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Likely Minnesota Laker Waters

Likely Minnesota Laker Waters

You don't have to drive to Canada for a chance at some tasty lake trout.(January 2008).

Photo by Ron Anlauf.

Lake trout are fussy eaters and ice-fishing for them can test an angler's patience. Hook up with one, however, and you'll be addicted, especially if you love the taste of fish.

According to the DNR, lake trout swim in thousands of acres of Minnesota waters, but the biggest populations are found in Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties that form the tip of the state's Arrowhead region.

The list may be deceiving -- many of the lakes haven't been stocked in decades or lack recent DNR reports -- but the lakes listed below offer some of the finest lake trout ice-fishing in Minnesota, according to local sources and DNR fisheries offices.

Lake trout anglers are no different than their open-water counterparts in that they love to fish the opener. Depending on where you go fishing, the opener begins in late December or early January, so check the regulations. Anglers who have the knowledge and the time know lake trout can be caught through the ice throughout the winter, well into March when the season closes.

Drilling a hole in the ice over sharp breaks or humps and tossing down a jig, spoon or plain hook tipped with meat is about as complicated as lake trout fishing is at its most basic. Just like any other kind of fishing, an angler has the right to make it as complicated as he wants, but most die-hard lake trout anglers will tell you that's as crazy as they get.


Lake County


Snowbank Lake is probably the most accessible lake trout water in the Arrowhead region. With hefty populations of lake trout spread across 4,273 acres of fishable ice, it could be the best overall lake trout water in the state. But Snowbank is an entry point to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, so snowmobiles and power augers are not allowed on the northeast half of the lake.

Dennis Schmitt, one of the owner's of Smitty's on Snowbank resort and an avid lake trout angler, said he's found lakers in water as shallow as 6 feet and as deep as 100 feet.

"Lake trout like cold water and it's all cold that time of the year, so you have to be willing to move all over the place," he said.

The shallow-running trout are most likely chasing perch, while the deeper swimming ones are after ciscoes, so adjust your colors accordingly, he said.

"We set our ice houses up on the dropoffs where lake trout feed on schools of forage fish. They usually come in a few times throughout the day," he said.

Because anglers are allowed to fish two lines, Schmitt usually has one tipped with a frozen cisco that he sits on the bottom, while the other line is a jig, spoon or tube. "Sometimes I'll tip it with a minnow head, but usually I don't -- airplane jigs work good, too, if nobody else is around you," he said.

For more information on Snowbank Lake, contact Smitty's on Snowbank at (800) 950-8310 or online at" (Continued)


Cook County

"Big Sag" or plain old "Sag" is what you'll hear most local anglers call this large, sprawling border lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail. Sag is known for excellent summer walleye fishing but is also a great place to drill a hole and fish for lake trout. With plenty of deep water, islands, underwater humps and points, there's enough structure to keep a lake trout angler happy for a lifetime.

Buck Benson, owner of Buck's Hardware in Grand Marais, has fished Sag quite frequently over the years and said it's one of the most beautiful places to fish for lake trout in the winter. "It's a different type of fishing, however, because it's such a big lake. You should pick a day when the wind isn't blowing and it's not colder than crap," he said.

Sag is in the BWCA, but motorized craft are allowed along a corridor linking the end of the Gunflint Trail to the Canadian border. Check a map for the exact location of the corridor because if you stray from it, you will get a ticket.

"A lot of guys will snowmobile up the corridor and then walk or cross-country ski to their fishing locations," Benson said.

Crossing into Canada is another option provided you obtain the proper Remote Area Border Crossing permit. It can take a month to process the paperwork, so plan now by going to or searching for the RABC site.

The Canadian side is open to motorized vehicles, so many anglers will get a permit from the Canadian government and then snowmobile up the corridor into Canada and parallel the border until they reach their fishing location.

Benson has tried that method but prefers to remain on the American side because there are more locations.

"The dropoffs are great locations, but sometimes the lake trout can be found shallow," he said. "I just cross-country ski up from the boat landing and fish by Honeymoon Island, Munker's Narrows and American Point."

For more information on Lake Saganaga, visit the Grand Marais Area Tourism Association Web site at or call (888) 922-5000.


Cook County

Finding quality lake trout waters sometimes means going into remote areas and doing some winter camping, which most anglers are not willing to try. South and North lakes are remote enough that they don't receive much pressure but are also close enough that an angler could fish them on a day trip.

South Lake is the more accessible from a road off the Gunflint Trail along the eastern shore of Mayhew Lake. After the road ends, it becomes a portage leading to Topper Lake and onto South.

"The entire journey is just longer than a mile and well worth it," Benson said. "When you get a laker in South Lake, it's usually a nice fish."

South is a deep lake that drops off quickly, but because of the large average size fish, Benson said anglers could fish it with larger profile spoons and bait.

"You don't have to, but it's an option that can lead to some nice fish," he said.

Anglers that walk the 1,300-foot portage from South L

ake to North Lake are crossing the Height of Land Portage -- a part of Minnesota history. A sign on the portage explains the significance of the area, including the initiation tradition of sprinkling newcomers with a cedar bough dipped in water followed by a vow to never kiss another voyageur's wife and not allowing other novices to pass without undergoing the rituals. The initiation tradition always ended with a gunfire salute and a slug of rum.

Once you've done all that, you have only a limited amount of water to fish in North Lake, since all but the southwestern portion is in Canada. There are plenty of good spots in this section, however. Anglers wishing to fish the entire lake can obtain the RABC as explained above and snowmobile in from the Canadian side, but it's a long haul that's best begun on Gunflint Lake.

For more information on South and North lakes, visit the Grand Marais Area Tourism Association Web site at" or call (888) 922-5000.


b>Cook County

Thousands of lakes along the Gunflint Trail foster healthy populations of lake trout. Although difficult to access, three lakes -- Moss, Birch and Mayhew -- boast clear, deep water and plenty of lake trout.

Each lake is accessible from the Gunflint Trail by a short walk, cross-country skis or snowmobiles. Take Forest Service Road 317 off the Gunflint Trail. Birch is near the Gunflint Trail making access much easier, although the trail to the lake is rather steep. Moss is the most remote of the three but can be accessed through portages from Birch Lake and Hungry Jack Lake. None of the lakes are in the BWCA, so they are open to snowmobile traffic.

According to the DNR's Grand Marais fisheries office, Moss Lake has an abundance of 14- to 16-inch lake trout, while Birch offers smaller fish.

Mayhew Lake seems to have the most fishing potential with many lake trout in that small to medium range and some that are 24 inches or larger.

Mayhew also has a few brown trout that were stocked offering an added bonus should you hook into one of them.

For more information, contact the Grand Marais Area Tourism Association Web site at or call (888) 922-5000.


Big Trout Lake

Crow Wing County

Big Trout Lake is probably the most accessible lake trout water in Minnesota with a boat landing on County Road 66 on the eastern shore and a channel leading to the Whitefish Chain of Lakes. Even with all that access, the deep waters of Big Trout don't always freeze enough to be safely fished on the lake trout opener, so pay attention to local fishing reports before venturing onto the ice.

"In mild winters, the lake doesn't form a lot of good ice, so there's usually a lot of slush," Brainerd area fisheries manager Tim Brastrup said. "Battling the slush is worth it, as long as the ice is thick enough.

"If the conditions are right on opening weekend, there will be 25 or more anglers out there, but as the season progresses it slows down."

Brastrup's coworker, Dale Lockwood, a fisheries specialist, said lake trout scatter throughout the lake during the ice-fishing season.

"Just off the public access there are some good underwater humps and bumps that don't even show up on most maps," Lockwood said.

"Lake trout are opportunist predators that feed on tulibee in deep water and perch and small bluegills when the water is cold."

Brastrup said his favorite locations are the sharp breaks on the north end and a banana-shaped break between the upper and lower lake in 40 to 50 feet of water.

"I'll use a variety of methods including jigging, throwing bait on the bottom or airplane jigs," he said.

For more information, call (800) 450-2838, or visit the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce Web site at


Pine County

Grindstone Lake isn't found on the designated list of Minnesota trout lakes, but its cold, deep waters are home to several species of trout, including lakers, rainbows and browns.

Because it's not a designated trout lake, you don't need a trout stamp to fish it, but if you want to keep the trout, you'll need a stamp.

Located six miles west of Sandstone on County Road 27, the best access point is the boat landing on the northern shore. Grindstone receives moderate to heavy ice-fishing pressure though most attention is focused on the easier-to-catch rainbow trout.

"A lot of anglers will go out and try for a limit of rainbows then move to deeper water for the lakers," said Heath Weaver, area fisheries specialist in Hinckley. "A recent netting survey confirmed a healthy lake trout population with many fish measuring 12 inches to 20 inches and a few 30-inchers found."

Weaver said Grindstone's large smelt population contributes to healthy lake trout numbers, but fishing is more challenging because the fish have easy access to forage.

Weaver said many fisheries employees go to Grindstone to catch trout.

My best advice is to fish the humps, including the rockpiles the state put in for spawning habitat in 35 feet of water," he said noting the steep point by the access is a popular spot. "If you have a GPS with a chip showing lake contours, you can find a lot of great locations."

For more information about Grindstone Lake, call the Hinckley Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 952-4282 or visit"


Grand Rapids Area

Although not officially part of the Arrowhead counties, Grand Rapids is home to several lake trout waters including Caribou Lake and Pit Lake.

Caribou Lake, located about 26 miles north of Grand Rapids on Highway 38, is a deep lake -- 152 feet at its deepest -- with clear, cold water and plenty of steep drops and underwater humps and fingers.

Fisheries specialist Gerry Albert said Caribou is a really good opportunity for anglers looking to do some lake trout fishing.

"There are good numbers of medium-sized lake trout, not to mention some large ones that are taken each year," he said.

The situation at Pit Lake is a little different.

"There are a lot of small to medium fish and an occasional lunker," Albert said. "There are brood-stock fish in there and some of those are very large in the 10-pound-plus range."

Albert said the DNR is watching Pit Lake carefully because there have been apparent changes in the fishery.

"The lake primarily held smelt as the prey species, but those numbers have been decreasing and we stocked ciscoes to create another prey species," he said.

Located northwest of Coleraine and Bovey, Pit Lake is also known as Canisteo Pit or the Canisteo complex because the 1,338-acre lake was formerly a taconite pit. The primary access to the lake is on the north side near the Buckeye basin north of Highway 169.

The DNR Web site's lake finder features a map showing all the holes, humps and steep dropoffs throughout the lake.

For more information, contact the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce at (800) 472-6366 or online at

Lake trout are a very slow-growing fish. It takes a long time for them to grow even to medium size. Catch-and-release ensures there are ample angling opportunities in the future.

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