Meet Minnesota's Fish

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A misty Ely morning on the water  / Joe Baumann
Fishing // Article

Meet Minnesota's Fish

Minnesota’s great fishing starts with its many diverse bodies of water. The moniker “Land of 10,000 Lakes” only hints at that variety. In fact, the state has more shoreline than California, Florida and Hawaii combined, and consistently ranks as one of America’s top inland fishing destinations.

America’s greatest river, the mighty Mississippi, is only one of many, along with the Minnesota, St. Croix and Red River of the North, where anglers can reel in huge catfish or northern pike, smallmouth bass, walleye, panfish and more than 100 lesser-known species.

Walleye illustration

Walleye Family

The walleye is Minnesota’s state fish, and for good reason. They grow big and fight hard in lakes throughout Minnesota, and they make some tasty eating. Anglers catch walleyes in lots of ways—casting from a canoe in the northern wilderness, trolling live-bait rigs or crankbaits on weed lines and rocky reefs, bouncing jigs along the bottom of a swift-flowing river. If you don’t have a boat, rent a spot on a commercial launch and have a party catching walleyes with other anglers. Minnesota’s walleyes average one to three pounds, but sometimes exceed 10.

Bluegill illustration


Some of Minnesota’s smallest fish win the greatest devotion. There are anglers who like nothing better than to search deep weed lines and tiny woodland ponds to catch “bull” bluegills. Others spend the evenings searching a big lake for elusive one-pound crappies. Sunfish and crappies live in most Minnesota lakes.

Some of the state’s largest lakes, known best for big walleyes, offer a surprise—jumbo yellow perch, some weighing more than a pound. When perch get that big, there’s nothing finer in the pan—and that includes their big cousin, the walleye!

Flathead Catfish illustration

Catfish and Bullheads

Minnesota’s catfish include some monsters. Flathead cats of the state’s slow-moving southern rivers sometimes exceed 50 pounds. There’s a lot of pull in a fish that big. Channel cats can grow bigger than 20 pounds and show up in some surprising places, including the Red River of the North along the state’s northwest border.

Brown Bullhead illustration

You’ll find bullheads, the smaller cousins to catfish, in lakes throughout central and southern Minnesota—great sport for kids and even better for the frying pan.

Northern Pike illustration

Muskellunge and Northern Pike

When a big northern pike or muskie slams into your bucktail like a Mack truck, your heart leaps, your pulse rises, your hands shake. The big size, sharp teeth and lightning strike of these ferocious fish have that effect on an angler. They may be the most exciting of Minnesota’s really big fish.

Northern pike are one of the most widespread fish in the state. You’ll find them all over, from the backwaters of the Mississippi to the wilderness lakes of canoe country. Anglers catch them on both live bait and artificial lures, by casting and trolling. They also make for great sport on a fly rod.

Muskellunge illustration

Minnesota muskies are bigger and more widespread than ever, thanks to successful stocking programs that have introduced them to new lakes. A widespread catch-and-release effort lets them grow big—sometimes over 50 pounds.

Chinook Salmon illustration

Trout and Salmon

Whether rising through the crystalline current of a stream to sip a dry fly, or leaping across the blue expanse of Lake Superior, trout and salmon are pictures of grace and power. They live in some of the most beautiful water imaginable. Rainbow, brook and brown trout swim in the riffling woodland creeks of southeastern Minnesota’s bluff country, and in the tumultuous streams of Lake Superior’s North Shore.

Brook Trout illustration

Trollers find lake trout, chinook and coho salmon in the cold waters of Superior itself. A brilliantly colored trophy “brookie” from a cold stream may measure only a foot, while a mature chinook from the big lake can easily push 20 pounds.

Largemouth Bass illustration

Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass

In the land of 10,000 lakes, how many have bass? So many that nearly 100 are named Bass Lake. You won’t catch a world record largemouth in Minnesota, but you can catch lots of the size that real anglers catch. Head out in a tricked-out bass boat and work the weed lines with plastic worms. Run spinnerbaits through the shallows, or row a boat along the lily pads and throw topwater plugs.

With so much focus on walleye, some people would say Minnesota lakes are underfished for bass. And a strong ethic of catch-and-release fishing has helped protect lots of fish in the two- to six-pound range.

Smallmouth Bass illustration

Smallmouth bass are known for jolting strikes and spirited leaps. You’ll find no harder-fighting fish in freshwater. In Minnesota you’ll find many places and ways to catch them—running crankbaits over rocky reefs on a big lake, drifting baited jigs through a pool in a big river, or fly-fishing with poppers while wading knee-deep in a rocky stream.

Plenty of lakes and rivers produce smallies up to five pounds. In some of these waters, you can spend the day without seeing another person. Fishing seems only to be getting better, because smallmouth anglers are a special breed who recognize that this fish is a resource worth protecting through catch and release.