The 132,500-acre Lake Mille Lacs is the second largest inland lake in Minnesota (which is saying a lot). About 100 miles north of the Twin Cities, it offers a fantastic winter destination for the whole family (see here). Containing the smallest National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. (two small islands in the middle of the Lake), Mille Lacs is home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, some bear, quail, grouse and pheasant.
Mille Lacs is also known to archaeologists as one of the earliest sites of human settlement in Minnesota, as copper tools thought to be over 5,000 years old have been found around the lake. Various tribal groups lived around Mille Lacs throughout history, most notably the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe, who settled in the area between 1745 and 1750.
In the late 1870s, the timber industry boomed around the area, and began Lake Mille Lacs’ transformation into the “sportsman’s paradise” that it’s known as today. Well-known for camping, resorts (see here), beaches, hunting, golf and of course…fishing. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) guide to Minnesota says “Walleye and northern pike abound, as do perch, whitefish, bass, and crappies.” Fishing tourism has long been the most critical aspect of the area’s economy, and the Lake does not disappoint.
During the winter, thousands of ice-fishing houses sprawl throughout Mille Lacs. Luckily, the Lake is so large there is plenty of room to set up camp. During especially cold Novembers, the Lake is frozen by Thanksgiving, but normally ice fishing starts in the first week of December near the shore. By late winter, Mille Lacs is frozen all the way across, with ice sometimes three feet thick. Lake roads are plowed for easy access. The melting season usually begins in March.
If you’re travelling to Mille Lacs, or don’t have your own fish house, there are plenty of rental options. Guides are available year-round as well, enhancing your experience by putting you smack-dab in the middle of the hottest spots on the Lake. The Minnesota DNR also allows darkhouse spearing of northern pike, tullibee and rough fish. Darkhouses are painted black inside, reducing light and allowing the spearer to see all the way to the lake floor. While you may not get as many fish, spearing does allow you to be more selective, and is a tradition passed from Native Americans to European settlers.
Many anglers on Mille Lacs are interested in walleye fishing. While nothing beats talking to the locals at the bait shop on the best strategies, here are a few quick tips to get the most out of your experience:
- Walleye are generally most active during the changing light conditions of sunup and sundown. Chances are, you’ll catch more walleye during dawn and dusk than any other time.
- Walleye are generally found a few feet from the bottom of the lake (luckily, Mille Lacs is shallow, with a 42-foot max depth). They will likely hang close to lake structures like points, rock piles and humps. They want fast access to deep water, so steep breaks are great spots as well. Trying drilling multiple holes in multiple depths for the best opportunities.
- Jigging (raising your rod about a foot and dropping) is imperative to catching walleye. Jigging attracts the fish, but they often won’t bite until the lure stops. Try raising and dropping the tip, then waiting a few seconds before doing so again (http://www.ice-fishing-source.com/walleye-tips-techniques.asp).
Finally, be sure to check the local fishing regulations here. Walleye currently has a limit of one over 28”, due to significant changes in the aquatic system. The Minnesota DNR is working to increase the walleye population as quickly as possible, so hopefully regulations will be eased soon. Northern pike and bass fishing is available, but has limits as well.
Please let us know about any experiences you have in the Lake Mille Lacs area. If you’re into fishing (or many other activities) you won’t regret a trip to Lake Mille Lacs this winter!