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Minnesota's Best Bets for Fishing

Minnesota's Best Bets for Fishing

There are two types of anglers in our state: those who fish close to home and those who like to explore. Here's something for everyone.


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By Tim Lesmeister

Some anglers pretty much stick to their home lake. They might have a cabin or a house there, or they live nearby and have become comfortable on this body of water because they know it so well. Then there are those people who search out the hot bite. There's something to be said about chasing a hot bite. Rapidly changing water temperatures, a good year-class, a drop in the forage base or some other phenomenon will create a situation where a particular species on a certain body of water will all of a sudden be jumping on a lure or bait. Get there early and you can join in on some fine fishing. Get there late and you will be hearing that old saying, "Shoulda been here yesterday."

Here are 36 locations that should be hot in the next 12 months.

Gull Lake
Gull Lake near Brainerd has always been a walleye hotspot. The beauty of Gull is that many of the resorts on the lake are open year 'round, and there are a lot of hotels and motels in Brainerd and Nisswa.

The key to finding and catching walleyes on Gull is to work the 18- to 28-foot depths from the tip of a point into an inside turn. Walleyes on Gull strongly relate to the breaklines created by structure elements and use these highways in their migrations. Use a flashy jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head.

Lake Lida
There are some very big crappies in Otter Tail County's Lida, and they are not as tough to find when the lake is coated with a layer of ice. There's a deep hole south of the access that nestles up to a sand/rubble bar that's always a great place to start your search. You need a sonar to find these suspended fish.

Rice Lake
The water visibility in Stearns County's Rice Lake in the winter months is just adequate enough to set up an underwater viewing camera and watch those walleyes come into the bait. You don't see them until they are right there, but quit pumping and start twitching when you see that shadow coming. Make sure to use brightly colored jigging spoons that incorporate a little flash as well.


Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Twin Lake
Wright County's Twin Lake gets a fair share of winter fishing pressure, but this lake still cranks out plenty of big crappies. The two bays on the south end both drop into more than 50 feet of water, so the crappies have all kinds of water to suspend in.

Some other good locations to chase crappies on Twin are to the west of the big island where the bottom slows its drop and begins to taper into deep water. Anywhere around the small island on the northeast end of the lake can be productive, and both of the bays on the north end are crappie magnets. The water clarity in Twin is good, so once you locate a school of fish, just a hook and a minnow will be all that's necessary to entice a bite.

Lake Plantagenet
Most winter walleye anglers focus on the two sunken islands on Plantagenet, but there is also plenty of walleye potential on the point on the south end and on the inside turn it creates. There are a lot of nice-sized walleyes in Plantagenet.

Lake Wabana
Itasca County's Lake Wabana is considered a tough lake to fish in the summertime, but it produces for anglers in the winter. There is a good population of walleyes and the clear water is a great place to incorporate an underwater camera. The walleyes will be bunched up on a dropoff or near a point, and you can lure them in with a lure that has some flash.

Steamboat Lake
The perch on Cass County's Steamboat Lake can make you work for a few nice ones, but then you can also get into a school of 12-inchers. There are a lot of perch in Steamboat, and if an angler doesn't mind sorting through a few smaller fish during the course of a day on the ice, some bigger fish will be there.

The water is clear, so the fish can be finicky. When you see the perch swim up to the bait on the sonar or camera, if they won't commit, drop the jig with the minnow or wax worm right into the sandy bottom. Those perch will face down toward the bait and suck it right off the bottom. It's a great trick to know when you find those fish unwilling to take suspended bait.

Mille Lacs
The perch are back, and they are big and they are biting. The trick to getting into the big schools of nice perch is to be mobile. Rent a stationary shack to use as a base camp if you're going to be out on the ice for a few days, but take along the portable shelter when you want to get serious about catching perch. The edges of the rubble or a transition area where the bottom changes from sand to mud are both hotspots for winter perch.

Stahls Lake
The best way to find the crappies in McLeod County's Stahls Lake is to drill a lot of holes. There's no midlake structure or erratic depth changes in this lake that might draw the crappies. Instead you have a basin that resembles an oblong bowl with a stable tapering bottom. Drill a dozen holes over the deep water, and with your sonar and a jigging spoon work each hole for 10 to 15 minutes until you connect with the crappies. It shouldn't take long since there are a lot of crappies in this lake.

Rainy River
Anglers trailer their boats up in droves to take advantage of the April walleye fishing on the Rainy River. It's a chance for these anglers to get in a little open-water angling before the official opener in May.

The walleyes are moving into the river from Lake of the Woods. There are a lot of them, and these fish will key on any current break they can as they make their way from Point A to Point B.

The most successful technique is the trusty jig-and-minnow combination. The size of the jig depends on the speed of the current, and you just can't beat a small shiner or a big fathead on that hook.

Basswood Lake
The Canadian border waters are open continuously for northern pike, and this means getting into a little late-ice angling on Basswood Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. There are some areas that are off-limits due to pike spawning. The trick is to get on the border of those closed sections because there will be huge pike meandering back and forth into these bays.

Mississippi River
Lock and Dam No. 4 by Red Wing always draws a lot of boats in April, but this is where the walleyes stack up, so it is the place to be. If you can, take a day or two off work and get to this spot on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. There are fewer boats and the fish have recovered from the weekend anglers beating them on the heads with jigs. It's worth the trip.

St. Croix River
Because the St. Croix River shoreline is shared with neighboring Wisconsin, anglers get to start chasing walleyes a couple of weeks before the official opening day, and the best place to fish is by Stillwater. Walleyes will be on the shallow rubble and can be caught by casting a 1/4-ounce jig tipped with a minnow.

Another technique that St. Croix anglers are fond of is working the channel edges with a bottom-bouncer and spinner rig. If the current is strong, switch to a three-way swivel setup and use plenty of weight. These walleyes are typical river fish and like to stay tight to the bottom.

Woman Lake
Anglers have been trying to keep it a secret, but word always gets out. The past few openers have been productive for the anglers who drag leeches around on the sandbars on Women Lake in Cass County. Women Lake has always been considered a decent walleye fishery, and anglers like the wealth of structure and diverse vegetation available there. If the winter ends early and spring holds, then it's a good bet that Women will be a top spot on opener.

Lake Emily
While most of the opening-day anglers are out chasing walleyes and pike, there are a few who realize that the middle of May is as good as it gets for open-water crappie fishing. If anglers on Le Sueur County's Lake Emily key on any of the shallow bays, they will connect with crappies. The fish have always had impressive numbers in the lake, but in the past couple of years the size structure has been improving as well.


Lake Waconia

Lake Waconia has made a name for itself the last few years as a lake that is capable of producing a lot of big largemouth bass. Bass anglers who have mastered the lake brag about 20- and 30-fish days where a quarter of the bass were over 4 pounds and a couple were easily over 5 pounds.

Work the thick vegetation in June with a long pitching rod and big, heavy jigs. The milfoil on the shallow muck will be well grown and the big bass are using the vegetation for cover to ambush forage.

Another good technique for largemouth bass that are in deeper water is to work a deep-diving crankbait that resembles a bluegill.

Bowstring Lake

June is a great month to be on Itasca County's Bowstring Lake. There are still a lot of walleyes on the shallow rubble and on the edges of the bulrushes. Cast a jig-and-minnow out as far as you can and slowly drag and hop the jig over the cobblestone bottom. If a cold front quiets the fish, then rig a slip-bobber and fish the edges of the bulrushes with leeches.

Lake Mary

Get up before the sun does and motor in the dark over to the swath of bulrushes that separates the two basins on Douglas County's Lake Mary. As soon as the sun starts to light the eastern sky, cast a long, thin minnow-imitating crankbait right up to the edge of the bulrushes. Let it sit until all the ripples have diminished and then twitch it. Big largemouth bass blow up on it. It's fun.

Lake Minnewawa
Big sunfish are the norm on Aitkin County's Lake Minnewawa.

There are many places for them to hide because of all the vegetation. If you want the big sunnies, think deep. There are pockets in the vegetation where the big bluegills are sitting.

Deer Lake
This is a 3,700-acre piece of prime walleye habitat in Itasca County. This is textbook walleye fishing with sunken islands, reefs, points, saddles, inside turns and rockpiles. Yet the lake is not too big to be able to manage it well. Pick a piece of structure and strain it, but don't worry if nothing bites there. There's plenty more where that came from.

Medicine Lake
The big pike are showing up with regularity on Medicine Lake in Hennepin County. In July, just tie on a crankbait that runs to 12 feet and troll the well-defined milfoil weedlines. If there is too much milfoil floating, vertical jig a 1/2-ounce live-rubber jig tipped with a small sucker in 14 feet of water.

Lake of the Woods
There are no "dog days" at Lake of the Woods, and in August the big walleyes start flexing their muscles.

Some of the charters lower crankbaits on downriggers and do very well. Those not equipped with the heavy metal can use a slower approach with a bottom-bouncer and spinner rig.

Prior Lake
The secret is out. The big largemouth bass on Prior Lake in Scott County are on the midlake humps and they are suckers for a deep-diving crankbait. Don't use a steady retrieve. Instead, reel the bait down until it makes contact with the bottom, and then start and stop it all the way back to the boat.

Mississippi River
Smallmouth bass restrictions have made parts of the Mississippi River the finest smallie fishery in our state, and the best stretch is from St. Cloud to the Coon Rapids Dam. The problem is that most anglers don't know how to navigate rivers, and they mess up their props, lower units and boat hulls as they try to motor around. If you value your boat, take a canoe or car-topper and drift a small stretch. The base of any riffles is productive.

Pokegama Lake
There have been a lot of bass tournaments on Itasca County's Pokegama Lake the past few years and while you may think that smallmouth

s would be the target, it's the largemouths that dominate the catches.

Most of the anglers are shooting through the Jay Gould Channel into the heavy vegetation that lines the channel that feeds Pokegama. There are a lot of huge bass in that cabbage.

Cedar Island Lake
In September, the game fish most Minnesotans choose to chase are in a transition period. And if you hit a lake during turnover, forget having a good day on the water. So if your lake is not productive, consider the channel catfish in Cedar Island Lake in Stearns County. In September the channel cats are putting on a feedbag and devouring minnows, night crawlers and even crankbaits.

Maple Lake
September might be your last open-water month to get big bluegills before they disappear and make you wait until first ice. Wright County's Maple Lake is a good place to find some. Plenty of vegetation on the east and west ends of the lake make these the perfect spots to find the big bluegills. Use an 1/8-ounce jighead, a panfish leech under a slip-bobber and fish in 12 to 14 feet of water.

Cass Lake
Think bulrushes in October on Cass Lake for walleyes.

The tullibees will move up into this vegetation, and the pike and walleyes follow them in for a feast.

Use a shiner minnow on a jig in the sparse vegetation. In the thicker weeds, a slip-bobber can be the ultimate presentation.

Lake Alexander
In October after a lake has turned over, the walleyes can be at any depth. On Morrison County's Lake Alexander that means an angler has a lot of options. The best locations will be deep sunken islands that top out at 25 feet or more. This structure was devoid of walleyes all summer, but those fish find it more attractive now that the thermocline is gone.

Diamond Lake
Diamond Lake in Kandiyohi County is the perfect lake for trolling crankbaits for fall walleyes due to the nice even taper of the bottom. The weedline extends out to 12 feet, which is a good place to start. Fortunately, crankbait manufacturers are building lures that will get down to 20 feet or more, which allows anglers the opportunity to strain more depths - a real advantage on this lake.

Sturgeon Lake
Everyone is deer hunting, so the pike get ignored in November, and that's when the big ones come out to play on Sturgeon Lake in Pine County.

The technique requires a lot of casting, and the lures should be oversized, like small muskie lures.

Cast to the shallow vegetation, running the lure just a foot or two below the surface as it churns, spins or wobbles back to the boat. If the pike aren't in the shallow weeds, troll big crankbaits along the weedline.

Pelican Lake
The walleyes will be up on the shallow rubble shoreline regions in November on Pelican Lake in Crow Wing County. Cast a jig tipped with a minnow, much like you do in the spring. Small shallow-running crankbaits are also a good option.

Rachel Lake
Tullibees in a lake almost always means the pike will be big. That's why it pays to check out Rachel Lake in Douglas County. The pike eat the tullibees, they get big, and they bite readily in November. Rachel is not a large lake, so you can get around it casting to all the vegetation in a good day of fishing. Release the big gals.

Lake Melissa
Hope for an early ice-up and go chase the walleyes on Becker County's Lake Melissa.

There is great structure on the south end. There are a couple of big points and the sunken island on the southeast corner is always productive. As the ice gets thicker, you will find yourself migrating toward the long, narrow reef in the center of the lake.

Big Turtle Lake
During the early ice of December, anglers chasing crappies on Big Turtle in Beltrami County start on the south end where the deep water intersects with a shallow bar. As the ice thickens, those anglers move northward where sharp inside turns cut right into the deepest water in the lake. The crappies in Big Turtle suspend far enough off bottom to make them sonar-friendly.

Little Lake Winnibigoshish
The names Winnibigoshish and big perch are synonymous, so why wouldn't you expect to find big perch in Big Winni's little brother, Little Winni. This basin is 940 acres and has a nice well-defined weedline that can hold perch all winter long. There are perch up to 12 inches caught with regularity, so if you're only getting small ones, move.
* * *
There. That should be enough to keep you busy for a whole year!

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