Fish the Legendary Waters of Northwest Minnesota

By C.B. Bylander

Anglers who want to explore Minnesota’s largest lakes or simply fish off the end of a dock will find happiness in northwest Minnesota.  

That’s because this region offers an amazing breadth of fishing experiences. At one end is legendary Lake of the Woods, a body so big it covers 307,010 acres in Minnesota and another 643,390 acres in Canada. At the other end is the small lake experience—a cozy cabin on a little lake where panfish and bass are under the dock or never far away. In between these options, of course, are the many medium-sized fishing lakes that offer plenty of elbow room but don’t feel daunting.

Many of the state’s most noted walleye lakes are in northwest Minnesota. Among them are Leech Lake at Walker, Winnibigoshish east of Bemidji, Upper Red Lake at Washkish and Kelliher, and Cass Lake at its namesake, Cass Lake.

Collectively, these and Lake of the Woods provide hundreds of thousands of acres of prime water for fishing walleye, northern pike, bass, perch and other species. This part of the state is known for trophy-sized walleye and muskellunge. It is also known as the “go to” destination for the state’s largest fish species, the lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon in the 100-pound range have been caught and released in recent years on the state’s northern border waters.    

Man holds 61-inch lake sturgeon

Monster lake sturgeon can be found in the Rainy River near the Canadian border / Darren Troseth

Fishing vacations in northwest Minnesota are easy. The highways are good. The lakes many. So too are the number first-class resorts, campgrounds and motels. Today’s year-round resorts feature modern conveniences plus a variety of full-service options. These include guide services, boat-and-motor rentals, ice fishing house rentals and full-menu resort restaurants. Popular destinations include Walker, Longville, Bemidji, Baudette, Warroad, Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids and the Northwest Angle.    

What follows is helpful advice for those planning to wet a line in the northwest.

float plane over oak island and lake of the woods

A float plane flies over Oak Island in Lake of the Woods

Big Waters

Northwest Minnesota is the land of big lakes. In fact, the near million-acre Lake of the Woods is a bucket-list destination for many who want to experience a vastness rarely found in the nation’s inland waters. Imagine, if you can, 15 million tennis courts. That is the approximate size of Lake of the Woods.

Other big lakes include Upper and Lower Red Lakes, the largest water body totally within the state’s borders; Leech Lake, the state’s second-largest inland lake; Winnibigoshish Lake, the state’s third-largest inland lake; and Cass Lake, the fourth-largest lake. All are popular walleye and northern pike fishing destinations. All have resorts and campgrounds, and are popular year-round destinations.      

Boy holding a giant muskie on Lake of the Woods

A giant muskie on Lake of the Woods

Big Fish

Northwest Minnesota provides trophy opportunities for walleye, northern pike, muskellunge, lake sturgeon, channel catfish and other species. Leech Lake long has been known as a trophy muskellunge lake, and in recent years one of the state’s best walleye-producing lakes. Winnibigoshish (referred to locally as Winnie) is a popular walleye lake in summer and an equally popular perch fishing destination in winter.

Upper Red Lake is known for large northern pike, and regulations aim to keep it that way. Small northern pike and the rare and exceptionally large pike may be harvested, but those in the mid-20-inch range to the mid-40-inch range must be immediately released.     

The Red River at sunrise in East Grand Forks

A serene scene on the Red River in East Grand Forks

River Fishing

Some of northwest Minnesota’s largest fish are caught in river systems. The Rainy River is among the best. This is an 85-mile ribbon of water that flows across the top of the state and separates the United States from Canada. Angling for Rainy River walleye is particularly good in March and early April when winter’s ice retreats and boat traffic returns.

The Rainy River also is the state’s “go to” destination for springtime lake sturgeon fishing. Over the past decade sturgeon fishing has become a new angling tradition now that a decades-long sturgeon recovery effort has truly taken hold. Sturgeon anglers often catch several of these prehistoric-looking fish a day and the catching and releasing of 30-, 40- and 50-pound fish are increasingly common.

The Red River of the North is another popular angling destination. It is one of the best channel catfish fisheries in North America. The Red River flows north along the border of North Dakota and Minnesota and into Manitoba. Fifteen-pound catfish are not uncommon in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Catfish exceeding 20 pounds are caught in the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks area. The Red Lake River, accessible from Thief River Falls, is home to walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass and crappie.

Women shopping in downtown Park Rapids

Find what you're looking for in the shops along Main Avenue in downtown Park Rapids / Micah Kvidt

Cool Communities

Northwest Minnesota is home to many communities that are fun to visit before or after a day’s fishing. Park Rapids, for example, and nearby Itasca State Park, home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, are clearly worth a visit. The tiny town of Walker offers great shopping and food. Walker is home to Reed’s Sport Shop, a sprawling store whose staff knows fish and fishing like few others. Longville and Hackensack are great places to get a bite to eat for those staying south of Leech Lake.

Bigger cities, including Bemidji, Moorhead, Detroit Lakes, East Grand Forks and Crookston, all have assets to enjoy. Lake Bemidji in the heart of Bemidji is an outstanding fishing lake, especially for muskellunge.

The Seven Clans Casino and Hotel

Stay and play at the Seven Clans Casino and Hotel in Thief River Falls

Great Lodging

The northwest region is home to many different lodging options. These range from full-service resorts that offer food and fishing services to rustic “get-away-from-it-all” cabins on remote islands. Most northwest destination communities have hotels with a full range of amenities, and some have cozy inns and bed-and-breakfasts.

The Rainy River northwest of Baudette is home to a number of storied resorts that have full-service restaurants. Those who fish the Red River can find deluxe lodging in river towns, as well.

C.B. Bylander

C.B. Bylander is a hunter, angler and outdoor enthusiast. He lives on a small lake in Crow Wing County. Now retired, he spent much of his career working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.