Top 10 Fishing Lakes In Minnesota

A Review of Minnesota's Best Mixed-Bag Fisheries

by Lake-Link Staff

Fisherman on a beautiful Minnesota lake.
Photo by Tom Neustrom
Known by the slogan "The Land of 10,000 Lakes"- according to DNR statistics -the state is actually home to 14,380 lakes! And they're pretty disbursed across Minnesota's 87 counties, with the density of water bodies greater the farther you get north.

As reported by the DNR (but we're skeptical), the top Minnesota gamefish are as follows: walleye, northern pike, musky, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, Chinook salmon (Lake Superior & its tributaries), Coho salmon (Lake Superior & its tributaries), lake trout (northern inland lakes and Lake Superior), sunfish/crappies, yellow perch, rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, sturgeon, channel catfish, and flathead catfish.

That said, we wanted to offer Lake-Link's top 10 picks for Minnesota's top 10 multi-species fisheries. Here they are (in alphabetical order):

Big Stone County - Minnesota

Big Stone Lake

Big Stone County, MN
Located in Big Stone County bordering South Dakota, this southwestern Minnesota multi-species gem is an expansive 12,610 acres and 27 miles long and offers lots for anglers to explore. The lake is filled with great walleye-holding structure including rocks, boulders, and stone; hence the name. With most water under 16 feet, anglers can do a lot of casting for walleyes, although trolling does come into play, especially with spinners and Slo-Death rigs. Windblown shorelines, points and rock piles are great places to investigate any time of year. Besides walleyes, the lake also has some big bluegills, crappies, white bass, and largemouth bass. Ice fishing draws a lot of anglers from both Minnesota and South Dakota to chase plus-sized perch during the winter months. One of the overlooked bites on Big Stone is the phenomenal, underfished early-season largemouth bass bite. Working the shorelines and docks consistently produces lots of 3- to 5-pound fish.
Nice pile of fish caught on Big Stone Lake, MN
Photo courtesy of Artie's Bait
Check with Artie and the crew at Artie's Bait for the most current fishing report and lodging recommendations. You can also learn more by visiting the Big Stone Lake Area Chamber of Commerce via bigstonelakechamber.com.

Drive Times to Big Stone Lake**
  • Chicago: 9 ½ hours
  • Milwaukee: 8 ½ hours
  • Green Bay: 7 ½ hours
  • Minneapolis: 3 ¼ hours
  • Open in Google Maps

Douglas County, MN

Lake Miltona

Douglas County, MN
A stone's throw north of Alexandria, west-central Minnesota's 5724-acre Lake Miltona offers multi-species action the entire calendar year. Over seven miles long with 15 miles of largely-developed shoreline, it still produces lots of fish. Still, with water clarity nearing 20 feet, angler approaches require some amount of stealth and finesse.

The guys from Alexandria's Christopherson Bait are a great resource for fishing the Douglas County area, and we always make sure to stop in, usually with a serious credit card receipt after we're done cruising the aisles and jaw-jacking with their knowledgeable staff. Definitely a great place to stock up on tackle and live bait.

A nice muskie caught on Lake Mitona Minnesota
Photo courtesy of Viking Bay Resort & Lodge
We talked with Shane at Christopherson Bait - a big fan of Lake Miltona.

"Miltona is a great multi-species lake with phenomenal walleye fishing-and lots of different walleye year classes from eater-sized fish to trophy-class fish. 'Round opener pitching a jig with a shiner is impossible to beat. Later into June I throw jigs and plastics or snap-jigging Jigging Raps. Then, as the summer progresses, Miltona turns into a bottom-bouncer and 'crawler bite," offers Shane.

Often overlooked, Miltona's smallmouth bite can also be really good. "There are lots of smallies in the lake and some big ones, too. Hard to beat a Ned Rig, drop-shot, or swimbait," offers Shane.

Miltona is also known for its muskie fishing, which produces some large fish every year, drawing muskie-heads from across the state.

"And don't forget about Miltona's largemouth bass - there are a lot of bulrush stands for the earlier, shallow-water bite, and cabbage beds to target as the summer progresses," adds Shane.

If you're bringing newbies or kids, know that Miltona also has plentiful eater-sized bluegills, 10- to 12-inch crappies (with the occasional 13- or 14-incher), and pods of occasional eater-sized perch.

For info on lodging and local guides, contact the folks at Viking Bay Resort & Lodge on Lake Miltona.

Drive Times to Lake Miltona**
  • Chicago: 8 ½ hours
  • Milwaukee: 7 ½ hours
  • Green Bay: 6 ½ hours
  • Minneapolis: 2 ½ hours
  • Open in Google Maps

Hennepin County, MN

Lake Minnetonka

Hennepin & Carver Counties, MN
Located just west of Twin Cities metropolitan, 14,530-acre multi-species fishery Lake Minnetonka offers walleyes, pike, muskies, panfish, and some spectacular bass fishing-both largemouths and smallies.

Come MN Bass Opener-and well through the summer months-it's hard to go wrong flipping or casting around the lake's countless docks for plenty of largie action-all the way from Halstead Bay in the west to Gray's Bay in the east. Deeper weed edges also hold countless largemouths as fish move deeper throughout the season. And then there's the summer frog bite - just look for lily pad stands.

And the smallies? A little harder to find, but rock, signaled in many locations by marker buoys, is a good start.

When it comes to largemouths, the lake is full of fish-and some big ones, too. For that reason, Lake Minnetonka now hosts more bass tournaments than any other lake in Minnesota.

A nice largemouth bass caught on Lake Minnetonka Minnesota
Photo by Lake-Link Staff
Curious how to find bass on such a big lake? Put the trolling motor on high and cast Chatterbaits, spinnerbaits, or swim jigs at docks from bays east to west - or vice versa. Just plan a few days of fishing to cover the entire lake.

As far as walleyes go, it's largely a weed game. Drop-shotting the edges or ripping jigs and flukes or paddletails through vegetation is a consistent producer. Minnetonka walleyes relate to both milfoil and cabbage - and at night can be found on areas of shallower, hard bottom and over sandgrass flats.

Also know that the lake's numerous bays and connected lakes hold numbers of crappies and sunfish, as well as bass and pike well into the summer months.

Drive Times to Lake Minnetonka**
  • Chicago: 7 ½ hours
  • Milwaukee: 5 ½ hours
  • Green Bay: 5 hours
  • Minneapolis: 30 minutes
  • Open in Google Maps

Lake of the Woods County, MN

Lake of the Woods

Lake of the Woods County, MN

Called the "Walleye Capital of the World", Minnesota's Lake of the Woods is a massive 1.075 million acres located in Lake of the Woods County. The Rainy River, which meanders between Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods, forms a natural boundary between the U.S. and Canada. In winter, the river sees some anglers on hardwater, while early spring heralds a fishing frenzy for pre-spawn walleyes. Our advice: Get to the boat ramp before dawn for a parking spot.

Joe Henry with a huge walleye caught on Lake Of The Woods Minnesota
Photo courtesy of Lake of the Woods Tourism
The South Shore is home to both numbers of "eater" sized walleye and saugers, some trophy-class fish, occasional pockets of jumbo perch, and giant northern pike. The waters near the NW Angle and islands are home to great fishing, too. Walleyes and muskies are the deal in the NW Angle, but the area also holds big smallies, pike, and crappie numbers all year long.

Over the years we've stayed at Arnesen's Rocky Point Resort, Sportsman's Lodge, on-ice sleeper houses via Dale's Sleepers, River Bend Resort, and Adrian's Resort. There's not a bad lodge in the mix. There's also camp sites nearby if you have an RV, hard-house, or simply want to tent it. Visit lakeofthewoodsmn.com for more info.

Drive Times to the Lake Of The Woods**
  • Chicago: 11 ½ hours
  • Milwaukee: 10 ½ hours
  • Green Bay: 9 ½ hours
  • Minneapolis: 4 ¾ hours
  • Open in Google Maps

Traverse County, MN

Lake Traverse

Traverse County, MN

At 11,000 acres, MN/SD border waters Lake Traverse is a great multi-species fishery with ample walleyes, pike, crappies, bluegills, white bass, channel cats, drum, perch, and both largemouth and smallmouth bass. Open year 'round, the lake produces throughout the open-water and ice season.

Lake Traverse flows out of the north end into the north-flowing Bois de Sioux River, which is connected to the Red River. On the southern end, the lake is connected by a narrow waterway to the Little Minnesota River.

White bass fishing fun on Lake Traverse Minnesota
Photo by Lake-Link Staff
Besides the walleye fishing, one of the things we love about Lake Traverse is its white bass opportunities, which have no closed season or possession limit. If you've never been on a school of actively-feeding white (aka silver) bass, you're seriously missing out. They're the perfect species to get the rod bending cast after cast for newbies or kids. And contrary to what some anglers will tell you, they're great table fare. Just cut out the red meat and you're good.

One of the best places to stay is the Wing N Fin in Browns Valley, Minnesota. They offer very reasonable rates with some on-the-water cabins where you can conveniently park your boat. RV sites are also available. Wing N Fin is open year 'round for some great ice fishing opportunities, too.

Drive Times to Lake Traverse**
  • Chicago: 9 ½ hours
  • Milwaukee: 8 ½ hours
  • Green Bay: 7 ½ hours
  • Minneapolis: 3 ¼ hours
  • Open in Google Maps

Cass & Itasca Counties, MN

Lake Winnibigoshish

Cass & Itasca Counties, MN
Located in Minnesota's north-central Chippewa National Forest, 60-some-thousand-acre Lake Winnibigoshish-or "Winnie" as it's lovingly referred-is a fantastic fishery, full of walleyes, pike, eater-sized perch, and a sleeper largemouth bass bite.

Fishing Winnie isn't rocket science during the early open-water season. Pitching a simple jig and minnow or ripping a hair jig or plastic over shallow, 4- to 12-foot flats will put plenty of walleyes in the boat. Once summer starts, walleyes move out deeper to the lake's numerous humps and bars. During this time trolling or pitching cranks, working jigs, and drifting rigs will all produce fish.

Fall can be a great time on Winnie, too, with fish both deeper on structure and cruising the shallows again. Our tip: Cover water and use your electronics to find the fish. Every day is different.

A nice walleye caught on Lake Winnibigoshish Minnesota
Photo courtesy of Brian 'Bro' Brosdahl
Come winter, Winnie has become a very popular walleye destination. Once truck travel starts, expect to see cities set up off the various resort ice roads. If you can, get away from the crowds and find the fish this activity can scatter. A snowmobile and a portable shack works wonders, even if you plan to ice camp in a hard-house.

With regards to open water, Winnie has been a top walleye destination for countless decades. However, it produces a lot of quality largemouths, too. Veteran area guide, Tom Neustrom, explains:

"Winnie is one of the better multi-species lakes in Minnesota. It's always been a walleye and big jumbo perch destination, but a few visiting anglers are taking a break from 'eyes and perch and chasing largies, too. There are lots of 2.5- to 4-pound fish, and the occasional 5- to 6-and-half pounder. There aren't a lot of small bass in Winnie," offers Neustrom.

"In terms of presentations, I throw spinnerbaits to cover water. Especially early in the season, look for bays with cabbage and shallow coontail in the backs. Topwater frogs worked from the bay shorelines through weeds produces a lot of fish, too," adds Neustrom.

Fellow longtime area guide, Brian "Bro" Brosdahl, continues: "Winnie is also a really good body of water for jumbo perch and quality-sized northern pike that push 16- to over 30-inches. There are some nice crappies to be had, too-as well as bluegills. And while it holds the state musky record, it doesn't see a lot of muskie fishing pressure. That's another thing to explore. Of course, you've got both whitefish and tullibees and it's a good eelpout fishery in the winter. Lots of options."

In terms of a Winnie walleye tackle starter kit, both guides recommend common walleye gear.

"You don't have to pull lead-core on Winnie, which is nice. You can catch 'em just throwing a crankbait out the back of the boat in waters from 4- to 18-feet. You can also catch 'em on slip bobbers on the humps, jigging early and late in the year, and on spinners from mid-June through early-September," offers Neustrom.

Surveying reveals a very strong year class of 14- to 18-inch walleyes and another year class right behind it. The perch population has also rebounded. They can be found primarily in shallow, rocky areas 16-feet and less for most of the summer.

For a guided experience on Winnie and lodging info, contact local guides, Tom Neustrom and Brian "Bro" Brosdahl.

Drive Times to Lake Winnibigoshish**
  • Chicago: 9 ¼ hours
  • Milwaukee: 8 ¼ hours
  • Green Bay: 7 ¼ hours
  • Minneapolis: 3 ½ hours
  • Open in Google Maps

Aitkin & Mille Lacs Counties, MN

Mille Lacs Lake**

Aitkin & Mille Lacs Counties, MN
Called "The Big Pond", the 132,500-acre Mille Lacs Lake is one of the top smallmouth bass fisheries in the nation, with bass anglers trailering their glitter-covered boats across the country just to tap the lake's giant bronzebacks.

Best way to find 'em? Work the rocks and gravel on whatever side of the lake you launch your boat. Experiment with depth depending on the time of year. They could be super shallow or hanging off the edges of rock piles and reefs in deeper water. And don't be scared to cast the shoreline, especially around the time of the MN Bass Opener.

Tubes, Ned Rigs, lightweight marabou jigs (black, brown, or green pumpkin), and jerkbaits all produce. Later in the season, drop-shot rigs and deeper-running jerkbaits and cranks are all standard fare. It's classic smallie fishing at its finest.

Mille Lacs Lake smallmouth bass fishing is awesome
Photo courtesy of Brad Hawthorne
And the walleyes? Don't believe the nay-sayers. The lake is chock full o' 'eyes-and some real bruisers, too. We know from experience.

The lake's perch year classes are also maturing, so expect to see that fishery blossom over the next several years.

Oh, looking for a trophy muskie? Mille Lacs has those, too…

For a guided trip and accommodations info, contact local, in-the-know guide, Brad Hawthorne.

Drive Times to Mille Lacs Lake**
  • Chicago: 7 ½ hours
  • Milwaukee: 6 ½ hours
  • Green Bay: 6 hours
  • Minneapolis: 1 ½ hours
  • Open in Google Maps

Aitkin & Mille Lacs Counties, MN

Mississippi River - Pools 2, 3 & 4

Aitkin & Mille Lacs Counties, MN
Mississippi River - Pools 2-4 - Minnesota
Although technically not a "lake", Mississippi River pools 2 through 4 are a largely overlooked multi-species fishery. Seriously, it's not unusual to catch 10 to 12 different fish species over a one day outing. From walleyes to saugers, to smallies, largemouth bass, crappies, both channel and flathead cats, white bass, freshwater drum (sheepshead), and more, it's a great place to put a bend in the rod.

Know that Pool 2 is a catch-and-release walleye fishery since longtime guide Dick "The Griz" Gryzwinski and biologist/fishing author Dick Sternberg worked with the DNR and State to protect the quality of fishing in 1989. Hence the numbers and size of the 'eyes available.

Mississippi River Pools can be hot for jigging walleye
Photo by Lake-Link Staff
With open water nearly all year long at least somewhere on the stretch between Pool 2 and 4 (especially the Red Wing to power plant area of Pool 4), there are great opportunities to catch numbers with a shot at a trophy-size walleye. The Griz' personal best weighed in at just over 14 and a half pounds. Dang.

For consistent walleye and multi-species action, it's hard to beat an 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jig and fathead or soft plastic flukes, paddletails or twister tail, especially in brighter colors. In colder water, blade baits produce well. Work the current seams, rip-rap, wing dams, and wood. It varies by season, but each day there are fish feeding somewhere on the river. It's just a matter of covering ground and keeping your line in the water.

To experience the best walleye fishing Pools 2, 3, and 4 have to offer, visit the Griz' website. For affordable and convenient lodging right on Pool 4 near Red Wing, Minnesota, call Tracy at Evert's Resort. Local Chris Winchester guides out of Evert's and specializes in putting clients on memorable big catfish and sturgeon bites but guides for walleyes, too.

Drive Times to Mississippi River - Pools 2, 3 & 4**

Otter Tail County, MN

Otter Tail Lake

Otter Tail County, MN
A multi-species gem located in the heart of Otter Tail County, Minnesota, 14,000-acre Otter Tail Lake produces year-after-year. With great year classes of walleyes in the "eater" category, visiting anglers are usually smiles after fishing the lake. Who doesn't love a fish fry?

But it's not just a numbers game; there are some big 'eyes in Otter Tail, too, although more difficult to pattern.

Known for its early-season shallow bite pitching jigs and shiners, some guys also troll cranks shallow to find active 'eyes.

Come summer, Otter Tail turns on with an historic night-time trolling bite over the lake's 6- to 12-foot sand flats, especially during the full moon. Shad Raps and Flicker Shads are all you need. We've had good luck with every color in the playbook. Our advice: Start with your confidence colors and go from there; the fish will tell you what they want. Funny, but cranks with a lot of black and dark purple have produced best for us after dark on Otter Tail. Go figure.

A nice walleye taken on Otter Tail Lake Minnesota
Photo courtesy of Bret Setterholm
During the day, walleyes can be found around the lake's many humps. Pitching Jiggin' Raps on top and down the ledges of humps will often produce fish, as will a jig and leech. Along the weed edges, jig and meat or soft plastic combos often produce. And don't be scared to rip your jigs (especially with paddletails or flukes) right through the vegetation.

Looking for a break from chasing OT walleyes? Launch the boat on the lake's eastern Pelican Bay and troll spoons with the entire family for pike. And, earlier in the season, you'll find some panfish there, too.

Otter Tail has a great fall to freeze-up walleye bite with less traffic than other historic Minnesota walleye fisheries. Locals like to rig weed edges with sucker minnows. Same thing that's done on more northern Minnesota walleye fisheries with big creek chubs, but a lot easier on the pocketbook.

Lastly, there are some roaming pods of good-sized perch on Otter Tail but they can be difficult to find. Winter is definitely the best time to target OT's jumbos-but bring your snowmobile and a portable. There aren't a lot of plowed roads.

For help breaking down Otter Tail's expansive multi-species waters, get in touch with local guide Bret Setterholm who can recommend lodging and put you on the bite.

Drive Times to Otter Tail Lake**
  • Chicago: 9 hours
  • Milwaukee: 8 hours
  • Green Bay: 7 hours
  • Minneapolis: 3 hours
  • Open in Google Maps

Koochiching County, MN

Rainy Lake

Koochiching County, MN
Rainy Lake - Koochiching County, MN
At 227,604 acres, Rainy Lake is a giant fishery. And with nearly 2,000 islands and countless reefs, rock piles, and points, "There are plenty of spots to fish walleyes like bass, casting right to them," says local guide, Captain Jason Ellman. "And you'll catch lots of fat smallmouth bass in the process, so it's a lot of fun for my customers."

Around MN Walleye Opener, a lot of anglers stack up at Brule Narrows but it's still a good place to put walleyes in the box. As the season progresses, Rainy Lake many walleyes will migrate away from shorelines, moving water, and toward open-water humps throughout the lake. That's where your electronics come into play. Some anglers will troll rigs and spinners or cranks, while others prefer to jig. It's all a matter of preference.

Pike fishing can be exciting on Rainy Lake Minnesota
Courtesy of Captain Jason Ellman
When it comes to smallies, Ellman says the lake's numerous bays, coves, shorelines, points, and rock piles hold tons of fish-and some big fish to boot.

"I like gravel, bowling-ball size rocks, boulders, all-of-that," notes Ellman. "Tubes, paddletails, various-depth diving cranks, and jerkbaits all catch fish. It's hard to go wrong up here."

Ellman is also a diehard big pike and muskie fanatic. "The lake offers great opportunities for both 40-inch plus pike and trophy-class muskies. And there are lots of mid-sized fish of both species, too, so you're not just out there casting for one bite. I absolutely love fishing for them summer through fall. We've put some nice fish in the boat."

"There are also some up-and-coming year classes of crappies in the lake, too, so if families want to fish for panfish, that's another option as well," concludes Ellman.

For those fishing without a guide, Ellman suggests angler's keep a keen eye out for buoys, shallow water, reefs, and other skeg-breakers - as well as pay attention to GPS mapping to ensure where you're at on the lake at all times and avoid fishing the Canadian side if you're without proper Ontario licensing and permits.

For more information on Rainy Lake lodging or to book a trip with Captain Ellman, visit his website at northernexcursion.com.

Drive Times to Rainy Lake**
  • Chicago: ~10 ¼ hours
  • Milwaukee: ~9 ¼ hours
  • Green Bay: ~8 ¼
  • Minneapolis: ~4 ½
  • Open in Google Maps

** Drive times are approximate and may vary based upon time of day, traffic conditions and construction

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