Anglers often dream about bucket list fishing trips to faraway venues, but plenty of world-class ice-fishing trips await anglers across the region. We asked a handful of well-traveled anglers about their favorite ice-fishing venues close to home. Their recommendations cover a range of species from first-ice to ice-out.
Devils Lake, N.D.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Jason Mitchell, host of the Jason Mitchell Outdoors television series, recommended Devils Lake. Mitchell lives in the town of Devils Lake and spent years as a full-time guide on the sprawling lake.
“When the lake is on, it’s as good as it gets anywhere,” Mitchell said. “And the diversity of the fishery is tough to beat — giant pike, jumbo perch and numbers of big walleye. Plus, it has an excellent tourism infrastructure providing lodging, restaurants and guides.”
Mitchell said the size of Devils Lake — estimated at more than 211,000 surface acres in 2011 — intimidates many first-time visitors. He said anglers need the right gear, but more importantly, the right attitude to be consistently successful.
“There’s good fishing to be had throughout the ice season,” Mitchell said, “but it often goes in cycles. Expect about 10 days of great fishing, 10 days of average fishing and 10 days of challenging fishing each month. Fish can always be caught, but the level of difficulty varies.”
Mitchell added that walleyes remain the easiest target throughout the season. Anglers wielding jigging spoons on traditional rock and wood cover should be able to catch numbers of fish, especially if they have a few days to spend on the ice.
“Patterns continue to evolve as water levels drop but a few things remain constant,” Mitchell added. “The shrimp forage that makes this fishery exceptional tends to make the perch finicky. Walleyes will feed on shrimp, too, but they’re more susceptible to larger offerings like spoons.”
For more information about lodging, guides and more, visit the Devils Lake Tourism website at https://devilslakend.com/.
Big Stone Lake, S.D. / Minn.
Dennis Kassube, of Big Stone City, S.D., has fished extensively across South Dakota and Minnesota. But when it comes to picking his favorite wintertime destination, he said anglers can’t do much better than his home lake.
“I saw some of the survey data from the fall test netting that hasn’t yet been published,” Kassube said. “The report shows strong numbers of perch between 10½ to 11½ inches. But I was more impressed by the number of 8 ½- to 9 ½-inch bluegill. And 10- to 11-inch bluegills are definitely possible on Big Stone.”
Kassube said that early ice usually affords the best fishing of the season, but cautions anglers to wait for safe ice conditions.
“The fishing holds up pretty well all season long,” he added. “There’s no need to rush onto the ice. Seems like most of the big fish I hear about every year are caught during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. But that might be because more people are fishing.”
Kassube prefers a light-power ice rod with a spring bobber and 2- or 3-pound fluorocarbon line. He uses a fairly large tungsten jig with a #10 hook tipped with a soft-plastic tail or three spikes.
“These fish like a constant quivering presentation,” he said. “Jiggle the bait all the down the water column then keep quivering as you raise and lower the bait several inches. Don’t fish fish too close to the bottom, though — you’ll catch more fish 18 inches above bottom than six.”
Schmidt’s Landing in Big Stone City, S.D., https://www.schmidtslanding.com/, provides full-service lodging, while Artie’s Bait and Tackle in Ortinville, Minn., 320-839-2480, has up-to-date information on fishing and ice conditions. They also maintain plowed roads to a fleet of rental fish houses.
Mille Lacs Lake, Minn.
Nick Lindner, of Baxter, Minn., is the host of AnglingBuzz ICE, a new ice-fishing web series that launched in October. He’s traveled extensively across the upper Midwest and Canada in search of the finest ice-fishing opportunities.
“Central Minnesota is blessed with several trophy walleye factories,” Lindner said, “but I don’t think any of them can top Mille Lacs. The average size of the fish is incredible and the action is really good. Red Lake usually ices up first, allowing anglers to fish there at first ice then move to Mille Lacs when the Red Lake bite begins to wane.”
Lindner said that early ice almost always affords the best walleye fishing on clear-water lakes. His favorite period on Mille Lacs begins as soon as the ice is safe to traverse on a snowmobile or ATV through the first week of January.
“As soon as they can get out on main shoreline connected structures, anglers will catch fish,” he added. “But the first anglers able to reach the mudflats will have phenomenal fishing. Last year we caught lots of 22- to 27-inch fish on the mud during the early season.”
Lindner prefers to fish outside with a 36- to 40-inch rod paired with a small spinning reel loaded with 8-pound braided line attached to a 6-pound fluorocarbon leader with a barrel swivel. A jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head or a Jigging Rap are his go-to baits.
“Bright UV colors work well for Mille Lacs walleyes,” Lindner added. Especially UV pink — it can be insanely good. Let the fish dictate your presentation. Begin fishing aggressively then revert to a more subtle jigging routine if they don’t respond.”
Lindner said that do-it-yourself anglers should pay to use one of the ice roads maintained by a resort on the lake, but recommends newcomers hire a guide for their first trip or two. Information about guides, lodging and more can be found at https://millelacs.com/.
Detroit Lakes, Minn.
“This area has so many exceptional ice-fishing opportunities it’s difficult to narrow the list,” said Tony Mariotti, of Detroit Lakes, Minn. “Big Pine Lake is great for crappie and walleye, and there are hundreds of smaller hidden gems within 10 miles of Detroit Lakes. But if I were pressed for a favorite, it would be Lake Lida.”
Lake Lida has a special regulation that mandates the release of all crappies less than 11 inches long. That’s created a large population of 10 ¾-inch fish, but anglers also tangle with numbers of 11- to 13-inchers each winter.
Mariotti said early ice usually affords the best fishing on Lida and other area lakes. There already is safe ice on at least part of the lake this year, but he recommends waiting until there is at least six inches across the whole lake.
“My absolute favorite time of year is March until ice-out,” Mariotti said. “The fishing just seems to keep getting better the later it gets. If I can find weeds that are still green, I’m confident that I will find and catch quality panfish.”
Fish quantity can also be good, but Mariotti said anglers should have a strategy.
“Get away from the crowds, especially those that congregate near the Hillbillies Ice Hole Bar near the access,” Mariotti said. “Then keep moving to stay on the fish. I might find fish holding in 21 feet of water one day that are loaded in 16 feet the next.”
Mariotti favors a medium-power rod paired with a small spinning reel spooled with three- or four-pound-test monofilament line. Tungsten jigs tipped with soft-plastic tails account for most of his panfish each winter, but he will tip a jig with a wax worm if the fish won’t commit to plastic.
He doesn’t guide anymore, but Mariotti said he’s happy to steer anglers in the right direction for fishing and ice conditions, guides and lodging. Reach him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/tony.mariotti.7.
Chequamegon Bay, Lake Superior, Wis.
Barb Carey, of Oxford, Wis., is the co-host of the Woman Angler and Adventurer podcast, and has been teaching ice fishing classes to women for more than a decade. She’s organized events across much of the ice belt, but didn’t hesitate to name her favorite destination.
“Chequamegon Bay is one of the most unique fisheries I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “I’ve caught a dozen different fish species there in a single day. The bay offers big fish, numbers of fish and diverse habitat to accommodate a range of species.”
Regardless of what kind of fish she’s targeting, Carey said that spring is her favorite time to visit.
“I’ve had my best luck in March,” Carey added. “The days are longer and the fish are more active. Plus, the weather is warmer and anglers can fish outside instead of hunkered down in a portable shelter. That dramatically increases mobility.”
When targeting brown trout, splake and coho salmon, Carey prefers to fish current areas near the lighthouse. But when fishing for pike, walleye and smallmouth bass, she said the area known locally as Pamida Hump offers weeds, rocks and other traditional cover.
“I prefer a medium-light-power rod spooled with six- to 10-pound braided line,” Carey said. “Jigging spoons tipped with plastic tails or small minnow heads work for aggressive fish, but I don't hesitate to drop down to an over-sized panfish jig and a wax worm.”
For up-to-date information about fishing or ice conditions, call Angler’s All at 715-682-5754 or visit their website at http://www.anglersallwisconsin.com/. For lodging, Carey recommends The Crest Motel, 715-682-6603, for location, convenience and price.