Believe it or not, fishing is a pastime that happens all year round in some areas. When the temperatures drop and the fish move down deep, lakes can freeze and create a thick enough surface to stand on. This is how ice fishing was born.
More specifically, Minnesota is a hotbed for ice fishing opportunities once the winter months roll around. Also known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” there are so many great places to fish both in the summer and winter in Minnesota. Here are our top picks:
Lake of the Woods
First and foremost, we have to start with the most famous fishing destination in all of Minnesota, and parts of Canada. Lake of the Woods is a huge system that spans a ton of area and even stretches into Canada. It is so large that it is the sixth largest freshwater lake in the United States. This designation counts it being partly in Canada as it is the sixth largest that has at least part of it in America.
Lake of the Woods starts in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. As a general rule, this is a great starting point to introduce yourself to the legend of Lake of the Woods. There are thousands of people who come to ice fish here every year.
Along the way, there are more than 50 resorts and hotels that cater specifically to ice anglers. So, if you do not feel like roughing it on your own, there are plenty of rentals and guiding opportunities out there.
This system is also known as the “Walleye Capital of the World.” So, you want to target this tasty fish, this is the best place to do it. There are also huge smallmouth bass and impressive sunfish to target.
Now, not every great lake has to be secluded and in the middle of the woods. Lake Harriet is located in Minneapolis and provides some excellent ice fishing opportunities. In fact, this is one of the more underrated spots in the area. If you want to avoid the hoards of people that will be at Lake of the Woods, this could be a really good option.
Also, being so close to the city provides a really unique experience. You will not have to rough it if you do not want to and can also experience Minneapolis at the same time. Taking advantage of a more urban fishing experience can mix it up and really make it worthwhile.
In terms of fishing, crappie and walleye are both king here. Walleye are stocked every year, but locals know the spot for the big-slabbed crappie swimming in its depths. So, in one hour you can catch some great crappie and go to dinner in downtown Minneapolis the next.
Mille Lacs Lake
Similarly to Lake of the Woods, Mille Lacs Lake is a giant in terms of fishing and world-wide reputations for ice fishing. In fact, this is the second-largest lake in the entire state of Minnesota, so there is no sparing of great fishing opportunities.
Mille Lacs is French for “thousand lakes” and is named that because the entire system is made up of various lakes that all connect in some way. This is a truly unique place that has a number of fantastic fishing opportunities.
There are also a wide range of species that are constantly targeted here. Walleye, bass, perch, and various sunfish species can be found in Mille Lacs. As you can see, there is a good diversity of species and opportunities to be found at Mille Lacs.
Upper Red Lake
Mille Lacs is known as the second-largest inland lake in Minnesota, but Upper Red Lake takes the number one spot. Covering over 280,000 acres, this is a huge place that offers plenty of ice fishing opportunities. If you choose to fish here, you are in for a fabulous experience.
The interesting twist to this area is that a majority of the lake and land surrounding it is owned by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Native Americans. So, just about 50,000 acres of the upper basin area can be fished by non-tribal people. The history and native culture surrounding the area is super interesting and worth checking out when you can.
Although a majority of the area is closed off to outsiders, the open areas provide great ice fishing opportunities. Right off of Highway 72, the fishing areas are super easy to access and enjoy.
If you want to fish where the locals do while avoiding a lot of the big crowds, Lake Vermilion is the perfect destination. It is secluded enough to provide incredible views and even better ice fishing opportunities. If you want an area that is away from the urban scene and surrounds you by Minnesotan wilderness, this is the place to be.
This is where a lot of the local Minnesoteans go to catch fish away from the crowds that come with Mille Lacs and the likes. Home to world-class musky, pike, crappie, and bass, there are plenty of options to choose from on the ice. At the end of the day, who would not want to have a ton of species options to choose from?
This is in the northern part of the state, so the ice will come a bit sooner, and the forestry scenes will be denser. These aspects all come together to give you an awesome ice fishing experience.
Another one of the more underrated ice fishing opportunities is Leech Lake. This is an awesome ice fishing lake that even has the likes of giant perch and burbot. But, the real draw to Leech Lake comes with the walleye fishing. This is one of the best walleye fisheries in the entire world let alone Minnesota. If walleye is on your list, be sure to stop in here.
A unique factor of this area is that it is located within the Chippewa National Forest. This is open to the outside public and is located in a really unique area of the United States. There are nearly two miles of shoreline that create a number of excellent spots to make some holes and drop down.
On the lake and in the surrounding areas, there are various campgrounds and lake cabins that can be rented out. This keeps you in a gorgeous area and close to the fishing opportunities.
Every year, there are fishing derbies and events that take place all throughout the state. Because fishing is so big in Minnesota, these events can get quite big and entertaining. One of the biggest ice fishing events in the state is located on Gull Lake. Known simply as the Ice Fishing Extravaganza, this is a time in January that is well worth checking out.
If you are not in town for the Ice Fishing Extravaganza, Gull Lake is still an incredible spot to wet a line. So, as long as there is ice, this is a lake worth visiting. This is a pretty central lake, so you can access it fairly easily. However, it is still a great idea to camp on site when you can.
There are also a number of great lakes in that same area, so you can do a mini tour with ease. In terms of the fishing at Gull Lake, walleye is yet again the king of the water. There are also northern pike that really get targeted a lot on Gull Lake. If these two species are on your bucket list this is a great place to start.
Big Stone Lake
If you want to go to an area that is closer to South Dakota, Big Stone Lake is the way to go. This lake sits right on the border and provides some excellent fishing opportunities. Although a lot of the best ice fishing lakes are in central or eastern Minnesota, this is one western location that still brings the heat.
This is a long lake that stretches over 26 miles and has over 10,000 acres to fish from. So, there are plenty of opportunities to wet a line, especially because this is not an area that gets overly busy. So, you can have tons of room to yourself while still catching great fish.
At Big Stone Lake, walleye, perch, and pike are the top hierarchy in terms of fishing here. If these three, along with a couple of others, are on your bucket list, Big Stone Lake is a great starting point to catching awesome fish.
One of the more interesting places to try your luck is Park Rapids. This is in the northwest part of the state and is known to be the source of the Mississippi River. This alone makes the area very unique. However, the locals know this spot to be an excellent point of fishing interest.
There are tons of lakes and systems in the area, so there are plenty of opportunities to wet a line. One really cool and different factor is the amount of hiking and camping that can be done in this area. There are miles and miles of great trails to explore all around the fishing spots.
There are some excellent panfish at this location that are worth targeting on their own. For some anglers, bass, trout, and walleye are the primary targets and panfish are a secondary thought. In places like Park Rapids, you can solely target panfish and feel really good about the results.
We have already talked about Leech Lake, and Lake Winnibigoshish is one of the best areas of that system on the reservation. This is an awesome lake that is actually the fifth-largest lake in the entire state of Minnesota. Although bigger is not always better in the ice fishing world, in this case it is.
There are so many great ice fishing opportunities at this lake. One of the cool perks is the mini tourism industry that has formed around this lake and around this area. This brings cafes, resorts, lodges, and shops that are in the area. Although you will have to drive a bit to get out of the dense reserve, these areas are well worth checking out.
In terms of the fishing itself, there are some awesome northern pike and walleye opportunities. With areas of the lake nearly reaching 80 feet in depth, there is so much under the ice exploring to be had. There are also some perch and panfish opportunities if this is more your speed. No matter what you are going for, ice fishing on Lake Winnibigoshish provides awesome hook-up opportunities as well as outside perks along the way.
The final Minnesota lake that is great for ice fishing on our list today is Sauk Lake. This location is right in the middle of the state and is easily accessible by I-84. So, not only are there great fishing opportunities but you can access it all quite simply.
Although there is no one species that really sticks out in Sauk Lake, there is a good range of really decent fishing opportunities. To be more specific, crappie, perch, and walleye really shine through here. Although you are not going to catch a state record by any means, you can gather some serious numbers, which can be just as fun in most cases.
Knowing where to go in Minnesota will directly help you become a more successful angler through the ice. Because there are so many lakes in Minnesota, there are many other options that we do not have time to list today. At the end of the day, more specific research online or talking to the locals is the best way to find other spots.
A beginner’s ice fishing rundown
If you are unsure as to what ice fishing is, this section is for you. If you have a good grasp, jump on down to the information pertaining specifically to Minnesota. No problem. The reason we have a short section to explain the basics of ice fishing is to set the stage as to why Minnesota is a perfect place to partake.
At the most basic level, ice fishing is simply fishing through the ice. Instead of standing on the shore or in a boat on the open water, ice fishing requires you to carve a hole in the ice and drop down some lures for the swimming fish below.
Generally, sunfish, bass, pike, and walleye are caught through the ice. There are many other species that can be caught during this time, but these are the basics. Minnesota has a whole list of species that are commonly fished for there, so stick around as we will get to that soon.
That is a very quick rundown of what ice fishing is. Now that we are all in the right headspace, let’s dive into some more information that hits specifically on Minnesota ice fishing.
Why is Minnesota good for ice fishing?
As we already said, Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” With so many waterways spread across the state, it is prime for fishing no matter the season. This is coupled with low temperatures in the winter, so fishing can be taken advantage of year round. More specifically, there are a few lake systems that are known to be great for ice fishing. Now, there will be a better rundown of the top fishing places in Minnesota in the following section, but just know the plethora of spots is what takes it to the next level.
Minnesota is home to so many options, and there are options that are really solid in the fishing scene. Not only is the state loaded with lakes, but it is also loaded with lakes that have great fishing. There are a number of states in the northeast, northwest, and midwest that have ice fishing opportunities, but no state can rival the sheer amount of opportunities like Minnesota. When you explore all that Minnesota has to offer, you will fall in love with the hardwater opportunities that are on the horizon.
The must-have gear for Minnesota ice fishing
Because ice fishing can get quite intricate, it is important to have enough equipment to get the job done. Here are some must-have and optional gear pieces to ice fish in Minnesota!
Rods and reels
No fishing endeavor can be properly done without some rods and reels. If you do not already know, ice fishing gear is quite different from the other areas of fishing. The gear is downsized significantly and focuses on keeping it light and subtle.
The rods and reels you pick do not have to be overly complicated, but they should be strong enough to handle whatever species you are targeting. If you are catching bluegill, you will be using a different setup than you would for lake trout. At the end of the day, this is the key to picking out your rods and reels.
The line you use should work directly with the type of reel you have. Again, compared to other types of fishing, ice fishing does it a bit differently. Ice fishing line is usually really light and utilizes the reel’s drag system quite often. This is so the line will fit with the reel and work well with the drag.
To figure out what line you need, you can simply look it up online really quickly. This will coincide with the species being targeted and the lures being used.
We can spend all day talking about ice fishing lures, but the simple idea is that there are tons of options on the market, just like any other branch of the sport. Differing species will be chasing differing lures. So, you want to specify your lure selection to whatever fish you would like to catch. This seems daunting, but it can be done easily with a bit of research.
The best way to find out what works in your specific area is by visiting a local bait shop and asking for more information.
The key to successfully ice fishing is to actually access the ice. Having an auger is the best way to create fishing holes in the ice that you can set up around. Augers can be as simple as of the “hand” variety that you crank and manually create holes.
If your budget allows, you can get a motorized auger that creates holes uper quickly and does not require a bunch of manual labor. These will cost a nice chunk of money, but they will make your life easier. If not, the hand augers can absolutely get the job done with no problem.
Ice fishing tent or shack
Although not required per say, one of the best items to have in your arsenal is an ice fishing shack or tent. These are structures made to protect you from the outside elements and make your fishing experience more enjoyable.
Now, you may think that these are unnecessary, and they definitely are not required, but they can come in very handy. When the wind is howling or the temperatures have dropped dramatically, it is important to be protected. You can even throw in a portable heater to take that experience up a notch.
Finally, we have one of the most underrated and forgotten about items out there. The bucket. A simple 5-gallon bucket is a must-have for ice fishing for a few reasons. Firstly, it can be a great seat. Flip that bucket upside down and you can have a luxurious throne (not so much) to sit on.
Buckets also make great transportation vessels for your gear and your catch. These can be bought new for a few buckets and will last many years.
Top species to catch in Minnesota
If fishing in Minnesota is new for you, it is important to know a few of the top species available to catch while trying your luck. Having that knowledge is super important so you know how to angle your strategies and presentations to get the best results possible. Here are a few of the species that you should target while ice fishing in Minnesota.
In Minnesota, walleye are king. Especially through the ice, walleye are the most popular species to target, and for good reason.
As one of the tastiest freshwater fish available to catch in North America, many anglers want to target a fish that will taste great on the dinner table. Plus, there is an abundance of walleye all over the state. So, a majority of major fishing locations in Minnesota will have walleye.
Even if you are not in the business of harvesting fish for food, walleye are great sport fish. In fact, walleye is the state fish of Minnesota, so ice fishing and not targeting this species would be a crime!
Through the ice, bass take a little bit of a backseat, but they will still bite your lures from time to time. In fact, Minnesota is home to giant smallmouth bass, and they are usually targeted in the summer months.
When the hard water forms, bass will still be milling about and willing to strike. The key to fishing for bass through the ice is finding the ledges and points that will have them posted up. Although it is not required by any means, it can be a great perk to have a sonar system that can map out what is below you.
Although considered a predator in some water systems, northern pike can offer some really awesome fishing opportunities through the ice. These fish can get very large and are very aggressive. Sometimes, you might hook into a northern pike that barely squeezes through your ice hole because it is too big!
Although you may not be targeting pike specifically, they are aggressive enough to hit a wide variety of lures and presentations. Some anglers view pike as pests because they are so aggressive, but if you can embrace the opportunity and make it a positive, it can be quite fruitful!
One of the more tasty freshwater fish out there, along with walleye, is crappie. Crappie are delicious and fun to catch when you can get into a school of them. They are a bit bigger than sunfish but smaller than most of the other species listed. This size makes them easy to harvest and fun to catch all day long.
There are a few different versions of crappie, such as white or black, but they are all very similar. Like bass, crappie move around structure and by drop offs. They also move in schools, so when you find one, you can usually find more.
Although not quite a sunfish, a very similar species is the perch. Although perch can be found all over the world, Minnesota is still an excellent place to start these smaller fish. Although small, you can catch giant heaps of them and harvest them if you so choose.
In the ice fishing world, smaller species like perch get much more love than in open water. This is because the setups are already toned down and made for smaller fish. This makes the entire catching process much easier.
There is a correlation between good walleye lakes and good perch lakes. For whatever reason, the bigger perch can be found where walleye are quite abundant. In places like Leech and Mille Lacs, you can find great walleye and great perch in conjunction.
The final category of fish that can be caught in Minnesota that we will discuss today is sunfish. This includes longears, bluegill, red sunfish, and a whole list of other variations. Sunfish are incredibly fun to catch through the ice and can be very underrated.
Like with the perch, since a lot of cie fishing gear is light and compact, catching sunfish could not be easier. Generally, the lightest variations are made for sunfish, and they love to snack on worms and small jigs.
Sunfish can be caught regularly all year round, but targeting them through the ice can be specifically fun and fruitful.
It is important to know what species can be found in Minnesota. This will give you a much clearer idea for how to target what you want to catch! When jumping around to specific areas, you should talk to the locals and do more concise research to see what you can catch!
Tips and tricks
Be prepared for anything
As a general rule, you need to be prepared for anything that may come your way. More specifically, you should keep a close eye on the weather. Especially in the late fall and early spring where the ice could still be solid but temperatures are changing, you should pay extra attention to the forecasts and weather statements.
When the weather is volatile, things can change very quickly. It could be clear one minute, and a system could move in the next. So, be prepared for whatever comes your way.
Other than the weather, there are a few other aspects to be prepared for. Be prepared for broken or lost gear, as well. If you snap a rod, be sure to have some extras around so your trip is not just over. The little things like this need to be accounted for.
Buy ice picks
Having personal ice picks on you can be an absolute game changer and life saver. Personal ice picks are tools that you can hang around your neck or in your pocket. These are devices that allow you to connect with the ice and pull you up in the event that the ice breaks and you go through.
These are fairly affordable and will last probably your entire life. If you have ever fallen through the ice, you know how difficult it can be to get out. Stabbing these picks into the ice and pulling yourself up is your best chance of getting out quickly and safely. These super simple tools that can quite literally save your life. Plus, you will not have to break the bank on the tools.
Look into camping at your fishing spot
Especially in certain areas of Minnesota, some of the best ice fishing opportunities are deep into the wilderness and secluded from the modern world. The best way to access these opportunities is to camp close to where you want to swim. Camping is not for everyone, but this allows for super easy access to the ice in the early mornings and late evenings.
Not every ice fishing opportunity is going to be miles into dense woods, but some will be. Whether you have to rough it in some tents or there is a proper campground to set a camper up at, camping is a great way to connect with the area and get the most out of your ice fishing trip.
Don’t stray away from urban fishing
As you can see from the list of the best spots to ice fish in Minnesota, there are a few great locations that are in close proximity to the big cities. Do not be afraid to fish those urban waterways.
The old school thinking is that you need to rough it out in the woods and find fish that way. The reality is that you can engage in some incredible fishing opportunities minutes away from the Twin Cities or other larger areas. With this style, you can stay at a hotel and turn the experience into a more relaxing one rather than making it harder than it has to be.
Gather intel from the locals
The best way to really understand fishing in a certain area is by going to local bait shops and asking questions. The people who run those shops and hang out on the lakes should know a lot about the specific area.
It can be as simple as asking a question or two when buying some lures or befriending a local that you can count on.
If you are not as social as some, simply use the internet. Sources on the internet, similar to this entry, can provide really valuable insight to fishing spots, lure selections, and tons of other tips.
Always play it safe
When the water is hard, there is an added risk to engaging in ice fishing. Especially in the early and late parts of the fishing season, ice can be at dangerous levels to engage in. When the weather starts to warm, ice thins. Eventually, it will get to a level that is unable to be fished on.
What you need to be careful of is the period of time in the transition from ice to regular water. This is an issue in areas that have warm summers, but the main idea is universal.
As a general rule, always play it safe during these times. No fish is ever worth risking your life because the ice is too thin.
Now, you also want to make sure there is at least 3-4 inches of ice before you set out on it. Ideally, you would want more than that, but the 4 inch range is good enough in many areas. Anything less, you are playing a risky game that is not worth it.
An easy way to check the thickness is by cutting down with your auger or a hand drill. Then, you can just use your hand to estimate the thickness or actually measure it out.
Splurge for a sonar system if you can
When the budget has some wiggle room, you should splurge for some not-so-necessary items that can take your ice fishing game to an entirely new level. One of the top purchases in this category is a sonar/fishing finding electronic system. This maps out the structure in the water below the ice.
There are super high end options as well as more affordable ones that do not have as many bells and whistles.
Many of the options have a certain technology that is entered into your fishing whole and maps out everything below. This gives you an idea of the depth, structure, where the fish are, and more. As you can probably guess, this gives you an insane amount of information that will directly correlate to performance on the ice.
As you can now see, Minnesota is one of the best places in the entire United States to ice fish. There are so many places to go and species to chase that it is well worth your time to do some angling here.
One of the biggest keys to ice fishing in Minnesota, specifically for those who have never done it, is to do research. Whether it be right here, somewhere else online, or with the locals of the area, there is so much great information out there that can transform your fishing experience to an entirely new level.
The key is finding an area that is known to have great fishing opportunities so you do not get skunked.
Hopefully, you are in a great place to take on ice fishing in Minnesota. With this information, you should be set up for some hard water success. All that is left is for you to get out there and try for yourself!