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Downstate Bass Hotspots

Downstate Bass Hotspots
Stacy Barbour fishes the country for bass. These are the Minnesota lakes he'll be tackling this season.

by Tim Lesmeister

Most bass anglers have a specialty. Sure, the good ones can all flip a jig, careen a crankbait off the edge of a weedline, slow-roll a spinnerbait in sparse vegetation and "walk the dog" with a topwater. But the majority of those who chase bass consistently rely on one of these techniques a lot more than the others. It's a confidence thing. They've worked so hard to master a particular presentation that it becomes easy to always slip back into using it, especially when the fishing is tough and they need to feel that everything they do has a high potential for success.

There are also a few bass anglers who have worked hard to master all of the potential ways to catch bass. These anglers have come to the conclusion that the most productive technique is dictated by the conditions that affect the fish, and it will be the bass that decide what presentation will ultimately work for a particular body of water on a given day.

"When we say that the bass tell us what to use, it means the fish will eventually bite on a presentation and let us know this is what they want," said Stacy Barbour, one of the most versatile bass anglers in the country. Barbour chases bass in the upper Midwest through the summer months and he spends winters "down south," harassing bass there.

"If the weather has been stable and the fish should be biting, I might start shallow with a spinnerbait," said Barbour. "If I don't get a bite in a half-hour, you can bet I'm threading on a plastic worm."

Barbour explains that Minnesota bass are easy to target.

"You have well-defined weedbeds in the lakes in Minnesota and there are always bass on the deep rockpiles," said Barbour. "In the rivers you have some of the best smallmouth structure on the wing dams and riprap. Since you get to fish high-percentage spots, it's just a matter of figuring out what the fish want."

According to Barbour, figuring out the most productive technique doesn't always mean changing lures until you find one that works.

"The jig-and-pig may be the right presentation," said Barbour, "but you may be working the bait too shallow, the jig may be too large a profile, a worm trailer might be better than a crawfish trailer. If the conditions call for a jig, try different approaches with it before you completely rule it out."

Stacy Barbour says the bass will tell you what lure to use under certain conditions. Photo by Tim Lesmeister

As far as Barbour is concerned, anglers need to have more confidence in their ability to figure out what the fish want than in a particular technique.

"If an angler wants to brag about a specialty," said Barbour, "let them brag about their troubleshooting strengths and why they are the best at putting fish in the boat under every and any condition. Anyone can master a technique, but this doesn't necessarily mean they can boat fish."

Barbour also believes that the body of water has a lot to do with how well an angler will perform.


"The better bass lakes are a cake walk for the fishermen that are sharp," he said. "You can narrow the pattern down quickly; then it's just a matter of fine-tuning. The lakes that have a lot of bass make all that practice worthwhile."

So find a lake that has a lot of bass, practice all of the techniques until you have mastered them, and then learn how conditions affect bass and what this means regarding the presentation you use. Then you will always be a force to be reckoned with each time you take to the water.

Here's help with the lakes to target. The rest is up to you.

Pope County
"Here's a lake that bass anglers like to attack with crankbaits," said Barbour. "The cabbage is a great place to run a lipless crank for largemouths, and the rockpiles are a great place to run deep divers for smallmouths."

Barbour says crankbaits are great when the fish are aggressive and maybe even neutral, but if the fish are not biting because of a cold front, put away the crankbaits and tie on a 1/8-ounce round-headed jig and tip it with a 7-inch curly-tailed plastic worm. "Just cast it out, let it sink to the bottom and slowly retrieve it," said Barbour. "Work the deepest rockpiles with the jig-worm and the very edge of the vegetation. It's a deadly technique when the fish are negative."

The bulrush beds are prime areas for bass, and many of the anglers who like to dig bass out of the slop will migrate to the bulrush. "It's a prime location for spinnerbaits," said Barbour. "Some guys like to pitch jigs into this stuff, but for Minnewaska, the spinnerbait is the answer to the bulrush."

Barbour says that the 3/8-ounce lures with a No. 3 Colorado blade are the best. "A bigger bait will sink too fast. You want the bait to bounce through the stalks just a few inches below the surface."

For more information, contact Phil's Bait Service at (320) 634-3211.

Blue Earth County
Between Faribault and Mankato there is a pocket of lakes that provide anglers in that region with some fine fishing. A lot of the lakes are shallower, and the heavy vegetation that grows there makes the lakes great for bass and panfish. There are also some deeper lakes with well-defined weedlines and some great big bass. One of these is Madison Lake.

"Madison has a great weedline," said Barbour. "There aren't any distinct points or inside turns, but the 10- to 12-foot depths are where you find a nice transition from weeds to sand or muck."

Barbour says this is a textbook lake to start shallow and work deeper. He likes to get right up to the bank and cast parallel with the shoreline. He uses a lightweight spinnerbait or a buzzbait and retrieves quickly. In the middepths it's a jig and plastic trailer that gets pitched to the pockets. On the weedline he uses a lipless crankbait.

"It's a formula a lot of bassers use and it works on this lake. You need to be versatile, but when you do connect with the bass on Madison, you're set because they do run in packs there. The bigger bass - and there are some big fish there - won't be found with the little ones, so if you're catching only smaller fish, don't expect to get lucky. Move."

For more information, call Hermies Corner Bait & Tackle at (507) 931-6875.

Stearns County
Lake Koronis is a deep, clear lake that has all the perfect properties for a smallmouth bass lake: rockpiles near deep water, sharp inside turns, big bars, even a little vegetation. There are also some big smallies swimming around there.

"Everyone knows that a crankbait burned along the bottom will catch a lot of fish when they're aggressive," said Barbour, "but on a lake like Koronis, you don't find the bass in that mood too often."

When the bass are tight-lipped, Barbour says, you have two choices. You can go after them shallow with a jig-worm or use a jigging spoon in the deeper water.

"When you're fishing deeper on Koronis," said Barbour, "the walleyes can often be a pain. There are a lot of them in this lake and they like a jigging spoon as much as the bass do. If you start hitting walleyes instead of bass, you have to move."

The jig-worm is a simple presentation, according to Barbour. "You just thread a plastic worm on the jig and cast it out. Let it hit bottom and you can either reel it back steadily or give the bait some jigging action." Barbour presents the jig-worm in areas where there is sparse vegetation or over shallow sand and rubble flats.

Meeker County
If you just want to catch a bunch of bass, consider Lake Ripley, which is right on the southwest corner of Litchfield. The lake gets a lot of recreational use, but there are a lot of fish there for the anglers who just want to feel that tug and don't mind the crowds.

"Don't expect to find any structure there," said Barbour. "The lake is better fished with a technique that allows you to cover some ground over a featureless bottom and find the bass that are spread out all over."

There is plenty of vegetation in the lake that spreads out the bass. Barbour recommends a buzzbait over the weeds. "You can cast it out, crank it in and you don't have to spend time cleaning all the vegetation off that you collected if the lure was running in the weeds. And I've found the bass there like buzzbaits."

Barbour says buzzbaits are for the aggressive fish, so if you find the Ripley bass in a less-than-aggressive mood, you might try a weedless jig with a trailer. "You can fish the jig and trailer in heavy vegetation or along the edge," said Barbour. "You won't cover a lot of ground with this technique, but if it's what the conditions call for, you use it."

Hennepin County
Largely considered the best bass lake in our state, Minnetonka is inundated with milfoil. Shoreline homeowners hate the stuff, while bass anglers love it. Because of the milfoil, anglers seem to think the only technique of value anymore is flipping big, heavy live-rubber jigs with plastic trailers into the heavy vegetation. While Barbour is adept at this presentation, he says anglers who only pitch jigs are missing some great fishing.

"When the largemouths are on the inside weedlines, you can't beat a topwater bait," said Barbour, "especially early in the morning and in the evening.

"In the spring, before the milfoil has grown completely to the surface, I love to run a spinnerbait in shallow water," he continued. "The milfoil may not make as defined a weedline as coontail or cabbage, but a good fisherman can make a crankbait work on the deep edge any time of year."

Barbour points out that the bass on Minnetonka get pressured more than anywhere else he fishes, even the southern lakes he frequents. Because of this situation, he won't hesitate to "step out of the box" and try something different.

"For a while Carolina rigging was hot on the lake," said Barbour, "but now the bass equate the puff of the sinker on the bottom being trailed by a worm as something that should be left alone. Now the technique is so-so at catching big bass. Now when I'm fishing a plastic worm on Minnetonka I use a very light rod and fish the worm using a drop-shot method."

The drop-shot method that Barbour speaks of works well on heavily pressured fish. You attach a small hook a foot or two above the end of the line and squeeze a split shot or two on the end of the line. The rig is fished vertically in sparse vegetation or on the weedline. The bass on Minnetonka have not seen this presentation yet and will fall for the tiny plastic bait.

For more information, call Roy's Bait at (952) 474-0927 or Shoreline Bait & Tackle at (952) 471-7876.

Ramsey County
You can't hurt the bass population on Turtle Lake if you follow the rules. The special regulations for largemouth bass require you to release all you catch. What this rule has accomplished is to make the bass fishing on the lake outstanding. The lake is capable of producing some very large fish, and you can count on a few over 18 inches on every trip if you work for them.

"Fishing is never work," corrected Barbour. "It can take some effort to pull a big bass out of the slop, but I never look at it as work.

"On Turtle you have a lot of options," Barbour explains. "There are some great big weedy flats extending out from the shoreline with some points and inside turns here and there. There are also some humps that are weed-topped and the weedline is pretty distinct."

You can see by Barbour's description that the majority of the presentations pertain to vegetation. "That's true," said Barbour. "Weedless jigs, topwater baits, spinnerbaits, lipless crankbaits and especially the Texas-rigged plastic worm. It's not a big lake, so you can cover ground and catch some big fish even with this slow-moving technique."

For more information, call Joe's Sporting Goods (651) 488-5511.

Washington County
Forest Lake is just far enough from the metro area that there's not a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, and it's not a resort lake but the shoreline is well developed and there is a fair amount of recreational use. The good thing about that is recreational boaters, skiers and those on personal watercraft don't condition the fish. That means the bass are still dumb enough to fall for any lure.

"My favorite on Forest is the jig-worm," said Barbour. "I tie on a 1/8-ounce roundhead jig and tip it with a 3-inch purple grub tail. I also like the black twin-tails. You just cast it out and let it sink about halfway down and then reel it slowly back. That's all there is to it."

Barbour explains that the lake is made up of three distinct basins. The western basin has wider, longer flats and some midlake humps. It is best worked with crankbaits and spinnerbaits, lures that let you cover some ground. The center basin is for shoreline vegetation presentations - plastic worms rigged weedless and spinnerbaits over the tops of the weeds. The eastern ba

sin is a combination of the two. Here you have some sharper-dropping breaklines, some midlake structure and some good shoreline vegetation. According to Barbour, you have to "pack all the ammunition" when you go to chase bass on Forest Lake.

Wright County
There sure are a lot of places for the bass to hide on Clearwater Lake. The weedline extends down deep and there are a lot of sharp dropoffs to sit at the base of. Humps and points, inside turns and flats - all there for the angler to explore. And explore you must, since the bass take advantage of all the cover they have at their disposal. While some anglers may find the wealth of hiding places in Clearwater daunting, Barbour perceives it as a welcome challenge.

"Narrow down the focus," recommends Barbour. "Pick an area the size of a football field and fish all available cover. You're trying to discover preferences. If the bass are in 12 feet of water at the base of the weeds, it's likely they're there all over the lake. Look for a pattern and then take it to the next spot."

Barbour says that Clearwater is what Minnetonka would have been if they had left the milfoil alone. There seems to be a nice mix of vegetation in the lake and everything seems well balanced. The bass are there in great numbers and some big bass swim the cover of Clearwater.

For more information, call Little Jims Sports at (320) 274-5297.

* * *
Well, that's where Barbour will be bassin' this season. Just give him a friendly wave as you motor past his honeyholes.

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