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Minnesota's Nomadic Ice-Fishing

Minnesota's Nomadic Ice-Fishing

If you hear about a hot bite going on in our state, you had better get there fast before it's over. Or you can follow the experts and get there before the crowds! (Dec 2006)

Word spreads fast whenever there is a hot bite going on somewhere in Minnesota.

I remember when Oak Lake near Watertown was "discovered" a few years back. There was no public access, so two anglers walked through an easement to a spot where it intersected the lake, drilled some holes and caught some 2-pound crappies. They let a few other people in on their secret, and then word spread like a wildfire. It was a chore taking that long walk with gear, so a landowner right off the main road started allowing access from his property for a small fee. On some weekends, there were hundreds of anglers dotting the ice. Nowadays, the bite on this shallow-basin lake has cooled considerably and no one fishes there.

Upper Red Lake became a hot-bite phenomenon when some anglers discovered the big crappies there. The feeding frenzy lasted a little longer than on Oak Lake, but the Upper Red winter crappie fishing is tapering off as the walleye fishing rebounds. Crappie anglers on Upper Red last season couldn't keep the walleyes off their hooks. It looks to be a red-hot walleye bite this year on Red.

When looking for a red-hot lake, don't expect a season-long situation. Lakes like Upper Red and Oak are exceptions to the rule, which is that a hot bite typically only lasts a short time. This is why smart anglers get there fast when they hear about a lake turning on.

I used to have a spot all to myself on Maxwell's Bay on Lake Minnetonka where the night crappie bite would always turn on about the second week in January and go for about three weeks. I took a few of my buddies out there on a few occasions, and even though they were sworn to secrecy, it wasn't long before the spot resembled Grand Central Station. I've tested the spot over the last few years, but it hasn't quite recovered yet. But nobody fishes up there anymore, so it will come back.

And no one can predict a hot bite somewhere. No one knows if the Winnibigoshish walleyes will go on a feeding binge in early February, but it has happened. No one knows if the big pike will feast in the shallow vegetation on Gull Lake, but if they do, that hot bite starts in late December and goes for about a week.


No, the hot bite cannot be predicted, so your next-best bet is to fish the lakes that have high potential, and if you're lucky, you might be on one of them when a hot bite occurs. Then you're not chasing the other anglers who are racing to the next hotspot. Instead, you're swearing all who fish with you to secrecy in hopes that everyone and their grandmother won't find out and start drilling holes.

The one thing you can count on is that a hot bite won't last for long on a particular body of water, but there are enough lakes in this state that there is always a hot bite going on somewhere. Keep your ears open, explore as much as possible, and be happy when you land on a lake where the bite is heating up. In the meantime, here are some lakes where the potential for starting a hot-bite rumor is high. Just get there before everyone else!


South Ten Mile Lake in Otter Tail County is not only a great first-ice hotspot for walleyes, but this body of water tends to maintain a steady bite right through to the end of the season.

Most walleye anglers tend to congregate around one of the midlake humps, and these are good options. Another good idea is to set up in front of the shallow bay in the southeast corner. Start in 15 feet of water and drill some holes toward the north in 18 to 20 feet. If you hit a shallow zone, you're on top of a hump. You should try to stay on the deep edges of those humps during daylight hours and then move to the shallower tops during low-light periods.

South Ten Mile has good water clarity, so the addition of an underwater viewing camera to your program is going to pay off. I was on this lake last season, standing on 6 inches of ice in 18 feet of water using a large silver jigging spoon to line up the camera when a 3-pound walleye swam up and snatched the spoon. I never had to change spots, change lures or open my bait bucket. The fish were very aggressive that day.

For bait and tackle as well as fishing information, call Main Street Gas & Goods at (218) 589-8919.


Winter crappie anglers are always searching for the big slabs first and then the hot bite second. If they can find the two together, they are well on their way to the seventh heaven. On Elm Island Lake in Aitkin County, there is always the potential for both.

The anglers who frequent the two crappie holes on Elm Island are those who have the mobility mindset. The access point has some current running through it, and the ice there -- when it does form -- is never too thick. Even those with an ATV or snowmobile must be careful.

Crappies on Elm Island will favor the hole between the long, narrow point and the big island, but when fishing pressure does push these fish, they will move up onto the east shoreline in the northern basin. The other crappie hole is just to the east of the sunken island in the north basin. This spot is where you should start and end the day since it tends to be most productive in the mornings and evenings. The hole near the island is an all-day spot.

For more information, contact Aitkin Outdoor Sports at (218) 927-5444.


There are a lot of Camp Lakes in this state. This Camp Lake is just west of Mille Lacs in southern Crow Wing County. It's a popular lake for big sunfish, but I consider it one of the best pike lakes around. Of course, I like to set up on the tips of weedy points with tip-ups, and this is a prime location for this type of fishing.

Right where all three basins come together is a great place to set up for northerns. There are three points that are fairly close to each other, and one of them will have some pike on it.

The pike in Camp average 3 pounds, but there are plenty of them, and they keep the flags poppin' all day. Every so often you'll hear a tip-up spool buzzing, and when you set the hook, you know it's a pike with some shoulders. Some of my biggest northerns have been caught on tip-ups between the two points in the northeast basin.

For more information, call Tutt's Bait and Tackle at (320) 692-4341.


One thing about the pothole lakes in southern Minnesota is they all have a hot bite going at some time during the season. Some only last a day or two, and some last for a couple of week

s. It's usually the walleyes or crappies that are biting, but they all turn on at one point.

Fish Lake southeast of Windom tends to have an extended hot bite once it starts. The problem is that it can be anywhere from first ice until the end of the season. Fortunately, Fish Lake tends to maintain a pretty consistent bite throughout the winter.

Where you see a group of houses congregated on Fish Lake is where you will likely find a school of walleyes. There is no structure to speak of that will hold fish, so the walleyes will suspend over existing shelters where they've been attracted to the flashy lures and bait.

Water visibility wasn't that bad for a pothole lake when I was there last January, but the underwater camera was limited to the lure and a bit of the bottom. My sonar was the ticket to see those walleyes move up to the lure, and to find fish when I scouted. I set the hook on a 4-pound channel catfish I could barely get through the hole. He put up a good fight.

For more information on Fish Lake, call Erickson's Freedom Valu Center at (507) 831-9942 or go online to the Windom Chamber of Commerce at


It would seem that an angler has to fish one of the northern lakes to find big bluegills these days. Maybe there's less fishing pressure, therefore there are more bigger bluegills, or maybe there are fewer bluegills, therefore they get bigger. Whatever the reason, it pays to think north when looking for a lake with big sunfish.

Big Thunder Lake between Remer and Outing has a bottom of mainly sand, gravel and rock, but there are patches of muck-bottomed regions where the cabbage and coontail are prevalent. It is around and in this vegetation where you will find that the big bluegills have concentrated.

One of these spots that I was on last season was in that first bay north of the access. The water is clear, so an underwater camera is a valuable piece of gear. The first half-dozen holes we drilled in 20 feet of water showed a sandy bottom with some dead grass lying on the bottom. When we hit the coontail in 16 feet, there were sunfish, but the first school consisted of smaller fish. We moved into 12 feet and found a nice mixture of coontail and cabbage. The cabbage leaves were brown, but the sunnies were there. We caught fish in the three-to-a-pound range for a couple of hours before we had to move. There are plenty of these spots on Thunder. Just look for the vegetation.

For bait and info, call Redding's Sports at (218) 763-2191.


Gary Roach tipped me off to this lake. He fished a PWT event there this year, and while he was extremely impressed with the walleye fishing, he was even more impressed with the size and quantity of the perch.

"Lakes like Otter Tail have a local reputation for the perch," said Roach, "but lakes like Mille Lacs and Winnibigoshish get the most press, so they get the most attention."

Roach said to direct your perch program toward one of the many midlake reefs.

"The perch will be hanging around on the sand at the base of the reefs," Roach said. "I'll be looking for the structure that doesn't rise too far off the bottom, and fishing the edges of that."

Roach said you can expect to find perch up to 13 inches long, and this year there will be plenty of them available to anglers.

For more information, call Gene's Sport Shop at (218) 346-3355. If you're planning on booking a place to stay, check out


Just south of Prior Lake is a 170-acre lake that grows big crappies. There aren't many slabs, but those that you find are respectable.

On Fish Lake, hit the ice in either early morning or evening right before sunset. There is not much basin in this small lake, but those crappies tend to hang out over the deep water in the middle. They will be schooled, so if you don't get your holes over the top of a group of crappies, you won't likely attract them with a glow lure or something shiny that you're jigging hard. You need to drill, search and find some fish so when that bite begins, you're on it.

You can expect big crappies when you get onto a school of biters. Fish up to a pound are not at all uncommon. The anglers who are regulars to this lake don't mess with crappie minnows, preferring instead the fatheads.

There is one sunken island on Fish Lake, and there will be anglers plying this structure, but they are likely chasing the walleyes. If you want the big crappies, you have to search them out because they suspend over the deepest regions of the lake.

For more information, call Prior Lake Bait and Tackle at (952) 447-6096.


I appreciate a lake where I can drop a tip-up 10 yards from the Fish Trap, jig with a airplane jig and fathead in the hole at my feet, and watch pike swim around my lures all day on the underwater camera. And if I keep a few 2 1/2-pound northerns for a fish fry, I don't feel guilty. This would be Pelican Lake just north of Avon in Stearns County.

Pelican Lake is rimmed on the west side by a bed of bulrushes, and the cabbage and coontail extend out past that into about 14 feet of water. The north side also has a nice weedy flat that butts up to a bulrush bed. Both of these regions hold plenty of pike.

I prefer to drill just inside the deep edge of the weeds because I like using an Aqua-Vu, and it's enjoyable to position the camera right at the tops of the coontail and watch the pike swim up to the bait. My trick is to drill a camera hole so I can not only watch the lure I'm jigging, but also watch the sucker I have struggling under the tip-up set close by. This works well in the clear water here.

For more information, call Louie's Bait Shop at (320) 251-8160.


Lake Ann is located right on the west edge of Chanhassen. This lake gets little summer pressure because no gas motors are allowed, and in the winter, no one thinks to go there. That's why the crappies and bluegills are so willing to bite.

Look for the schools of crappies to be suspended straight out from the beach in 22 feet of water. There must be springs in this region of the lake because the water stays roiled up enough to make a camera a poor option there. The sonar is going to be the ticket to finding the suspended crappies on Ann.

Move to the east weedline to find some of the big bluegills in Ann. The milfoil extends into 14 feet of water, and anywhere on that weedline is a high-potential spot for big sunfish. Cameras work great in this location.

Lake Ann also has a nice population of big northerns. Every year there are usually a couple of spear houses set up on the north end in about 6 to 8 feet of water, but some of the best pike

fishing I find is in 12 to 14 feet on the northwest corner. Tip-ups are my choice for bait presentation, and don't be surprised if the pike you try to get through that 8-inch hole is pushing the 10-pound mark.

For more information regarding Lake Ann, talk to one of the pros at Minnetonka Outdoors at (952) 470-8800. Visit their Web site at

There's an old saying, "He who hesitates is lost," and that holds true for any ice-angler who is hoping to capitalize on a hot bite. When you hear about it, move fast, because it may not be hot for long.

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