The Whitefish Chain of Lakes, covering more than 14,000 acres of Crow Wing County, is made up of 13 water bodies dominated by Upper and Lower Whitefish, Big Trout, Rush, Cross, and Daggett lakes. A number of lakes in the present-day chain were not actually connected until the 1880s when the Pine River Dam on Cross Lake was completed. The dam caused water levels to rise, creating permanent channels that hadn’t before existed.
Today’s chain, consequently, is a vastly diverse system that’s rich in structure and cover and supports a wealth of gamefish and forage species. The abundance of fish in the system draws multi-species anglers to the chain during all seasons of the year, while its vast expanses of open water, countless small secluded coves, and overall scenic beauty attract thousands of recreational boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Tony Roach is a highly respected outdoor communicator, a tournament angler, the well-known and trusted owner of Roach’s Guide Service, and a member of the Northland Team of professional anglers. What’s more, he’s fished the Whitefish Chain since he was a youngster, and has covered much of its waters in pursuit of bass, walleyes, panfish, and lake trout.
“The thing about Whitefish is that it’s so big and diverse; it’s filled with good structure and plenty of cover,” he says. “It just offers a lot of great opportunities for anglers of all types. In fact, there are so many productive areas, you can’t highlight them all. My advice is to take the information offered about a particular area and use it to explore other parts of the chain.”
1. Winter fishing for several species on the Whitefish Chain can be spectacular, but it also requires anglers to use a heavy dose of common sense. “There are a fair number of springs in the lake, and many, many narrow channel areas,” says Roach. “Moving water means thinner, often dangerous, ice, so stay on the roads and marked trails when you’re traveling, and when you do branch off to get to a fishing spot, be cautious and careful. If you haven’t fished here before, it’s a good idea to go with someone who knows the lake well.”
Big Trout Lake on the Whitefish Chain is one of the few places where lake trout are available outside the state’s far-north region. “It holds decent numbers of fish, and you don’t have to go very far from the access on the lake’s east end to get to them,” the angler says. “Just a few hundred yards straight out from the access you get to that 100-foot zone; you can find lake trout in the deep, open water, but I like to fish them along the edges, and over points and humps—places that offer some structure they can relate to.”
He suggests rigging a soft plastic tube bait or Paddle Minnow onto a 3/8- or ½-ounce ball head jig, or tying on a Mimic Minnow in white, pink, or chartreuse and aggressively jigging top to bottom. “Don’t automatically focus on the bottom,” says Roach. “Even in 100 feet of water, lake trout might be cruising just 15 feet under the ice. I like to start high, jigging the bait, then letting it fall and jigging some more, then letting it fall again. Always keep the lure moving and keep an eye on your sonar screen. They can show up anywhere in the water column.”
The best fishing usually occurs early in the morning. “I like to get out there at 4 or 5 a.m. and fish until 10 or 11,” he says.
To catch walleyes and pike—and the occasional bass—through the winter, the angler recommends concentrating on edges, points, and humps, especially those that feature some weeds on a rocky or sandy bottom. “There are so many places you can do this—just about any shoreline point or mid-lake hump is likely to hold fish, and you usually don’t have to go very far offshore to find them.”
As a starting point, he suggests trying the prominent point on the south end of Bertha Lake, generally in the 15- to 20-foot range but moving shallower as evening approaches. His is a two-pronged approach. “Throughout the chain, water is fairly clear, so walleye action definitely leans toward the low-light morning and evening periods,” he says. “I like to fish one deadstick rod with a live shiner under a Lite-Bite Ice Float and a jigging stick with a Buck-Shot Rattle or Flutter spoon tipped with a minnow head or a small soft plastic. Stick with the more natural colors—silver, gold, or a perch pattern. The spoon draws fish in, and a walleye that, for some reason, doesn’t respond to the lure often ends up attacking the live bait.”
Another approach is to target shallow flats close to deep water and intercept walleyes as they move in to feed, he adds.
Hard-water panfish anglers should gravitate toward back bays and other shallow-water areas, always remaining wary of moving water and thin ice in these zones, according to the angler. Many of the pint-size jigs and spoons will catch these fish, but to add swimming action to your presentation, try a Bro Bling Jig tipped with a waxworm, or a Forage Minnow Jig, and Impulse Water Flea.
2. The Whitefish Chain has a reputation for producing quality panfish, and secluded back bays are excellent places to find them right after ice-out. “There is an abundance of these little coves throughout the chain,” Roach says, “and because there are so many, a lot of excellent panfishing gets overlooked.”
Moonlight Bay on the north end of Cross Lake is a good place to start, but again don’t hesitate to explore similar areas wherever you find them. Bluegills and crappies can be up in as little as 2 feet of water when it’s sunny and calm; if it’s cooler or overcast they tend to move a bit deeper, or to the breakline just outside the bay itself. “Just don’t decide they’ve moved if you can’t locate them right away,” Roach says. “If the bay has a dark bottom, especially if there’s vegetation or wood that holds heat, they’ll be there. You just have to find them.”
Make a stealthy approach, using the electric motor instead of the outboard, and keep boat noise to a minimum. Then fan cast the area with an Impulse® Bloodworm, or a Bling Jig or Mud Bug and waxworm under a float. “Bring it back to the boat on a slow retrieve,” explains Roach. “When you locate a pocket of fish, you can zero in—but approach quietly.”
Walleye fishing on the chain is at its best from opening weekend in May through Memorial Day, according to Roach. Partly because the fish are abundant and generally active, partly because aquatic weeds have yet to develop, and partly because the holiday weekend marks the beginning of the recreational boating season.
Roach recommends early-season walleye anglers focus on flowing water. “You’ll find fish in, and along the breaklines just outside, nearly any narrows, channel or tributary where there’s moving water,” he says, “and there’s nothing complicated about the fishing style.”
Roach keeps things simple by pitching a 1/8-ounce Whistler or Fire-Ball® jig-and-shiner into shallow water and working it down the break—generally going from about 6 to 14 feet deep. “You can troll and drag the jig, or snap it,” he says, “but I prefer pitching because it keeps the lure away from the boat.”
Another option is to work a Roach Rig (1/8- to ¼-ounce Walker Sinker and shiner-baited hook) along the edges. “Just make sure to keep things quiet so you don’t spook the fish.”
Though Roach says, “this time of year, you can choose any channel and just start fishing,” solid jumping-off spots are the channels leading from Cross Lake to Rush and Daggett lakes.
3. Water clarity in the chain means that vegetation is pretty well established by early June and many of the system’s walleyes, pike, and bass start relating to the weeds in which they’ll spend the entire summer. “There’s no one particular spot that stands out above the rest,” says Roach. “Anywhere there’s a good weedline, you’ll find fish in the summer.”
The quickest way to connect with a walleye, bass, or northern pike is to cover water with a white 3/8-ounce Reed-Runner® Spinnerbait. “They’ll all be in the weeds,” he says, “and by power fishing a spinnerbait you’re as likely to catch a walleye as you would a pike or bass.”
If you prefer to target walleyes, stick with power fishing, but tie a 3/8-ounce Slurp® Jig and Impulse® Paddle Minnow onto a braided mainline and fluorocarbon leader. “Pitch it and work it fast—rip it and let it fall. You can cover a lot of ground, and the braided line lets you easily rip through weeds.”
While mid-lake humps can be productive for walleyes in the summer, targeting fish in the weeds often produces more consistent success. As the season progresses, however, fish often slide toward the deeper weedlines that emerge, so adjust your fishing accordingly. And wherever you fish in the summer, Roach advises going out during the week or in the early mornings on weekends, “to avoid the heaviest boating, water ski, and jet ski traffic.”
4. After Labor Day recreational boat traffic dies down again, and the fishing action heats up. Walleyes, which have spent the warm months in the vegetation, begin to move outside the weedlines as plants start to die off. The angler advises pulling a big creek chub on a Roach Rig, or ripping a 4-inch Impulse® Smelt Minnow, along the edges.
“Bass fishing gets really exciting in September and October, too,” says Roach. “The fish are fairly shallow and always seem to be biting.” While there are plenty of spots where you can catch largemouths, Little Pine Lake just northeast of Daggett Lake is a solid option to begin your fishing.
“There are a lot of ways to catch these fish,” says Roach. “You can pitch a Jungle Jig® tipped with a soft-plastic chunk bait along standing cabbage, or work an Impulse Smelt Minnow or soft plastic worm through any type of vegetation available—rice, bulrushes, lily pads,” he says, “but one of the most exciting, of course, is to throw topwaters—a hollow-body frog or popper.”
Lake maps courtesy of Navionics. For more information, visit: Navionics.com
Size: 14,000+ acres
Max Depth: 138 feet
Shoreline: 115 miles
Species Present: Walleyes, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Black Crappies, Bluegills, Lake Trout, Sunfish, Northern Pike, Yellow Perch, Rock Bass, Black Bullheads, Burbot, Bowfin, Redhorse, Suckers, Various Minnows, Shiners, and Chubs.