March 17, 2016
By Tom Carpenter
Minnesota's best for bass: That means three things.
First: Compared to the states and provinces around us, Minnesota in fact is best for bass. We're going to make the case why we Minnesotans have it about as good as it gets when it comes to bass fishing in the region.
Second: Minnesota's best strategies and techniques for catching our northern strains of largemouth and smallmouth bass aren't complex at all. Unfortunately, many bass anglers make the fishing harder than it has to be. In the end, success comes down to one simple formula.
Third: Excellent places to fish for bass across Minnesota are easy to find. Here, we'll talk about the kinds of water that will be sure to produce fish, and explore some of the best spots by name.
WHY MINNESOTA IS GREAT FOR BASS
The great thing about Minnesota is, you'd be hard pressed to find a fishery in our state that doesn't have some kind of bass fishing.
I catch them annually in the farm ponds on land where we hunt deer in western Minnesota, the lake a mile down the road from my house, at sprawling Lake Minnetonka, multiple Brainerd and Alexandria area fisheries, Mille Lacs, northern shield Boundary Waters Canoe Area lakes a stone's throw from the Canadian border, and in rivers like the beautiful St. Croix.
My point is this: When it comes to bass fishing in our state, it's hard to beat the volume, variety and quality available — and that goes for fish of both the green and brown varieties, as I like to fashion largemouths and smallmouths, respectively.
Look north to Ontario and Manitoba for a moment. Sure there are some fish up there. Especially on Lake of the Woods, where big smallmouths are to be had and, truth be told, there is a good bucketmouth fishery for anglers willing to work a little and try it. But go north of there, and the bass start thinning out. It's just walleye, pike and trout country.
Our Wisconsin cousins to the east have some nice bass fishing, but nowhere near the volume we do here. Yes, Lake Michigan's rocky islands off Door County, and Chequamegon Bay on Superior, are great for smallies (and great destinations for a bucket-list bassin' road trip). But I'll take our variety from the farms and prairies to the big woods.
Head south to Iowa and there's no comparison. A few decent bucketmouth lakes and some good reservoirs, and of course farm pond fishing, but not near the number of waters we have.
It's the same with the Dakotas. They have a couple of places that are great for smallmouths — Francis Case and Oahe come to mind along the Missouri in South Dakota, as does Sakakawea in North Dakota. But for an angler on his own, those are some awfully big places to find a fish, unless you dig up some pretty specific intel first, or hire a guide for a day or two to show you the ropes.
So rest easy when your head hits the pillow the night before a Minnesota bass fishing foray. You're in the best place in the Great Lakes area for sheer volume of bass fishing, and also for variety and quality. All our special regulation lakes and plenty of quality habitat assures us of that. Bass just get to grow big and old here.
A FORMULA FOR THE BASS OF SUMMER
When it comes to bass fishing, call me persistent more than anything else. I'm willing to move around, try something new and adjust my approach if the one I'm using right now isn't working. That's part of the formula for bass fishing success in our state, where summer weather fronts often run rampant and the fish are up, down, here, there and everywhere throughout the water column.
So what is the full formula for success? You may have your own set of strategies, but here's another way to think about bass fishing in Minnesota waters this summer. Add in concepts from here to enhance your own approach: Depth plus Variation or Cover plus Bait-In-Their-Face will equal Success.
Let's start with depth, and largemouths. Minnesota has two types of summer bucketmouths — deep-water fish, and shallow fish. Some bass decide to go deep in the summer. How deep? I once came off a Stearns County Lake after catching maybe a half-dozen 1- to 2-pounders in the lily pads. I asked the guys ahead of me at the boat ramp how they did. They showed me the pictures on their cell phone camera: a dozen fat 3- to 4-pounders! These anglers were working humps and bars in 25 to 28 feet of water. That should tell you something.
As for smallmouths, locating the fish actually gets a little easier. At the least, you know they're not going to be in those shallow rocks, or on top of gravelly reefs, during any kind of daylight. At dawn, evening and night, however, are different stories. The best summer smallmouth daytime spots are breaklines and reef bases from 15 to 20 feet down. The trick is working the water column until fish hit, and they will. I have had various trips where 14, 18 and 21 feet were the keys. I suspect ideal water temperatures may drive the fishes' preference.
Part 2 of the formula is variation or cover, and this is a simple one. Bass don't hold at random spots. They're attracted to dips, shelves, differences, drops, indents, humps, breaklines — changes of any kind. That's variation. As for cover, when you're shallow, fish the reeds, tules, weeds, slop, wood, or any other hiding spots available. Don't forget docks! The cover scenario transfers to deeper water too, with the outside edge of the weedline being a prime spot.
My kids always laugh at me, but on any water we fish, they can look at a map and tell you right about where I am going to start fishing. It's always the steepest breaklines off points, the humps or reefs with weeds or rocks, or the back bays and the shallow-water cover.
Finally, Part 3 of the formula. Put that bait right in their face. Yes, working a lot of water can be effective, and really buzzing a bait through a place might work. But for my money, a quiet finesse approach is always best. That means slip-bobbering and slip-sinker rigs along those deep-water haunts. Flatten your barbs for safe release when using live bait. Work jig-and-pigs.
Bass are spooky and finicky. Approach shallow-water haunts quietly and carefully, like you were trying to stalk a whitetail buck or sneak up and jump-shoot ducks. Stealth is key, as is a soft presentation of your bait. Think "plop" not "splash," and learn how to flip a bait under-arm style, for both finesse and accuracy.
WHERE TO FIND MINNESOTA'S SUMMER BASS
Bass are everywhere in our state, from boulder-strewn waters in the Arrowhead and BWCA to shallow prairie lakes in the south and west, and from the true wilderness backwaters of the mighty Mississippi to the Canadian Shield lakes of the north and northwest. Put simply, it's hard to find waters that don't have at least some bass. Largemouths are more the rule, but smallmouths thrive too.
That pep talk doesn't give you any ideas on where to go. Here's a simple rule I like to follow every summer. Fish your old favorites and trusted standby spots, for sure. But reserve two or three days, or trips, and give yourself the opportunity to explore new water. Here are some good bets for expanding your milk run of favorite bass holes across our state.
OUR NORTHERN BIG FOUR'S BIG THREE
Just putting it out there, but when you're up in what I call the "Big Four" in north-central Minnesota, don't overlook the bass fishing opportunities on Leech, Cass and Winnibigoshish. These lakes certainly are well known, but they usually are not thought of as bass fishing "destinations." That's one reason you'll have a lot of bass water to yourself!
On Leech, Boy Bay and River, Headquarters Bay, Sucker Bay and River, Shingobee Bay, Waboose Bay, Leech River, Steamboat Bay, and Moonlight Bay are all prime bass areas. Really, any smaller or protected bay with heavy cover is going to hold largemouths. Leech Lake bass are shallow and in the slop, rarely deeper than 4 or 5 feet. Shallow, heavy cover is the key so get back in there with them. Hit the pockets, points and outside edges as the emergent vegetation becomes more prevalent. (Hint: Think pencil reeds and wild rice.)
Cass isn't really so much a lake as it is a chain. As such, the lakes tend to be shallower and more vegetation-filled than usual in this part of the world. The bass fishing is excellent when and if you take the time to target bucketmouths. Andrusia, Big Wolf, Big Rice and Kitchi are all good bets when you venture off 15,996-acre Cass.
Big Winni is, of course, thought of as a walleye, perch and pike factory, and rightly so. But head there for largemouths too. All you have to do is target them. How is no big secret here. Get back into the reeds with Northland Jungle Jigs (they're weedless) and with crawfish kinds of trailers. It's fun fishing, and easy to find the reed beds. Start out on the edges, then work right into the bed. Deeper water (3 to 4 feet) will hold the fish.
Mille Lacs is a smallmouth hotspot. But give the reed beds a try for largemouths. You'll work for them, but you won't believe the quality of the fish!
NORTHEAST BRONZEBACK HAVENS
Shifting gears big-time, let's head up toward the BWCA and explore the smallmouth fishing opportunities there. Gone is your boat with all its accessories and electronics. Enter canoes, paddles, a couple of medium-action spinning rods, and a small tackle bag of crankbaits, minnow baits, rattle baits, spinners and jigs. Fortunately, BWCA smallmouths are hungry and aggressive — and often very big — so the catching can be great even though you're not geared up to the hilt.
Here are some good lakes to try. Off the Sawbill Trail, Alton, Beth and Grace are all nice smallmouth lakes, and you could put Phoebe on that list too. Off the Gunflint, try Cross Bay, Lizz, Long Island, Horseshoe, Vista and Morgan. You can catch smallies all summer long on those lakes, but June will be a prime time, as will the last week of August and on into September.
There you have it: the why, how and where behind the simple statement that "Minnesota's best for bass." Now get out there and prove it again this summer. The green bass and the brown bass are waiting!