With so many lakes and rivers in our state, we can always find fish biting somewhere. But if you want to eliminate a lot of wasted time, head for these waters. (February 2007)
Sometimes when an angler makes that first cast, there is little doubt in his mind he will soon be reeling in a fish. Sometimes the fish cooperate, but sometimes they just can't be coerced into opening their mouth.
The only way you know whether you will be right on the top of great fishing -- or cussing the weather, which is always the brunt of an angler's ire when the fish won't bite -- is to get out on the water.
There are so many lakes and rivers in Minnesota that you should be able to find some fish biting somewhere. To save you a lot of time in doing research, here are three dozen options where good fishing can be expected in the next 12 months.
Water clarity on Strawberry Lake in Becker County can be labeled excellent, and this makes it an outstanding choice during the winter months.
Use a sonar to locate walleyes suspending off the bottom, and then send an underwater viewing camera down the hole in the ice to watch how these fish react to your bait. Use a thin-diameter line and subtle color patterns on 1/8-ounce jigging spoons tipped with fathead minnow heads.
There also are some big bluegills in Strawberry that like the deep water where the walleyes are, too.
Scott County's Spring Lake is a great crappie hotspot during the middle of the ice-fishing season. The papermouths will concentrate on the east end over the deeper water, and while there may be a few stationary shelters and plenty of portable ice houses over the school of fish, the bite is consistent through the day for crappies.
Little McDonald Lake
Little McDonald is deep, clear and a great early-ice season walleye hotspot in Otter Tail County. Early-ice anglers tend to favor the west side where there is a large point that extends into deeper water. Don't be afraid to explore the depths to the east because walleyes suspend well off the bottom in Little McDonald and can be picked up easily on your sonar.
Beebe Lake has consistently produced big crappies over the years, but it's the anglers who tend to come and go in cycles.
The word will get out that there is a good crappie bite on Beebe, and then the anglers come in droves to Wright County. After a week or so, the number of shelters on the lake gets back to normal and the fish start biting again. It's best to hit this lake early when the bulk of the hot-bite anglers are somewhere else.
South Long Lake
Northern pike like hardy green vegetation in the wintertime, but they also like to sneak out onto a rockpile or sandbar and suck down a perch or two. They have it made on South Long Lake in Crow Wing County. In the center of the main basin you will find plenty of cabbage and deep coontail near some mid-lake structure, and this combination of quality habitat is a magnet for the pike that are found in good numbers here. Yes, South Long is a numbers lake, so expect plenty of bites, but few fish in the lunker status.
White Earth Lake
A lot of structure and deep water can spread the walleyes out on White Earth Lake. Fortunately, there are plenty of 'eyes in this Becker County lake, so finding some willing biters is a good bet. An underwater viewing camera is a must due to the great visibility and diverse bottom content found here. Try it, you'll like it, and it's fun!
Find your own fish on Moosehead Lake and they will be big, especially the bluegills.
By March, the community fishing spots for bluegills will be pretty picked over, with many of the bigger fish harvested from those schools. But on Moosehead Lake, the bluegills don't stage in one spot, but rather are spread out. So, if you put a little effort into searching for that group of bigger fish, you're apt to find them on this Carlton County lake.
Lake Minnie Belle
Think deep weeds for the Minnie Belle sunfish and you'll do well. The vegetation in this lake grows deep, and with little mid-lake structure, the edge of the shoreline vegetation holds most of the fish. Drill plenty of holes, keep moving and pick up a nice bluegill here and a few nice ones there. Meeker County's Minnie Belle grows some big bluegills, and wintertime is the best time to go after them.
Anglers don't have to travel far from the access to find the big crappies on Island Lake, but the two community holes get worked thoroughly, which can push the late-ice anglers into the eastern basin. Put in some time in the 50-foot hole to the southeast of the hump and you'll find suspended schools of crappies that haven't been pressured.
Otter Tail Lake
Right after ice-out, the jumbo perch in Otter Tail Lake move up onto the shallow sandbars and roam in packs.
To catch them, use a live-bait rig with a crappie minnow on a short leader and drag it slowly over the tops of the mid-lake structure.
The best time to target the perch in Otter Tail is during the low-light periods of morning and evening. On cloudy days, the bite can last from dawn to dusk.
Shallow bays abound on Minnetonka, and after ice-out, the crappies move up into these black-bottomed bays and feed voraciously. Expect a lot of company where the schools of crappies are feeding, but there are loads of fish, so expect plenty of action as well.
Mississippi River At Red Wing
Spawning walleyes migrate upstream until they hit the dam. Anglers drop their boats in at Red Wing and migrate up to the dam to pitch jigs tipped with minnows. Take a lot of jigs, because the bottom will eat them up. And expect a good deal of company, because this is a popular destination in April.
May signals the opening of walleye fishing on the lakes in Minnesota, and anglers who are looking for productive water during this early-season period should consider the pothole lakes in southern Minnesota.
Sakatah is only 10 feet deep at its maximum point, so it warms up fast after ice-out, and by the opener, the walle
yes are hungry.
On heavily stocked Sakatah, walleyes can be coerced with crankbaits, minnow-tipped jigs or live-bait rigs loaded with a leech. Pick a walleye tactic and it will work on Sakatah in May.
Hendricks is a border lake with South Dakota, so anglers can chase walleyes there through the entire month of May (be sure to check the regulations to pinpoint this year's actual starting date). If you troll or cast crankbaits, use flashy silver rattling lures that are shad-shaped. Drifting slip-bobbers and leeches is another high-percentage tactic on Hendricks Lake.
East Rush Lake still provides some fine muskie fishing, and the fish are big. These muskies don't get fooled easily, but a topwater prop bait near the narrows is great for turning followers into hitters.
Heavy fishing pressure is a fact of life on this pothole lake sitting right on the edge of the town of Worthington, but the heavy walleye stocking program keeps Lake Okabena as a productive option. When the season opens in May, the walleyes will be ready to bite, and there aren't any techniques that won't work on this lake!
Anglers are discovering that there are some big largemouth bass in the lakes up north where the walleyes have typically received all the attention.
Shallow cabbage beds and stands of bulrushes are seeing a lot of spinnerbaits and jigs these days. On Blackwater Lake in Cass County, the largemouth bass are protected by special regulations, and they must be released, but you should put those 4- and 5-pounders back anyway. These bucketmouths even fall for a topwater when the water is calm.
Big Birch Lake
Pick a rockpile on Big Birch, toss a topwater right on top of it, and twitch it back. Be prepared for a tremendous explosion when a big smallmouth bass tries to have it for lunch. Tube jigs also work well on Big Birch when the surface is being roiled by the wind.
Muskie anglers tend to follow the hot bite. The past few years, that has put a lot of muskie anglers on Mille Lacs and Minnetonka. That also means many great muskie lakes aren't getting near as much attention as they should. Beltrami County's Big Lake has a nice mixture of bulrushes, cabbage, coontail, some great rubble points and a couple of rockpiles. There are also some big muskies that roam this structure while waiting for an easy meal. Big Lake muskies are more apt to hit than follow the lure, which is a sign they aren't as conditioned as muskies on the more popular lakes.
When it comes to bluegills, you typically either have a choice between a lake that has many small fish or a lake with just a few big ones. Myrtle Lake in St. Louis County is the exception, with a lot of bigger sunfish.
The bluegills school on Myrtle by size, so if you're into a group of smaller fish, move somewhere else. You'll find a pod of three-to-a-pound sunnies, and that's the area you stick with.
Tie on an 8-inch or larger crankbait with a long, thin body in a shiner pattern and then troll the 10-, 12-, 15- and 20-foot breaklines, and you'll catch some big northern pike on Prairie Lake. Special regulations on this St. Louis County lake protect the big pike, so plan to release all the respectable-sized fish you catch.
Bear Head Lake
Surround yourself with a beautiful northwoods setting on a lake where the boat traffic is limited to 10 mph and drag a live-bait rig with a leech over the rocky points and sand saddles for walleyes on beautiful Bear Head Lake.
Cedar Island Lake
Sometimes a Minnesota angler just needs a little change of pace. This is a good time to consider the channel catfish on Cedar Island Lake in Stearns County.
Channel cats won't hesitate to smack a shad-shaped crankbait as long as you troll it slow and keep it near the bottom. A live-bait rig with a night-crawler harness is also a great option. Use a No. 3 or No. 4 spinnerblade in silver to get their attention.
Concentrate on the mid-lake saddle for some productive "dog days" walleye fishing. Trolling spinner rigs over the sand and rubble breaklines will eventually pinpoint a pod of walleyes that are concentrated on the structure. Mark the spot and use a jig or slip-bobber to strip a few more walleyes from that spot.
Get on this Aitkin County water at dusk and long-line troll a deep-diving crankbait in the 16- to 24-foot depth ranges and you will be pleased by the amount of 18- to 22-inch walleyes that will fall for your offering.
Upper Hay Lake
To find the big largemouth bass on Upper Hay in Crow Wing County in September, just sit your boat right on top of one of the many humps and cast a big-lipped deep-diving crankbait as far as you can into the deeper water. Crank it back hard and fast, and when that lure hits the point where it wants to start climbing, those big bucketmouths lying at the base of those humps will pop up off the bottom and grab it.
Cabbage is the key for big pike on Itasca County's Balsam Lake. Use large spinnerbaits to plow through the vegetation, and work muskie-sized crankbaits on the edge of the weeds. Balsam has a reputation as a big-pike lake, and special regulations will keep it that way.
Big bass are not uncommon on this Wright County lake, but your expectations should lean toward a lot of bites and a lot of 2- and 3-pounders. A 1/4-ounce jig tipped with a 3-inch plastic grub will provide consistent largemouth action.
East Rush Lake
East Rush Lake was one of the Department of Natural Resources' early muskie projects and has been a staple of many of the state's muskie anglers over the years.
East Rush Lake still provides some fine muskie fishing, and the fish are big. These muskies aren't fooled easily, but a topwater prop bait near the narrows is great for turning followers into hitters.
The contour of Granite Lake is what trollers look for -- nice straight runs on a shallow well-defined weedline that is home to big northern pike. Expect a little time between bites, but when that rod bounces and bends, it will be a pike worth catching.
Walleyes move up onto shallow rock structure or inhabit the edges of weedy points on Lake Koron
is. A minnow dangled in these spots will get sucked up faster than lollipops at a
kid's casting contest.
Anglers work Kandiyohi County's Lake Andrew hard through the summer months, but mostly for panfish. Come fall, the weedline that was a favorite spot for bobber-fishers using small leeches becomes the go-to location for walleye anglers. Use a live-bait rig with a medium sucker or redtail minnow and you'll find ample amounts of walleyes.
If you want to catch walleyes in November, find a small lake with limited structure and drag redtail chubs on the bottom. It also pays to be on a lake with high numbers of fish.
All these variables come together on Marion in Otter Tail County. Take plenty of minnows along, because when the walleyes are biting, you'll use them all.
Big pike move right into the shallow bays full of cabbage in November, and few anglers are there to chase them on this Kandiyohi County lake. Use a slow approach in the bays on the north and east sides of Nest, such as a slow-rolled spinnerbait or shallow-diving wide-wobbling crankbait.
When the tullibees tuck up into the vegetation in November, big walleyes follow them right in for a feast. On Douglas County's Lake Andrew, this is a great time to drag a redtail minnow tight on the base of the coontail and milfoil.
There are many anglers who consider first ice as their opening day of fishing, and walleyes are their target species.
Walleyes move up onto shallow rock structure or inhabit the edges of weedy points on Lake Koronis. A minnow dangled in these spots will get sucked up faster than lollipops at a kid's casting contest. The bottom contour and content around the islands on Lake Koronis create an environment that walleyes can't resist as the ice gets just safe enough to fish on.
Just remember to drill plenty of holes and move often to find the fish that have spread out in that productive zone.
Long points extending into deep holes with nearby sunken islands here can lure schools of crappies that stage by the structural elements far enough off the bottom to be easily picked up on sonar. The tactic to catch them consists of the basic plain hook a foot below a split shot under a slip-bobber. The crappies on Maple Lake in Douglas County are big -- there's a limit of five, but none under 10 inches can be kept -- and they can be found in good numbers by sticking to this formula.
It will be a great year for perch anglers on Mille Lacs, and there are always plenty of fish in the 12-inch range when you find them in December. Early ice can be tricky on this big lake, so take care not to venture out too far. It's fortunate that many of the perch during the early-ice period can be found on the sandflats and shallow rockpiles near shore.
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This article should save you from wasting a lot of time over the next 12 months. But if you don't catch fish, just blame the weather!
Find more about Minnesota fishing and hunting at: MinnesotaSportsmanMag.com