When the mercury drops and the ice hardens, anglers in Minnesota can feel their adrenaline start pumping. Home to more than 10,000 lakes, the state is blessed with world-class ice fishing nearly everywhere you turn.
We had a hard time picking our top 10 destinations for winter 2023, but our shortlist offers the most impressive ice fishing you’ll find in North America. Keep reading to find see the best ice fishing lakes in Minnesota!
Table of Contents (clickable)
- Best Ice Fishing Lakes in Wisconsin
- Best Ice Fishing Lakes in Michigan
- Ice Fishing Tips & Techniques
- Best Ice Fishing Shelters
Lake of Woods
Straddling the border with Canada, Lake of the Woods is one of the premier fishing locations in North America, especially for trophy pike and the rare lake sturgeon.
The sixth largest freshwater lake in the country, Lake of the Woods is an iceman’s paradise from late November through to late March at the very least. Its titanic 951,337 acres offer nearly unrivaled opportunities for pike, sauger, and lake sturgeon, but only for anglers who arrive with excellent fishing electronics such as ice fishing flashers.
With more than 14,552 islands and 65,000 miles of coastline, the challenge of ice fishing at Lake of the Woods is to arrive with a plan, as vast expanses of ice don’t reward random fishing.
Minnesota’s DNR reports that the lake’s sauger population is thriving, while the average size of walleye is decreasing slightly. Pike over 40 inches are routinely sampled on Lake of the Woods, making this a hot spot for trophy hunters. And, of course, the highly protected lake sturgeon is present in these waters, a true catch of a lifetime if you manage it.
You’ll find the deepest water in Muskeg Bay, Big Traverse Bay, and Little Traverse Bay, with the islands to the northeast being surrounded by predominantly shallow water. Early in the season, that’s a great place to go for perch, and if you can find a spot adjacent to deeper water, pike, walleye, and sauger will be there hunting as well.
For me, that makes areas of Black Point, as well as the ring of shallow water surrounding the main lake where it drops off into deeper (20+ feet) water - attractive places to start when the ice is thick and safe.
Upper Red Lake
Ice anglers in northern Minnesota turn their attention to Red Lake, specifically its northern portion, above the peninsula that divides it. Upper Red Lake is both big and shallow, offering 119,294 acres of surface with a maximum depth of about 15 feet. That allows plenty of sunlight to reach the bottom, encouraging the growth of vegetation that protects prey items and provides plenty of cover for yellow perch.
Walleye and pike, supported by high numbers of perch and other prey items, also thrive in Upper Red Lake, but please be aware of the special fishing regulations governing this body of water.
The emerald, spottail, and river shiner anchor the food chain here, feeding perch and larger predators like pike. And while pike numbers are low, this is actually good for helping them attain trophy size. Minnesota’s DNR reports that pike over 40 inches are increasingly common in Upper Red Lake, making this one of the best places to hunt the fish of a lifetime.
The Upper Red Lake features steep slopes descending to its shallow bottom, and pretty much anywhere around the lake’s edges, you’ll find weed beds and fish. There’s also a slightly deeper basin to the southwest that’s a hot spot for walleye and pike.
Mille Lacs Lake
About an hour’s drive north of the capital, you’ll find Mille Lacs, Aitkin, and Crow Wing counties’ treasure. Holding 128,250 acres of water, Mille Lacs Lake is a superb choice for ice anglers in search of excitement. Deep enough to shelter walleye in large numbers, fish over 14 inches will be healthy and fat, offering excellent trophy potential.
Please note, however, that Mille Lacs Lake is governed by special fishing regulations, including night closure, with the exception of anglers fishing for pike and musky with lures or sucker minnows in excess of 8 inches.
Minnesota’s DNR continuously stocks this lake with walleye and musky, and smallmouth and largemouth bass are abundant. Yellow perch are simply prolific in the waters of Mille Lacs Lake and by far the most numerous game fish you’ll find here.
In contrast to most large lakes, Mille Lacs Lake features great fishing nearly everywhere, with the clusters of islands to the northwest and southeast offering excellent early-season opportunities, as the water immediately adjacent to them descends to 20 to 40 feet very quickly.
The central basin of the lake is roughly 36 feet deep, and once the ice is thick and safe, there's plenty of space to call your own.
Anglers based in Minneapolis can easily access the ice by turning to Lake Harriet. Surrounded by parkland, you may get a peak of the city’s skyline through the naked trees while you fish.
Though small, holding just 341 acres, it offers deep water, with a hole toward the north that reaches roughly 70 feet. A large basin is relatively centrally located, with steeply sloped sides holding plenty of vegetation to offer cover for prey species.
Bluegill find lake Harriet to be an ideal habitat, and the panfishing here is very hard to beat, especially given its convenient location.
They won’t be huge, but you will catch a lot of them! Check out our bluegill ice fishing tips!
North central Minnesota is home to Lake Winnibigoshish, or Lake Winnie as it’s affectionately known by locals. A real hot spot for ice fishing, it’s a lake I wouldn’t want to miss.
Its 56,471 acres conceal a bottom that’s literally covered in submerged humps, creating ideal conditions for fishing nearly anywhere. A combination of shallow water that supports plenty of cover, as well as structure that gives predators access to deeper water makes fishing this lake pretty easy once the ice is ready.
Angling for walleye and perch is excellent, in no small part due to the prevalence of suckers and cisco in the lake.
Perch are regularly caught measuring in excess of 11 inches, and there’s no better place to catch them in the state.
The walleye population is variable, depending on the success of each year’s reproduction as well as the harvest rate. Average size is good, and walleye are numerous on Lake Winnie.
To preserve the quality of the walleye fishing here, Minnesota’s DNR strictly enforces a catch-and-release policy for walleye between 18 and 23 inches. One walleye over 23 inches may be kept.
Located roughly in the center of the state, Cass County and Crow Wing County call Gull Lake their own. Its shores sport cabin after cabin, a testament to the popularity of this lake in warmer months, but ice anglers know that it’s a great place to fish once the thermometer plummets and the ice gets thick.
At 10,010 acres, Gull Lake offers excellent opportunities for panfish, including bluegill, pumpkinseed, yellow perch, and sunfish, as well as pike and rock bass.
Pike grow to excellent sizes on the lake, with Minnesota’s DNR reporting average lengths of 25.6 inches and nearly 4 pounds in weight. They note that pike up to 38 inches were also captured in their survey nets, pointing to some really big fish just waiting to be caught!
The bottom of Gull Lake features plenty of submerged humps, weeded shallows, and deep depressions, creating a bathymetric profile that leans toward ideal habitat for panfish species of all kinds. But as you’d expect, the pike take advantage of that rich source of food, and this is an excellent lake to try your luck against them.
Good fishing electronics and a thorough plan to find the right spots are a must at Gull Lake., though the underwater topography makes “blind” fishing more than possible.
Ice anglers in St. Paul have a short drive to Lake Phalen, a great place to fish for bluegill through the hard water. Pike and other species are present here, too, but they’re neither as common nor as big as the monster bluegill you’ll find in Lake Phalen.
Just holding 197 acres of water, Lake Phalen is by no means big, but its rich abundance of aquatic plant life supports a thriving bluegill population that’s second to none. Much like Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, Lake Phalen is an awesome spot for a day trip out onto the ice for urban anglers.
The northern end of the lake sports a deeper basin than the southern end, and I’d try my luck on the southern side first, given the abundance of vegetation you’ll find there.
Fans of musky, walleye, and smallmouth bass - and who’s not! - should mark Lake Vermilion as a destination of choice for ice fishing. Offering 39,272 acres of walleye-rich water, Minnesota’s DNR runs a constant stocking program that keeps this species thriving.
The smallmouth bass population is simply excellent on Lake Vermilion, and there’s no better place in the state to catch a smallie through the ice than here. During early ice, the fingers and points of Lake Vermilion are loaded with smallmouth bass chasing minnows, and almost nowhere is a bad bet to catch one.
But the walleye are the star of the show for most anglers, and the fishing opportunities are just awesome. Minnesota’s DNR reports record numbers of walleye in their 2021 survey, despite heavy year-round fishing pressure.
And for trophy musky, this is the place to be. The DNR highlights the fact that a “significant portion” of the musky population in Lake Vermilion exceeds 50 inches!
Once the ice is safe and thick, the central basin of Lake Vermilion proves to be the ideal depth to support walleye and musky through the winter, and there’s plenty of room for everyone.
To preserve and strengthen the stock of walleye in Lake Vermilion, Minnesota’s DNR requires that all walleye in the range of 20 to 26 inches must be released. Only one walleye over 26 inches is allowed in possession, with a possession limit of four.
Lake Bemidji’s 6595 acres hold abundant cisco, which in addition to being fun to catch, provide plenty of forage for walleye, pike, and musky.
Among the best walleye fisheries in the state when compared to similar lakes, sampling data reports an average length of 15 inches and a weight of just over 1 pound for wallies.
The number of pike is also consistently healthy and stable, and they grow to excellent sizes on Lake Bemidji. Sampling revealed that the average size was a whopping 25.55 inches in length and 3.78 pounds per fish, with the largest sampled pike measuring 34.84 inches!
Musky are regularly stocked by the Minnesota DNR, and Lake Bemidji is a good bet for anglers located in the northern half of the state that want to chase real monsters.
Expect hard water by late November, though each year varies a bit in how long it takes for the ice to become thick enough to safely fish.
Averaging about 34 feet in depth, Lake Bemidji features a few centrally-located submerged humps that break the monotony of the main basin, which sits at 50-, 60-, and even 70-foot depths.
The north side of the lake is typically a bit more shallow than the south side, but both offer a winning combination of shallow weed beds and the deeper water likely to hold walleye and pike in winter.
Deep and vast, Leech Lake’s 102,947 acres are mostly relatively shallow, with the exception of a very deep hole just north of Walker. Its northern arms are great places to start your hunt when the ice first gets thick enough to fish, and the topography, abundance of vegetation, and ample forage all add up to excellent stocks of walleye, pike, and musky.
In 2021, samples revealed walleye ranging in length from 7 to 31 inches, with 14 percent over 20 inches. The Pike caught by Minnesota's DNR ranged from 10 to 34 inches, and the study of creel data from tournaments yielded musky sizes of 20 to 50 inches.
Largemouth bass are common in all the arms of the lake, as are panfish, making Leech Lake a great way to finish our list of the best ice fishing locations in Minnesota.
Keep in mind, however, that Leech Lake’s fisheries are carefully regulated by special rules, so please make sure you’re familiar with them before you start fishing.