Ice Fishing in Minnesota (A Complete Guide)


ice fishing in minnesota

Minnesota has a lot to offer when it comes to ice fishing and every year, thousands and thousands of anglers head out to the state’s many frozen lakes to fish on hard water. As there is so much to discover, I thought I’d put together a detailed in-depth guide on ice fishing in Minnesota.

Minnesota’s big lakes are well known for their extremely good ice fishing opportunities and with a little luck, you can catch both plenty and really big bluegill, crappies, perch, walleye, and northern pike. Here, you can fish in ice shacks, hire expert fishing guides, and even spend your vacation in an ice fishing resort. Minnesota has got it all!

If you want to find out everything there is to know about the ice fishing opportunities in Minnesota, all you have to do is keep reading.

What Fish Can You Catch Ice Fishing in Minnesota?

Minnesota is home to a lot of fish species and many of them can be caught ice fishing as well. The most popular species include the following:

Walleye

Special thanks to Minnesota ice angler Patti Mercier for all the valuable tips

The walleye is certainly one of the most popular hard water species in Minnesota. It can be found in most of the state’s lakes and is commonly caught on a jig or a slip bobber rig.

Pro Tip: Try using fathead or rainbow minnows on the slip bobber, these are deadly baits for eyes!

The average walleye in Minnesota measures about 10 to 14 inches and weighs around 1lb. However, many of the big walleye lakes contain fish way bigger than that, and every year, eyes of between 25 and 30 inches are being caught on the ice.

Make sure to take home a few walleye and prepare them in your kitchen, as they are known for having a really exquisite taste!

Northern Pike

northern pike ice fishing minnesota
Courtesy of Michael Ricke

As the apex predator of the north, the pike certainly calls Minnesota its home as well! It’s a sought after trophy fish that many anglers target frenetically throughout the ice season.

Fighting a big northern pike through the ice is a very special and adrenaline-filled experience that you definitely should try out up here!

The pike is most commonly caught using tip-ups with larger live or dead bait.

The average size of the pike in Minnesota is about 20-35 inches and 2 to 5lb, but fish up to 15lb are fairly common.

Pro Tip: Musky season in Minnesota only stretches from June to November, which is why you can’t target them on the ice!

As many of the lakes also contain muskies, make sure to use appropriate leaders in order to prevent bite-offs!

RELATED ARTICLE: Don’t forget to use a leader that can handle sharp pike teeth! If you need some inspiration, here is a helpful article I wrote on the best leaders for ice fishing pike

Crappie

crappie ice fishing minnesota
Courtesy of Jacob Grabowski

Crappies are definitely one of the most popular panfish species for ice anglers in Minnesota. The small predator is widely distributed throughout the state and found in many of its water systems.

They are often caught in open water at mid depth, as they are known to be suspenders, both in summer and winter. When targeting them, anglers can catch them on jigs or with small live bait on the slip bobber.

In Minnesota, the average crappie measures about 8 to 12 inches and weighs approximately 0.5 to 1lb. but fish of 15 or more inches have been caught here!

Bluegill

Courtesy of Kathy Roberts

Bluegill can be found in virtually all of Minnesota’s lakes and river systems. It’s the largest of the Minnesota sunfish family and is targeted by many ice anglers.

Bluegills can be caught using a wide range of natural and artificial baits. Through the ice, they are most commonly caught on micro jigs or waxworms or euro larvae on a single hook.

Pro Tip: When fishing with waxworms, tie on a small treble-less spoon about 10 inches above your single hook. The spoon will give both visual attraction and extra weight to your bait so that it can sink faster.

On average, the Minnesota bluegill grows to a size of 5-10 inches and has an approximate weight of 0.5lb. However, many lakes can produce specimens of 1lb or more, which are fun to catch on extremely light ice tackle.

Yellow Perch

yellow perch ice fishing minnesota
Courtesy of Seth Djernes

The yellow perch can be found all over Minnesota and is a frequently caught species in both rivers and lakes.

As its average size is somewhat smaller here, it is however not considered much of a target species or trophy fish. Instead, a lot of perch are caught while ice fishing for walleye or panfish in the big walleye lakes, or after the walleye season has come to an end.

They will hit most smaller ice lures on the jig rod, as well as smaller live baits on the slip bobber rig.

The average yellow perch in Minnesota measures around 8-10 inches and weighs about 1/2 lb. However, occasional giants beyond the 2lb mark can be caught here as well!

Honorable Mentions

Of course, Minnesota is home to plenty of other fish species that you can catch on the ice. Here are a few more that many ice anglers like to target:

  • Tullibee
  • Lake Whitefish
  • Burbot (Eelpout)
  • Pumpkinseed

Popular Ice Fishing Lakes in Minnesota

best ice fishing lakes in minnesota
Courtesy of Tayler Bast

Minnesota is the state of 10.000 frozen lakes and as such, it is a paradise on earth for any ice angler.

10.000 lake descriptions would make for one gigantic article, which is why I had to limit the number of suggested lakes that this guide includes.

Rest assured that there are hundreds and hundreds of absolutely amazing ice fishing lakes, guides, and resorts out there. This small collection is merely meant to give you enough inspiration to actually head out and start ice fishing. Minnesota’s ice awaits, do not let it wait for too long!

Lake of the Woods

Being one of Minnesota’s most popular ice fishing waters, Lake of the Woods is a gigantic US/Canadian border lake occupying parts of the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba and the state of Minnesota.

It is a true lake of the north and offers exquisite ice fishing opportunities for species such as:

  • northern pike (watch out for muskies!)
  • walleye
  • crappie
  • sauger
  • burbot (eelpout)
  • lake whitefish
  • tullibee
  • yellow perch

Most notably, the lake is known for its outstanding walleye and pike fishing on hard water, as there are both plenty of fish and really big specimens in Lake of the Woods.

Given its massive size and a maximum depth of 210 feet, it can be a very good idea to consult a fishing guide and/or get valuable information and tips for the local fishing resorts. Here are a few trusted contacts:

For more information about the lake and its regulations, please visit the DNR lake description page

Mille Lacs Lake

The famous Mille Lacs Lake is Minnesota’s other really productive ice fishing water.

Located near Garrison, Mille Lacs isn’t as big as Lake of the Woods and has a maximum depth of only 42 feet. This makes it a completely different ice fishing water, but one that harbors plenty of enormous fish nonetheless.

Among others, Mille Lacs Lake is known nation-wide for its awesome walleye fishing, both in open water and through the ice. Other species you can catch ice fishing here include:

  • northern pike (watch out for really big muskies)
  • crappie
  • bluegill
  • burbot (eelpout)
  • yellow perch
  • largemouth bass
  • smallmouth bass

While being a really well-known and popular ice fishing destination, Mille Lacs Lake is not the easiest of venues, which is why it can be wise to contact a guide or a local fishing resort. Here are some contacts:

(All of the above also rent out ice fishing cabins and houses)

Please visit the DNR lake description page for more information about Mille Lacs Lake

Upper Red Lake

This is Minnesota’s largest inland lake and another popular ice fishing location. Upper Red and Lower Red are actually one and the same lake! They simply appear as two separate lakes right next to each other but are in fact connected via a narrow channel.

Located in Beltrami County, Upper Red Lake is a shallow ice fishing venue with a maximum depth of a mere 15 feet. As such, it tends to freeze over fairly quickly and often allows for early-season ice action.

Due to its shallow depth, Upper Red is considered a somewhat easier ice fishing lake. This is further aided by its rather large populations of walleye and yellow perch.

Other species that can be caught in Upper Red Lake include:

  • northern pike (few, but good chances to hook a trophy fish)
  • black crappie
  • lake whitefish
  • bluegill

IMPORTANT: Please note that both Lower Red Lake and roughly 60% of Upper Red Lake are not open to the general public as they belong to an Indian reservation. However, it is possible to fish the closed area of Upper Red together with a tribal guide!

Upper Red may be considered an easier ice fishing lake, but if you’ve never fished it, consulting an expert fishing guide or a local ice fishing resort will most certainly help you to find those fish. Here are a few valuable addresses:

For more information and detailed fishing regulations, please visit the DNR lake description page

Leech Lake

Leech Lake is the state’s third-largest inland lake and another really deep water with a maximum depth of 156 feet. It is located in Cass County, north-central Minnesota, and yet another superb ice fishing destination.

This water is visited by thousands of ice fishermen every year and one can see plenty of ice shelters and houses on the lake during the winter season.

Here, fishing for walleye and northern pike is something really special, as the lake holds large and healthy populations of them, and they are hungry in winter. The only obstacle you face will be to actually locate them! But if and when you do, you can catch plenty!

Other species that can be found in leech lake include the following:

  • crappie
  • bluegill
  • tullibee
  • lake whitefish
  • smallmouth bass
  • largemouth bass
  • yellow perch
  • burbot (eelpout)

Pro Tip: With a little luck, you can actually catch quite a lot of largemouth bass on Leech Lake. Make sure to give it a try if and when you’re there!

As this is such gigantic water, getting in touch with an expert fishing guide and/or a nearby fishing resort to get some tips and maybe some starter points on a map is definitely recommended:

For more in-depth ice fishing tips and tricks for Leech lake, make sure to visit the lake’s very own website

For more information about fishing regulations, please visit the DNR lake description page

Lake Minnetonka

Yet another of Minnesota’s huge lakes, Lake Minnetonka is actually more of a cluster of interconnected lakes. It is also a metro lake, making it somewhat more approachable than other waters in Minnesota.

It is located in Hennepin County, just west of Minneapolis, and is known as one of Minnesota’s big walleye lakes. And trust me, walleye you’ll find plenty of in this water, as the DNR has been stocking them here for many years.

In fact, local anglers consider the lake’s walleye population to be outstanding, and every year, thousands and thousands of ice fishermen can second that. Here, you have the chance to catch both a lot of walleye and really big ones!

Apart from its phenomenal walleye ice fishing, Lake Minnetonka is also home to the following species:

  • largemouth bass
  • smallmouth bass
  • white and black crappie
  • northern pike (not too many though)
  • musky
  • tiger musky
  • yellow perch

There might be a lot of fish in this lake, and often, ice fishing here can be very rewarding, but given the size of this venue, consulting a local fishing guide can be a smart move:

For more detailed information on the lake and its regulations, please check the DNR lake description page

Bonus Tip for Beginners: Lake Harriet

If you are totally new to ice fishing and want to make a first attempt without having to purchase a lot of gear or hire a fishing guide, Lake Harriet might be just the right address for you.

This lake is an inner-city venue located right in the middle of Minneapolis. Like all the other metro lakes here, this water is a walk-out-only lake on which no ice houses, snowmobiles, or ATVs are allowed.

This, coupled with its small size of only 340 acres, makes it a very approachable and easy to fish lake which is perfect for ice fishing newcomers. Chances are good that if you keep drilling new holes, you’ll eventually find the fish.

Despite being located in a city area, it is a fairly deep lake that has a maximum depth of 88 feet. It offers really good walleye and bluegill ice fishing opportunities and holds quite a few really big walleyes!

Other species that can be caught in Lake Harriet include:

  • northern pike (watch out for quite a few muskies!)
  • largemouth bass (can be great fun on the ice as well)
  • black crappie
  • bluegill
  • yellow perch
  • rainbow trout

Pro Tip: Ask locals who are fishing on the ice when you get to Lake Harriet, many are happy to give you a tip or two on how to catch your first Lake Harriet walleye.

Please find more information about the lake on the DNR lake description page

And here you can find out more about nearby hotels, motels, as well as other tourism-related activities in Minneapolis

Overnight Ice Fishing in Minnesota

overnight ice fishing in minnesota
Courtesy of Wayne Hunt

Your ice fishing adventures in Minnesota do not have to stop at dusk, as you actually can do overnight ice fishing on certain lakes.

Leaving your shelter in the middle of the night and allowing oneself to be engulfed by the absolute darkness on the ice can be absolutely breathtaking, not to mention catching a midnight walleye or northern pike. This is definitely an experience you do not want to miss!

overnight ice houses minnesota
Courtesy of Anthony S Kubat

Unlike regular day ice houses, sleeper shacks can come equipped with both comfortable beds for 2-6 persons (some even up to 10 or 12), propane heaters, lights, carpeted floors, stoves, microwaves, TVs, and toilets.

More recently, some resorts have even started to install underwater cameras beneath their sleeper houses, for the perfect and complete overnight ice fishing experience!

Please check the above “Popular Ice Fishing Lakes in Minnesota” section if you want to contact the rentals and resorts that offer sleeper houses.

Minnesota Lake Finder and Information App

If you want to find out more about the above-mentioned lakes, read up on the specific regulations, catch limits, and species-based seasons, or if you simply want to check out other lakes in Minnesota, make sure to visit The Minnesota DNR’s LakeFinder App and Fishing Regulations Page.

Pro Tip: You can also buy digital fishing licenses via those website!

Gear Tips for Ice Fishing in Minnesota

gear for ice fishing in minnesota
Courtesy of Cameron Sotka

In order to succeed on the ice, you will have to bring the right equipment. You really don’t have to overdo things if you’re new to the sport, keep it simple and learn as you go.

Here is a list of essential ice fishing gear and tackle :

RELATED ARTICLE: Make sure to also check out this detailed article I wrote on the best thermos bottles for ice fishing

Do You Need a License for Ice Shelters in Minnesota?

You need a valid shelter license for all types of shelters, except for portable pop-up or flip over ice shelters, placed on the ice in inland and Canadian border waters.

For portable pop-up or flip over ice shelters, a license is required if a person:

  1. leaves the shelter unattended between midnight and one hour before sunrise
  2. is not within 200 feet of the shelter

Make sure to place your license tag on the exterior of your shelter or fish house so that it is well visible and readable.

Note that no shelter license is required on any border waters between Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North and South Dakota.

And finally, a shelter license is valid from March 1 to April 30 of the following year.

The Ice Fishing Minnesota Facebook Group

Ice Fishing Minnesota is a very vibrant, versatile, and helpful Facebook community!

In fact, a lot of the facts and images in this guide came from members of that amazing group of Minnesotan ice fishing fanatics.

With over 70.000 members, it holds a ton of very valuable content in the form of photos, lake descriptions, contacts, catch reports, as well as general tips and tricks on how to ice fish Minnesota’s many lakes.

Pro Tip: The Ice Fishing Minnesota FB group also includes plenty of gear-related discussions and topics, which can be super helpful if you want to get some advice and inspiration for your ice fishing arsenal!

If you want to find out more about the group and about ice fishing in Minnesota in general, go check out Ice Fishing Minnesota, join the community, and start networking. It’ll definitely help you catch more fish on the ice!

When Can You Start Ice Fishing in Minnesota?

when can you start ice fishing in minnesota
Courtesy of Mattias Epperlein

As winter usually makes its entrance rather sooner than later in the state of Minnesota, the ice fishing season here starts considerably early. In most years, ice anglers can start to fish on hard water in late November or early December.

The period of first ice, from early December to early January is considered superb for ice fishing, as the lakes haven’t been fished by too many anglers this early in the season yet, which usually affects fishing positively.

Also, early ice is usually both harder and more even, which makes it a lot safer than older ice, as well as easier to drill through.

Make sure to get fresh updates on the ice thickness for the lake you intend to fish on, and wait for the ice sheet to be at least 4-5 inches thick!

Pro Tip: No matter how thick the ice is, you can never consider it to be 100% safe! Always check the ice thickness around you and at least every 150 feet.

For more information on ice thickness and general safety tips on the ice, please read the Minnesota DNR’s Ice Thickness Guidelines

Do You Need a Fishing License in Minnesota?

ice fishing tullibee in minnesota
Courtesy of Ryan Kliber

In order to be able to fish in the state of Minnesota, you do need a valid fishing license.

All state and non-state residents between the age of 16 and 89 must carry a valid license at all times when (ice) fishing. Those age 15 and younger do not need a license if a parent or guardian is licensed. 

The following are not required to carry a fishing license with them:

  • Minnesota residents enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces, stationed outside the state, and home on leave (you must carry leave or furlough papers while fishing or transporting fish)
  • A Minnesota resident who has served in federal active service outside the U.S. during the preceding 24 months and is now discharged from overseas duty (you must carry discharge papers while fishing or transporting fish)
  • An in-patient of a U.S. Veterans Administration hospital (form needed to fill out)
  • A resident of a Minnesota licensed nursing or boarding care home

Pro Tip: Don’t miss the Take a Kid Ice Fishing Weekend (January 16-18, 2021), during which all Minnesota residents age 16 and older can fish free with children younger than 16. It’s the perfect opportunity to try out ice fishing and great fun for the entire family!

As the state of Minnesota issues fishing licenses via an Electronic License System (ELS), all state residents age 21 and older must have a driver’s license number, or public safety identification number as proof of residency.

All non-state residents must obtain at least one of these identification numbers in order to be issued a valid fishing license.

Here you can find more detailed information about the fishing regulations in Minnesota

How Many Lines Can You Have Ice Fishing in Minnesota?

You are allowed to ice fish with a maximum of two lines, except for designated trout waters and streams, which only allow you to fish with one line.

Make sure to stay within sight of your fishing lines, so that you are aware of bites and can safely land your fish.

If you are using a tip-up, you need to be within 200 feet of it.

Is Fishing with Live Bait Legal in Minnesota?

is fishing with live bait legal in minnesota

You are allowed to fish with a variety of live bait in the state of Minnesota.

Live bait include the following:

  • waxworms
  • insects
  • euro larvae
  • minnows

For live minnows, there are special regulations that must be respected and followed:

  • You cannot import live minnows into Minnesota from outside the state
  • Only a maximum of 12 dozen live minnows can be transported without a commercial minnow license

It is legal to take live minnows from practically all waters of the state, with a few exceptions. A requirement here is that you have to have legal access to the respective water.

For more detailed information on the use of live and dead bait, please check the Minnesota fishing regulations

RELATED ARTICLE: Want to know about bait regulations in other US states? Then also read this article I wrote!

Final Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and have found it helpful! Before you go, I just wanted to remind you to always stay safe.

Ice fishing is an extremely fun hobby, but also one that can be quite dangerous, and sometimes even deadly.

Make sure to follow these 3 simple rules, whenever you’re fishing on hard water:

  1. Always check ice thickness thoroughly (you can easily check it using an ice chisel)
  2. Never fish alone on the ice
  3. ALWAYS have your ice picks AROUND your neck (not in your pocket or bag, they won’t do you any good there)

Tight lines!

Featured image courtesy of Adam Dankers

Max Loesche

Hi, I'm Max, the founder and head author of Strike&Catch. I have been a passionate fisherman since 1997 and spend as much time as possible on the bank. Click on my name to read my full biography.

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