‘Eyes On The (Iron) Range

‘Eyes On The (Iron) Range

Cutting a hundred-mile swath through the great northwoods, the famed Mesabi Range is rich in more than iron ore. (May 2008)

Gary Roach landed a fine Deer Lake walleye.
Photo by Ron Hustvedt.

Minnesota's Mesabi Range is home to one of the world's best-known iron ore deposits, not to mention some terrific walleye fishing.

Most people don't normally connect walleyes with iron, so the region's walleye-rich lakes are mostly fished by locals or visitors who have discovered this hidden treasure.

The name "Mesabi" is a Chippewa word meaning giant or sleeping giant, terms that could be applied to the population as well as the sizes of the walleyes in the area lakes.

Folks who live in the area are known as "Rangers" and their reputation for hard work and impassioned hockey is surpassed only by tight lips about their favorite fishing haunts. Here are some top choices of walleye experts who consider Mesabi their fishing home on the range.

The Mesabi Range stretches 100 miles from Grand Rapids to Babbitt connected by Highway 169 the entire distance. Walleye lakes throughout the range tend to be more abundant on the western edge around Grand Rapids.

Some of Minnesota's best-known walleye lakes are a mere 50 miles west of Grand Rapids, but the walleyes on the range are just as plentiful and large. The advantage for anglers is that these walleyes aren't as pressured and may be more willing to bite.

Halfway between Grand Rapids and Hibbing, at the junction of highways 169 and 65, is the town of Pengilly, located along the northwest corner of Swan Lake.

"Swan Lake is a better walleye fishery than a lot of guys give it credit for," said Tom Neustrom of Minnesota Fishing Pros guide service out of Grand Rapids.

Neustrom has been a guide for 28 years and has seen plenty of bodies of water. He said Swan is unique in that it's larger than most lakes in the area and has had some solid year-classes of walleyes.

"There are a lot of size differences, so you have a variety, including some trophies up to the 10-pound range," he said.

One reason walleyes are doing so well is the 17- to 26-inch protected slot limit implemented two years ago by the DNR.

"Our stocking plan is with walleye fry, but we do see some fish from non-stocked years meaning there's some good natural reproduction; we just don't know how much," said Chris Kavanaugh, the DNR's Grand Rapids area fisheries manager.

Swan Lake is an oddly shaped lake with little or no mid-lake structure in the form of reefs or sunken islands, so fishing is done almost exclusively along the shoreline structures. Neustrom said he prefers to fish on the southeast and southern sections of the lake.

"One of my favorite spots is around Government Point where there are some good weedbeds holding walleyes most of the season," he said. "Swan Lake has a bit of color to it and lots of the fish are oriented to the cabbage and coontail weeds."

The east shore of the lake is home to several significant points that are good locations to key on.

Neustrom suggested, "Find those inside turns and weed growth on those points and you'll find fish most of the season."

His favorite lure is a gumball jig or Northland whistler jig tipped with half a crawler or a leech. The crawler element is key because he's found walleyes prefer a half to a whole crawler.

Swan Lake has two public accesses, including a county landing two miles southeast of Pengilly and a DNR landing three miles south. Most anglers use the DNR launch because it's made of concrete, although if it's crowded and you have a smaller boat, the county launch works quite well.

Located southwest of Grand Rapids, Pokegama features a large diversification of species, including walleyes, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, pike and even lake trout. Pokegama also is home to a healthy supply of trophy walleyes.

"You have just as good a chance catching a 12-pounder in there as you do a 2-pound walleye," Neustrom said.

Kavanaugh said Pokegama is a unique body of water with all of its structure, distinct bays and diverse habitat. That's why it is home to so many species in healthy numbers.

"Given all that, we manage it primarily for walleyes and have an aggressive fingerling stocking program where we put in 1 pound of fingerlings per littoral acre -- that's almost a ton of walleyes every year, and we've been doing that for several years now," he said.

Because the lake is very clear and deep, it is slow to warm in spring and doesn't really crank up for fishing until July and August. All that clear water makes Pokegama a great night-bite lake and the lake is dotted with boat lights throughout the summer evenings.

Helping feed the variety of species in the lake, particularly those trophy walleyes, is a massive forage base of tulibees, perch, whitefish and rainbow smelt. In a 2007 netting survey for rainbow smelt, the DNR caught 99 fish per gill net.

A good starting depth on Pokegama is 18 feet because walleyes tend to hold in that middle area throughout the summer. If walleyes aren't there, continue to slide deeper down to the edge of the thermocline until you find them, he suggested.

Along the weed edges, he either uses a jig or a bottom bouncer with a crawler-tipped spinner on a 5- to 6-foot leader.

"I like to get the bait off the bottom," he said. "There's sand grass and short weed on the bottom and you want to keep your hook out of that mess."

His favorite locations no matter the time of day or season include Drumbeat, Sugar Bay, Moose Point, Sherry's Arm and Tioga. If that's too broad a selection, Neustrom said Sugar Bay is a good place to start.

With more than a half-dozen boat landings spread over 6,600 acres, there's also an ample supply of boat traffic, but luckily there are plenty of locations where walleyes are found.

"A good starting point on the lake is the 18-foot mark," Neustrom


Eight miles west of Grand Rapids, Deer Lake is a 4,097-acre lake on the rebound from a diminished walleye supply. Neustrom said there are now good populations of walleyes in Deer and anglers that fished it several years ago when the fishing wasn't as good should consider coming back to wet a line.

"The DNR has increased their stocking and it's become a really good lake again," he said.

In fact, the 2005 DNR survey showed eight year-classes, something not found on many other lakes in measurable numbers. The range of these walleyes varied from 10 to 28 inches and averaged about 15 inches. The majority of the fish were from the 2003 and 2001 year-classes and those fish should be about 20 inches this summer.

The first thing a Deer Lake angler will notice is that it's very clear and rocky, so anglers must watch for the reefs in order to protect their motors, as well as locate terrific fishing locations. Deer is another multispecies lake full of walleyes, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, muskies, trophy pike and crappies

The fuel feeding all those species is a healthy forage base of dwarf ciscoes and yellow perch.

"There's also a good shiner population, and when you have that type of a base, it's usually a good place to tip a jig with a shiner," Neustrom said.

A shiner on a jig is the bread and butter of anglers on Deer, but later in the season, live-bait rigs and leeches can also turn on the fish.

"There's a few sunken islands on the east side in the middle of the lake with weeds topping off at 14 to 18 feet that can give up lots of walleyes in May, June and July," he said.

All the points hold fish and Neustrom said it's tough to go wrong with any of them. Just find one that doesn't have another boat on it and give it a whirl. Deer Lake has one public access on the southwest part of the lake with parking for 20 vehicles.

The Vermilion Range stretches 23 miles between Tower and Ely connected by highways 169 and 1. One of the popular draws to this area is the Soudan Underground Mine State Park featuring a rail car ride that descends 2,341 feet underground.

Readers may be surprised that the famous Lake Vermilion is not included in this article, but so much has been written about this multispecies haven we decided to leave it out in order to focus on a few of the area's other top choices. These lakes aren't as heavily fished as Vermilion, although the fishing is just as good if not better.

Anglers looking to spend some time on Vermilion Range lakes may contact the Ely Chamber of Commerce at (800) 777-7281 or online at www.ely.org , or the Lake Vermilion Resort Association at (800) 648-5897 or www.lakevermilionresorts.com . For angling information, contact Jim Orcutt at (218) 349-3658 or online at www.jimthefishguy.com .

The town of Ely is a popular destination for visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area or Canada, but one of the best walleye lakes in the state is adjacent to this bustling summer village.

Jim "The Fish Guy" Orcutt, a top guide and angler on the Professional Walleye Trail competition, loves walleye fishing on Shagawa.

"It's probably one of the better lakes to fish for walleyes and DNR test netting showed about 30 walleyes per net. Personally, we've had days where we'll catch 40 to 50 walleyes," Orcutt said.

One of Orcutt's favorite parts of Shagawa is that it's close and convenient to Ely while having plenty of areas where there aren't any cabins giving it the true "upnorth" feel.

Shagawa is full of structure, a great place for a professional angler to hone his skills, because you can find fish all over the lake and catch them in a variety of ways. That's even better for those of us who consider ourselves among the amateur and novice rankings.

One thing Orcutt has noticed about Shagawa is that the early-season haunts utilized by walleyes have shifted.

"The opening weekend fish have begun locating themselves deeper," he said. "Although a lot of people are leery of fishing deeper that early on, you can find them down to 20 feet."

Throughout the summer, the walleyes continued to shift to deeper waters.

"I never fished deeper than 15 feet two summers ago and I don't think I fished shallower than 20 feet last summer," he added.

Even with that information, Orcutt finds himself beginning shallow and moving deeper until he finds walleyes. In May and June, that means working the rocky areas and rocky points in addition to the areas where a river enters the lake.

"Once you find the depth they are holding at, you can pretty much count on finding them at that same depth everywhere else on the lake," he said.

In the summer, Orcutt likes using bottom bouncers with holographic spinners tipped with a minnow. Chartreuse seemed to be the most reliable color, although experimentation is key. He also uses crawlers and leeches, but fatheads and rainbow chubs seem to outperform them.

"I once cleaned a 14-inch walleye out of Shagawa that had 13 minnows in it," he said. "Some were still flopping around."

Located northwest of Babbitt, Bear Island Lake sits atop the great continental divide. It is a large, sprawling lake sandwiched between the Vermilion and Mesabi ranges full of arms, points and islands, not to mention a healthy supply of walleyes.

"It's considered one of our area's better walleye lakes," said Joe Geis, DNR fisheries manager in Tower.

There are three accesses on the 2,351-acre lake, two at the northeast corner and one on the southwest shore. Anglers may choose which side of the lake to access and maximize their fishing time rather than running across the lake. This is critical, since Bear Island walleyes are plentiful but can be difficult to find, Geis said.

"It's a very clear lake, so low-light periods are going to be better and you'll probably do better on overcast days, but if baitfish are up in the shallow, walleyes will be there as well, even on a bright, sunny day," he said.

Tulibees and perch make up the majority of a walleye's diet, helping them grow faster than those in other area lakes. The 2001 year-class is the strongest, although DNR surveys found a total of 10 year-classes.

There are actually four lakes with the name "Eagle's Nest" and they are defined very simply -- Eagle's Nest 1, Eagle's Nest 2, Eagle's Nest 3 and Eagle's Nest 4. Whoever named the lakes must have been a walleye angler because the names are in the order one should fish them.

"It seems like every year a 7- to 10-pound walleye comes out of there," Orcutt said. "It doesn't get a lot of pressure, so it's a great one to consider if you want to escape the crowds and still catch a bunch of fish."

A word of caution to boaters: Because the lakes receive so little pressure, there are no buoys marking the reefs located throughout the basins.

"I've dinged a motor myself, so you need to be careful, but those rockpiles are also great places to fish," Orcutt said. "You want to find them just not with the bottom of your boat or motor."

Lakes No. 1 and No. 2 are connected and cover a total of 730 acres. They are heavily stocked with walleyes released from the landing on Lake 2. Lake No. 3 is the largest at 1,000 acres, while Lake No. 4 is the smallest at 177 acres. Lake 3 has two accesses on the southern corners of the lake. Lake 4 has one access and Lake 2 has one access.

In addition to a plentiful supply of walleyes, Eagle's Nest is also home to healthy numbers of smallmouth bass, pike and big bluegills. The DNR's 2005 survey showed bluegills averaging 6.1 inches, with the largest at 9.3 inches placing it among the top in the state.

Although they do quite well in lakes, most anglers know that walleyes are traditionally a river fish. That's what makes Birch Lake such a good place to fish because it is an impoundment of old beds of the Kawishiwi and Birch rivers flowing into it. There are also several feeder creeks and a major outlet that flows to White Iron Lake.

Birch's maximum depth is 25 feet, but the shoreline drops off into deep water along most of the lake. The best walleye fishing on Birch can be found in the shallows even in the heat of summer.

Ciscoes, yellow perch and white suckers, the major forage base, are also a great food supply for pike, so don't be surprised if your favorite walleye rig is bitten off by one of these giants prowling the lake.

There are five public landings spread from one side to another, so before heading to Birch, make a plan of where you are going to fish so you can use the launch closest to that area.

It doesn't make sense to use a launch on the north end if you plan to fish the large bays on the west end. You'll spend the majority of the day winding to that side of the lake.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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