February 22, 2012
From Big Stone Lake to the St. Croix River from west to east, and from Lake of the Woods to the Fairmont Chain from north to south, there are thousands of lakes, rivers and reservoirs for Minnesota anglers to wet a line. The following options are but a few of the many choices where abundant populations of fish await those who relish the feeling when a fish takes the bait, bends the rod, and ultimately ends up caught. Here's a look at our top spots for Minnesota fishing in 2012.
Lake Irving Walleyes
Ice-fishing is in full swing and anglers are pounding holes not only in the ice with their augers, but they're also pounding holes in the bottom with their lures as they search for that elusive walleye. It's best to pick a lake that has a high population of these fish, and with a surface area that is manageable. Lake Irving fits the criteria well.
Lake Irving's inlet is the Mississippi River and the outlet dumps into Lake Bemidji, another well-known walleye factory. The beauty of Irving is that its small size (600 acres) allows it to freeze fast, which is a boon to early-ice anglers.
With a maximum depth of 20 feet, anglers will want to focus on the deeper water around one of the four humps. Expect some company in the narrow trough between the hump on the north side straight out from the boat landing and the hump in the center of the lake. That is a proven winter walleye haven.
The successful early-ice angler on Irving will be the one with an aggressive style. It pays to drill a lot of holes and work them fast and furiously with a lure that creates a reaction bite, one like the Chubby Darter or the Lindy Darter. Those lures do not require live bait and are perfect for that hit-and-run approach.
If the walleyes seem to prefer a finesse approach, take a large Genz Worm and thread about 8 to 10 maggots on the hook and twitch it right in front of their noses. That's a trick perfected by the "Godfather of Ice-fishing," Dave Genz, and works wonders on finicky walleyes.
Island Lake Panfish
Panfish become a coveted target as the season progresses; the goal is to find a lake where big ones reside. Island Lake is a great option for catching big bluegills.
With a well-developed deep weed edge, the lake's anglers should focus on the rim of that foliage. That's where the bigger bluegills sit and wait for an easy meal.
Island Lake is also a good candidate for the underwater camera. Clear water means you can watch the big sunfish swim up to the lure and then either take it or ignore it. If they ignore the lure, it is time to try something different.
Many anglers consider those tiny ice lures when chasing panfish, but the big bluegills in Island Lake don't seem at all shy about hitting a half-dozen maggots threaded onto a treble hook on a 1/4-ounce jigging spoon.
The goal of the angler on Pine Lake is to find the hefty two-to-a-pound bluegills — and they are there to be found. If the fish you are catching are small, then keep up the search until you strike bigger fish.
Maud Lake Crappies
In March crappies start migrating to the deep-water haunts near the mouths of bays where they will spawn when the right time comes. In Maud Lake the deep holes where they've been all winter are those spots, so the crappies stay put and are easy to pattern on this lake when many other bodies of water are in that tough transitional period.
The holes are on the south end of the 550-acre basin, but don't rule out the inside turns on the weaving bottom contour. These cuts in the breakline are productive because fishing pressure in these locations is marginal compared to the holes.
There is no secret to catching Maud Lake crappies. Just send down a tiny teardrop jig with a minnow attached. If the crappies don't seem to want that offering, it might not be because it's not the right bait; it might just not be the right time. As is typical of crappie fishing on the ice, the low-light periods are always the most productive, and on Maud, even the dark of night tends to be the best time to target them. Keep the lure suspended above their heads and make the fish come to the bait.
Mississippi River Walleyes
In April the urge to spawn is driving walleyes upstream to the dam and into the tributaries along the stretch of Pool Four that runs through Red Wing. Anglers who have been walking on hard water for the past few months take to this part of the river in droves in their boats to get in a little open-water walleye fishing before the season opens on inland lakes. Those who are familiar with fishing current are highly rewarded.
The first inclination is to head right to the dam where walleyes get stopped in their migration and concentrate in numbers where they're easily targeted with a properly placed jig and minnow. This is a good idea if you don't mind the crowds.
Keep in mind that walleyes don't all head upstream at the same time and they don't all end up at the dam. There will be concentrations of fish at river mouths, on rubble shorelines below current breaks, and in channel dips.
Take lots of jigs. This stretch of the Mississippi is notorious for eating the lead-surrounded hooks, and so you'll go through plenty of them. Also toss a bag of sand and salt into the back of your tow vehicle. That's in case the boat landing gets iced up should temperatures drop.
Check out page two for Best Bets for Minnesota Fishing for May, June, July and August
Lake Minnetonka, Hennepin County
Minnetonka is a metro lake that gets its fair share of fishing pressure, yet the crappies maintain their abundance and size structure. May is the best month to target those fish on this large lake.
The hot strategy for catching crappies on Minnetonka is to stick to the smaller basins that warm up quickly. North Arm, St. Albans Bay, Grays Bay, Stubbs Bay, Black Lake and Seaton Lake are some, but there are plenty more where the crappies stack up to feed heavily before they spawn.
The cuts off the bigger basins are also great spots where crappies feed on the abundant minnows there. Grandmas Bay off of Crystal Bay, Peavy and Tanager off of Browns Bay, and the channel between Big Island are just a few of those spots.
Many anglers are satisfied with a simple bobber setup with a minnow on a plain hook, but these crappies are aggressive and can be caught with a 1/16-ounce jig tipped with a 2-inch twistertail slowly retrieved right through them.
Lake Koronis, Stearns County
Lake Koronis is loaded with both structure and walleyes and some anglers find it tough to fish. Now if you're one of those anglers who likes to troll for walleyes after dark, then this lake is a great option. Those long narrow crankbaits that run down 10 to 12 feet trolled at 1.8 to 2 miles an hour are going to catch fish of all sizes. Most of the walleyes in Koronis are from natural reproduction, and the steadily producing year-classes maintain a diverse size structure.
Round Lake, Itasca County
When it comes to pike fishing, do you want big fish or lots of fish? Do you want to catch lunkers, which might mean few bites, or catch loads of smaller fish? On Round Lake you can have both.
At 2,800 acres there is plenty of water to explore, but the lake has a shallow weedline and the pike tend to hold to the vegetation there. Special pike regulations have been in affect for about five years to get the size structure up to the point where there are some bigger fish in the lake. There are still some high numbers of pike as well, which results in steady action, with big fish showing up occasionally to keep things interesting.
After dropping in the boat, just lower the trolling motor, grab the rod with the spinnerbait and head east. With pike you always start shallow and work deep. Ply the shallows with the spinnerbait and if you find fish there, you know they are active.
Trolling is a poor option on Round Lake due to the erratic breakline, but a drift over the huge flat on the west side and making long casts with spoons and spinnerbaits can be very productive.
Maple Lake, Douglas County
Anglers tend to target walleyes and panfish on Maple Lake, and that means the largemouth bass that are there in great numbers tend to get pressured only marginally. What makes this an excellent choice in August is the fact those bass don't seem to get the Dog Days blues.
There are many options for bass anglers on Maple. Bulrush rimmed with submerged vegetation is plentiful for anglers who prefer working in the shallower water.
Deep vegetation due to the good water clarity is abundant for anglers who appreciate pulling fish off the weedy depths.
For the slop fishermen, the southern basin is shallow and full of submerged vegetation; as you might expect, bass tend to hold there year 'round.
Anglers can work shallow, deep and everywhere in between with every possible presentation on Maple Lake, and so if the bass in the shallows won't cooperate, there will be a good bite going in the deeper sections of the lake where bass are present. Or it might just be the other way around.
Check out page three for top Minnesota fishing options for September, October, November and December
Barrett Lake, Grant County
We always think of the great walleye lakes in Minnesota as the huge walleye factories with loads of structure, but there are plenty of smaller lakes that have heavy populations of walleyes and provide excellent fishing for that species. Consider Barrett Lake at only 530 acres.
A big, round basin with some shallow arms on the north end, Barrett is one of those lakes that provides anglers with plenty of walleye fishing opportunities both early and later during the open-water periods. A shallow lake with limited vegetation due to water clarity, Barrett still seems to produce walleyes and lots of them.
There are a few techniques that are effective on Barrett. Since there is little structure, covering ground is a great option; trolling crankbaits can pinpoint a pod of walleyes. Once located, the walleyes can then be worked with jigs tipped with live bait or twistertails. Or drop an anchor and bring out the slip-bobbers.
On a shallow lake like Barrett there are loads of small bluegills and bullheads. That is why any live bait strategy should leave out leeches and night crawlers. The pesky panfish and bullheads tear that bait off as soon as they see it, and so small suckers are best for walleyes on a bobber setup.
Round Lake, Crow Wing County
Northern pike tend to favor vegetation as a sanctuary as well as for cover to ambush forage, but on Round Lake they also meander around the rockpiles and over the sand flats in their search for food. And the pike are big!
There has been a special regulation on Round for some time that requires anglers to release pike under 30 inches, which has created a population of bigger fish. So if pike with wide shoulders are what you covet, then Round Lake is a great choice.
Sure, there are big pike in the bulrush and they can be dug out with a spinnerbait. And there are pike in the cabbage that will fall for a spoon or crankbait danced in front of them. But the really big pike are likely swimming with the walleyes and perch on the rockpiles and cobblestone humps scattered on the west side of the basin.
Most of those humps top out at 4 to 10 feet below the water's surface. Clarity is good in the lake, and so getting out those muskie jerkbaits and the big-bladed spinners can pull fish off the top and off the sides, and in October they hit hard while in that late-season feeding frenzy.
It also pays to take a dozen suckers along for those times when the pike are feeding at the base of the structural elements. The live bait can be used to tip a heavy jig or threaded onto a hook on a stranded leader on a live-bait rig and slid along the bottom in 18 to 20 feet of water. When the cool fall evenings get the water temperatures dropping, the pike fishing on Round Lake will be heating up.
Lake Sarah, Murray County
It pays to get onto Lake Sarah in November before it ices up — if possible. During colder years, if it skims over early you just have to wait for safe ice and that amazing first-ice bite. Sarah is a shallow lake in southern Minnesota with high numbers of walleyes that bite well pre-ice and early ice.
Take your GPS if you hit the open water in time. Should you connect with a big school of walleyes, lock in the coordinate and use that for a starting point when you can get out on that early ice.
Finding the open-water walleyes in November means slow-trolling shallow-running crankbaits, or making long drifts and casting a jig and minnow or a jig tipped with a twistertail.
When you find a pod of walleyes, pitch out that marker buoy and punch the spot into the GPS. Where there is one walleye there should be many more, provided there is a school of forage in the area. Our southern Minnesota potholes can get ignored in the summer months, but when the water turns cool they get the attention they deserve.
Lake of the Woods, Lake of the Woods County
Early ice on Lake of the Woods is amazing. All those little rockpiles between The Gap and the Northwest Angle that were ignored during the open-water period are now big targets for anglers with a snowmobile and a portable shelter. If the last few years are an indication of what will occur in 2012, then the ice-fishing will start out strong and keep building.
Early ice means structure, and while those unfamiliar with Lake of the Woods think it is one big featureless basin, those who know the lake realize there are loads of small boulder fortresses spread out on the bottom. Those structural elements are well marked by guides and avid anglers on their hand-held GPS units just for that time when the ice gets safe to venture out on.
There used to be a Lake of the Woods mantra that stated any color is great on this lake as long as it's gold. Of course this was before the glow-jig. Now any color is good, as long as it glows.
The trick to catching fish on Lake of the Woods is to be prepared to move. If you go to a spot and it is not producing, then go somewhere else. There are so many great spots on this huge lake that active fish can be found with just a little effort.
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Minnesota has such a huge number of fishing resources that anglers tend to take the good fishing for granted. Don't let that happen in 2012 as you explore the lakes, river and reservoirs on that quest for the best bite.