January 26, 2015
By Jeff Samsel
The Land of 10,000 Lakes. Divide that by 365 days in a year, and you would only have to fish a little more than 25 lakes each day in order to hit them all in a year! Of course that doesn't account for rivers, the fact that virtually all rivers and lakes offer opportunities to catch several kinds of fish, or the unfortunate reality that most of us don't have 365 days a year available to fish.
Since fishing every lake in the state obviously is not a practical option, it becomes important to make good decisions. With such things in mind, we've hand-picked three top angling opportunities for each month of the year. Collectively, these picks cover everything from ice-fishing to stream wading to boating on big lakes and are spread all over the state. Plenty of decisions remain to be made, including which days you can actually slip away to fish, but our hope is that this guide will aid you in the planning process as you begin looking at the year ahead.
Lake Winnibigoshish Yellow Perch
Few things go together as well as midwinter, Lake Winnibigoshish (Winnie), and yellow perch fishing. You might catch walleyes early and late in the day, plus a mix of bluegills and crappies. Still, big perch are the main attraction at Lake Winnie, which spreads across 67,000 acres along the upper Mississippi River.
Lake Winnie offers good offshore structure, included plentiful humps in a big range of depths. During January, the best perch schools tend to be in the lake's main basin, with the fish mostly relating to deep humps. Ask around a bit to learn areas and general depths that are producing best, pick out an appropriate hump or two in that area, and then drill several holes on top of the hump, along its edges and just off it. If you hope to catch walleyes with your perch, upsize your offerings a bit at first and last light and fish right on top of the hump.
For more Lake Winnie information, visit goshdamplace.com.
Stream Trout Lakes Rainbows
The winter season on Minnesota's stream trout lakes, which are generally concentrated in the northern part of the state, may represent the most underappreciated ice-fishing opportunity in the state. Dozens of mostly small lakes are well stocked with trout, which are aggressive and hard fighting through the ice, and most lakes lend themselves nicely to walk-on access.
Check county-by-county listings on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Web site to find a lake that's handy, see which trout species are stocked, and check for any special regulations. Look on the shallow side of the first main break in a lake, ideally near a point or a corner. No live minnows may be possessed on these waters, so if you want to tip ice lures with minnows or minnow heads, pour your minnows in a bag of salt so they'll be dead but stay fresh.
Watch the entire water column when you're fishing for trout because they'll move up and down quite a bit. If you are marking fish just beneath the ice, those could be trout. Try fishing high, and be ready. When a 14-inch rainbow grabs a lure 3 feet beneath your rod tip, things get interesting really quickly!
Lake Of The Woods Walleyes
After many sportfish seasons close in most of the state, Lake of the Woods remains open for business, and March tends to be an outstanding time to find good walleye action. The walleyes grow big in this massive lake, and they tend to bite throughout the day. Making a good thing even better, smaller but more plentiful saugers use the same habitat as walleyes and take a lot of the same baits, and so they keep the action steady.
Lake of the Woods is very well served by resorts, and so you don't need a snowmobile, auger and shelter to get in on good action. Resorts rent well-placed houses with holes in place, and even offer transportation to the houses, if needed. That said, there is plenty of opportunity to go on your own if you have appropriate equipment and prefer to be more mobile in your approach and to select your own spots.
For information on Lake of the Woods, visit zippelbay.com.
North Shore Streams Steelhead
As snow begins melting, causing streams to surge, Lake Superior steelhead begin moving up into the many streams that flank the North Shore. The steelhead, which live in the big lake but run up the streams to spawn during the spring, are big and powerful. Of the 60 or so Lake Superior tributaries along the North Shore, roughly 20 support solid annual steelhead runs. However, all have potential to draw steelhead any given spring.
Fly and spin-fishermen alike most commonly drift eggs or egg imitations, weighting their offerings to get them down in deep runs and strong current. An alternative approach is to throw a big in-line spinner or minnow bait to draw a reaction strike.
The timing of the run varies substantially from year to year, based on water levels and temperatures, but the action normally gets going and commonly peaks during April. Because streams and the runs themselves are volatile, if you're traveling from far away, it's definitely worth checking stream reports before making a trip
The Minnesota Steelheader Web site, minnesotasteelheader.com, has a tremendous amount of useful information about this great fishing opportunity.
Upper Red Lake Walleyes
May brings the walleye opener, which creates a host of outstanding fishing opportunities all over the state, and you may already have a traditional favorite place to go for opening weekend. If you're looking for options, though, (whether for opening day or for the days that follow) Upper Red Lake is clearly one of the best. This big, shallow fishbowl yields astounding numbers of walleyes every year, and recent years' catches have included quite a few big fish.
Upper Red Lake is somewhat structure barren, but it has a couple of major breaks, and during May the fish tend to congregate along the first main break out from the shore. Depending upon how the fish are positioned (and how you like to fish) you can pull spinners or crankbaits right along the break or search the break for a big group of fish and jig for them. Whatever tactic you choose, bigger baits and bolder colors than what work in other places tend to perform best in Red Lake's fertile water.
For guided fishing and to learn more about Upper Red Lake, visit outdoorswithjonnyp.com.
Lake Minnetonka Largemouths
Lake Minnetonka defies Minnesota stereotypes. For starters, it's not tucked away in the remote Northwoods, but is instead located right at the edge of the Twin Cities. Additionally, Lake Minnetonka garners national acclaim for largemouth bass, not walleyes, muskies or northern pike. June is a fine time to fish Minnetonka both because the fish tend to be shallow and aggressive and because the water typically remains a little chilly for the pleasure boaters.
Lake Minnetonka's 14,500 acres are spread across multiple basins and wrap around many islands, creating a complex bottom with plentiful structure and cover. During June, many bass stay shallow and relate to grass, docks and other visible cover. Topwater plugs, frogs, soft-plastic jerkbaits and spinnerbaits work in shallow water, and the best approach often is simply to cover water and cast to whatever looks fishy.
For guide information, visit lakeminnetonkaguides.com.
Boundary Waters Northern Pike
Whether as a day trip or a multi-day backcountry adventure, July is prime time for venturing into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and casting for plentiful and aggressive northern pike. Lakes throughout the wilderness actually offer great fishing for multiple species, and you're apt to catch walleyes and smallmouths together with the pike. Northerns are plentiful in many BWCAW lakes, and they tend to be widespread along the shore.
Work lakeshores, focusing on cabbage, emergent vegetation and any wood in the water, and you are likely to catch northern pike. They won't all be big, but they'll hit lures hard and serve up major fun, and if you cover enough water you're apt to find some quality fish. Any flashy or noisy lure that keeps moving is likely to attract northerns. Single hooks are generally better than trebles because either will hook the fish and the single hooks are far safer to deal with.
Outfitters in Ely help pick routes and getting permits, along with renting canoes, packs and other equipment.
Mississippi River Smallmouth Bass
The upper Mississippi River supports an outstanding population of smallmouth bass, with a very good average size and some seriously big fish in the mix. During August the fish tend to be extremely aggressive. Adding appeal, you're apt to have some sections of the river to yourself.
Excellent fishing sections are spread from the Brainerd area all the way to the Twin Cities. The lower ends of some pools are like lakes in character and suitable for bass boats or walleye boats. Some sections of river are divided by shoals and need to be floated or accessed with a jet boat. During August, fish relate heavily to current, feeding in seams and holding in eddies behind boulders and in cuts in the bank. Topwater lures and lightly weighted or non-weighted soft-plastic baits work great for catching river smallmouths.
When you fish for smallmouths in the Mississippi River, stay ready. Your lure may get the attention of a big walleye, a pike or even a muskie.
St. Croix River Flathead Catfish
Minnesota's big cats get active in major rivers, including the lower St. Croix, as summer gives way to fall. Mostly nocturnal through the heat of summer, flathead catfish often feed by day and by night during September, creating some of the best fishing opportunities of the year.
Flatheads don't act like other catfish. They are top-end predators, not scavengers, and they set up shop in thick cover, waiting to ambush virtually any fish that will fit in their giant traps. Flatheads typically hold out of the current, but close to it, often behind deep rockpiles or within tangles of timber. The best spots are often found along outside bends and below islands.
Use stout tackle for flatheads, both because of their large size and to wrestle the fish out of thick cover. Rig a big hook with the same sorts of large live baits you would use for muskie fishing. Once baits are in place, be patient. A flathead sometimes will stare at a live bait for a very long time before suddenly deciding to devour it.
Lake Vermilion Muskellunge
Muskie are muskies, and so there are guarantees, but if you really want to maximize your chances of locking horns with a trophy-class muskellunge, Lake Vermilion is the place for you to be during the fall. In truth, Lake Vermilion is fine in October, with or without fish, but fall is when the lake's biggest critters move to the tops of points and shallow shoals and feed readily.
Big shallow swimming plugs and spinners both work to catch Vermilion muskies and can be cast or trolled. Tolling allows you to cover more water and keeps a bait in the water and fishing all the time. It works really nicely for working atop large shoals and long points. However, casting allows you to put your bait in areas that you can't troll past. The best total approach includes some trolling and some casting.
The same structure and forage that lends itself to growing big muskies also produces jumbo northern pike in Lake Vermilion, and the big pike provide a nice bonus while you're hunting that huge muskie. Visit vermilionguide.com for guide information.
Southern Minnesota Largemouths
November can be challenging in much of Minnesota, with water that's too cold for many kinds of fishing, but fishable ice generally not yet in place. While folks in much of the state are preparing their ice gear, southern Minnesota anglers can find excellent fishing for largemouth bass in several small lakes directly south of the Twin Cities and generally can do so with minimal company.
Conditions can get too winterish when hard fronts push through, but on mild days, the bass feed surprisingly well in lakes like Tetonka and Francis. Weeds are important in most of these lakes. When the sun shines brightly the bass move onto shallow, vegetation-covered flats. Lacking bright sun, they hold along deeper weed edges. Whether or not the sun is shining, slow tends to be the way to go with presentations.
Grand Rapids Area Bluegills
Early ice brings some of the best bluegill fishing of the year to the Grand Rapids area. It's tough to pinpoint specific lakes because much depends on where the ice thickens the fastest and where snow conditions allow for access. Ask in bait shops or check online.
Early in the season, look for bluegills in the bays, often around vegetation. Drill a bunch of holes that cover a range of depths, and if conditions allow (which they quite often do during the month of December), use an open-ice approach and stay mobile.
If you fish a hole for a little while and no fish show up, move to another hole, and keep moving until you find them. If you see fish moving in and out on your flasher and you aren't catching them, the problem might be the color of your bait or your presentation, as opposed to your location.