Fishing Tips For Itasca County’s 1,400+ Lakes
by Jeff “Cubby” Skelly
Professional Guide with Minnesota Fishing ProsI’m Jeff “Cubby” Skelly and I’ve been fortunate to have been born and raised here in the heart of the finest hunting and fishing area you can find in all of Minnesota. I’ve turned my passion for fishing into a full-time career as a professional fishing guide and have fished the area’s waters for the past 20 years. I’d like to share with you some of my fishing methods you can use to capitalize on the many different species of gamefish found here in Northern Minnesota.
Spring in northern Minnesota is a magical time. Most species are in a post-spawn state and are ready to put on the feedbag. Once the ice is gone and the sun begins to warm the water temperatures into the low 50’s, most fish will dwell in the shallower water to feed on the abundant spot tail shiner that comes to the shallows to spawn. Walleyes, northern pike and jumbo perch are all there to take advantage of this very short period when the shiners are plentiful and vulnerable.
From the middle of May to about the middle of June (depending on how warm our spring has been) you can find nearly any species you desire. For walleyes, look for water as shallow as 3 feet and as deep as 12 feet. Try to fish the windswept shorelines and probe the shallows with a jig and minnow to find active schools of fish. Always use a lead-headed jig just heavy enough to maintain contact with the bottom and try to keep an open mind. Let the fish tell you what they want. Some days they are really aggressive and you can’t do anything wrong. But there’ll also be days when, for instance, there is no wind and you need to use a real finesse approach. Remember, if the local bait dealers are still selling shiners it means that the shiners are still in shallow water and you can bet there will be game fish there, too; so take advantage of this short opportunity.
Summer in Northern Minnesota is a time of feast or famine for fish and anglers alike because it is a time of great change. Water temps are peaking and weed growth is at a maximum. This means that anglers have to think about deeper water habitats in addition to the shallow waters. With the advent of the GPS and the many fine lake maps available today, anglers can easily motor out to the deep water haunts. This is the time that I start heading out to the deeper water structures and I’d suggest you start your search there as well. Look for signs of bait fish and larger game fish on top of these areas and move to the edges of the structure. If you are not seeing schools of bait fish on your sonar, there won’t be many walleye or other game fish either. My top presentation used for deep water fish is a live bait rig. I usually start out with a 1/2-ounce slip sinker then tie on a barrel swivel. I add a 6- to 10-foot leader with a # 4 live bait hook tipped with a leech or crawler. Once I find a few fish on my radar, I drop that rig straight to the bottom. I like to fish the Lindy Rig as vertically as possible so that when I’m marking fish on my locator I know that my live bait is going right through the middle of the school of fish. A live bait rig in deep water is a deadly presentation for walleye; however, it does limit you to walleyes only. If you want to catch northern pike or perch that might also be present, try a jig and a minnow. Fish the jig as you would a live bait rig but move the jig up and down a bit to entice the fish to eat and then drop back down to the bottom. It’s important to continue to fish a jig as vertically as possible and to move your boat just fast enough to maintain contact with the bottom.
I’ve mentioned just a couple of successful methods for catching fish. I consistently use these tactics to fish practically any lake in this area and I’ve written this article with walleye, northern pike and jumbo perch in mind because of their popularity with anglers. There are many other species of gamefish in our northern Minnesota lakes as well – species like muskie, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie, sunfish and bluegill. These species can be found in area lakes in numbers that rival any other fishing destination in North America – Canada included! I love to fish all of them, but the Muskie is by far my favorite. These freshwater maniacs have given me many heart-stopping moments in my career on the water and offer anglers a real challenge.
Autumn in Northern Minnesota is a fabulous time of year when you can sit in your boat and almost see the leaves changing colors – it is nothing short of spectacular. As with spring fishing, fall fishing again finds the fish in transition. This time returning from their deep water haunts to the shallow water. You are likely to find large numbers of fish in small areas, and most often, they are more than willing to take your bait. With the nights getting colder and the water temperature beginning to drop, the fish will seek areas where weed growth is still green and producing oxygen. Check the areas where you found fish in the spring and fish the deep edge of the weed lines with a jig and a minnow. Walleyes, northern pike and perch will lay on the edge of the weed beds and wait for food to swim by. From the top of the food chain to the bottom, all species can be present and actively feeding, so it’s at this time of year that many trophy fish are taken. Don’t overlook planning your Minnesota fishing vacation for September and October because this time of year in Northern Minnesota the fishing is truly fantastic – with both quantity and quality a real possibility.
From Grand Rapids to Bigfork and Northome to Deer River, Itasca County and Northern Minnesota offer the angler world-class fishing opportunities, no matter what species of game fish you’re after. It’s the reason many anglers make Northern Minnesota their vacation destination year after year. You owe it to yourself to give us a visit up here in the thousand grand lakes area.