Lunker Season: Why Fall Is the Best Time of Year to Catch Trophy-Sized Fish

By Joe Albert

Fall trout fishing in mine lake on iron rangeThe end of the fishing season for many Minnesotans coincides with the long Labor Day weekend. They take out the docks, put their boats into storage, and stow away their rods and reels until the following spring. But for those looking to catch some of the biggest fish Minnesota has to offer, fall fishing is second to none.

Whether anglers want to pursue bass, muskies, northern pike or walleyes in one of the state’s thousands of fishable waters, or monster catfish in the flowing water of a river, the opportunity for the average fisherman to catch a lunker is never better than during the final months of the open-water season.

“In the summer, a lot of those larger fish just are not accessible and anglers don’t see them because they’re down in cooler water near the thermocline, or they are (in the middle of the water column) feeding on forage like tullibees,” said Henry Drewes, regional fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. “As the water temperatures start to cool down in the fall, those fish aren’t limited to those deeper, main lake areas and they get really active. They’re moving back toward the shorelines and they are feeding voraciously (in preparation for the winter). Just the odds of encountering a larger fish are better in the fall.”

Generally speaking, anglers who want to catch a trophy in the fall should tie on large lures or use big bait. One reason is that natural forage has been growing all summer, so predatory fish are used to seeing large forage. Another is that fish want to eat a big meal without expending a lot of energy.

Following are some lakes and rivers around the state where fishermen can expect some fantastic fishing in the fall.

Northeast

Near Tower, 39,300-acre Lake Vermilion provides good fishing for a wide variety of species, including bass, crappies, muskies and walleyes. Just west of Grand Rapids, Lake Winnibigoshish and its 56,500 acres of water produce excellent fishing for jumbo perch in the fall. Anglers who want a shot at a trophy walleye should troll shallow-running crankbaits in the shallows after dark.

Northwest

At more than 764,000 acres, Lake of the Woods along the Canadian border is a massive body of water. It’s also a great bet for anglers who want to catch northern pike that measure 40 inches or longer. Look for such fish in the lake’s bays around rocks and thinning beds of vegetation.

When it comes to big walleyes in the fall, the Rainy River is a great place to catch them. Those fish leave Lake of the Woods and move into the Rainy River to feed on minnows, Drewes said. “Those walleyes really do go on a strong feeding binge in the fall,” he said.

Possible world-record muskie taken from Lake Mille Lacs on a fly rod; photo courtesy of Robert Hawkins, Gabe Schubert & Ben Olsen
57-inch muskie taken from Lake Mille Lacs in November 2015;
photo courtesy of Robert Hawkins, Gabe Schubert & Ben Olsen

Central

During the 2016 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship, many of the world’s top bass fishermen deemed 128,000-acre Lake Mille Lacs as the world’s best for bass, with Bassmaster officially declaring it No. 1 in this year’s rankings. The winner of that tournament, Minnesota’s own Seth Feider—who caught 15 smallmouth bass that averaged more than 5 pounds apiece—says fall is the best time to catch the biggest of the lake’s smallmouth bass. The tournament returns to Mille Lacs Sept. 14-17.

Mille Lacs also is among the state’s premier destinations for fall muskie fishing, and in recent years fall anglers have boated muskies that weighed more than 50 pounds. Just north of Alexandria, 5,700-acre Lake Miltona also boasts excellent muskie and walleye fishing in the fall.

Minneapolis-St. Paul Area

Oddly enough, some of the state’s most overlooked opportunities to catch a trophy fish occur in the Twin Cities metro area. In places such as the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, anglers routinely catch giant channel and flathead catfish in the fall around log jams and holes. Doing so doesn’t require a boat, either.

The 14,200-acre Lake Minnetonka is a good fall option, too, especially for anglers who want to tie into big largemouth bass, which can be caught around thinning vegetation and underneath the lake’s numerous boat docks.

Southern

The driftless area of southeast Minnesota is home to dozens of trout streams and creeks where fishermen can catch brook, brown and rainbow trout. The colorful fish spawn in the fall and are especially active. On the other side of the region, 12,000-acre Big Stone Lake near Ortonville is a fine option for fall anglers who want good multi-species fishing. The lake is especially well known for its excellent yellow perch and walleye fishing in the fall.