By Erik Osberg
When the subject of ice fishing in Minnesota comes up, the walleye is certain to come up as well. Rightfully so; the walleye is the state fish after all. But if you judge the success of your day on the ice by how many walleyes you catch, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment, especially if you are new to the sport. Walleyes can be finicky, moody and downright hard to find. That doesn't mean you shouldn't fish for walleyes, it just means you should be ready to adapt.
There are many lakes in central Minnesota that are known for kicking out the oft sought-after species. The Brainerd Lakes Area is a good place to start. If you do your homework, and get on the right bite, you can reap the rewards. That being said, there are many other species you can target in the winter, and they just might be a little more cooperative than the walleye.
Pick a lake, any lake, and you can bet there are panfish in that body of water. Panfish come in many shapes and sizes. There's bluegills, pumpkin seeds, hybrids and crappies. While they may not get as large as walleyes, pound for pound, they put up a great fight. Plus, if you are looking for a meal, there's nothing quite as tasty as a plate of freshly fried panfish (hence the name).
When it comes to gear, think small. Use jigs ranging from 1/8-1/32 ounces, itty bitty tiny wax worms or plastics, and very small bobbers (or no bobber at all). Super sensitive and light rods with very light line (4-pound test) will help you detect those subtle bites. Stop at any local bait shop and they will be happy to help you get all you need, plus they might have a hot tip to share.
In terms of where you should fish, there are some spots in the state that will up your odds for finding both quality and quantity. Otter Tail County has over 1,000 lakes within its borders. That means nearly 10% of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes are packed into one county, and they are loaded with panfish. Go to the Minnesota DNR website, and you can look at data that will point you in the right direction. With so many lakes in such a small area, you could change lakes daily during a visit to the area.
One species that always seems to cooperate no matter what the conditions is pike. Like panfish, they live in almost every lake. Pike are aggressive, fun to catch, and surprisingly great tasting. The other good news is you can set out a tip-up to see if you can catch one while you are targeting a different species or playing cards in the fish house.
For gear, bigger is better. Longer rods (up to 40 inches), heavy line and sucker minnows up to 10 inches are common when searching for the toothy critters. Trophy pike can be had not too far from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Mille Lacs Lake is just 98 miles north of downtown Minneapolis, and has trophy-caliber pike.
Fishing for species other than walleyes makes sense on a number of levels. It’s a great way to keep the kids entertained during those slow days, the resource is plentiful, and they make for a great meal. If you go, please use selective harvesting. Our lakes need those bigger fish in the system to ensure quality fishing for generations to come.
As always, make sure to check the Minnesota DNR regulations to make sure you know the rules, and share your adventure by using the hashtag #OnlyinMN on social media.