Minnesota has arguably the best ice fishing in the country. After all, it is the land of 10,000 lakes, and the state is freezing in the winter.
Ice fishing is the perfect way for anglers to get out on the water and explore areas usually only accessible by boat.
Pike, perch, walleye, and lake trout await the intrepid angler. The call of the hard deck is strong, and you know you need to be out there! The problem is there are so many lakes to choose from when planning your trip that it can be overwhelming.
Several lakes stand above the others for their accessibility, amenities, and epic fishing. Read on for a list of the top lakes and what gear you’ll need to hit the ice this winter.
Gear for Ice Fishing in Minnesota
In its simplest form, ice-fishing involves chopping a hole in the ice and dropping some bait to the fish waiting below.
You can get as technical as you’d like, but we’ll cover the basics of what you need to be safe and successful while fishing on the ice.
First, you’ll need the right clothes. Believe it or not, it gets bitter cold out on the ice. Dress accordingly and in several layers.
This is a must for safety. There are simple ice picks that you run through the sleeves of your coat. Use them.
It’s hard to tell fishing stories around the fire from the bottom of a frozen lake.
This is a necessity. Bring one of three things: an auger, a friend with an auger, or a few six-packs to bribe other anglers into loaning you theirs. It’s hard to get through the ice without one.
There are specific rods for ice fishing. The cold, harsh conditions call for special line as well. The line and reel must be ready for the type of fish you’re targeting. Don’t go too heavy or too light for the situation.
A scoop will help keep the hole clear of ice and stop it from freezing over.
A tip-up is a simple rod with a flag that will set the hook when the fish bites. The flag goes up, and the angler sprints and slides to the hole. These are only necessary if you’re using multiple holes or are targeting northern pike and muskies. There’s something magical about watching that flag pop up.
There are so many lures and ice flies on the market. Some of my favorites are the Swedish Pimple, the Rapala Jigging Shad Rap, and just about any small soft plastic that glows.
Mealworms and waxworms are great to thread on your jig hook.
A 5-gallon bucket makes the perfect seat and gives you a spot to put your catch at the end of the day.
Pliers make removing hooks easier. They also help cut the line and will come in handy for all sorts of things.
An ice fishing sled is perfect for easily hauling everything. Throw all your gear on the sled and head out to your spot.
More helpful things to also have while ice fishing include a fish finder, a space heater, a shelter, and people to fish with you. It’s not a good idea to ice fish on your own.
Now let’s dig into finding that spot. Here are the best ice-fishing lakes in Minnesota.
Popular Ice Fishing Lakes in Minnesota
Ice season starts early in Minnesota. Some years, it’s possible to find safe ice by the first of December. That said, always check ice conditions before heading out.
Many lakes have ice roads to access certain areas. Drive slowly on these, as high speeds can affect structures on the lake. Also, you should avoid causing the water under the ice to make waves.
The lakes on this list are all fantastic locations, so know there’s no best or worst lake on the list.
Without further delay, here are the best ice-fishing lakes in Minnesota.
Lake of the Woods
Lake of the Woods is like Disneyland for ice-fishing. Over 50 resorts and sleeper fish house providers around the lake provide everything you need to fish the hard water.
There are almost countless opportunities to get out on the ice around Lake of the Woods. However, check regulations as part of the lake is in Canada.
Northern pike, walleye, sauger, perch, eelpout (burbot), bass, lake sturgeon, and crappie are all targets through the ice.
Pike are the biggest draw on Lake of the Woods, though walleye are close behind. Pike here average between 20 and 35 inches, with some coming in over 15 pounds caught every season.
There’s something about catching a giant, toothy predator through a small hole in the ice, and this lake will deliver.
Use a tip-up with either live or cut bait and spend the day using another rod for walleye. When the pike hits, you’ll learn why it’s such a popular target.
If you’re cold adverse, there are still plenty of options for you here. Many resorts offer sleeper houses on the lake, so you can wake up and fish without going outside.
Mille Lacs Lake
Mille Lacs Lake is a vast body of water (the second biggest lake in Minnesota) stuffed full of walleye, perch, northern pike, black crappie, muskies, bass, and bluegill. You might catch some tullibee (a.k.a. cisco, a member of the whitefish family) in there as well.
There are several ice sleeper rentals and hotels around the lake, and the local shops have everything you need for an epic day on the ice, whether you fish in simplicity or style.
The best locations for targeting walleye are shallow, rocky areas in 10 to 15 feet of water. That means you can find some top spots within walking distance of the shore.
One of the local resorts maintains an ice road, and you’ll need to buy a pass to use it. However, it’s worth the price since you can drive straight to your ice hole.
Bring along some jig heads and tip them with waxworms. You’ll have a good chance of catching several walleye in the 20- to 25-inch range.
Muskies grow to massive sizes here, with the state record, a 55-pound, 14-ounce monster, coming out of Mille Lacs.
Pike do well here too, and there’s something about the colder water that makes them more active. As a result, pike are one of the top targets in any lake in Minnesota during the ice fishing season.
Mille Lacs Lake offers ice sleeper cabins at several locations. It’s a novelty to fish while watching football on a big screen and cook your catch without leaving the house.
Upper Red Lake
Upper Red Lake is Minnesota’s first significant fishing destination to freeze. It’s super popular because you can typically get out on the ice a month earlier than other lakes on this list.
The lake is large and shallow, making it perfect for early ice. Resorts typically have ice sleepers available by mid-November.
Anglers should note that a significant portion of the lake is tribal land and is closed to public access unless you’re fishing with a tribal guide.
Walleyes are the main target here, and they are everywhere. Since the lake is only 15 feet deep for most public access areas, the fish spread throughout the lake.
Search for clear water. Structure helps but isn’t a big contributor here.
Drill your test holes, and it’s time to set up when you start marking fish. Jigging with glowing soft plastics or bouncing spoons will work.
Check with the local resorts for current ice conditions. Many offer day-use structures for rent, so you don’t have to spend the night unless you want to.
There are walleye, northern pike, black crappie, bass, and lake sturgeon in Upper Red Lake. The resorts will get you on the fish. You simply need to stop in and ask.
Lake Minnetonka is the perfect urban ice-fishing destination because it’s just outside Minneapolis.
Two areas of this lake stand out above the rest for ice anglers.
The first, called Seton Lake, is a bay on the lake that’s a paradise for panfish anglers. Use panfish jigs with glowing soft plastics or waxworms.
Bluegill and black crappie cruise the Seton Lake area in 15 to 20 feet of water. They’ll attack your offering aggressively, making this the perfect place to bring the kids.
The schools move around, so the action will be fast for a little while, then cool until the next school passes. If you’re not on fish for over 30 minutes, it’s time to move. Drill your next hole 100 yards away and repeat.
Jig from a few inches to a few feet off the bottom for the best results. Set a tip-up with shiners to catch a pike while catching panfish through the other holes.
Saint Albans Bay is the other hot spot found on Lake Minnetonka. Panfish, bass, and pike are cruising around, so be patient and they’re likely to come to you.
The panfish in this bay are larger on average than those at Seton but aren’t as prolific. It’s more about quality over quantity.
The same techniques work here that you would use at Seton, though the target depths for panfish are closer to 12 to 15 feet.
Set your tip-ups in the 3- to 6-foot depth, and you’ll find the northern pike and bass.
Lake Vermilion is full of muskies and northern pike. There is plenty of structure around its 1,200 miles of shoreline. With 365 islands dotting the lake, there’s fantastic habitat everywhere.
Muskies and northern pike are trophy size, and there are some massive walleye and bass in here as well.
Shiner minnows, worms, waxworms, spoons, and soft plastics are all great options here. The bigger fish will chase down shiners on your tip-up, while the walleye and crappie keep you entertained on jigs.
The lake is massive, so finding the right places to fish can be challenging.
The east end is known for big fish and big winds, while the west end is much smaller and doesn’t offer the full range of structure. However, the west end does have great fishing, and it’s easier to navigate from hole to hole without the wind.
Lake Winnie, as the locals call it, is a great walleye lake and one of the best yellow perch fisheries around.
Plenty of walleye are eager to take the usual baits here, and the perch are aggressive feeders.
To catch perch, target areas with structure.
Once you find perch, you can stay on them for hours. The lake has some real beasts, with 12-inch plus fish caught regularly. If you’re seeing small perch, relocate. Not all schools are created equally.
Northern pike are everywhere, with 5- to 10-pound catches being commonplace. You’ll struggle to find anything bigger than 15 pounds here, but the smaller ones are good eating. Set your tip-ups with shiner minnows and spend the wait catching perch.
The Chippewa National Forest is right next door and has some tremendous snowmobiling for those who might get enough of sitting on the ice.
If you’ve ever wondered what a town with 10,000 people living on a frozen lake looks like, check out Gull Lake. Hole in the Day Bay hosts the world’s largest annual charitable ice-fishing event.
With a depth of over 80 feet in spots, Gull Lake has a fair catch of lake trout, along with fantastic walleye, pike, muskie, and bass fishing. However, bass tend to be a little shy in colder water.
Several resorts around the area have sleeper rentals and portable structures for rent. It makes a nice trip knowing you don’t have to load and unload all the gear and can have it ready when you arrive.
These waters are great, though they don’t have quite the same draw as those listed above. You might find a more secluded spot on a few of these.
Lake Phalen is an urban fishery in the Twin Cities area. It doesn’t get quite as crowded as the northern lakes, though it can fill up on weekends.
Anglers catch the usual walleye, pike, muskie, crappie, and bluegill. During the week, you might find that you’re the only angler within earshot, so the pressure is much lower than in other lakes.
Rainy Lake is on the U.S.-Canada border, so it’s a trek to reach. But, once there, you’re apt to catch a limit of pan-sized walleye in no time.
The walleye fishing is the real selling point for Rainy, though northern pike can be pretty big here. Tip-ups are the way to go for pike, while using Swedish pimples and jigs works wonders with the resident walleye.
Big Stone Lake
Big Stone is on the Minnesota/South Dakota border. It’s known for its fantastic perch and can surprise you with the occasional giant walleye.
Several places nearby are worth the trip, with restaurants and resorts that provide a unique ambiance to the area.
Big Stone Lake is perfect for those looking to escape from the crowds.
Catch More Fish
Read our full guide to ice fishing tips, techniques and gear selection.