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Minnesota's Best Bets for Ice-Fishing

Savvy anglers know that our state's big lakes are the top places to fish in the winter. You'll probably even see these experts out there!

By Noel Vick

Bigger is better in Minnesota.

Larger lakes have greater resources, or rather, deeper pockets. Voluminous lakes, by and large, produce bigger fish and recruit at a rate advanced of lesser bodies. No doubt, occasionally, smaller venues put it all together, but it never lasts long.

We've all been there when, unexpectedly, that 200-acre boilerplate pumps out plump crappies faster than Happy Meals through a McDonald's drive-through. It's good when it's good. Limits are common. Word filters through town. Freezers are filled. When the outbreak ends, the little ol' 200-acre millpond is left naked in the cold with only culled runts left to nurse. Only time and a divine intervention will put the lake's smile back on.

Big lakes are better equipped to handle such pressure. Typically, besides the obvious advantage of size, there's more forage, structure and diversity of habitats to shroud particular populations from filet-craving weekenders and locals as well.

Opportunely, several of Minnesota's larger lakes are steeped in positive cycles, yielding not only numerical volume, but also massiveness. And if you're of the ilk that judges success in pounds of pressure on the rod similarly or greater to pounds in the cooler, I think you'll appreciate these offerings.


Lake of the Woods

If someone is going to play the size card, Lake of the Woods simply lands on the table face up - its Minnesota's trump card. It's simply ripe with walleyes, not to mention saugers, jumbo perch, big pike and the incidental eelpout or lake sturgeon.

"The lake is undeniable. It's a can't-miss walleye and sauger fishery," says one of its biggest cheerleaders, Ice Team's Brian Brosdahl. "The combination of walleyes and saugers with sprinklings of mongo perch is unbeatable."

According to Brosdahl, this winter's walleye crop booms with 13- to 15-inchers, fish that were bountiful last winter, too, but below the preferred range for knifing. Intermixed with the walleyes are a welcomed contingent of 13- and 14-inch saugers, a daytime-feeding relative of the walleyes that taste mighty fine with butter and seasoning salt.

"Right away, I concentrate on the first shoreline break off Pine Island, the Rainy River mouth area and Four Mile Bay," says Brosdahl, earmarking hotspots, which are conveniently close to resorts and landings.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

In the bay, Brosdahl scours the Rainy River channel as it meanders from Wheeler's Point to Lighthouse Gap. "Bends are best, especially where you can hit depths of 14 to 24 feet."

The entire flank of protracted Pine Island is another hotspot. During morning and evening hours Brosdahl pitches camp in 15 to 24 feet, centering on structure with the steepest grade. But if not there, he promptly reports to the deeper 20s, especially where the 20s develop into 30s - the second major break.

Once fish are dialed in, you may not have to move at all. History, however, dictates that depths of 29 to 33 feet are superior by day, because saugers feed just beyond the walleyes. Later, in February and March, Brosdahl slides out to 32 to 38 feet of water, where walleyes, saugers and large perch feast on emerging insects and baitfish.

Besides Pine Island and its allied areas, Brosdahl endorses 16 Mile Reef, waters outside Zippel Bay, and the many reefs associated with Long Point and Arnesons Reef.

Technique-wise, Lake of the Woods isn't much of a code to crack. Brosdahl lowers a noisy Lindy Rattl'r Spoon in golden shiner or fire-tiger glow colors, which he adorns with a whole or partial emerald shiner.

The Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau is equipped to answer your lodging and fishing questions. You can ring the fine folks at 1-800-382-FISH (3474) or look them up online at


Lake Winnibigoshish

Perhaps the most sought after of all hardwater species could be the perch. They bridge the gap between game fish and panfish. They gulp whole baitfish at times, nibbling on zooplankton when melancholy overcomes them.

Minnesota is a perch fishing mecca. No other state boasts as many outstanding perch fisheries - period. With that said, there's a fistful of lakes in north-central Minnesota that, on average, tend to outperform the rest. Kingpin amongst them is 69,000-acre Lake Winnibigoshish.

"Winnie is juiced with 9- and 10-inchers - fatties," says Brosdahl. "Besides those everyday fish, there's also a number of perch in the 11- to 13-inch class. The reduced bag limit has been beneficial."

A couple of years back the Department of Natural Resources imposed statewide changes to the harvesting of perch, lowering figures from the liberal 100 daily/100 possession limit to the newer and wiser 20 daily/40 possession limit. Winnie's perch population has responded positively to the reduced take. Flat out, there's more big fish in the pond.

What makes Winnie so wonderful? Brosdahl credits the lake's diversity of prime structure.

"Everything is perchy," he said. "Winnie is bursting with sandbars, rockpiles, vegetation and steep banks."

From the culinary side, Brosdahl points to the abundance of mayfly larvae, juvenile crayfish, spot-tailed shiners, and yes, itty-bitty perch.

"Perch are serious cannibals," he said. "It's not unusual to catch a jumbo that's literally spitting out baby perch."

At winter's onset, Brosdahl zeroes in on "shoreline features and connected bars." Erring toward depths of 18 to 29 feet, he pops holes over Sugar Bar, Ravens Bar, Bena Bar and rockpiles on the northeast end.

A bonus weed-bite unfurls simultaneously. Vegetated depths of 6 to 14 feet attract perch. Areas to earmark are the Mississippi River outlet, Third River Flowage, Bowen's Flats and the High Banks.

By midwinter - January and February - the action swings deeper to 27 to 34 feet. The aforesaid locations deliver in the heart of winter as well. And to the list Brosdahl adds Center Bar, The Humps, Big Hump, Horseshoe Bar, Moses Bar and the outer humps off Ravens.

Surprisingly, winter's final phase brings

an even deeper bite. During the month of March, things get nasty in 28 to 38 feet over the mud. This will put you midlake, just off key structure. Don't be shocked to find fish suspended, either. "The higher, the hotter," Brosdahl says.

Jigging spoons get the job done, especially those in gold, silver or perch-pattern. For moments of hyperactivity, he rips a naked W-2 or W-3 Jigging Rapala - the small ones. The perch and fire-tiger finishes seemingly cater to cannibalistic perch.

Brosdahl books guided fishing trips. Call (218) 665-2217 or go to Learn more about the area at

Leech Lake

Minnesota's other mature perch fishery sits mere miles from Winnie. Leech Lake, at 110,000 acres, is unique. Its walleyes didn't breed so well in the late 1990s, and pressure by anglers was smothering during the same period. The combination was lethal. Poundage was removed and little replaced. Fortunately, the silver lining is beginning to appear. The summer of 2004 yielded awesome catches for dedicated Leech Lake anglers.

Meanwhile, with traffic largely diminished, the lake's perch grew - and grew. Presently, Leech is well fortified with 7- to 9-inchers, and supplemented by a contingent of 11-to 13-inch fish. And according to Brosdahl, catching a genuine 14-inch fish is possible.

What is changed, though, is the whereabouts of wintertime perch. Leech is an established shallow-water producer.

"The shallow weed bite has waned," Brosdahl said. "Anglers who pounded perch in 5 to 12 feet of water need to search deeper. Sure, there's still fish there, and some big ones, but the serious action has shifted out to 22 to 30 feet."

In winter, Brosdahl ferries clients to hotbeds such as Federal Dam, Five Mile Point, Ottertail Point, Bear Island and shoreline breaks in Walker Bay. That range - 22 to 30 feet - is applicable to countless positions around the lake, said Brosdahl. Conveniently, too, walleyes mingle among the perch, and when deep breaks align with weeded shallows, well, you have the best of both worlds.

On the shallow side, Brosdahl searches for stands of surviving coontail and/or cabbage in 6 to 15 feet. His list of viable targets includes Sugar Point, Two Points, Deadhead Bay, Sand Point, Bear Island, South Walker Bay, the Walker Bay Narrows, Goose Island and Snake Pit Flats.

Triggering a mark on the Vexilar is a matter of swinging and circling. Brosdahl presents a chartreuse/orange Lindy Flyer. He outfits the "swimming jig" with a whole fathead, pierced through its lower lip and forehead so it tracks properly.

Go to for resort and lodging information. Contact Brosdahl for professional guiding.


Western Hotspots

Dave Genz cut his teeth out west, on lakes near Alexandria, Detroit Lakes and Fergus Falls. Call them his home waters. Since his formidable years, the landscape and waterscapes of west-central Minnesota have transformed, and the fishing has cycled up and down. But despite the vacillations, Genz still considers it one of the finest fishing resources in the nation.

Genz attributes the area's recent boom to the implementation of special regulations. Northern pike in lakes like Big and Little Detroit, Melissa and Sallie are now helped by protected slots. Pike fishing has improved. And as a spin-off, there are more big predators around to thin out smaller panfish, freeing up space and forage for adult panfish.

Lake Lida, at 5,500 acres, is another micromanaged fishery, but not its pike. On Lida, to keep a crappie, it must be at least 11 inches long. All those 9- and 10-inchers have to go back in the water. Genz has witnessed the effects. The average crappie is getting progressively larger. True "pounders," he says, are frequent.

The bluegills aren't faring poorly, either. Anglers are hooking plenty of 1/2-pound bluegills.

According to Ice Team czar Genz, the heaviest action emerges on the north end of North Ida. The bay nearest neighboring lakes Lizzie and Crystal is the place to be. Flourishing foliage is rampant, and where the weeds end, pronounced bars dip toward bountiful basins.

By day, Genz sets up shop in and on the edges of the densest vegetation, which lands him in 12 to 15 feet of water. Lida's bluegills will be there throughout the day, with morning and evening spikes. Crappies come and go, too, but their finest hours surround dusk, at which time Genz homes in on the outside weedline and flats beyond the bars. Here, crappies suspend and scavenge for aquatic critters.

Genz gets after sunshine biters with a maggot-covered chartreuse/orange Lindy Fat Boy. He says the color combo is chosen for its proficiency in clear water. Later, as the sun wanes, he switches to a Lindy Fat Boy in techni-glo red.

Alexandria Hotel & Hospitality is the group to contact for area information and lodging. Tap them at or 1-800-245-ALEX (2539).

Genz's next mark is Becker County's Tamarack Lake, a 1,400-acre puddle situated within the Tamarack National Wildlife Refuge. The largely shallow lake is subject to winterkill, and according to Genz, experienced a partial hit a few years back. The upside of such an episode is that remaining fish - 10-inch bluegills - grow at a fast rate. And, because of Tamarack's fertility, bluegills hatched since the winterkill - numerous 1/2-pounders - have developed at a remarkable clip.

Because of its National Wildlife Refuge status, the surfaces of Tamarack cannot be traversed by motorized vehicle, although gas-powered augers are permissible. Genz says the restriction isn't very restrictive, though. The best spots are within walking distance of the two public landings.

Genz suggests cutting strings of exploratory holes between the northwest landing and the opposing shoreline point, thus bisecting Tamarack's deepest spot, a 16-foot hole. By winter, the bulk of Tamarack's bluegills rally around the crater. During first ice and last ice, Genz says that weedbeds near the islands harbor fish as well, but you'll have to trudge awhile to get there.

The Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce can help you with area lodging and activities. Contact them at 1-800-542-3992 or

Clearwater Lake

A predominantly crappie affair awaits your arrival on Wright County's Clearwater Lake. Genz says the 3,200-acre colossus is nearly sure-fire in December and January. Early ice is best, largely due to the effortlessness of finding fish. Genz and others embark from the west shore's BJ's Bait & Tackle and head to the 30-foot zone or deep breaklines, which slide off a pair of noticeable bulrush islands.

Crappies - ranging from 1/4 to 2 pounds - loiter off the west bank for several weeks. Once the feeding fades,

however, Genz reorganizes and mobilizes to the east side of Bungalow Island. Here, hordes of crappies suspend in 30 to 40 feet of water. You'll eyeball community spots, says Genz, but it's more vigilant to search for schools of larger, unpressured crappies.

The eastern lobe of Clearwater holds fish, too, but in Genz's estimation, the west side is a finer all-around choice.

The city of St. Cloud is just a snowball's throw from Clearwater. Call (320) 251-2940 for information or go to


Upper Red Lake

Brosdahl's earlier walleye selection, Lake of the Woods, is a fabulous choice for hardwater pike as well. Big fish are plentiful and highly accessible. The same could be said for Mille Lacs, Rainy Lake, Cass Lake and Lake Bemidji. But they all pale in comparison to modern-day Upper Red Lake.

Upper Red's 108,000 acres of publicly fishable waters are loaded with pike. Brosdahl calls it "the best pike lake in the contiguous 48 states."

Numerous features unite to make Upper Red what it is. Brosdahl says every square inch is fertile and that there are more pike per acre than anywhere in our state. Moreover, Upper Red is full of forage. Pike feast upon whitefish, crappies, shiners and juvenile sheepshead. And one can't discount the plethora of breeding habitat - rivers, creeks and ditches - and impeccable surroundings, namely the expansive flats and quality weeds, including cabbage and bulrushes.

Early winter finds Upper Red's pike clinging to the first shoreline break in 6 to 8 feet of water, perhaps slightly deeper. Brosdahl recommends exploring wide swaths near the Tamarac River mouth, Shotley Brook, Roger's RV Park and Hudec's Resort.

From about January thereafter, the beefier fish cruise deeper - 10 to 12 feet - and maraud amongst the terrified crappies in the planted fish cribs. Brosdahl proposes jigging for Upper Red's legendary crappies with one line and utilizing the other for toothy critters. Brosdahl's setline is composed of a Clam Corp Arctic Warrior - a tip-up hybrid - paired with a No. 6/0 circle hook and nose-hooked sucker minnow.

The Upper Red Lake Area Association can satisfy your pike, crappie and lodging questions. Call 1-866-866-1866 to request an area brochure, or go to

* * *

This winter, like last, my money is on the big water.

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