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Minnesota's Best Hardwater Bets

Minnesota's Best Hardwater Bets

Walleyes, pike, crappies, perch, panfish and even lake trout top the list of most ice-anglers' favorites. Let us tell you how and where to catch them! (December 2008)

Steve Ladanpike caught a big pike while fishing for perch and walleyes on Mille Lacs.
Photo by Ron Hustvedt Jr.

The Ice Belt of America stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the east coast and at the heart of this region is Minnesota, home to more ice-fishing innovations than any other state by most accounts.

Sure, there are plenty of other states that form enough ice on their lakes for anglers to walk, snowmobile and drive on. No other state celebrates ice quite the way we do with multiple major ice-fishing contests, ice drag racing, winter carnivals and a wide variety of events. It speaks to the numerous interests Minnesotans have and the extensive assortment of things to do in order to survive the harsh winter.

Multiple interests is what most ice-anglers have as well and often the major decision is to go ice-fishing or not (no matter the weather), but it's more a question of, "What should we fish for today?"

Walleyes, pike, crappies, perch, panfish and even lake trout tend to top the lists of most ice-anglers. Which one is the best to fish for at any given time? Why be forced to choose one species when you can pursue a variety of species on some of the top multispecies lakes around the state?

It is possible to go to a lake chock-full of several different species and walk away skunked. It is also possible to go to a lake and catch a "grand slam" of different species.

Personally, I like to hit the ice of my favorite lake to do a little walleye fishing and then change it up and chase crappies or bluegills. Big pike and lake trout are known for hanging out together and so are big crappies and walleyes. These fish aren't always in the same spot at the same time, but it takes very little work to totally change your game plan for the day.


Instead of packing up and moving from lakes, you just move to a different part of the lake saving hours of time better spent on fishing. Depending on the lake, you could just stay put and let the changing patterns of the fish bring them your way. In either case, it takes a specific approach to do this successfully and not just by happenstance.

Bluegills and pike also tend to hang out in similar locations and while the strategies for both are drastically different, you can fish two lines, and you can jig small lures for bluegills while a big minnow does its job on a tip-up nearby. Imagine battling a 10-inch bluegill, then running to pull in that 40-inch pike peeling line off your tip-up!

Just remember, some of the top lakes around will remain nameless because even the most generous angler isn't willing to share such valuable information. In these modern times of catch-and-release, it's less likely today that a group of anglers could practically clean out a lake. That said, if word gets out that Lake X has an abundant supply of 14-inch-plus crappies, you can bet that Lake X is about to get really crowded.

If you know of your own Lake X, rather than keep it to yourself, share that lake with somebody who has never gone ice-fishing before. Kids are the no-brainer and the easy choice, but there are plenty of adults who might be interested in the sport.

Located west of the Twin Cities metro area, Clearwater Lake is a very popular summer destination for bass anglers, but it doesn't receive a ton of pressure in the winter. It's a great lake for catching crappies, sunfish, walleyes and pike.

A recent creel survey conducted by the DNR during the ice-fishing season showed that anglers on Clearwater do pretty good compared with other lakes in the state. The average sunfish was 6.9 inches long, and the average crappie 10 inches long. Pike anglers were catching fish in the 3- to 4-pound range, while walleyes were on the smaller side in the 13-inch range.

The good news, according to the Montrose area DNR fisheries office, is that those small walleyes are the result of recent successful fry stockings and should only improve as the fish get bigger.

A map of Clearwater shows plenty of structure with tons of mid-lake humps and some nice deep-water holes. The holes can be great locations for walleye fishing with some ice-anglers catching them as deep as 50 feet or more. Many fish are caught in the 20- to 30-foot range, with some of the best action coming on flats in that depth lining the edge of a deep break.

Crappies tend to suspend over similar areas, as well as around weed edges, which is also a great way to find bluegills. Pike are all over the lake with some coming in the shallows and others coming in 35 to 50 of water right off the bottom.

For more information, contact BJ's Bait and Tackle at or call (320) 274-3730.

There are tons of lakes around Alexandria and many of them are excellent for ice-fishing, though when it comes to multispecies, the top picks are Le Homme Dieu, Carlos and Miltona lakes.

Andrew Brinkman is an avid ice-angler who spends as much time as he can ice-fishing when he isn't working at Christopherson's Bait and Tackle. "On any of those lakes you can go out and catch pretty much anything throughout the winter," he said.

On Lake Carlos, Brinkman said the walleyes and pike tend to concentrate on underwater islands and throughout the lake along breaklines. Carlos is the largest lake in the Alexandria chain of lakes and it is deeper and longer than it is wide. The points in the middle of the lake are a good location to target with several of the lake's major flats located nearby.

Darling Lake is another top choice for Brinkman, and he said you can always catch something on it throughout the winter. Much like Carlos, which Darling is connected to, there are several midlake humps and sunken islands where the majority of the fish are found.

Le Homme Dieu is another great multispecies lake in the chain with a much different look than Carlos and Darling. While Le Homme Dieu also has deep water, it doesn't have the same kind of midlake structure. There is a significant shoreline flat that runs around the entire basin of the lake with a few deep holes in the middle of it. Fishing along this flat near those deep edges can be a great way to find all species of fish.

Not to be overlooked is the famed Lake Miltona that Brinkman said is a great walleye and panfish lake. The

best walleye fishing is along the numerous midlake humps and flats and the areas along the sharp points and breaklines of the west side. Panfish anglers tend to fish the weed holes and edges of the shallow bays.

For more information, contact Christopherson's Bait and Tackle at (320) 763-3255 or the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce at (800) 235-9441 or online at

The lakes stretching from Ely over the Grand Marais offer some of the finest ice-fishing in the state and the highest concentration of lake trout waters. Many of these lakes are also good for walleyes and pike. While most of the area is open to snowmobiles and other motorized transport, motors are not allowed within the actual Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, meaning walking, cross country skiing and dog sledding are the only means of access.

To some, that's a deterrent. To others, it's an attractor. With the advent of electric ice augers, including one by Strikemaster and another by Jiffy, these areas are now much easier to fish, especially when the ice gets so deep that a hand auger is a tough gig.

There are a ton of lakes in the BWCA that hold excellent lake trout populations that are only accessible by non-motorized means of transport. The DNR area fisheries office in Grand Marais said Duncan, Rose, Mountain and Knife lakes are great places to fish without worrying about the sounds of motors, at least on the U.S. side of the lake. As a rule, these lakes are also excellent northern pike fisheries, and pike are often found in the same areas as the lake trout. The 35- to 55-foot range either over rocky reefs or along steep breaks are the best locations to begin searching.

Anglers who need their motorized implements still have numerous options, but the best is probably Burntside Lake near Ely. The folks at the Red Rock Store said lake trout, pike and walleye fishing on Burntside is something to experience in the wintertime. If crappies are what you are after, they suggested Fall Lake, which has plenty of crappies as well as a nice walleye population.

For more information, contact the Ely Chamber of Commerce at (800) 777-7281) or the Grand Marais Area Tourism Assoc. at (888) 922-5000 or online at

Ask anglers the ultimate multispecies lake in Minnesota and there are several that come to mind, but one of the top picks would have to be Mille Lacs. It's a high-quality walleye, jumbo perch, northern, crappie and bluegill fishery throughout the winter months.

"It's my ideal ice-fishing location and it's also a great place to take the kids out in one of the many sleeper houses available," said John House, a PRADCO promotional angler.

Located in the middle of the state, it's not too far from any given location. The challenge is that it's no secret, so to fish it effectively you have to fish it a little different than the other guy.

Tony Roach is one of the top guides on the big frozen pond and works hard to put himself and his clients on the fish. He is especially good at finding fish where other anglers don't bother to check.

"Anglers think about summer and winter differently, but the concepts are the same -- the same areas you target in the summer you should be targeting in the winter," he said.

One of his favorite species throughout the winter months are those jumbo perch measuring 10 to 15 inches and longer.

"Everybody targets perch after the walleye season closes, but the best perching is during the early ice period when the perch leave the rockpiles, gravel bars and mud flats and go to the basin to eat the bloodworms and mayfly larvae emerging," he said.

The sunfish and crappie bite doesn't usually garner much attention on Mille Lacs, but Roach said there are monsters of both species.

"Some people don't think sunfish exist in Mille Lacs, but there are 1-pound and larger fish out there that are ignored all throughout the year," he said.

For both species, the bays in the south are the best location. Target them in those deep pockets found in weedbeds and along the deep side of the weed edge. Rockpiles with weeds on top are other great locations.

Pike over 30 inches are prevalent in Mille Lacs, including many over that magical 40-inch mark. The best pike fishing is in shallow water during early ice over rockpiles, gravel bars and weedlines.

"A lot of the bays up really shallow hold northerns -- they get in there when the ice comes in because they can ambush their prey easier," he said.

While Roach drills many holes when fishing on the basin, when going after pike up shallow, he only drills a few. It's more like deer hunting because you sit there and wait for the active ones to cruise on by. Big baits like sucker minnows and large shiners are a good choice tipped on big airplane jigs and forage minnows.

For more information, contact Roach's Guide Service at (763) 226-6656 or Information on the Mille Lacs area may be found at www.millelacs.comor by calling (888) 350-2692.

Probably the only reason anglers put LOTW after Mille Lacs for their top multispecies lakes is that it's a bit farther away from most Minnesotans. Located at the northernmost tip of the state, LOTW is arguably the best multispecies lake in the state. Another reason so many anglers like LOTW for ice-fishing is that the season is longer and the possession limit is higher.

With walleyes, saugers, pike and jumbo perch in abundant numbers, LOTW is known for its productivity of both numbers and size.

"It's a fantastic lake to fish and it's tough to have a bad day on Lake of the Woods," said Pat Burch of Burch's Guide Service.

Anglers looking for 30-inch walleyes are going to have a tough time doing any better than fishing on LOTW. There are 45 resorts in LOTW County that are open year 'round and all of them have plush arrangements for ice-anglers. For those who want to do most of the work themselves, driving out on a plowed road to their chosen destination is the most basic of services. For those who want to go ice-fishing but don't have any gear, many of the resorts offer complete service in a heated fish house you can sleep in. Driving out to the fish house is done in a cozy van or bombardier.

Most anglers opt for services in the middle by utilizing the resort transportation to get out to the prime fishing waters and then use their own gear. There is also a passenger service offering winter trips from the south shore to the Northwest Angle and Islands area, which many consider to be the best winter fishing on the


In the early part of the season, the bays and shoreline areas are usually the best ice and best places to fish. The walleye action gets rocking in the low-light periods around dawn and dusk, while saugers hit throughout the day. The portion of the lake from 14 to 17 feet has high concentrations of walleyes, and as the winter progresses, some of the fish stay shallow, while others move down to water 30 to 40 feet deep, Burch said.

For more information, contact Burch at (763) 370-6043 or online at Call (800) 382-FISH for information on the Lake of the Woods area, or visit

These are by no means the only multispecies lakes found around the state. Go to your local bait shop, check fishing reports in weekly newspapers, or go online to for other hotspots. With so many lakes throughout the state, there are easily 500 that could be considered awesome for a wide variety of species through the ice.

A few additional lakes to check out would include many of those in the Grand Rapids area, especially Wabana, which has great crappie, walleye and trophy pike fishing. Other area lakes include Trout Lake near Grand Rapids, Trout Lake near Coleraine, Lake Wabana, North Star Lake and Swan Lake near Pengilly.

In southwestern Minnesota, Lake Sarah is a tremendous walleye, perch and crappie fishery. Another southern lake worth checking out is Diamond Lake near New Ulm with walleyes, perch and crappies.

An often-overlooked area is the frozen Mississippi River in the Sartell vicinity. The current is typically slow in the area allowing it to freeze over pretty solid and making for some tremendous walleye and panfish action. Check with local bait shops before venturing out onto the river.

Buffalo Lake, located right in the town of Buffalo, is a popular destination and rightly so for crappies and walleyes. The deep edges around the sandbars are great throughout the day with the shallow portions being best in the evening.

Then, of course, there is Upper Red Lake, which is another multispecies mecca like LOTW and Mille Lacs. URL as many call it is great for walleyes, massive crappies and huge pike. The best spots are either around the cribs or along the edges of the crowds. "It's strictly a trial-and-error lake and you have to punch a lot of holes to try and find the fish," John House said.

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