This legendary body of water that’s an easy drive from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area enjoys a reputation that spreads far beyond state borders. Known first as a “walleye factory,” the lake is a bucket-list destination for anglers who want to experience walleye fishing at its finest. More recently, it gained acclaim as one of the best smallmouth bass lakes in the country—and thus the big lake now also attracts a different sort of angler from far and wide.
Covering 120,000-plus surface acres, Mille Lacs is relatively shallow. It’s also absolutely rich in a diverse array of structure and cover—rocks, mudflats, weedlines, points, submerged humps, and more. Historically, its abundant insect life and baitfish form a strong base upon which the entire food chain rests.
With such notoriety, however, comes increased fishing pressure—along with the desire to protect this fabulous resource for generations to come. As a result, the fishery has become one of the most studied and highly regulated in America. The possession limit for walleyes, for example, is currently 1 fish inclusively measuring from 19 to 21 inches long, or greater than 28 inches long. All others must be released immediately, and culling the catch is prohibited.
In addition, possession and slot limits often change from year-to-year, and at times even during the open season. So, if you come to Mille Lacs, be sure you are up-to-speed with the latest regulations.
Despite the strict rules, or perhaps because of them, Mille Lacs remains at or near the top of the list of premier sportfishing destinations. Team Northland member, and the man behind Roach’s Guide Service, Tony Roach has spent as many days studying and fishing the lake as any angler alive today. And though he’s among the 1 percent of anglers who know Mille Lacs like a favorite book, he says its sheer size and tremendous scope make it difficult to forecast a “guaranteed” bite at any particular time or place.
“The lake is so huge, and offers so much in the way of structure and cover, it’s impossible to say, ‘go here and do this and you’ll catch them,’” he says, “but the old saying is true, ‘somewhere on Mille Lacs, the fish are always biting.’”
That said; here’s his take on fishing Mille Lacs through the seasons. It’s sure to give any angler a solid foothold from which to launch a fishing trip.
1. Walleye fishing during the early-ice period can be absolutely fantastic, according to Roach, but because of the lake’s immense size, ice-up generally occurs a week or so later than it does on other bodies of water.
“Still,” he says, “you can find walleye almost anywhere in the lake at this time. Not only is the mid-lake structure going; you can find walleyes in extremely shallow water, too. It’s fun to fish in that 10- to 12-foot range early because you catch a lot of big walleyes. The fish use structure much as they did in the late fall, frequenting shallow-water spots even during daytime hours. And unlike a lot of lakes where it’s hard to buy a walleye outside the peak low-light periods, on Mille Lacs you can generally catch them all day long, depending on the day.”
The structure that produces early-winter walleyes is so abundant on Mille Lacs that it’s difficult to pin down one or two hotspots, according to Roach. He recommends focusing on points, humps and drop-offs associated with the shoreline wherever you find them. On the south end, a good place to start is The Graveyard, a prominent gravel point that attracts numbers of fish. “We usually set up on a point or drop-off early in the day, then drill our way along with the breaks, starting at the top edges and zig-zagging along the edge. We call it ‘ice trolling,’ and it’s amazing the number of fish you can pick up along the way. Toward evening we return to the point—the spot-on-the-spot type of area.”
Mid-lake humps such as 4- and 5-Mile Gravel and Sloppy Joes are other options and can be accessed from the south shoreline when the ice is thick enough to support traffic. On the east side, try Big Point and from the northeast, try the breakline in front of Myr Mar Marina, he says. But don’t limit yourself to these areas; if the action is too slow for your liking, move to a similar structure elsewhere on the lake.
Get assertive with early-ice walleyes; try jigging a Macho Minnow® or a Buck-Shot® Flutter Spoon tipped with a minnow head. “The Macho Minnow falls differently than other spoons, and has that kicker tail, and the Flutter Spoon is just a very active lure,” he says. “I like to fish them high in the water column and jig aggressively that time of year.”
From mid-winter on, fishing action centers on secondary breaklines and offshore structure, he says, such as the mudflats in the northeast quadrant as well as flats closer to the east shoreline. But the key at this time is to tone down the presentation a bit. “Now’s when I fish a Buck-Shot® Rattle or a Forage Minnow® spoon almost exclusively,” he says. “You tie directly to these lures; there are no split rings that allow extra action. Plus, they fish ‘heavy.’ What I mean is that they sit more vertically in the water, and when you jig them they look more like how an invertebrate would appear. If necessary, you can also drop them into the silt to trigger strikes from those mid-winter walleyes.”
Again, drill holes and look for fish during the day. But early or late, when you’re set up on a prime spot, Roach recommends dropping a second deadstick line with a Forage Minnow® Jig baited with a whole minnow. The jigging spoon may draw in curious walleyes, but the deadstick bait often closes the deal.
Yellow perch in Mille Lacs grow fat and healthy on the lake’s abundant insect life. And though numbers are down from what they have been in recent years, the guide says that quality is still above average. It’s safe to say, however, that most perch are caught incidentally by anglers targeting walleyes. That’s because they’re notorious roamers and pinning them down can be challenging.
“My best advice for perch fishermen is to look for transition zones—secondary breaklines coming off shorelines or gravel bars—areas you can find bug activity in the winter,” he says. “Where you find that sandy silt—where it goes from sand to mud—is where you find the biggest numbers of perch in the winter. Although it sounds easy, there are literally hundreds of miles of transition lines on Mille Lacs. But…that’s where you find the fish.”
When searching for yellow perch, Roach recommends, using a 1/16-ounce Forage® Minnow Spoon with one or two waxworms or Eurolarvae on each hook point. “Once you find them, you can go with something like a Bro’s Bling Jig, Mud Bug, or any of the small jig designs tipped with an Impulse® soft plastic bait,” he says. “I really like the Impulse Rigged Bloodworm and Impulse Rigged Mayfly in a natural color. Those are my personal go-to baits, but others work, too.”
2. Open-water angling on Mille Lacs kicks off in May, with many fishermen opting to drag, drift or still-fish live bait from the opener all through the warm season. Roach, however, prefers a more assertive approach. “A lot of anglers like to pull a Roach Rig with a leech or a minnow, and that’s just fine; they can catch walleyes doing that,” he says. “I like to seek out more aggressive strikes with a jig-and-spottail shiner, and the shallow bite is absolutely electric this time of year.”
He recommends tying on a 1/8-ounce Fire-Ball®, Fire-Ball® Spin or Thumper® jig tipped with a shiner and probing rocky shorelines, points or humps, he says. “You can definitely catch fish using other techniques,” he says, “but the truth is that you can work a piece of structure quickly and effectively, if not more effectively, by pitching a jig.”
Three Mile Reef and the prominent points of Agate Bay on the east side, as well as Indian and Sherman’s points on the west side are examples of the type of territory he’s talking about, but in reality, Mille Lacs is full of prime underwater real estate that holds early-season ’eyes. Let your electronic chart be your guide.
When water surface temps get to 55 degrees, things start to change, explains Roach. Walleyes begin to shift away from the shallows and toward secondary breaklines and structures. It’s also when the angler shifts from natural bait to soft plastics on his jig heads.
“This is when I go almost exclusively to an Impulse® Paddle Minnow on a Thumper® or Slurp!® jig—on rocks, weedlines, even sand,” he says. “Move along the edge with the trolling motor and pitch the jig up. Let it hit bottom and rip it; let it hit bottom and rip it—work it like that.
“There are so many opportunities to catch walleyes using fast-action techniques such as ripping a jig-and-plastic combo throughout the year,” he adds. “Yes, you can anchor up near a rock pile with a bobber rig and catch fish, but there are a lot of times when walleye anglers would do better by fishing faster.”
Anglers can begin targeting smallmouths on the mid-May opener, as well, though only on a catch-and-release basis through the end of the month. “If I had to choose to fish just one lure for smallmouths on Mille Lacs,” says Roach, “it would be a tube bait, it has just the right size and profile, and you can rig and fish it different ways. It’s just very versatile.”
Casting and retrieving a swimbait is another way to go, and tends to attract the largest fish in an area. “Put a Paddle Minnow on a Slurp! Jig and slow-roll it along the bottom of a shallow rock pile,” he says. “Or, if you’re in deeper water, pitch it and let it pendulum toward the bottom. Start reeling slowly as it falls. It’s an outstanding big-fish technique.”
Smallmouths love rocks, and Mille Lacs has no shortage of this type of cover. The entire south end of the lake features a seemingly endless string of rock piles and is a natural target for many anglers. But Roach encourages you to explore other parts of the lake as well. Vineland Bay and other spots along the western shoreline, for example, can be extremely productive. But so can many, many other areas. Invest time in studying your map and exploring new territory.
In June the walleye action tends to shift from secondary structures to Mille Lacs’ many main-lake mudflats and gravel bars, where trolling live-bait rigs or bottom bouncers and ’crawler harnesses becomes the standard operating procedure. By late July walleyes tend to slide off the flats and bars and relate more to the basins during daylight hours, then filter back closer to the structure in the evening. Catching fish at midday often means trolling stickbaits or spinner rigs on a lead-core line for suspended walleyes, or fish holding deep.
At the same time, Roach urges anglers not to abandon rocks and weedlines entirely. “There are some really great weedlines on Mille Lacs where pitching a jig will work all summer,” he says. “And if the wind has been blowing across a rock pile for a few days, try dropping the trolling motor and working along the edge. Pitch a Paddle Minnow up on the pile, let it fall to the bottom, and give it a rip. Let it fall and rip it again—all the way to the boat. It’s really fun and exciting, and you can catch a lot of walleye versus that live-bait style of fishing.”
This is especially true in August when conditions are right for crayfish to begin molting. “This period is often overlooked,” says Roach, “because when it’s hot, people tend to think about going deeper. But now you can find walleyes on shallow rock piles feeding on crayfish, even during the day in bright sunshine.”
Casting crayfish imitating crankbaits and dragging a tube bait over the rocks are tried-and-true methods.
Late summer is also the time to search for smallmouth on deep, isolated structures, he explains. The typical rockpiles will still produce, but boulder-sized rocks—singles, pairs, or small groups—are sure to hold big fish now. The trouble is; you won’t find them on any lake map and only a blood relative might—emphasis on might—give up the location of a known hotspot like this.
If your sonar search does reveal one of these treasures, save the waypoint and keep it to yourself. Then, Roach recommends, break out a Swivel-Head Jig and 3-inch Smelt Minnow and work it around the boulder(s). Follow that up with a Smelt Minnow on a drop-shot rig, with the hook point running into the chin and out the nose. “You don’t have to do much; just pitch it and hold the bait still,” he says. Water movement will give the bait enough action to attract a smallie’s attention.
3. Things run full-circle as late summer morphs into fall, the angler explains. Walleyes first tend to move back toward secondary breaklines where Roach again targets them with jigs and soft plastics. Later in the fall he recommends going back to a Fire-Ball® for Fire-Ball® Spin jig tipped with a minnow.
“Pitch it to the edges of weedlines that still exist, or back on the shallow rock piles,” he says. “Walleyes really start to show up on those rocks to feed in late fall. Just remember to slow the presentation. Fish them as you did in the early spring.”
Lake maps courtesy of Navionics. For more information, visit: Navionics.com
Size: 128,226 acres
Max Depth: 42 feet
Ave Depth: 28.5 feet
Shoreline: 92 miles
Species Present: Walleyes, Yellow Perch, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, Muskellunge, Northern Pike, Black Crappies, Bluegills, Sunfish, Pumpkinseeds, Rock Bass, Black Bullheads, Bowfin, Burbot, Tullibees, White Suckers, Shorthead Redhorse, Common Carp, various minnows, shiners and darters.