Our Hidden Bassin' Treasures
September 30, 2010
If you promise to practice catch-and-release, go ahead and try these little largemouth jewels this season.
Jay Carlson strongly encourages catch-and-release on small lakes so the largemouth fishery doesn't suffer a downturn. Photo by Tim Lesmeister
By Tim Lesmeister
Jay Carlson and Mark Raveling had been down on the Mississippi River all morning preparing for a bass tournament that was soon to be held there. In Carlson's words, they had "stunk the river up pretty bad that day," so he recommended they stop off at one of his hidden bass treasures on the way home to take advantage of some rod-bending action he knew could be found there.
Instead of using the paved ramp surrounded by well-marked parking spaces, they backed the boat into the lake off a dirt ramp and parked on the highway nearby. There was no need to fire up the big motor. Carlson just dropped the prop of the bow-mounted electric motor into the water and started to slowly move away from the ramp, casting buzzbaits the entire time. As they moved out of the bay where the boat landing is located into the main basin of the lake they discovered big largemouth bass in the vegetation that were eager to crush a quick-moving topwater lure.
"We caught some huge bass," said Carlson, "and we were the only bass boat on the lake. Everyone else there was fishing for panfish."
Carlson's hidden bass treasure is called Lake McMahon, a 100-acre lake in Scott County that is often referred to as Carl's Lake.
"It's a great place to be in the morning and evening if you're chasing big largemouth bass," Carlson said. "It's a small, shallow lake so you can cover the entire body of water in a few hours, and you can catch some huge fish there. There are quite a few bass in Carl's that are over 6 pounds."
Carlson is always apprehensive about releasing the names of his "little jewels" because he fears that anglers who don't have a high regard for catch-and-release could put a massive dent in the big-bass resource in a hurry if they don't release the fish they catch.
"You only have to keep a few of these big bass each time you go onto one of these lakes to knock down the population in a hurry," he said. "If you want to fry some fish, catch some crappies and bluegills. You find plenty of them around. If you're not going to release the bass you catch, then go to a lake that can take the pressure."
According to Adam Johnson, a professional angler with a degree in aquatics biology, Carlson is right on the money when he recommends releasing the big bass in a small lake.
"Most of the lakes we consider hidden bass treasures are small lakes that get very little fishing pressure for largemouths, so the population of big fish stays high," said Johnson. "Even a small amount of harvest on these lakes will quickly whittle down the numbers of decent largemouths, and this will adversely effect the predator/prey balance, and you'll begin to see more stunted crappies and bluegills as well. Releasing the big bass is actually quite advantageous when you're trying to maintain a balanced population of both panfish and game fish. So catch the bass for fun and if it's a fish fry you're after, catch some panfish."
So Carlson and Johnson, along with a few other buddies of mine, have been convinced that anglers will understand the importance of releasing all the bass they catch on the little treasure lakes where they go when they want some big-bass action, so they've committed to divulge a few. Enjoy the catching, not the keeping.
Only 250 acres in size, O'Dowd in Scott County is quite a diverse lake with islands, long points, rockpiles, sunken trees, well-defined weedlines and lily pads. Carlson says it's his "early-morning slice of paradise."
According to Carlson, he can usually catch five to 10 largemouth bass a day over 4 pounds. His program takes into consideration the diversity of the lake.
"As the sun comes up you'll find me in the lily pads casting a topwater buzzbait," he said. "In some spots you find some wood mixed in with the pads, and these are spots you can't afford to overlook.
"Once the topwater bite starts to slow down I switch to a jig-worm," he explained. "With the jig-worm I can fish the rockpiles, and this is where I always find the bigger fish.
"There's a lot of vegetation in O'Dowd," continued Carlson, "and there's a lot of bass in those weeds. This is where I throw a spinnerbait and do real well."
Carlson admits that O'Dowd is beginning to gain in popularity with some of the nearby bass anglers, but he says the fish are still far from conditioned to the typical bass tactics, so anyone can do well there.
Cedar Lake just southwest of Aitkin is not a small lake - 1,800 acres - but as far as Adam Johnson is concerned, it's one of his hidden bassin' treasures.
"Cedar gets so little fishing pressure for largemouth bass," said Johnson, "that when you're popping a chugger over the surface or slow-rolling a spinnerbait over the tops of the grass, any bass close by are going to hit that bait. It's a great lake for lots of action, and there are some big bass there as well."
Johnson rigs three rods for Cedar Lake. On one rod he ties a topwater lure called a Pop-R that he calls his chugger, on another rod he ties on a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait with a single Colorado blade, and on the last rod he ties on a jig-worm.
"I use the chugger around the pads and bulrushes," said Johnson. "There are always lots of bass around this cover. The spinnerbait is perfect for those middepths where you can work it through the grass and cabbage when the fish are deeper. There are some nice saddles and points in Cedar where you want the bait near bottom. I cast the jig-worm out, let it sink to the bottom and use a slow retrieve, occasionally stopping to maintain that contact with the bottom."
Johnson says that you shouldn't be surprised to haul in a few bass over 5 pounds with the jig-worm. There are some big bass swimming there, and they don't see a lot of lures.
Jeremy Keehl is a fixture on the lakes around Carver County. He fishes competitively all over the country, yet he claims that the tiny lakes west of the metro region are some of the finest anywhere. His favorite when it comes to catching a lot of big largemouth bass is Zumbra.
"The boat landing on Zumbra is marginal, so that
keeps the guys out in the bigger boats," said Keehl. "The lake is only 160 acres, so most guys won't find it too challenging either. I go there because I like pitching jigs in the milfoil, and there are a lot of big fish there."
Lacking any midlake structure, Keehl sticks to the milfoil that grows out into about 14 feet of water.
"The thickest clumps are the most productive," he says, "so you seldom fish in more than 10 or 11 feet deep."
Keehl uses a 3/4-ounce live-rubber jig tipped with a scented plastic trailer that he pitches into the thick milfoil. When it settles to the bottom he lets it set for a few seconds, pumps the rod tip a couple of times and waits a few more seconds for the bite. If no bass takes the bait he pitches to the next clump.
"You don't go long between bites," said Keehl, "and when that big bass hits and you set the hook, that fish doesn't move. It shakes its head a couple of times, then heads for the surface to shake it loose. You need a stiff rod and heavy line to get those big ones out of that milfoil. It's just way too much fun."
Madison Lake is east of Mankato and is Danny Suggs' hidden bass treasure. Suggs is an avid Minnesota angler who times his trips to Madison Lake by keeping one eye on his favorite football team.
"When the Vikings are starting their training camp I know it's time for me to be heading down to Madison," he says. "It's right then that the largemouth bass in the lake are going to be in that vegetation behind the island (on the south end) and I can catch some real hogs on a buzzbait."
Suggs discovered this phenomenon while fishing a small club tournament on the lake a few years back. He said that while all the other anglers were pitching jigs to the points and keying on the weedline, he was digging those bass out of the slop with a buzzbait retrieved just fast enough to keep the blade churning the top of the water.
"It's a timing thing," said Suggs. "You hit it right and you can catch some 18- to 21-inch bass on topwaters, and the action is consistent. Another thing is you'll probably have it all to yourself."
It took some arm-twisting to get pro-angler Matt Pretzel to divulge his hidden gem, but once he started talking about Eagle Lake just north of Young America, there was excitement in his voice.
"Some of my biggest bass have been caught in Eagle," said Pretzel. "The lake gets some pressure from people that live around it, but they're fishing bobbers for walleyes in the deepest water, and the shallows where the vegetation is thickest never get touched."
Eagle barely reaches more than 15 feet deep at the deepest point, so much of the 250-acre lake is loaded with curlyleafed pondweed, milfoil and bulrushes. It's the perfect situation for Pretzel's favorite technique, which is jigging. "The thickest milfoil is in 6 to 8 feet of water," said Pretzel. "I pitch a heavy jig tipped with a plastic craw right into the stuff. Half the time the jig doesn't even hit the bottom and you feel the 'thunk' when a bass inhales it."
Pretzel says that the boat landing is adequate for launching his bass boat, but you want to have enough vehicle to pull the boat out when you're done for the day.
"I grew up on this lake," stated Carlson, "and I can tell you that you have a good shot at a bass over 6 pounds every time you drag a crankbait over the rocks."
Spring Lake, just southwest of Prior Lake, has a well-known walleye fishery and has been extremely popular with crappie anglers the past few years. Only 580 acres, the lake is virtually ignored by bass anglers, according to Carlson.
"I can go out to the rockpiles where boats are drifting with live-bait rigs and bobbers, and rip a deep-diving crankbait over the top and catch big bass," said Carlson. "These bass won't hit a crawler or a leech on a hook, but for some reason they can't resist a tight-wobbling crank when it's burned over their heads."
There's some vegetation in the lake around the shoreline rim, and Carlson likes to dig the bass out of this curlyleafed pondweed with a floating lure called the Rat. "You just twitch the Rat on the surface and those bass will explode out of that vegetation and crush it. This is best in the mornings and evenings when the water's calm."
"The walleye fishermen like the eastern basin of Marion," says Johnson of this Otter Tail County lake, "so I get to chase the bass in the western basin without anyone around."
Johnson admits that he looks a little out of place casting spinnerbaits to the bulrush beds and cabbage patches while everyone else is backtrolling live bait in deep water. But when you have a largemouth tugging back on every couple of casts, it makes it worth the slight chance of developing an inferiority complex.
"There are just a lot of dumb bass in these lakes, and you can expect that," he says. "We're in premier walleye country, and these mesotrophic lakes that have good vegetation and great spawning habitat for bass simply get ignored for this species. Not only do we have a situation in Marion where there are a lot of fish, but they have received no conditioning from angling pressure so they're easy to catch. There are plenty of lakes like this in this area. Marion is just one of my hidden treasures."
"You have those days when you don't want to travel far, and you don't feel like a challenge, you just want to catch a bunch of fat bass and have fun," said Suggs as he described Island Lake, which is split in two by Interstate 694 in Shoreview.
"I don't even fire up the big motor on this lake," said Suggs. "As soon as I drop the electric I head right for the channel under the bridge." It's in this channel that Suggs slow-rolls a spinnerbait right over the tops and along the edge of the milfoil. "We're talking big bass here and lots of them. It's my No. 1 lake for easy pickings close to home."
Suggs says if you're without a boat you can still take advantage of the big bass in Island by making long casts from the fishing pier straight out to the deep hole with a jig-worm. Bring the lure back slowly across the bottom until you hit the wall of weeds, rip it loose, reel it in and cast again.
According to Keehl, when you launch your boat in Carver County's Pierson Lake, you're going to have to flip a coin to decide whether you head to the west side of the lake or the east.
"The bay on the southeast corner is really choked with milfoil," said Keehl, "but the bottom drops off fast, and this creates a wall of weeds. You can position the boat right on the deep edge of the milfoil and flip jigs and catch a
lot of huge bass.
"On the west side you have the same milfoil-choked bay situation," Keehl continued, "but the bottom tapers more slowly into deep water. I catch a lot of big bass there as well."
Keehl doesn't spend any time on the weedline because he says there are too many pike and muskies along the edge of the vegetation. "Keep the jig in the milfoil and you will find plenty of bass," he says.
Pretzel grew up on Lake Waconia and knows how to find and catch big bass on this premier fishery, but when the bite slows down on his home lake, he doesn't hesitate to hightail it over to Steiger Lake, which is right on the edge of Victoria. "It's catch-and-release for bass, walleyes and pike," said Pretzel, "so anyone wanting some meat won't go there."
Pretzel says the only rod you need to take with you is your jig-flipping rig. "The bass all hang in the milfoil that rims the shoreline. The vegetation extends out to about 12 feet and then it gets real sparse. You can flip all the pockets and get around the lake in a half-day. By then you've caught a half-dozen bass over 4 pounds and bunches of smaller fish."
Pretzel says that the bass are getting smarter on Steiger because bass anglers who like catching big fish know the lake can produce. He says he seldom has had more than one other boat on the water with him when he's fishing Steiger, even on a weekend when he's not at a tournament and can fish his treasure lakes close to home.
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There are plenty of other hidden bassin' treasures just waiting to be discovered. To keep the treasure valuable, remember to release all the bass you catch there.
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