Many a professional angler will insist, with good reason, that the best inland fishing in the United States is in Minnesota. With all those lakes, not to mention 15,000 miles of fishable streams, how could the fishing not be great? The love of fishing explains why Minnesota has more recreational boats and sells more fishing licenses per capita than any other state.
Of the two dozen game species in Minnesota waters, none excite anglers like the state fish, the walleye. Though found across the state, generally the action is hottest in the large cool lakes of north-central and northeast Minnesota. And though more than four million are taken each year, 75–90 percent are naturally produced.
People talk so much about walleye that some forget Minnesota has the most varied bass fishing in the nation. Largemouth are most plentiful in central Minnesota, while the largest smallmouth swim in the northeast. Minnesota’s northern and central lakes also produce copious trophy muskie and northern pike.
The largest rivers are well known for their catfish. Flatheads topping 60 pounds swim in the Mississippi, St. Croix, and Minnesota Rivers, while the more widespread channel cats can exceed 20 pounds in and around the Red River of the North.
Other popular Minnesota catches include tiger muskie, sauger, bullhead, crappie (black and white), and sunfish. The latter even out-bite walleye, making it the most-caught fish in the state.
Fly fishers focus on the 2,600 miles of trout streams carving the valleys of the southeast and climbing the hills along the North Shore. The brown trout is the top catch, while rainbow (steelhead) and the native “brookie” round out the state’s inland trout species. Several southern streams have a winter (Jan.–Mar.) catch-and-release season.
Lake Superior, deep and always cold, adds another dimension to the Minnesota angling experience. Lake trout are the most frequent catch, while walleye, rainbow trout, and salmon (Chinook, pink, and coho) are all frequently landed. Duluth is charter-boat central, but you will find licensed captains in most North Shore towns.
Regulations, Maps, and Information
In order to ensure the future of fishing in Minnesota, the DNR has enacted an extensive and somewhat complicated set of fishing regulations, and there are a variety of new rules created every year. Generally the fishing season is May through February, but there are many exceptions, so always inquire locally before casting a line. All anglers should pick up the annual Minnesota Fishing Regulations booklet, available free wherever licenses are sold.
Anyone age 16 and older must posses a Minnesota fishing license, and penalties for fishing without one can be pretty severe, potentially including jail time and confiscation of your boat. A standard adult license for the season is $17 for Minnesota residents and $39.50 for nonresidents; one-, three-, and seven-day passes are also available. Trout and salmon stamps are generally required for designated lakes, streams, and Lake Superior. Licenses and stamps can be bought at bait shops, sporting goods stores, marinas, resorts, hardware stores, gas stations, and DNR offices; by phone at 888/665-4236; or online at www.wildlifelicense.com/mn.
It won’t replace the advice from down at the bait shop, but the Minnesota Fishing Guide published by Explore Minnesota Tourism offers a good overview. The DNR’s Lake Finder (www.dnr.state.mn.us/lakefind) has lake surveys, depth maps, stocking reports, and other information for over 4,500 lakes statewide.
As author Thomas Huhti so perfectly explains in Moon Wisconsin, “Driving the truck out on a frozen lake to a village of shanties erected over drilled holes, sitting on an overturned five-gallon pail, stamping your feet quite a bit, and drinking a lot of schnapps is a time-honored tradition in the Great White North.” Despite what one would assume, the ice-fishing scenes from the movie Grumpy Old Men were not exaggerated for comic effect; if anything they were understated to make them believable to the rest of the country.
Shantytowns connected by plowed and signed roads spring up on lakes across the state between December and March. Frostbite Flats, a temporary city of 6,000 homes on Mille Lacs, is the most famous. Many of these fish houses, ranging from simple wooden shacks to “sleepers” decked out with furnaces, electrical generators, and even satellite TVs, are available for overnight rental by the day or week.
Ice fishing isn’t difficult, but there are a few things first-timers need to know. If there is a big crowd out on the ice you can probably assume it is safe, but never take ice safety lightly. Every year several knuckleheads foolishly push the limits and lose their vehicles or even their lives. If there is any doubt, ask. Resort owners, bait shops, sheriff’s departments, and the DNR will usually have the most current ice conditions. A depth finder keeps you from making Swiss cheese out of the ice while looking for the perfect spot. And bring a cooler so the beer doesn’t freeze.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition