauge reads at least 600 cubic feet per second. To obtain real-time water levels for Minnesota rivers, go to www.waterdata.usgs.gov.
As summer wears on, the Rum's shallow riffles often make canoe fishing difficult, so it's wise to do your float trips early in the season. Lightweight jigs and spinners are great lures, and the Rum is also an excellent stream for fly-fishing. The best way to quickly learn the intricacies of stream smallmouthing is from the river experts at Moving Waters Fishing (612-781-3912). They offer comprehensive stream schools for both spin-fishing and fly-fishing.
LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER The Mississippi in Minnesota is really three distinct rivers: the relatively shallow upper section north of the Twin Cities, the metro river flowing through the cities and the gargantuan lower Miss from Hastings down to the Iowa border. While the lower river suffers ongoing abuse from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dredging activities, plenty of smallmouths still swim in this portion of mighty Old Man River.
In fact, in recent years, smallmouth numbers in the lower river seem to have increased, according to DNR surveys and angler reports. This is likely due to clearing water, plus an increasing catch-and-release ethic among anglers. Most smallies caught are under the Mississippi's 14-inch minimum size regulation, but serious bassers are also landing and releasing 18- and 19-inch lunkers.
The river's hundreds of wing dams and miles of riprapped banks are the prime places to find smallmouths, and a few lunkers will also be found in side channels around wood cover. Crankbaits are the most popular big-river lures, but jigs and 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits often do a better job when the fish are sluggish.
There are nearly 50 boat landings and a dozen marinas along the lower Mississippi, offering ample access. However, these marinas also mean weekend boating is intense, with plenty of large cruisers plowing up and down river. During the summer, morning and weekday fishing is the best way to avoid the pleasure boaters. The Lake City area is one good place to fish. Contact the Lake City Chamber of Commerce at www.lakecity.org or (651) 345-4123.
ZUMBRO LAKE Virtually the only lake of any size in southeast Minnesota, Zumbro is a popular and productive 600-acre body of water just north of Rochester. As an impoundment of the Zumbro River, this lake is long and narrow with three boat landings. And due to its proximity to Rochester, weekend use of the lake can be heavy during the summer.
Nevertheless, last year's DNR survey found good numbers of both smallies and largemouths. Smallmouths of several year-classes - including fish over 17 inches - were represented, indicating consistent reproduction. Zumbro Lake is also home to a large array of other fish.
Two streams flowing into the lake enhance its productivity, and its miles of rocky shorelines and numerous points offers prime smallmouth habitat and good places for the angler to target. Spinnerbaits are popular with anglers for both of Zumbro Lake's bass species. But it's hard to beat the trusty tube jig when fish are finicky.
For local info, contact the Rochester Chamber of Commerce at www.rochestermnchamber.com.
TWO ISLAND LAKE Two Island is a modest-sized lake that's a big success story. When I first fished this Cook County body of water in the late 1980s, it was hard to find a smallie over 14 inches. Now anglers are catching numerous 16- and 17-inchers. You can thank the limited-harvest regulations that have been in place on Two Island the past eight years. The lake's 11-inch maximum-size reg has done a great job of improving fish sizes while maintaining a high overall population of smallies.
In fact, Two Island's smallmouth numbers are nearly seven times as much as other area lakes. So targeting nearly any of the lake's numerous rock humps should pay off with fish on the line. One area where I do well is around the islands and shallow humps on the west side of the lake. Black and chartreuse combo-colored jigs and flies are especially good in the lake's slightly stained water. And if you get out on the water early enough in the morning, small topwater baits are great.
Just remember, all fish over 11 inches must be released in Two Island. There is a nice U.S. Forest Service Campground at the east end of the lake, which includes a boat landing. The nearest town is Grand Marais, www.grandmaraismn.com or (218) 387-2524.
MAN LAKE One group of lakes often bypassed by serious smallmouth anglers are those clustered just south of Leech Lake in Cass County. Overlooking this area is a mistake if you consider Man Lake.
While not nearly as big or famous as some northeast Minnesota bodies of water, 450-acre Man still offers surprising numbers of smallies. A recent assessment by the Walker office of the DNR turned up smallmouth numbers several times higher than average for lakes of this type. More than half the smallies were over 12 inches and some were nearly 4 pounds. This DNR survey and reports by experienced anglers clearly show that Man's smallmouth population is excellent for a lake this size and in this part of the state.
Though shoreline development on Man is moderate, water clarity still remains at 11 feet. Bulrushes are scattered around the lake, patches of submergent vegetation extend down to 18 feet deep and significant amounts of the bottom is prime smallmouth substrate - gravel or rubble. Working deep-diving crankbaits though 10- and 12-foot depths is a reliable summer technique.
Access to Man is via a short channel from Baby Lake. Seven-hundred-acre Baby is best known for its muskies, but it also supports moderate numbers of smallmouths. The nearest town is Hackensack, which can be reached at www.hackensackmn.net.
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There you have it, 10 great smallmouth waters to sample and savor. These diverse hotspots should offer many hours of angling enjoyment around our state, but don't forget there are many other places to try. Minnesota is blessed with over 300 lakes and 45 rivers holding smallmouths. A willingness to explore will afford a lifetime of experiences. Just never forget that all Minnesota smallmouths are extremely slow growing, often requiring a dozen years to reach 4 pounds. Releasing them today means better fishing for years to come.
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