Best Minnesota Lakes for Smallmouth Bass

by Maureen E. Johnson, featured columnist

Kettle River (Pine County MN):

This 50-mile tributary of the St. Croix River begins above the town of Willow River Minnesota, where on-foot angling and canoeing is possible, and flows down to Highway 23 where the surrounding forest reveals rocky scenery and large, rocky pools. Get those smallies with in-line spinners or a bright-colored streamer used in fly angling at the head of each pool. Be mindful of the multiple rapids between Highway 23 and Sandstone, which anglers avoid. Once inside St. Croix State Park, you’ll find the last 10 miles of river are a great place to fish, especially around riffles and mild rapids, where the bronzebacks tend to gather.

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For more information:
Get your free Kettle River Canoe Guide from the Department of Natural Resources (1-800-657-3929)! Get the scoop on river miles, accesses and roadways!

Lake Minnetonka (Hennepin County MN):

Smallmouth bassDid you know that ‘Tonka is not only a great largemouth bass lake, but a great place for smallmouth lunkers as well? Though not as numerous as other fish populations, when you get ’em it’s worth it; 17-to-18 inchers are highly common, and five-pounders aren’t so rare either! The happiest angling occurs around the eastern third of the lake, especially in Wayzata, Browns and Robinsons bays, and Big Island. Try to go during non-peak times, when boat traffic is lighter; weekday mornings is best. Use crankbaits that are crawfish in color in areas not heavily vegetated., and 4-inch finesse worms. Spinnerbaits are good as well. Keep in mind that rock reefs are good, but below-the-surface weedbeds around hard bottoms are the charm. While you are thinking about it, look at Lake Minnetonka real estate and find a nice lake home in Minnesota.

Green Lake (Kandiyohi County MN):

Believe it or not, this 5400-acre lake just 90 miles west of Minneapolis is a haven for smallmouths, a little-known fact that you can use to your advantage. Even those who fish here regularly are trying to hook walleye, and view smallmouths as a threat. The 14-to 21-inch regulation in place, which walleye-lovers here are trying to repeal, makes 20-inchers and 5-pounders possible, though most fish are under 15 inches. Look for the smallies among the plethora of midlake reef and hump scatterings, which hold fish all summer long where the water is 15 to 20 ft deep. In the fall, move to the 20-to 30-foot depths. When fish are active, use crankbaits deep enough to touch bottom. When sluggish, you’ll need to use a vertical jiggling motion with a grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead to snag ’em. If you’re a lover of pike, target areas with vegetation; you just might find one over 30 inches! Six boat ramps allow for access.

For more information:
Department of Natural Resources, Fergus Falls:
Mel’s Sport Shop, Spicer: (320) 796-2421

South Ten Mile Lake (Grant/Otter Tail County MN border)

Thanks to the 21-inch minimum size regulation in place for smallies here, about half of them are over 15 inches! And if you’re into variety, you’re in for a treat; you’ll find plenty of 10-inch Rock Bass, Pike measuring 25 to 32 inches, a nice smattering of walleye, and even a small population of largemouths. Look for the smallmouths in 8-to 15-foot depths, around hard-bottomed areas. The large bulrushes found on the lake’s south and west sides are also a good place to look during the early morning hours. Flat surfaces make for some good topwatering during this time as well.

Burntside Lake (Saint Louis County MN):

Highly touted by many as a hotspot for trout angling, this 7100-acre, 50-island lake near Ely also happens to be a great place to catch smallmouths. According to a netting assesment performed by the Department of Natural Resources, the lake’s smallmouth population is substantial, and the average fish size is now nearly 14 inches, up from 12 inches in recent years. The lake is also home to many 16-to-18 inch smallies, perhaps due to more catch-and-release and an increasing smelt population. Since smallmouths prefer depths of less than 25 ft, your best bet is to stick around the 75-mile shoreline, preferably in rocky areas and offshore humps and bays. You will find six boat ramps spread out around the lake for your convenience.

For more information:
Department of Natural Resources Tower office: (218) 753-2580

Cloquet River (Saint Louis County MN):

This river is practially bursting at the seams with smallies, and is also home to plenty of pike, walleyes and channel catfish as well. Though just large enough to accomodate canoes and small boats, the pristine forest setting is worth the bit of extra planning. Smallmouths here average under 15 inches in size, but are a guaranteed catch. Since they tend to be near food sources, areas downstream of rapids and riffles are hotspots, and prove excellent for spin-fishers and fly-rodders who use jigs or flies in black or chartreuse. If you’re into wade-angling, stick around Highway 53 and Highway 7, but use caution around the area’s slippery boulders by arming yourself with felt-soled boots. For a great angling trip, we recommend the ten-mile stretch between Highway 53 and the Saint Louis River, or the eight-mile journey from County MN Road 48 to County MN Road 15.

Turtle Lake (Itasca County MN):

Just north of Marcel, this beautiful 2,000-acre hotspot is well-known among locals as the place to be for finding large smallmouths. Roughly 30 percent of bronzebacks surveyed by the Department of Natural Resources were over 15 inches, and 19-inch beauties are not uncommon to these parts. During the summer, it’s best to stick close to the shoreline during mornings and evenings, at depths of 4 to 6 ft, and progress to depths of 20 to 30 ft during the sunnier hours. Target smallies at greater depths by locating rockbars and humps on the east side of the lake using a depthfinder. Then try your luck with tube jigs; camo and pumpkinseed work great.

For more information:
Frontier Bait, Marcel: (218) 832-3901

Lake Alexander (Morrison County MN):

This lake is the most popular in Morrison County MN, mainly for it’s diverse and appreciated quantities of walleyes, muskies, pike and panfish. The 2800-acre lake deserves much credit for its bronzebacks as well, since recent years have yielded many 14 and 15 inchers, in addition to much larger beauties. The clarity of the lake makes angling during overcast days best, although working the deeper areas around humps and other structured areas using jigs on a 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line is likely to yield success on the sunny days, especially in the Haystack Island area on the south side, or on the west end of the lake. Plus, you’ll find the larger smallies and incredible muskies lurking about the weedbeds. Three boat ramps provide easy access.

For more information:
Department of Natural Resources, Little Falls Office (monitors Alex): (320) 616-2450

Mille Lacs (Mille Lacs County MN):

Hands down, this lake is among the best spots to snag those heftier bronzebacks! A 21-inch minimum size regulation makes for a good environment to reel in some lunkers, but not without a little effort on your part; these fish have become wise over the past decade, due to the lake’s popularity. Your best bet is to use tube jigs, smaller baits, lighter lines, retrieve slowly, and approach quietly. Use spinnerbaits in weedy conditions, and crankbaits in open water. The south shore, home to plenty of rocky islands, humps, and rockpiles-providing structure and thus supporting fish-is a promising area for this reason. Twin Bay, Isle Harbor, Wahkon Bay and Cove Bay are great places to drop your line. You might also try the west and north shores, where the bass are not as plentiful but just as large. Just be sure to focus on rocky areas and and weed patches.

Smallmouth bass species information (DNR)

Be sure to check out the best Minnesota lakes for finding largemouth bass, walleye, panfish, northern pike, and muskies.

Want more fish? Then you should get your own home on a Minnesota lake! Spend less time driving and more time fishing! Dock your boat in front of your own house! Lakefront is always a good investment!